History is full of men and women who skillfully manipulated those who loved them for personal advancement. From ancient Rome to early modern England, nineteenth-century Germany, and even Peter the Great's Russia - these are just some of the most famous gold diggers in history.
Quite a few of these notorious lovers started life humbly. For example, Peter the Great's true love, Catherine I, was born to a Lutheran pastor in Lithuania - and her real name wasn't even Catherine, it was Marta! And it's not just the ladies. There were plenty of historical male gold diggers, too. Take Sir John Conroy - an English-Irish Average Joe until he wormed his way into the good graces of Victoria, Duchess of Kent (mother of Queen Victoria) and became her advisor.
Some gold diggers weren't exactly shy about taking cash and favors from their lovers, either. Alice Perrers, mistress of England's King Edward III during his old age, reportedly extracted every last penny she could from her dying boyfriend while she still could - she even got her paws on some royal jewels! And while there was no single original gold digger, the Byzantine Empress Theodora certainly reaped the rewards of seducing Justinian I.
Discover the stories behind the most interesting, and successful, gold diggers throughout history.
Empress Theodora of Byzantium, wife of the famed Emperor Justinian (the namesake of the Code of Justinian), didn’t start her life in the imperial purple. In fact, she was the daughter of a bear keeper who trained large animals for the public games! However, Theodora went off to work as an actress and allegedly a prostitute, using her considerable talents in both fields to gain power in an oppressively patriarchal society. Eventually, after taking up work as a wool-spinner, she caught the eye of a rising leader named Justinian who made her his mistress and then his wife.
Even though Justinian was technically a commoner, his status was still much higher than Theodora’s, so a special law was imposed allowing for their marriage. She became Augusta (empress) in 527 CE, serving as Justinian’s right hand throughout his reign. Theodora even received ambassadors, negotiated foreign policy, worked to improve women’s rights, and brutally suppressed rebellions.see more on Theodora
Fredegund Didn't Hesitate To Kill Her Rivals - Or Her Lover's Kids
This astonishing queen took no prisoners - literally. Fredegund was one of several wives off the sixth-century Frankish king, Chilperic I. However, unlike her predecessors, Fredegund was humbly born, probably first catching her future hubby's eye when working as a servant in his household.
But she didn't let that stop her - she even helped Chilperic get rid of his then-wife, Galswintha, by igniting a feud between the queen's sister, Brunhilde, and her husband, King Sigebert of Austrasia. Fredegund also ordered the deaths of her stepchildren (Chilperic's babies by previous wives), as well as the murder of Sigebert - and perhaps even Chilperic himself!
No matter what, Fredegund continued to work against her arch-enemy, Brunhilde (whom she tried to kill off multiple times), and her family. Her son eventually exacted her revenge after her death, torturing Brunhilde for three days and then ordering her to be ripped apart by being tied to wild horses.
Anne Hyde Turned A Pregnancy Into A Royal Marriage
Today, British royals can marry commoners with little problem (hello, William and Kate!), but back in the 17th century, it was typically frowned upon. So, when King Charles II married the Catholic Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese princess, the largely Protestant Brits were quite unhappy - and became even more so when Catherine failed to produce an heir. And Charles's next legitimate heir, his little brother, James, Duke of York, had gone and married a commoner!
Meet Anne Hyde, the common-born but ambitious daughter of royal advisor Edward Hyde. At the time that she and James hooked up, Anne wasn't even a member of the nobility (it was only after her marriage that her father was made Earl of Clarendon), but that didn't stop the then-maid of honor to James's older sister; Anne hooked up with the famously lascivious James and became pregnant. Eager to legitimize his child (who was likely to become a future monarch since Charles, then a ruler in exile, was childless), James quickly wed his mistress in secret to the Court's great displeasure.
A few months later, Charles was restored to his throne and the whole royal family moved to England, including the new English Duchess of York. The child that she carried at that time sadly died, but Anne did give birth to two future queens and the last members of the Stuart Dynasty to rule England: Mary II and Anne, neither of whom had surviving progeny of their own. James later got remarried to a Catholic princess after Anne's death, which also caused a whole host of trouble.
Euphemia Climbed The Social Ladder To Marry An Emperor
Theodora wasn't the only woman to rise from being an alleged prostitute to being a Byzantine empress. Several decades before her ascent, a woman by the name of Euphemia became the consort of Justinian I's uncle, Justin I. Euphemia had previously been called Lupicina, a name associated with prostitutes, so it's entirely possible that, before Justin fell for her, she'd been a sex worker and then became a concubine.
Interestingly, Euphemia was rather conservative once she came into power. And unlike Theodora (writers usually set her in opposition to her eventual niece by marriage), Euphemia didn't involve herself in politics. In fact, she reportedly didn't even want Justinian to marry Theodora - it was only after she died that her husband's heir married the woman he loved.