Friday Follies: Five Famous Romances

My post earlier this week on Emma Hamilton got me thinking about famous romances, especially those of real-life couples, which I find much more interesting than storybook lovers like Romeo and Juliet.

So, in keeping with my focus on British history, I’ve compiled a list of five famous couples from the 19th and 20th centuries. All but Napoleon and Josephine are English, and I included the Emperor because he's so closely tied to the Regency period and in many ways a mirror image of Nelson, his contemporary and foe. 

1. Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton

Admiral Nelson and Emma in Naples, as seen in this
early 19th century German painting

I went into detail on the love affair of Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton in my post on January 10. But no mere account of their romance can explain the hold it has had on the popular imagination over the last two centuries. Emma herself, and her love affair with Nelson, has inspired painters, novelists, musicians, and filmmakers. These artists have tried to capture or explain the magic that drew the military genius to the beautiful and effervescent Emma, who proved in the Naples that she could be just as brave and resourceful as her famous lover. 

Perhaps her charm and artless intelligence was a balm to the man who constantly had to carry the heavy burden of protecting England from a French invasion when it seemed inevitable that Napoleon would conquer all of Europe. Nelson was known for being an effective leader who inspired loyalty among his men; he certainly inspired loyalty in Emma, who kept his memory alive for the ten years she lived after his death. 

2. Napoleon and Joséphine de Beauharnais

A young Napoleon sits on a bench with Josephine in this
19th-century Italian painting by an unknown artist

Joséphine de Beauharnais was born on the Caribbean island of Martinique. Before she met Napoleon Bonaparte in 1795 she'd been widowed courtesy of the guillotine and survived a stint in prison during the Reign of Terror. Napoleon, six years younger than Joséphine, fell passionately in love with her and made her his mistress. But that wasn't enough for him; he proposed her in January of 1796 and they married two months later. 

The course of their relationship was never entirely smooth; there were affairs on both sides, which dimmed some of Napoleon's ardor. Still, he made Joséphine Empress of the French, along with crowning himself Emperor, in 1804 in Notre-Dame Cathedral with Pope Pius VII presiding.

While on his military campaigns, Napoleon wrote passionate letters to his Joséphine, eloquently expressing his love. Many of these letters still exist. But their marriage didn't last. When it became obvious that Joséphine couldn't give the Emperor a child, he had their marriage annulled in 1810 so he could beget an heir with a younger woman. It was an unusual divorce; at the ceremony, Napoleon and Joséphine read statements declaring their love and devotion to each other, and the Emperor decreed that Joséphine keep the title of Empress

Napoleon was in exile on Elba in 1814 when he heard of Joséphine's death. He reportedly locked himself in his room for two days, talking to no one while he worked through his grief. And, when he died seven years later on St. Helena, "Joséphine'"was the last word on his lips.

3. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert

Prince Albert and Queen Victoria
on their wedding day, Feb. 10, 1840

By all accounts, Victoria's marriage to her cousin Albert was a love match that only grew stronger with time. The couple married in 1840 and had nine children before Albert's death in 1861. Following Albert's death, Victoria went into deep mourning that lessened only slightly before her own death 40 years later in 1901. For the rest of her life and reign, Victoria dressed in black mourning clothes and limited her appearances in public. She focused on building public memorials to her husband, and in the homes she shared with her late husband she made sure that his rooms stayed exactly as he'd left them before he died. People referred to the Queen as "the widow of Windsor."

Recently Victoria has been the subject of two films that do a good job of showing her as a living, breathing woman capable of a passionate love, instead of the dour, overweight figure we've come to associate with her. One is a PBS Masterpiece series called simply Victoria, starring Jenna Coleman and soon to air its second season here in the U.S. The other is  The Young Victoriaa 2009 film in which Emily Blunt does a great job portraying Victoria in the early years of her reign and her marriage. 

4. King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson

Prince Edward with Wallis Simpson in 1934,
before he became king and they got married

The Prince of Wales and future King Edward VIII was a playboy who’d had many mistresses by the time he met the American divorcée Wallis Simpson. In fact, it was one of his mistresses, Lady Furness, who introduced the Prince to Wallis in 1931 while Wallis was living in London with her second husband, Ernest Simpson. After the introduction, the Simpsons became part of the Prince’s social set, and Wallis and the Prince saw a lot of each other from 1931 to 1934. In 1934 Wallis was even presented at court, and that was also the year the Prince reportedly took her as his mistress.

But their affair became an international incident and provoked a constitutional crisis after the Prince became King in January of 1936. By this time Edward was completely infatuated with Mrs. Simpson and he wanted to marry her. Wallis was in the process of divorcing her second husband, but that didn’t matter to Parliament or the governments in the British Dominions, all of whom opposed the King’s marriage plans. Declaring that he couldn’t rule without the woman he loved by his side, Edward abdicated in December of 1936. He married his lover in France in June of 1937 after her divorce became final. Wallis and Edward stayed married for the next 35 years until his death in 1972, but they never lived in England again. 

5. Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles

The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall in Northern Ireland,
May 2015. Photo by Aaron McCracken, (CC-BY-2.0)

This pairing is no doubt the most controversial on my list, in part because the love and affection many people have for Charles' first wife, Princess Diana, is still strong 20 years after her death. Some also still fault the Prince for not severing his ties to his former mistress Camilla when he married Diana. (For my take on Diana's life and death, see my earlier post Remembering a Princess.) 

But I believe that Charles and Camilla's love affair was one of the most significant of the 20th century because it resulted in a precedent-shattering royal divorce, and also because Camilla will most likely sit on the throne beside Charles when (and if) he becomes king. Plus, I figure that if Prince William and Prince Harry can accept their stepmother, as they apparently do, who am I to judge?  

So, there you have it - my list of five famous couples, most of whom braved convention and scandal for the sake of their love. (Queen Victoria and Prince Albert are the exceptions.)

Not all these love stories ended happily, especially for the women involved. As I detailed in my earlier post this week, Emma Hamilton died alone and poor, her glory days long behind her. When Joséphine agreed to her impatient lover's wishes to marry, she was rewarded by being cast aside when she couldn't produce an heir. And although Queen Victoria had nothing to complain about in Albert, she mourned his death for 40 years, unable to move beyond her loss.

Wallis Simpson put a brave face on, but I don’t think her life turned out the way she’d planned, and she died alone in the glamorous exile she’d shared for many long decades with her disgraced royal lover. As for Charles and Camilla, their story isn’t over yet, so the ending of their romance is yet to unfold.

Still, the lives of most of these famous lovers (especially Simpson’s) bear out the truth of Oscar Wilde’s quip from The Ideal Husband“When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.”

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


  1. All I can say is that I'm glad I'm not famous, or a royal! We get to choose who we want to marry without worrying about what the rest of the world thinks. Even though we get it wrong sometimes, it's still our choice! In my case, I got it right, and couldn't have chosen a better spouse!

  2. I agree! Though it doesn't always work out, I think marrying for love is the best way to go. Thanks for your comment!


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