10 Historical Figures Who Had Incestuous Marriages


We tend to associate act of marrying a family member with either the poorest of the poor, or particularly decadent royals. Throughout history it’s been taboo, meaning the only ones we associate with it are either in social classes beneath respect or so powerful they’re above social disapproval. After all, we’ve long known that the tendency for a shallow gene pool means recessive genes that will bring a severe condition like hemophilia with them, and are more likely to become dominant in an inbred family. So of course, the best and brightest of us would never do such a thing, right? Yeah, there was a time when everyone here at Top Tenz thought so, too.

10. H. G. Wells

One of the titans of modern science fiction, bringing us titles like The Time Machine and War of the Worlds, back in 1891, Herbert George Wells was only another science teacher. At age 25, he was beset by health and financial troubles. This state of affairs was only exacerbated when he married his cousin, Isabel Mary Wells. Sources vary on whether it was a mutual decision or just H. G.’s, but in 1894 they seperated and that same year Wells married Amy Robbins, one of his former students.

While Robbins would be married to him during his greatest period of success, it wasn’t necessarily a happier marriage than his relationship with Isabel Mary. At least, not as far as Robbins was concerned. Throughout his married years, Wells wasn’t merely a believer in the free love movement: He was a practitioner. Other esteemed writers from his day, such as Violet Hunt, were among his longtime mistresses. It got him in no small amount of trouble. His colleague Hubert Bland beat him up for having an affair with his daughter Rosamund, and for a time Pember Reeves stalked him, intending to shoot the writer of classic after classic. Wells didn’t deny any of it, according to The Telegraph, saying of himself, “I am a very immoral person. I have preyed on people who love me.” Perhaps it’s not so surprising that someone in that frame of mind would resort to cousin marriage.

9. Claudius

As any fan of BBC’s 1976 production I, Claudius will tell you, Claudius was one of ancient Rome’s wiser (or at least more scholarly) emperors. In his time, the Roman Emperor completely conquered Britain and expanded its reign in North Africa while still finding time to write nearly 28 history books in Greek, particularly on Etruscan history. No one could have seen it coming, considering that he only became emperor after being installed by the Praetorian Guard after Caligula was assassinated, and with numerous senators and soldiers attempting to kill him in the early years.

It would be his third marriage, that to his niece Agrippina the Younger (sister of Caligula), that actually brought his reign to an end. From the beginning Agrippina was ambitious, convincing the Emperor to name her son as his successor despite him being young enough that when she poisoned her uncle/husband with mushrooms, the new emperor Nero was only 16-years-old. The fact she was regent until Nero was old enough to take the throne was a very likely motivator. Really though, Claudius should have seen his assassination coming, considering that Agrippina was also suspected of poisoning her previous husband Passienus Crispus.   

8. Albert Einstein

We mostly remember this pioneer in the field of physics further along in his life, after his work – that included such high points as the General Theory of Relativity – had revolutionized our understanding of matter, time, and energy. After all, we’ve all seen images of him with unkempt white hair. In the early days, while he was still working on his landmark papers, he did a thing that would seem quietly depraved even by the standards of a list about incestuous marriages.  

In 1903, Einstein married fellow physics professor Mileva Maric (at a time when female physics students were rare enough that she was the only one in her class). They’d had a daughter out of wedlock the year before after a long romantic correspondence beginning in 1897. Still, by 1912, Einstein strayed in a rather unusual direction towards his cousin Elsa, even though he’d only recently learned of her existence. In 1919 Einstein belatedly divorced his first wife, even though he’d moved in with Elsa in 1917 while Elsa was still living with her two daughters from a marriage that had ended in divorce. To add yet another scandalous layer to the situation, in 1918, Einstein considering ending his relationship with Elsa in favor of Elsa’s daughter Ilse. As if to complete some sort of twisted extramarital-affair-themed game of Bingo, Ilse was at the time working as Einstein’s secretary. It’s something to bear in mind next time you see one of his inspirational quotes posted somewhere online.

7. Cleopatra

Few people throughout history have been considered as romantic figures as Cleopatra. Even fewer of those people led quite so unromantic lives. Haven’t we all heard about her torrid affairs with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, which resulted in four children between them and threatened the future of the Roman Empire? Not to mention her relationship with Ptolemy XIII? Oh wait, perhaps that third one is not so well known. It also was a relationship no one would want to romanticize.

In 51 BC, Cleopatra took the throne after the passing of her father, Ptolemy XII. At the time Cleopatra was 18 and married to her brother Ptolemy, himself only 10-years-old. This arrangement would not have been so unusual at the time: Cleopatra’s own father had been married to his sister Tryphaena, in keeping with tradition. The timing of their ascension was not good for either of the newly married sibling monarchs, as Egypt was then undergoing famine and other economic troubles. This contributed to the fact Cleopatra and her husband would eventually wage civil war, and when Julius Caesar intervened on Cleopatra’s behalf it left her little brother dead in 47 BC, thus ending one of the worst marriages in recorded history.   

6. Edgar Allen Poe

If you’ve been feeling that this list has been shamefully short on representatives from the good old USA, here comes the gothic horror author and poet who also started the detective mystery genre to set that right. If it’s not uncomfortable enough that he and Virginia were first cousins when they tied the knot in 1836, then there’s the fact he was 27-years-old while she was only 13. He’d also lived with her since she was seven. So large was the age gap between the two that Edgar Allen served as his wife’s private tutor for years.

