13 Things We Never Knew About Political Power Couples
Powerful political couples are not unique to the modern world. Thousands of years before Barack and Michelle Obama became the first Black president and first lady in US history, Cleopatra and Mark Antony were determining the fate of Egypt and the Roman Empire. Hundreds of years before Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King marched for civil rights, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand were sponsoring Christopher Columbus's journeys to the New World.
As with "normal" relationships, not every political power couple comes together in the same way; some pairings would be considered epic historical romances, while others were formed for political advantage and may or may not have involved any kind of love. Some couples faced opposition from friends and/or family, while others were supported by those closest to them. And while some of these dynamic duos stuck together through thick and thin, others either split apart or saw the relationship end in tragedy.
Below are some surprising stories about a few of the most powerful political couples in history.
- Photo: Hans Holbein the Younger (Henry) / Unknown (Anne) / Qp10qp / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn exchanged many gifts during their relationship. Among them were a picture of the king set in bracelets (from Henry to Anne) and a jewel showing a lone woman on board a ship being tossed around on stormy seas (from Anne to Henry).
But the first present the king gave his future (second) wife was reportedly a gold pendant that held a whistle, two toothpicks (one straight, one with a sickle-shaped end), and a spoon for removing earwax.
In the 21st century, doctors discourage people from sticking anything in the ear canal to try and remove wax, as doing so could damage the canal or the eardrum. But old medical texts discussed many therapeutic uses for one's spare cerumen. Some people believed that applying it to the nostrils could help one sleep, that an earwax beverage could help with colic, and that earwax applied to wounds would help them heal.
- Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
From the mid-1940s to the early 1950s, Juan Péron and his wife Eva were one of the most powerful political couples in South America. They married in 1945, and in June 1946, Juan was elected president of Argentina. As the first lady, Eva (or Evita) was quite popular with the poor and working class, as she advocated tirelessly for their rights.
Eva succumbed to cervical cancer at age 33 on July 26, 1952. Her corpse was embalmed and taken to her former office in the General Confederation of Labor building. In September 1955, a military coup overthrew Juan's government, sending him into exile. Not long after, Eva's remains disappeared, supposedly taken by the anti-Péronist military leaders, who hoped to destroy any symbols of the former government.
From there, her corpse went on quite the journey - it allegedly spent time hidden in a van parked on the street, behind the screen in a Buenos Aires movie theater, inside the city waterworks, and inside military intelligence offices. In 1957, with secret help from the Vatican, it was shipped to Italy and buried under a false name in a Milan cemetery.
In 1971, with the military no longer in power, the Argentinian government decided to disinter Eva's corpse and deliver it to her husband, who was living in exile in Madrid, Spain, with his third wife, Isabel.
"General Péron, the gardener, and I took the body out of the coffin," Carlos Spadone recalled in a 2012 interview with the BBC. "We lay it on a marble-topped table. Our hands got dirty from all the earth, so the body had to be cleaned. Isabel took care of that very carefully with a cotton cloth and water. She combed the hair, and cleaned it bit by bit, and then blow-dried it. It took several days."
In 1973, Juan and Isabel Péron returned to Argentina. They were elected to serve as the country's president and vice president, respectively. Eva's embalmed corpse remained in their living room in Madrid until Juan's passing the following year. When Isabel became president, she arranged for Eva's body to be brought home.
The plan was for Eva and Juan to be buried together in a national monument built in remembrance of the couple. That never came about, however; in 1976, another military coup deposed Isabel. Instead, Eva's corpse was placed in a fortified bunker in her family's mausoleum in Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires.
- Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain361 VOTES
King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella are probably best known for sponsoring Christopher Columbus's voyage to the New World in 1492, and for establishing the Spanish Inquisition.
Isabella was the half-sister of Henry IV, the King of Castile, one of the five kingdoms on the Iberian Peninsula - the others being Portugal, Aragon, Navarre, and Nasrid.
Although he had promised not to marry Isabella off without her consent, in 1470, Henry IV attempted to arrange a marriage between her and a Portuguese prince to form a stronger alliance between the two kingdoms. This angered Isabella so much that she went behind her half-brother's back and entered into a secret arrangement with the king of Aragon to marry the latter's son, Ferdinand II (whom she'd never met).
King Henry IV learned of the plans and attempted to stop the marriage - first through a failed attempt to kidnap Isabella, and then by banning Ferdinand from entering Castile and offering a reward for his capture. Avoiding detection by disguising himself as a servant, Ferdinand safely arrived in Valladolid on October 14, 1469. The couple were married just five days after this first meeting.
