A patriarchal world hasn’t been enough to stop women from rising to positions of power and influence. In earlier epochs, that journey was made much more difficult, with the rigidness of monarchy and the class system. Still, some women used their cunning, intellect, and even their powers of seduction to gain influence and power. Here are 10 such women who managed to seduce their way to success.
10. Harriette Wilson
“I shall not say how and why I became, at the age of fifteen, the mistress of the Earl of Craven.”
Any editor will tell you that’s one hell of an opener. The quote comes from Harriette Wilson’s memoirs where she details her experiences as a courtesan. Wilson was one of 15 children born to John James Dubouchet and his wife Amelia. Harriette Wilson followed in her sisters’ footsteps in becoming a concubine. In her memoirs, Wilson describes that she and her other sisters were all “virtuous” girls until Amy left the family to pursue “adventure.” Harriette later became the most successful courtesan in her family, after starting at the age of 15.
As previously mentioned, Wilson was the mistress of the Earl of Craven by 15, and went on to provide her services for the 1st Earl of Craven, 7th Baron Craven, as well as Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington. Her interactions and affairs with royalty led to threats at the idea of a memoir being published. Even King George IV was afraid of her wealth of knowledge and threatened Harriette to not release the memoir. Ultimately she agreed to hold off on writing the memoirs; in return, she asked to be treated well in her later years. After her former clients refused to uphold their end of the bargain, Wilson released her memoirs in 1825, and they have been published ever since.
9. Mary Anne Clarke
Another woman who used the power of the pen to kick open the steel gates of lords was Mary Anne Clarke. Born in London in 1776 to a tradesmen, Mary Anne Clarke was married before she was 18-years-old. Soon after getting married, her husband, a stonemason, went bankrupt and Clarke left him. Like Henriette Wilson, Clarke soon found herself as a sought after courtesan. By 1803 Clarke had garnered the attention of Frederick, Duke of York, then the Commander in Chief of the army. Despite becoming his mistress and provided with a fashionable living arrangement, Clarke was not satisfied. Unable to provide her with the lavish lifestyle she demanded, in 1809, a national scandal swept the nation.
Clarke was compelled to testify before the House of Commons and revealed that she had sold army commissions with the Duke of York’s knowledge. The Duke of York was stripped of his position as Commander in Chief of the Army and cut all ties with his mistress, even paying her a substantial sum to keep her from releasing letters written during their relationship. Clarke was eventually forced to leave London and later imprisoned for libel. Like many stories of success, Clarke certainly fell far from grace, but she had one hell of a life.
8. Agnes Sorel
One of the most powerful women on our list, Agnes Sorel, was the first of her kind as being officially recognized as a Royal Mistress. Born into a higher class that many of our women, Sorel’s father was a soldier in the French army. By the age of 20, she was introduced to King Charles. At the time, she was serving as a maid of honor to Isabella, Duchess of Lorraine. Soon after, she began her service as lady-in-waiting for Marie d’Anjou, Charles VII of France‘s wife. Charles VII didn’t wait long until he made Sorel his mistress.
Like most men of power, King Charles VII bestowed gifts to satisfy his mistress. He didn’t give her a necklace, or money. King Charles VII gave her a castle. Sorel had a strong influence in the court, with some claiming that she helped the King rid himself of depression. Although Sorel wielded considerable power, her lasting legacy may be her fashion sense. Sorel made low cut gowns fashionable and, iconically, was known to wear a gown showing one fully bare breast.
Sorel died young, at just 28-years-old. At the time, it was believed she died of dysentery but further examinations have proved she was poisoned.
A well-educated woman of antiquity, Aspasia was probably wealthiest woman on our list. Nevertheless, she was still a woman, in a foreign land. She immigrated to Athens from the city of Miletus and was believed to have established a high-end brothel. However, the women in Aspasia’s employ were known to be highly educated, which led to her house being one of the staples for intellectual discussion and debate.
Aspasia would go on to become a lover and partner of statemsn Pericles. Some have even suggested that the Samian War was initiated by Aspasia, a native of the war-torn Miletus; it was believed that Pericles continued the war to appease his partner. The charge led to Aspasia being taken to court, but historical records show that no punishment was decreed.
6. Diane de Poitiers
Born into a noble family, Diane de Poitiers had a slow but gradual rise to power. She was well-educated and cultured, and at the age of 15 she was married to Louis de Brézé, seigneur d’Anet. He was nearly 39 years older than her. Poitiers early life was filled with tragedy, as her father was accused of treason and sentenced to prison for his remaining years. Soon after, her husband died and Poitiers began a custom of wearing black and white, a symbol of mourning. Inheriting her husband’s position, Poitiers put her education to good use and sued to have the proceeds of her husband’s former lands in her estate. She’d go on to win that suit.
