The Best Historical Royal Couples (and Where To Read About Them)
No matter our evolving socio-political viewpoints, royalty remains a fascinating fixation. As a history-lover, I’m obsessed with royal legends, a genre of lore unmatched in intrigue by boring plebeians’ stories. As an American, I’m puzzled, and kind of endeared, by the fact that royalty is still a thing. And as a tabloid junkie, I’m captivated by Duchess Kate’s perfect hair and seamless style.
Naturally, I am super-stoked for William and Kate’s upcoming visit to America, the couple’s first-ever visit to New York City (who else is hoping to see some pap snaps of a Will+Kate/Bey+J double-date?). Will and Kate in particular — a thoroughly Millennial couple who wear jeans and do their own food shopping and seem to actually be friends with each other — have me thinking of other, historical royal love matches. But history has a way of both glossing over and romanticizing everything, especially royalty, which makes for juicy fiction but rarely provides an accurate depiction of these actual human beings.
So in addition to those trade paperbacks we hate to love, I’ve provided a few not-boring non-fiction books about these boos and baes to help fill in the gaps. (But if you stick to the fun stuff, no one’s blaming you.) Here's a smattering of the most interesting royal couples throughout history — couples whose relationships were complicated by real love; couples who were teammates; couples who became mortal enemies — and where you can read more about these fascinating personalities.
MARK ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA (MET 41 B.C.E.)
The couple: Mark Antony and Cleopatra are possibly the best-known tragic couple in the history of everything. A perennial Halloween-costume favorite, the doomed pair are best known for their double suicide: Cleopatra, the heiress and ruler of a declining empire, possibly off’d herself via poisonous snakebite, to avoid relinquishing her throne to Octavian’s invading armies. Mark Antony, the (married) man Cleopatra had seduced and borne twins, stabbed himself upon hearing of Cleopatra’s death.
Read more: If you don’t want to slog through Shakespeare’s eponymous tragedy, try Adrian Goldsworthy’s Antony and Cleopatra , which seeks to accurately portray these huge personalities using modern, relatable language. If you mostly want the sex, go for Antony and Cleopatra: A Novel , the seventh installment of Colleen McCullough’s “Masters of Rome” series.
EMPEROR JUSTINIAN I AND EMPRESS THEODORA (MARRIED 525 C.E.)
The couple: The badass Empress Theodora of Constantinople defines "ahead of her time." Before meeting the Emperor at age 20, the independent lady had already lived several lives: the daughter of a bear keeper at the Hippodrome, she was an actress, a courtesan, a wool-spinner, and a mother out of wedlock. Upon meeting her, Justinian fell crazy in love with Theodora’s beauty and intellect, making her first his mistress; then his wife; and then his co-ruler upon ascending the throne. Theodora became Justinian’s closest, most beloved advisor, and it became common knowledge that Theodora actually held the reins to the Empire, while Justinian remained mostly a figurehead. In addition to pulling their city unscathed out of the violent Nika Rebellion, Justinian and Theodora enacted progressive laws recognizing the rights of women and religious minorities.
Read more: The spirited Theodora and her devoted husband Justinian are perfect real-life fodder for historical romance fiction. Stella Duffy's Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore brings their fascinating story to life, providing equal parts racy romance and factual representations of the great Byzantine Empire.
SIR LANCELOT AND QUEEN GUINEVERE (ARTHURIAN LEGEND, 5TH-6TH CENTURIES)
The couple: The Lancelot/Guinevere/Arthur love triangle is the definitive prototype for the wife/best friend cheating scandal arc. According to Arthurian Legend (a dense, sprawling, oft-reimagined canon — you likely know it of Round Table/Camelot/Morgan LeFay fame), Sir Lancelot was King Arthur’s most loyal servant and confidant. But not even Sir Lancelot, a literal knight in shining armor, was perfect: he harbored a serious crush on King Arthur’s ethereal wife Guinevere, who returned the knight’s love by naming him her champion. Their forbidden love was doomed, of course: although several versions of the story exist, in many iterations the lovers are banished from the kingdom to a respective nunnery and hermitage; and the revelation of the scandal sets off a Rube Goldberg-like series of events leading to the destruction of Arthur’s reign.
Read more: Marion Zimmer Bradley's 1983 novel The Mists of Avalon is a modern feminist classic: in it, she retells the Arthurian legend from the female characters' perspectives, casting the male leads in supporting roles. If you want the story as it was originally chronicled — and are feeling especially scholarly — go right to the source with Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur, the definitive compilation of Arthurian legends first published in 1485.