Although the marriage had been arranged for political reasons, it reportedly was a happy one. Isabella had been named King Henry IV's heir a few years earlier, so when he passed in 1474, the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile combined to form the nation of Spain, which the couple ruled jointly.
- Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 3.0
According to legend, Shah Jahan (then Prince Khurram) fell in love with Arjumand Banu Begum at first sight. The couple were married in 1612. Although he already had another wife and later took a third, Arjumand was the love of his life. He even gave her the name Mumtaz Mahal ("Jewel of the Palace").
According to the official court chronicler Qazwini,
[Shah Jahan's relationship with his other wives] had nothing more than the status of marriage. The intimacy, deep affection, attention and favor which His Majesty had for the Cradle of Excellence (Mumtaz) exceeded by a thousand times what he felt for any other.
She was the Shah's trusted companion and traveled all over the empire with him.
Mumtaz passed in 1631 while giving birth to the couple's 14th child. Her devastated husband was determined to build the world's most expensive mausoleum in her memory. It took 22 years and most of the money in the royal treasury, but the Taj Mahal was finally completed in 1653.
Not everyone believed that Mumtaz had no political ambitions or that the monument was built solely as a reminder of the couple's love. In the 1970s, Dilip Hiro wrote a play called Tale of the Taj that centers around Mumtaz talking her husband into betting his throne on the outcome of a chess game. After she wins the match, the couple get into a fight and she perishes when she falls - or is pushed - from the throne.
Although there's no historical evidence that Shah Jahan murdered his wife, historians agree that Mumtaz did have considerable political power and influence. "There are plenty of historical documents confirming her involvement in administrative matters and government orders," Delhi University professor Farhat Hasan told the BBC in 2014.
- Photo: Archives New Zealand / Flickr / CC-BY-SA 2.05129 VOTES
As a startled Australian film crew discovered, even royal couples fight. It's just unusual for the fight to happen in view of the media or the general public.
On March 6, 1954, a crew was waiting to film Queen Elizabeth II looking at koalas and kangaroos when Prince Philip ran out of the house where the royal couple was staying on a weekend break during their official visit to Australia. The queen threw a tennis racket and shoes at her husband, angrily yelling at him to come back inside.
Neither noticed the film crew, nor the fact that second cameraman Frank Bagnall had turned on his equipment when the door opened, and had filmed the brief fight.
If this had occurred in 2021, the camera crew probably would have immediately shown the fight on TV and posted it all over social media. But in 1954, social media didn't exist. Even TV was still in its infancy. And perhaps more importantly, the media had different rules about dealing with royalty back in the day. So when Commander Richard Colville, the royal press secretary, angrily confronted the film crew, senior cameraman Loch Townsend simply exposed the film to the light and handed it over.
A few minutes later, a now-composed Queen Elizabeth II came out to speak to Townsend. She told the cameraman, "I'm sorry for that little interlude. But, as you know, it happens in every marriage. Now, what would you like me to do?"
No matter how often they might have fought - in or out of view of others - the royal couple stayed together. They had been married for more than 73 years when Prince Philip passed in April 2021.
- Photo: bongo vongo / Flickr / CC-BY-SA 2.0654 VOTES
Napoleon Bonaparte And Joséphine de Beauharnais Sent Each Other Steamy Love Letters And Ice-Cold Hate Mail
Napoleon and Joséphine met in 1795, married about one year later, and had a tumultuous relationship. Because of his military campaigns, much of their relationship was conducted through letters, which could get quite R-rated. One part of Napoleon's prose mentions "a kiss on your heart, and one much lower down, much lower."
But Napoleon was a jealous lover, and his messages to his wife could swing wildly from loving to accusatory and hateful, sometimes in the same letter:
I don’t love you an atom; on the contrary, I detest you. You are a good for nothing, very ungraceful, very tactless, very tatterdemalion... I hope that before long I shall clasp you in my arms and cover you with a million kisses as burning as if under the equator.
Both were unfaithful during their marriage, but despite this, Napoleon crowned Joséphine empress of France in 1804, a title she retained even after their 1809 divorce - a decision prompted by her inability to give him an heir.
She succumbed to pneumonia in 1814, but was still on the mind of her former husband years later. Napoleon's last word was her name; while on his deathbed in 1821, he uttered, "France, l'armée, tête d'armée, Joséphine." This translates to "France, the army, the head of the army, Joséphine."