Royal marriages were generally pre-arranged, and the success of the union could be something of a lottery given the rampant inbreeding, political factions and intrigues of court life. Nonetheless, a number of royal consorts made names for themselves through brilliance, ruthlessness or chance. Infamy seems easier to come by than glory, and this list might help you understand why the shrewd Queen Elizabeth I was happy to remain a virgin queen.
10. Nefertiti (1370-1330 BC)
Nefertiti is the poster girl for hot young revolutionary queen consorts everywhere. As Pharaoh Akhenaten’s chief wife, she helped to establish the cult of Aten, the sun god, and promoted Egyptian artwork that was radically different from its predecessors. Nefertiti was one of the most powerful women to have ever ruled and her husband went to great lengths to demonstrate her as his equal. In many reliefs she is shown wearing the crown of the pharaoh, driving a chariot or smiting an enemy. Together they were Egypt’s most famous power couple, the Brangelina of their day.
Other than smitin’ n’ fightin’, the good-looking queen (her name means “the beautiful one has come”) was future King Tutankhamun’s stepmother… kind of. In a set-up that was normal in those days, her husband started to take other wives, including his sister with whom he fathered the legendary King Tut. Nefertiti was as mysterious as she was beautiful, disappearing from all depictions after 12 years. Some scholars believe she died, while others speculate she was elevated to the status of co-regent, equal in power to the pharaoh, and began to dress herself as a man. Akhenaten was followed as pharaoh by Smenkhkare, who may have been Nefertiti, and the recent possible discovery her tomb supports this theory.
9. Anne Boleyn (1501-1536)
Anne Boleyn is the Tudor consort everyone still talks about, though she was already infamous by the time she became Henry VIII’s second queen. Known by Catherine of Aragon’s many supporters as a “harlot” and a “goggle-eyed whore”, her detractors also liked to point out probably imaginary defects like a sixth finger on her hand, mole on her neck, and other attributes of a witch. By all accounts she was more striking than beautiful and her dark eyes were the stuff of legend, she must have had something about her for Henry to choose her over her sister, his previous mistress who was considered the beauty of the family. Henry was certainly a smitten kitten, his courtship of Anne lasted longer than their tempestuous marriage.
As an intelligent, spontaneous and feisty woman, Anne was an unlikely feminist for her times. The opinionated diva just couldn’t stay in her place – the area where consorts do embroidery with their ladies-in-waiting and nod their head in agreement to everything a man says – which was exciting in a mistress but a PR disaster as a wife. The fact that she didn’t produce a male heir sealed her fate, at that point it didn’t matter if the rumors about her affairs were true. In May 1536 the mole on her neck became the least of her worries as an executioner removed it from her once and for all. Anne left an impressive legacy, she was the direct cause of excommunication from the Catholic Church, she brought Britain a reformed religion and she was mother to the legendary Queen Elizabeth I. Not bad for a goggle-eyed whore.
8. Wu Zetian (624-705)
Wu Zetian, the first and only Empress of China, was a consort twice before hitting the big time. According to Confucian beliefs, having a woman rule went against nature, but Wu had never cared much for Confucius. She was originally a concubine to Emperor Taizong, but when there are another twenty-seven wives to compete with what’s a girl to do? Apparently having a fling with the Emperor’s son is a good start.
When Taizong died and was succeeded by his heir Gaozong in 649, Wu already had her foot in the door. However, two women stood in her way: Empress Wang and Gaozong’s senior concubine, Consort Xiao. Clearing the way for her rise to power, Wu allegedly strangled her own infant daughter and blamed Wang, and it wasn’t long before she had her two rivals murdered in the most grisly way possible. Now she was Empress Consort her political career began in earnest, engineering treason charges for her opponents, summoning them to the throne room and making them kill themselves in front of her. She was living the Tang dynasty version of a Tarantino film.
The Emperor started to get ill, (some historians believe Wu poisoned him) and when he died, she didn’t like her son’s way of doing thing so she reverted to tried and tested old habits by forcing him to commit suicide. Not impressed with her other son’s leadership either, she secured the help of her lover, a Buddhist monk, who had found a scroll asserting that the next Buddha would be female. That didn’t happen, but the self-appointed Empress Wu founded the Zhou dynasty.