QUEEN ELIZABETH I AND ROBERT DUDLEY, EARL OF LEICESTER (MET 1540)
The couple: A peek into Elizabeth I’s life-long relationship with the Earl of Leicester suggests that the Virgin Queen had good reason to refuse any other marriage proposals: the two were seriously in love. The pair met as children and remained inseparable since their meeting, even serving a year-long stint in the Tower of London together (Robert for his father’s attempt to usurp the throne; Elizabeth as a result of Thomas Wyatt’s rebellion). Upon her ascenscion to the throne, Elizabeth made Robert — who had married another woman — the Master of the Queen’s Horse, which has less to do with horseback riding and more with being the Queen’s main bitch. Robert’s wife died tragically, causing rumors of murder among the gossipy court, yet the Queen — for reasons we may never know — refused to marry him. Whether her choice to remain an unmarried ruler was personal or political, we do know that Elizabeth and Robert nevertheless harbored an enduring, mutual love and respect.
Read more: Tudor-era romance queen Philippa Gregory's The Virgin's Lover is probably the definitive fictional account of Elizabeth and Robert's illicit love; while Elizabeth & Leicester: Power, Passion, Politics by Sarah Gristwood offers fact-based insight into this couple's mysterious, captivating relationship.
SHAH JAHAN AND MUMTAZ MAHAL (MARRIED 1612)
The couple: Although we're all aware of the Taj Mahal, that great Wonder of the World, the story behind its construction is a wonder in its own right. Shah Jahan, the fifth Mughal Emperor of India, commissioned the marble mausoleum to commemorate his wife’s death after giving birth to the royal couple's 14th (!) child. The Shah and his wife — upon whom he bestowed the name “Mumtaz Mahal,” meaning “jewel of the palace” — met as pre-teens, when the future Emperor spotted the beautiful young girl selling silk and glass beads in the Meena Bazaar. Although Mumtaz Mahal would become one of many of Shah Jahan’s wives, these two were a real love match: she became her husband’s trusted advisor, eventually wielding power in her own right; plus, she requested that the Shah not have children with his other wives, an order which the infatuated Emperor heeded. Though Mumtaz Mahal died tragically, Shah Jahan's mausoleum gifted us future generations with a remarkable testament his immense love for his favorite wife.
Read more: Taj Mahal by Caroline Arnold and Madeleine Comora is a beautifully gilded picture book, which illustrates both the story of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal as well as the Taj Mahal's 22-year construction. John Shors' Beneath a Marble Sky retells the love story through the perspective of their oldest daughter, Princess Jahanara, as well as the princess's own (fictional) story of forbidden love.
NAPOLEON AND JOSEPHINE (MARRIED 1796)
The couple: Napoleon Bonaparte and his mistress-turned-wife Josephine had a passionate, whirlwind affair, sparked by lust and destroyed by infidelity. Cougar Josephine, who came from a wealthy Creole family and had carried on affairs with several powerful men, was attracted to the French general’s influence and wealth, and agreed to become his mistress despite their six-year age difference and his uncouth manner. The two fiery personalities married a year after meeting; and a few days after the wedding, Napoleon left Paris on a military campaign. During their time apart, the infatuated general wrote a slew of sappy love letters to his beloved, which are equal parts endearing and creepy. Although the marriage ended on a sour note — Josephine started up several affairs upon her husband’s absence, while an embittered Napoleon reverted to “Power [as] my mistress” — their letters to each other reveal a legendary, if short-lived, passion.
Read more: The Letters of Napoleon to Josephine edited by Diana Reid Haig, is required reading on this one. To learn more about the Empress Josephine, try Kate Williams' biography, Josephine: Desire, Ambition, Napoleon .
QUEEN VICTORIA AND PRINCE ALBERT (MARRIED 1840)
The couple: Perhaps the most famous British monarch, Victoria reigned during a catalytic era in English history: there's a reason why we still use the adjective "Victorian" so often, even 100+ years after her death. But Victoria's husband Albert, though less conspicuous than his majestic wife, was the source of the queen's joy and strength. Because the two were equals in intellect and ambition, but not in power, their relationship was marked by fairly modern, un-fairytale-like complications. But upon Albert's death from typhoid fever in 1861, Victoria famously mourned for her remaining 40 years of life (thereby defining the gloomy Victorian aesthetic that persists today). Victoria endures as a dour prude, but an excerpt from her personal diary, written on her wedding night, reveals that even "the grandmother of Europe" was once a lovesick newlywed:
I NEVER, NEVER spent such an evening!!! MY DEAREST DEAREST DEAR Albert ... his excessive love & affection gave me feelings of heavenly love & happiness I never could have hoped to have felt before! He clasped me in his arms, & we kissed each other again & again! His beauty, his sweetness & gentleness – really how can I ever be thankful enough to have such a Husband!
Read more: Thanks to a collaboration between The Powers That Be at Buckingham Palace and the archives at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, all 43,000 pages of Queen Victoria's journals are available online. For a less dense read, try Gillian Gill's lauded biography of the royal duo, We Two: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals .
Image: 20th Century Fox; Gramercy Pictures; GK Films