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Unhappily Ever After: The Most Destructive And Abusive Royal Marriages In History

Updated February 21, 2020 609.9k views12 items

The worst royal marriages in history also happen to be some of the most bloody, heartbreaking, and shocking. From royal cousins who got married to love-matches that soured quickly, some royal marriages were downright disastrous. More often than not, royal husbands and wives lived unhappily ever after.

Part of the problem for many royals was that marriages were typically business transactions. The expectation of marrying for love is actually a relatively modern phenomenon, and most royals throughout history entered into arranged marriages. Whether it was to consolidate territory or build alliances with rival houses, royals relied on parents and advisors to find a suitable spouse and plan a wedding - and consequently they often followed their heads instead of their hearts into marriage.

The stakes were often high for royal couples. Kings and queens could dispose of their spouses for political reasons - or because a marriage between strangers could easily be a mistake. Rocky marriages sometimes meant warfare, and royal marriage rules meant that kings and queens were under increased scrutiny. Since monarchs needed to produce the next generation of rulers, the royal marriage bed was a political matter, and the royal bedding ceremony was a way for courtiers to be sure that newlywed kings and queens consummated their marriage and made things official.

Even though people around the world have fantasized about marrying into royalty, the history of disastrous royal marriages shows that dreaming about marrying a prince is often better than actually marrying one. 

  • Photo: Jacques Vaillant / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Before he became a British king, George I was the Elector of Hanover in what is today modern Germany. In 1682, George's mother arranged for him to marry the very wealthy Sophia Dorothea of Celle, a Germanic noble. The marriage was unhappy from the start, especially since George felt it was totally within his rights to have mistresses, whom he flaunted in front of his young bride.

    But things got worse when Sophia tried to find her own love story and began a relationship with Philip Christoph von Königsmarck, a Swedish count.

    When George confronted his wife about the relationship, things got heated, and he actually physically attacked Sophia and began beating her. When brutish George left Hanover to assume his new role as King of Great Britain in 1714, he did so without Sophia at his side: he divorced her in 1694 and virtually imprisoned her for the rest of her life.

    The fact that Königsmarck was murdered for his love for Sophia only makes the story all the more tragic.

  • Queen Isabella of France was around 12 years old when she married King Edward II of England in 1308. Though the relationship had happy moments in the beginning, Edward's obsession with a number of male favorites - first Piers Gaveston and then Hugh Despenser - put a strain on the marriage.

    Isabella began an affair with Roger Mortimer, and with his help she launched a successful coup against her husband. Edward was soon imprisoned, and in 1327 died mysteriously.

  • Photo: John Cassell / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Princess Caroline Matilda of Great Britain - George III's youngest sister - was married off to King Christian VII of Denmark at the tender age of 15 in 1766. But she found no happiness in her new kingdom. In fact, Christian was suffering from severe mental instabilities that pushed their fragile relationship to the edge.

    Among Christian's behavioral problems was his cruel streak - including the time he let Caroline Matilda know what he thought of her by mounting his new wife's portrait prominently in the bathroom.

    He was also known for his sexual addictions and paranoia. Though Dr. Johann Friedrich Struensee was called in to treat the king, he instead took the reins of government, enacted Enlightened reforms, and even began a relationship with the young queen.

    Things did not end well for either of them: Struensee was ousted and executed and Caroline was sent into exile and died at the age of 23.

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  • If there was any royal who could never figure out the secret to marital bliss, it was Henry VIII, the King of England from 1509 to 1547. He divorced two wives, killed two more, and lost one to the ravages of early modern childbirth. Of his doomed marriages, perhaps the most tragic, was to Catherine Howard.

    Henry married Catherine when he was 49 and she was only 16 or 17. The huge age discrepancy mirrored a discrepancy in lifestyle, too.

    By the time he married Catherine, Henry was a shadow of the golden prince he had once been: he was now obese and inactive, thanks to an old jousting wound. Catherine, by contrast, was in the prime of her youth and allegedly looked elsewhere for romantic fulfillment. After being accused of having an affair with Thomas Culpepper, Catherine Howard's downfall was swift and decisive - the teenaged queen was beheaded on February 13, 1542.

    Catherine wasn't the only one of Henry's wives to end up on the chopping block. He had his second wife, Anne Boleyn, beheaded only a few years earlier.

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