7. Guildford Dudley (1535-1554)
Guildford Dudley is England’s most forgotten male consort, perhaps because he was only in that role for nine days. Husband to 15-year-old Lady Jane Grey, the tragic figure of Tudor History, he is famous for being an all round good-for-nothing, spoiled brat. Perhaps modern accounts have been a little unfair to Dudley since he was just as much a victim of his family’s machinations as Jane was, but he had the completely opposite personality to his intelligent and calm young wife. He was handsome but vacuous, more interested in power than politics or religion, a kind of 16th century version of Shrek’s Prince Charming.
Whilst Jane was reluctant to claim the crown after her cousin Edward’s death, Jane’s new hubby took to the role straight away, insisting on being called King, despite his wife’s flat refusal. He threw a hissy fit, after all, he was the arrogant son of the most powerful man in England, the Duke of Northumberland, and used to getting his own way. Despite their initial rocky start the couple became close after they lost power and were sentenced to death in what could be called an intense week by anyone’s standards. An inscription of the name ‘Jane’ was found engraved in the wall of his prison chamber, hopefully dedicated to his Mrs and not his mother who had the same name!
6. Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204)
One of the most prominent figures of the middle ages, Eleanor of Aquitaine clearly believed in making her own destiny, and as a result she had an unbelievable life. As Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right, the charming and tenacious woman went on to become queen consort of both a French and an English king, and mother of eight children. Two of her sons would go on to rule England with the help of her political maneuvering: Richard the Lionheart and John of Magna Carta infamy.
Not exactly the shy and retiring type, when her first husband Louis VII went on crusade, Eleanor decided to go with him taking along 300 maids in wagons, much to the Pope’s displeasure. Accused of incest with her uncle, the doomed two-year journey was the beginning of her estrangement from her husband, and their marriage was annulled a few years later. Wasting no time, thirty-year-old Eleanor married 18-year-old Henry Plantagenet, heir to the English crown, she’d already had a fling with his dad so she clearly had the royal inclination for keeping it in the family.
The marriage was tempestuous but fruitful; their offspring would rule in England and parts of Europe for the next 330 years. Eleanor died at the age of 82 having been involved in various revolts and intrigues (including against her husband and sons), travelled extensively and left a legacy of “courtly love” as part of her cultural renaissance.
5. Jang Ok-Jeong (1659-1701)
Little known in the West, Jang Ok-Jeong is the most infamous female of Korea’s Joseon Dynasty, which ruled for more than 500 years. It’s claimed that Jang Ok Jeong was the most beautiful woman in the Kingdom, which is starting to become a recurring theme in this list. She was a lady-in-waiting for the Queen Dowager and having caught King Sukjong’s eye, Lady Jang became his concubine faster than you can say “oh, not again!” The court was rife with political factions, and this led her into constant conflict with Queen Inhyeon and the King’s mother.
The King was delighted when she gave birth to his first son and she was elevated to the title Jang Hui Bin (Royal Noble Consort) securing her child’s future as King Gyeongjong. However, she became jealous and tyrannical, which was somewhat of a turn off for the King. She succeeded in usurping the Queen for just five years before the tide turned against her and suspected of murdering Queen Inhyeon – well it doesn’t look good when you’re caught shooting arrows at an effigy of your rival, whilst praying for her death, in a shamanistic temple made for that purpose – she was executed with poison. Sukjong finally realized that even the most powerful man in the kingdom could not outwit ambitious femme fatales, so he passed a decree prohibiting future concubines from becoming Queens Consort.
4. Roxelana (1502-1558)
While Henry VII’s affection for Anne Boleyn was causing chaos in Europe, the Ottoman Empire had it’s own femme fatale to contend with. Roxelana was the Cinderella of the Harem; she entered Suleiman the Magnificent’s harem at the age of 15 as a Ukrainian slave and rose through the ranks to become his wife. She gained the nickname Hurrem meaning “Joyful One” for her high spirits and storytelling abilities and it is thought that the Sultan fell in love with her for her character as much as her beauty.
Roxelana instantly became the object of Suleiman’s infatuation, attracting the jealousy of rivals, not least Mahidevran who was his senior consort and mother to the Sultan’s heir. At times the harem must have resembled The Real Housewives of New Jersey as the tensions mounted and finally an incident turned physical resulting in Mahidevran’s banishment from the palace along with her son Mustafa. The way was now clear for Roxelana to cement her grip on power and she went about manipulating the Sultan, effectively becoming his chief minister and has been blamed for the murders of Grand Vizier Ibrahim and Mustafa (who was way too popular for her comfort) in order to secure the throne for her own sons.