Later, Poitiers would become King Henry II’s chief mistress and one of the most well-respected and powerful people in the court. Although the King was married to Catherine de Medici, Poitiers was entrusted with writing many of the King’s letters. Her position was so well-known that when the Pope sent Catherine de Medici a Golden Rose,” he also sent Poitiers a pearl necklace.
Although the Queen became jealous of Poitiers’ role, she couldn’t keep the King from bestowing her with gifts, most notably the Crown Jewels of France, the Château d’Anet, and the Château de Chenonceau – a piece of property Catherine wanted herself.
The most famous woman on our list, Cleopatra did whatever she could to maintain the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt. After being co-ruler of Egypt with her father Ptolemy XII Auletes, and her late brothers Ptolemy XIII Theos Philopator and Ptolemy XIV, the throne eventually became hers. Cleopatra was well aware of the growing threat of Roman invasion, and used her powers of seduction to create an alliance with Julius Caesar.
Although their affair would bring them a child, Caesar’s assassination upended the fragile peace that was established. Determined to maintain her control over Egypt, Cleopatra would seduce Marc Antony, one of Caesar’s closest generals. However, this wouldn’t save her kingdom, as Octavian Caesar’s heir declared war on Cleopatra and Antony’s forces, defeating them and taking Egypt into the Roman Empire. Facing the loss of her kingdom, Cleopatra is believed to have taken her own life via poison, though some speculate she was assassinated with an asp.
4. Eva Peron
Who can forget the chants for Eva Peron in the film Evita? The amazing life of the first Lady of Argentina is hard to sum up succinctly. Peron was more than just a First Lady, she was the most charismatic ambassador for her husband’s radical platform. Born in a small town as an illegitimate child, Peron believed she was destined for stardom. She found small acting roles and worked sparingly as a model, but Eva knew that a chance to be by the side of Juan Peron would be her best chance at the life she envisioned.
After meeting Juan Peron in 1944, it’s been documented that Eva managed to extricate his mistress, making sure that she had him all to herself. With Eva by his side, Juan Peron would rise to power and, thanks to Eva, many women saw greater benefits from the working class reforms that Peron enacted.
The biggest rags to riches story goes to Theodora, who somehow in 522 AD managed to rise from a prostitute to advisor to an emperor. Born to an actress and – we’re not making this up – a bear trainer, Theodora struggled to make ends meet in her early life.
Performing as an “actress,” she was known to dance for clients while also providing services after the dance was over. After converting to Christianity, Theodora gave up that life, and eventually met Justinian, who sought to marry her. The law forbade such an arrangement, as Theodora was not of noble birth. What did Justinian do? He changed the law. Theodora became the Empress of the Eastern Roman Empire, and was canonized by the Eastern Orthodox Church.
2. Elizabeth Woodville
In many cases, the rise of a commoner to a position of power can lead to conflict and acrimony. Woodville’s place as Queen was seen as an insult to many surrounding her husband, King Edward IV, most notably his cousin Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. Woodville was a mid-ranked woman at birth, who was married and widowed before marrying the King.
Although she was known as a tremendous beauty, Woodville did not have the lineage fitting for a King. That’s likely why Edward married her in secret, with only three witnesses attending. Unlike many of our other women on this list, Woodville helped elevate the standing of her family. Several of her sisters married into nobility, and when Neville began questioning the arrangement it led to tension, with Neville eventually conspiring with his son-in-law. A revolt would break out, and Edward would temporarily lose his throne. However, he’d ultimately put down the rebellion and his and Elizabeth’s children would succeed them.
1. Gabrielle d’Estrees
Arguably the most powerful woman on our list, Gabrielle d’Estrees managed to persuade a King to change religions. That’s about as influential as it gets. During a seemingly never-ending war between Protestants and Catholics in France, Gabrielle understood that the only way to end the fighting was if Henry declared himself as a Catholic. By doing so, the Catholic league and its supporters would have their King.
She also argued for giving more rights to Protestants, leading to the Edict of Nantes. Despite being King Henry IV’s mistress, his love for her was undeniable, as he immediately recognized his children by her. Gabrielle herself was given official status as a mistress to the King, and described as a “subject most worthy of our friendship.” Henry’s great love for her didn’t keep the French elite from causing a stir. Many disasters or mishaps were blamed on Gabrielle, but that didn’t wane her influence. Gabrielle was presented with a key, symbolizing her place on the King’s council.