There have been a few attempts to defend this action. Some have claimed that the couple waited a few years before consummating the relationship and that they only married because otherwise, Edgar would not have had any legal claim to keep Virginia with him after he’d heard she was going to be sent to a wealthy relative after the death of her mother. Some have gone so far as to say that they didn’t consummate the relationship at all because Edgar Allen didn’t have a conventional sex drive. Whatever the truth of the situation, the fact it could very well have been consummated and the fact that, at best, he seemed to be motivated to use legal loopholes to possess her just goes to show what an unacceptably unhealthy situation it was to begin with.   

5. James Watt

This Scottish instrument maker and surveyor is usually credited with inventing the steam engine, but that’s not an accurate assessment. What he actually did was take the Newcomen Engine, itself already more than 50 years old when Watt had a good look inside one in 1764, and improved on the design. Mainly, he added condensers to more efficiently direct the heat, converted to energy, of the steam engine, effectively modernizing it and giving the Industrial Revolution a significant push. What is an accurate assessment of his married life is that in 1764 he also joined his cousin Margaret Miller in holy matrimony.

There’s not much that’s recorded about how well their marriage went. What is known is that the marriage lasted nine years before she passed away and that she gave birth to six children. Watt was not present when she died, as it took some time for the full benefits of his new design to pour in and he was desperately looking for work around Britain. In 1776 he married Ann MacGregor and had an additional two children.   

4. Atahualpa

Before the Conquistadors invaded, cultural attitudes toward incestuous marriage in Central and South America varied wildly. In the Aztec empire, it was considered essentially a capital offense, even though one of their founding myths featured their main god Quetzalcoatl drunkenly engaging in it. However, in the Inca Empire it was practically required for the emperor to marry a family member. There were two rival legends that were supposed to be the origin of the Inca Empire: That Manco Capac married his mother, or that it was founded by four sisters marrying four brothers. This was only true for the ruling class. A commoner could expect to have their eyes gouged out, or execution, if they tried it.

So it was that Atahualpa was married to his sister while ruling as the Inca Empire’s last emperor. He had been engaged in a civil war with his brother Huáscar for five years when Francisco Pizarro arrived. Hearing that the Spanish might free his brother and place him on the throne, Atahualpa ordered his brother executed. It was both the execution and Atahualpa’s incestuous marriage that would be used by the Spanish as their excuse for putting Atahualpa to death.     

3. Emperor Suinin

The Tang Dynasty in the 8th century AD was one of China’s Golden Ages, and a period where Chinese culture had its most significant influence on Japan. One of the results was a change in Japanese taboos. While in China incestuous marriages had been unacceptable since the beginning of their recorded history, in Japan there had been centuries where marriages within royal families were common.

The 11th Emperor, Suinin, was especially notable among them, having married his cousin Saho-bime in the 3rd century AD. This was notable because that’s one of the very few things that’s known about him, since the lack of other reliable information has led to him being dubbed as “legendary.” What an embarrassing thing to be one of the few surviving pieces of a legacy for the leader of a nation!

2. Charles Darwin

That someone who revolutionized humanity’s understanding of biology through his interpretation of the Theory of Evolution was willing to marry his cousin is deliciously ironic to some people. However, for the author of The Ascent of Man and On the Origin of Species himself, wedding his first cousin Emma Wedgwood in 1838 was a source of great torment (seemingly the only one on this list who is recorded as expressing regret for his incest).

Over the course of the marriage the Darwins had 10 children, and Charles was well aware that such marriages would produce health problems. Three of his children died of contagious diseases in childhood. The most infamous death was Charles Waring in 1858, as Darwin had been forced to miss the first public presentation of his Theory of Evolution to attend the funeral. Even among those that survived to adulthood, Darwin described their health as “not robust.” Darwin went so far as to petition the British government to perform a study of married cousins and the health of their offspring, but his request was denied.   

1. Philip II of Spain

In the 16th century, Philip II ruled Spain at the height of its power. And long before the British Empire could claim the same, the sun never set on the Spanish Empire. In addition to Spain, the Netherlands, and Southern Italy in Europe, he controlled nearly half of South America and more than half of what is the United States of America today, not to mention the Philippines. Still, he was part of the famous Habsburg Dynasty, which brought with it certain expectations of incestuous marriage. However, Philip II went even further than most who engage in such arrangements, since he married relatives four times.  

First he married Manuela, a cousin with whom he shared all four grandparents. Three years later she died giving birth to Prince Carlos, who had health problems that would have seemed all too familiar to Charles Darwin. Next he married Mary I, his cousin and daughter of Henry VIII. After she died of illness, Philip II sent a marriage proposal to Elizabeth the Virgin Queen herself and got no answer, causing him to back a Scottish rebellion against her. Then Philip II drifted a little further out the family tree to marry his third cousin Elizabeth of France, which lasted nine years. Then, finally, he had been in the marrying game long enough that his final marriage was to his niece Anna of Austria. That final marriage lasted 10 years and apparently was enough for Philip II, as he spent the last eight years of his life single.

Dustin Koski also wrote Not Meant to Know, a dark fantasy novel which as far as he knows does not feature any incestuous marriages.

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