More shockingly, Suleiman became monogamous. In an astonishing break from tradition, she even convinced him to liberate and marry her, as concubines were seen as property and could not marry until set free. It was a canny move as it meant her sons became the legal heirs, though it was her daughter Mihrimah who did the most for the family name.
3. Isabella of France (1295-1358)
Isabella was notorious in Medieval Europe as the “She-Wolf of France”. The problem is that much of what we know of her life is rumor, speculation or blatant lies, such as the film Braveheart would have you believe. However, one thing which is known for certain is that she was the only Queen of England to have ordered the execution of the King.
So where did it go wrong? Things probably weren’t great from the beginning, although Edward II was famously handsome, he also had predilection for men and he seriously had the hots for one of his noblemen, Piers Gaveston. Indeed, Edward was in the midst of a relationship with him when he married twelve year-old Isabella and sidelined her by sitting with his male lover at their wedding celebration. Ouch. He also allegedly gave Gaveston’s his young bride’s jewellery which he wore publicly. It speaks volumes about those times that a 23-year-old man was condemned for not being attracted to his child bride.
Isabella soon got the hang of court life and allied herself with plenty of jealous nobles and it wasn’t long before Gaveston was executed. Over the next few years they had some kids, traveled to France and partied a lot, but Edward inevitably went back to his ways, most notably with his much despised lover, Hugh Despenser, who met a gruesome fate courtesy of the She-Wolf. Isabella and her mundanely named lover, Roger Mortimer, arranged a coup to depose Edward and replace him with their son. The 18-year-old King Edward III wasn’t taking any chances with his wily mother, having her put under house arrest after executing Mortimer.
2. Marie Antoinette (1755-1793)
What’s left to say about the much maligned and misunderstood queen that hasn’t already been said? The extravagant queen might have been infamous, but she really wasn’t that bad. Marie Antoinette became synonymous with decadence and the unfortunate focal point for the French Revolution, but she certainly never uttered the famous line, “Let them eat cake”.
As the fifteenth child of prodigious procreators Maria Theresa, Empress of Austria, and Holy Roman Emperor Francis I, at 14-years-old she was shipped off to France for a politically motivated wedding and became the Queen Consort of France in 1774. She was completely different from her husband, it was like the hottest cheerleader in the team had met the geekiest boy in the school. Seven years into their marriage it was discovered that they hadn’t actually had sex because they didn’t know how to… that’s how clueless they were (seven years!). Marie Antoinette’s brother was dispatched to act as a kind of Habsburgian Dr Phil, clearly his advice worked and she went on to have four kids.
Though the royal couple became closer, Marie Antoinette was plagued by gossip and scandals, which she chose to ignore. Meanwhile, outside the palace gates France was growing restless and had chosen its scapegoat. Dubbing her “Madame Deficit” she was blamed for all the country’s misfortunes and her family paid for it with their lives. Despite the indignities heaped upon her before her death – she was even falsely accused of sexually abusing her own son – she went to the guillotine calmly. Marie Antoinette has been forever immortalised as the symbol of class conflict.
1. Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (1921-)
As the husband of Queen Elizabeth II, he may be the most senior man in the British Royal Family, but that doesn’t make Prince Philip any less prone to making mistakes in public. Notorious for his outspoken opinions and making all sorts of funny but cringeworthy gaffes, he is loved and loathed in equal measure. Despite avoiding large-scale scandals, he unwillingly attracted controversy when Mohammed al-Fayed accused him of orchestrating the car crash that killed his ex-daughter-in-law, Diana and al-Fayed’s son, Dodi. An official inquest found no evidence of conspiracy, and the crash was ruled accidental.
Most recently the Prince caused a stir by asking a group of women at a community centre in London who they sponge off. Incredulous British citizens were quick to point out the hypocrisy of this statement, however harmless its intention, coming from a man whose entire lifestyle is funded by the public. During the same week, he also impatiently snapped at a photographer at an RAF commemoration, prompting laughter. After all this is a guy well into his nineties and maybe people should leave him alone, but that doesn’t necessarily justify a lifetime of sexist and racist insults. Does he even know what he’s doing? Does he care? Whatever the answer, his buffoonery has provided the perfect foil to his wife’s straight-laced demeanor, infuriating and entertaining the masses for more than sixty years.
by Zahra Pettican