The 10 Cruelest, Most Unfair Weddings In The History of Western Culture

Secret weddings in history are proof that not all proposals end with happily ever after. Throughout history, couples have had to marry either in secret or in a rush to avoid detection from those who would wish to keep them apart. So while it’s true that not all secret or shotgun weddings in history were happy, it is true that many of them were at least interesting.

But the clandestine, spontaneous, or secret nature of these weddings does not mean that the marriages were successful or romantic. On the contrary, many secret marriages in history were dysfunctional and shocking, as they were sometimes connected to kidnapping, money, and murder.

The stakes were often high for secret weddings and elopements, since the couples married in the heat of the moment or to beat the odds. Other pairs even pretended to marry in order to gain respectability or hide a scandalous affair. With the stakes so high, it isn’t surprising that unhappy events - estrangement, divorce, abuse, abdication, or even worse - would ultimately follow these relationships. And couples weren’t the only ones at risk. Often, it was just as dangerous for accomplices and people who aided in the marriage.

These couples throughout history pursued their marriages against all odds. Some ended in happiness, others in tears. But they all had to face disaster in their quest for marital bliss.

Photo: Francesco Hayez/Public Domain / via Wikimedia Commons

  • Héloïse And Abelard Had A Romance That Ended In Castration
    Photo: Jean Vignaud / Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

    Héloïse And Abelard Had A Romance That Ended In Castration

    An especially tragic story from the Middle Ages is that of the doomed romance between Peter Abelard, a French scholar, and his brilliant student, Héloïse d'Argenteuil. Over time, their intellectual relationship developed into a physical relationship. Héloïse even became pregnant, and the couple secretly married in the early 13th century. News spread of the marriage, and their story turned bad: Héloïse's own uncle hired men to forcibly castrate Abelard in the middle of the night.

    Humiliated, he committed both his wife and himself to celibacy in religious orders. Though the couple lived apart, they continued to write one another love letters.

  • Andrew Stoney Tricked Mary Bowes Into Marrying Him As His Last Wish - And Then Didn't Kick The Bucket

    Andrew Robinson Stoney - the self-styled "Captain Stoney" - was a dashing Irish rake who landed a marriage with one of the wealthiest women in Great Britain. Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore, was a young widow with five children. Being a widow allowed her to take charge of her life - and to marry whomever she wanted. 

    After making the acquaintance of the Countess, Stoney staged a duel to defend her honor. In the course of the fake duel, he claimed that he had been mortally wounded. In what appeared to be his final wish, Stoney asked to see the Countess. She agreed to a hasty marriage to soothe someone she believed to be a dying man. 

    But Stoney quickly recovered from his supposed injuries, and the Countess was stuck with him. Things got even worse for the poor Countess. Stoney began burning through the Countess's money and routinely abusing her. He kept her virtually under house arrest, and even assaulted maids and fathered illegitimate children.

    Aided by sympathetic maids, the Countess pulled off an escape from Stoney. But she didn't stop there: in an era when divorce was as rare as it was scandalous, the Countess sued Stoney for divorce in 1789 - and actually won. Britain was riveted and shocked with the all she suffered at the hands of her oppressor-husband.

  • James Coyle Was Shot For Performing A Secret Marriage In The Jim Crow South
    Photo: Metaweb (FB) / Public domain

    Secret marriages and elopements could also be disastrous for family members and accomplices, not just the couples. For proof, look no further than the case of James Coyle, an Irish-born priest who immigrated to Birmingham, Alabama.

    In 1921, deep in the Jim Crow era-South, Father Coyle officiated a secret wedding between Ruth Stephenson, whose father was daughter of a Methodist minister and member of the Ku Klux Klan, and Pedro Gussman, a Puerto Rican. When news broke of their marriage, Stephenson's father raced to Coyle's house and shot the priest on his own porch. He then proceeded on to the court house and turned himself in. He was ultimately acquitted of the murder.

  • Rita Hayworth's Much-Older Manager Married Her, Bilked Her Of Her Money, And Divorced Her

    When 18-year-old Rita Cansino was trying to make it in Hollywood, Edward Judson, a slick businessman, became her mentor and manager - and a little bit more. In 1937, Judson talked the young woman into marriage, and so they eloped to Las Vegas. He helped transform Rita Cansino into "Rita Hayworth," the movie star.

    Their marriage lasted five years, during which time he managed her career so that he was reaping all of the profits. When they divorced in 1942, Hayworth was virtually penniless.

  • William Corder Ended Maria Marten's Life Rather Than Elope With Her

    The so-called Red Barn Murder of 1827 was one of the most publicized crimes of the 19th century. In 1826, 24-year-old Maria Marten started an affair with 22-year-old William Corder. The relationship even produced a child. Corder agreed to elope with Marten: per his proposal, they would meet at a red barn and then proceed to Ipswich to marry. Instead of eloping with her, Corder killed Marten and buried her in the barn. When he was finally caught, Corder was found guilty and hanged on August 11, 1828.

    The morbid episode has inspired a number of folk songs and pieces of art.

  • Edward Gibbon Wakefield Kidnapped An Heiress And Forced Her To Marry Him
    Photo: Metaweb (FB) / Public domain

    Gretna Green, Scotland, was the Las Vegas of the 18th and 19th centuries. Young couples from England fled there to elope, since marriage laws were less strict in Scotland. In 1826, though, Gretna Green played host to the notorious Shrigley Abduction.

    The 30-year-old Edward Gibbon Wakefield hatched a scheme to marry Ellen Turner, a wealthy young heiress, to gain access to her funds and connections. So on March 7, 1826, he lured the 15-year-old Turner out of her boarding school and, after lying about her family's precarious situation, forced her to elope to Gretna Green with him. From there, they fled to the continent.

    Authorities finally caught up with the couple in France. Wakefield and his young bride were brought back to Britain, where he was tried and imprisoned, and their marriage was annulled.

    This seems to have been a pattern with Wakefield: he previously eloped with a young woman named Eliza Ann Pattle.