Royal Affairs: Anne Boleyn to Jane Shore, all you need to know about famous mistresses who made history
The stories pertaining to royal history are often very intriguing and to an extent even an obsession. Royalty is almost always associated with a scandal or two and that has been the case for centuries. The gossipmongers of the time worked harder than the devil, especially when it came to the sex lives of the monarchs. Thanks to them, we know now that the most feared and powerful kings to have gone down in the books of history were, in fact, A-grade philanderers and playboys, that had sordid affairs with several mistresses despite being legally married. The most notorious ones would go on to have affairs with male lovers as well.
Why did kings have so many mistresses?
The concept of faithfulness in marriage has always wavered, especially on the part of the male spouse. The concept was neither universal nor was it predominant in a lot of societies. Rich and powerful men could seek pleasure from outside their marriage, and they would seldom be questioned by society for any transgressions. One of the main reasons a king would have several concubines and mistresses was to instill his status and power not only in his kingdom but between royal houses to establish a state of peace and secure trade ties. Marriages were almost always arranged between monarchs or aristocrats for the sake of social, political, and diplomatic contracts, devoid of love.
The common incentive for a king to marry was mostly strategic gains like territorial gains, the pledge of allegiance from the bride's family in cases war broke out, and on another note, for the sake of a legitimate heir to the throne. Being legally married and producing a legitimate heir was more of a duty and he wasn't expected to be in love with his wife, who probably knew nothing off until his fate had been sealed for the sake of the kingdom. Furthermore, mistresses and concubines acted as surrogates or alternatives for the king to seek sexual pleasure, when the queen was unavailable because of either pregnancy or menstruation.
Did mistresses have any power?
Mistresses did not have the same level of power as did the queens; however, they held some influence over their royal lovers. But they had a big hand in extending the king's bloodline, albeit illegitimately. Mistresses could attain special status if they bore the king a child, and especially if the child was a son. However, the child would not be in line as the king's successor. Instead, they would be bestowed with other titles like that of a dukedom or earldom. In other cases, they would also be married off to the king's courtiers, sent to the military, or brought to serve in the place as accountants, administrators, archivists, etc.
While we've established that mistresses have been quintessential in royal history, here are some things you probably didn't know.
Kings fooled around with mistresses who were related
Often times kings would share a bed with a mistress who shared a blood relation with another one of his mistresses. Henry VIII, the most famous medieval royal lothario, was known to have married a total of six times. But he had a definite pattern to his marriages: get a wife, get tired of said wife because she can't produce a male heir, get a side chick, dispose of wife by either divorce or her death, and marry the mistress. In the case of the Tudor king, it was a repetitive cycle. Despite the six wives, he had an insatiable sexual appetite and had several other mistresses that remain anonymous. Historian Kelly Hart ascertains that he may have had at least 12 mistresses, or double that number, as per Express.
His most famous affair was with his ill-fated second wife Anne Boleyn, who became his mistress while he was stuck in a loveless, heir-less marriage with Catherine of Aragon. However, prior to shacking up with Anne, he'd been sleeping with Anne's older sister, Mary but got tired of her quickly. It is said that he also fooled around with the Boleyns' cousin, Margaret Shelton. Louis XV of France is yet another example. Four of the five de Nesle siblings became his mistresses, and all around the same time frame.
Some mistresses became the king's advisors
Some mistresses had a unique influence on the king that sometimes even outshined the king's courtiers and so much so, that their position can be likened to that of a Prime Minister. In the 1750s, diplomats who wanted an audience with King Louis XV of France had to go through Madame de Pompadour, his mistress who became his trusted political advisor and confidant over the course of their 20-year-relationship.
Born Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson into a family of financers, she caught the king's eye at a ball and went on to become a mistress to him in 1745 for only the first few years of their relationship. She was all beauty and brains, but her health began deteriorating in the 1750s, and she suffered through many miscarriages so she was no longer eligible as the king's lover. However, in that time she had become a close friend to the king, and instead of being removed and replaced from her influential position, she exercised her power as the king's advisor until her death in 1764. She handled domestic and international affairs, court patronage, and the arts and culture of 18th-century France, and her title even came with a coat of arms bestowed by the king.
Some mistresses were scouted by queens
While many queens faced harrowing consequences of their husband's infidelity, others couldn't care less if their husbands sought other women for entertainment. In fact, they remained unbothered to the extent that they took scouting out potential mistress for the king into their own hands. King Charles VI of France was married to Isabeau of Bavaria, and also suffered mental illness. And while it is definitely something that troubled the reigning queen, she was rumored to have been sleeping with Charles' brother. Apparently, she devised a plan to replace herself with a mistress named Odette de Champdivers, after tiring of her husband's several violent outbursts. Odette came to be known as "the little queen", in France and would often care for the king when he had one of his episodes, who would often mistake her to be the queen. She even gave birth to his daughter in 1407 and stayed by his side when he died.
Beauty standards were lethal
An expectant physical trait of a mistress was her physical beauty. The more beautiful she was, the more likely she was the object of the king's affection, and the longer she retained her beauty, the longer she would remain in his favor. The pressure was immense and women were required to be perpetually beautiful, alluring, and always available to cater to their king's needs as the position of a royal mistress was a competition of sorts. If the king's eyes wandered to a different woman, of the same caliber as his present mistress, she could be just as easily replaced. And so mistresses took great care and some extreme measures to preserve their desirability and that may have also eventually led to their untimely death.
Diane de Poitiers was the mistress to King Henry II of France in the mid-1500s. Her reputation preceded her as among the most beautiful women to ever exist at the time, although she was twenty years older than the king. She didn't look a day older to the king and from portraits of the time, it is evident that the king viewed her as a Roman goddess. However, as per a report by the Telegraph, the secret to her youthful beauty was an elixir comprising of gold chloride and diethyl ether, which many scientists ascertain was the cause of her death. They studied her hair and found remnants of gold that was 500 times above the normal content. Diane was known to have a flawless porcelain complexion, which is symptomatic of long-term gold poisoning.
Some mistresses were subject to cruel punishment
Medieval Europe was a time where people were conservative Christians, and as implied by religious texts, adultery was a sin. While monarchs, particularly kings never faced any backlash for their infidelity, women, particularly the royal mistresses were subject to scorn. When they were stripped of their title as a royal mistress, they faced cruel punishments at the hands of society. Elizabeth 'Jane' Shore, the mistress of King Edward IV of England, was one such example. Born the daughter of a wealthy merchant in the mid 15th century, she became the king's mistress, the same year as the annulment of her first marriage in 1476. She was among Edward's favorite mistresses and influenced most of his decisions.
When the king died in 1483, his brother, Richard III became the Lord Protector since the heir to the throne was still a minor, which enraged the king's widow, Queen Elizabeth Woodville. Jane and Elizabeth shared an amicable relationship when the former helped form an alliance between the queen and her new lover William Hastings, 1st Baron Hastings. Richard alleged that Jane and Elizabeth had used witchcraft at Hastings' bid to conspire against him, but the accusation was later absolved and Hastings was later beheaded, while Jane was publically shamed for adultery. She was forced to walk barefoot clothed only in her innerwear, across the streets of London with a taper in her hand. The punishment was supposed to be humiliating however it only garnered her sympathy from the crowds that gathered to witness her penitence.