10 of History's Most Torrid Love Affairs

Scarlett and Rhett had quite the tumultuous love story, but it was just that: a story. See pictures of famous historical couples.
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"Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." Even if you've never read "Gone With the Wind" or seen the movie, you've probably heard that famous line. It's part of one of the most memorable exchanges in the smoldering Civil War-era love affair between Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara. O'Hara is the brash, flirtatious daughter of an Irish plantation owner, while Butler is a daring blockade runner. Butler is instantly smitten with O'Hara, but she's in love with Ashley Wilkes, a gentle Southern gent. Nevertheless, she finds something about Butler quite appealing, and they eventually marry. But everything about their relationship is stormy, from their passion to their arguments.

Scarlett and Rhett's relationship drama may seem fit only for fiction, but plenty of real-life couples could go toe-to-toe with them as far as torrid affairs go. Here are 10 historical duos that fit the bill, with love stories that span the romantic spectrum: the good, the bad and the steamy.


10: Napoleon and Josephine

Napoleon was deeply in love with Josephine when they first married.
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Marie-Josephe-Rose de Beauharnais was a 32-year-old Paris socialite and widowed mother of two when she first met 26-year-old Napoleon Bonaparte in the late 18th century [source: Amo Life]. Beauharnais had no interest at all in Napoleon, but Bonaparte -- a young, ambitious soldier -- was immediately drawn to Josephine. Part of the reason was her own charm, although he was also hoping to marry an older, wealthier woman to boost his social status. Beauharnais' lover at the time wanted to leave her for another woman, so he persuaded her to marry Napoleon. With no other means of support for herself and her kids, she reluctantly agreed [source: Schneider].

By the time they married in 1796, Napoleon was deeply in love with Josephine, as he called Beauharnais [sources: Boykin, Schneider]. But as soon as he left to wage war in Italy, Josephine began hooking up with men left and right. Napoleon was totally oblivious. Eventually he discovered the truth and was crushed -- then began his own string of affairs. Oddly, Josephine suddenly fell in love with Napoleon and became faithful [source: Schneider].


In 1804, Napoleon was crowned emperor of France. Driven to sire an heir because of this, yet married to Josephine -- who was by that point apparently infertile -- he divorced her in 1809 and married Austrian Archduchess Maria-Louise, who did bear him a son. Napoleon subsequently suffered numerous military losses, then was exiled to Elba Island in 1814. Maria-Louise fled back to Austria with their son, and he never saw them again. Josephine, still in love with Napoleon, wanted to join him on Elba, but she died -- of a broken heart, according to her doctor -- before she got the chance. Napoleon eventually escaped back to Paris, where he picked violets from Josephine's garden and wore them in a locket until he died in 1821 [sources: Schneider, Boykin].

9: Prince Edward and Wallis Simpson

Prince Edward abdicated the throne for Wallis Simpson.
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One of history's famous lines, uttered Dec. 11, 1936, comes from His Royal Highness Prince Edward: "I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love" [source: Royal BC Museum]. Here's his story.

Edward was heir to the British throne in 1931 when he met Wallis Warfield Simpson at a party. Although it wasn't love at first sight for either, the two traveled in the same social circles and slowly their attraction grew. But there was one problem, and it was a big one. Simpson could never be considered an eligible match for Edward, as she was both married and an American. Pressure on the couple increased when, in 1936, King George V -- Edward's father -- died. Edward was king [source: Boykin].


Souvenirs were quickly created for Edward's coronation, but it never happened [source: Royal BC Museum]. England's prime minister told Edward that even if Simpson divorced, she could never become queen or even his consort -- the term for the spouse or companion of a reigning monarch. But Edward loved Wallis so much, he quickly chose her over the crown, abdicating the throne. (It was during his abdication, broadcast by radio, that he spoke the famous line above.) His younger brother became King George VI, and Edward was stripped of his title of Duke of Windsor. Simpson did get divorced in 1937, and the two married. They lived the rest of their lives quietly in France [sources: Royal BC Museum, Boykin].

8: Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett's marriage certificate.
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Elizabeth Barrett showed a gift for literature since she was a young girl. And a couple of her early collections of poetry were so well-regarded, she was considered for the position of England's Poet Laureate. Unfortunately for Barrett, she spent a fair number of years bedridden and a bit reclusive, partly due to a spinal injury she suffered as a child, and partly due to a fear of her domineering dad. By most accounts, Barrett's father, Edward Barrett Moulton, did love his 12 children -- but he didn't want any of them to get married. Ever. His three girls were especially terrified at the thought of disobeying him in this regard [sources: Classic Reader, PBS, NNDB].

Enter Robert Browning. Browning was also a poet, and began reading Barrett's poems in 1844. Intrigued, he began writing to her in 1845, when she was 39 and he was 33. Soon the two were corresponding regularly, and eventually Browning began to visit. The two fell madly, passionately in love. When the couple decided to marry in 1846, Barrett was terrified of her father's reaction, so they married in a secret ceremony, then set up house in Italy. Although Barrett subsequently informed her father of her marriage and begged his forgiveness, he never forgave her or saw her again. In fact, all of the letters she wrote to him were returned unopened [source: NNDB].


Nevertheless, Barrett was incredibly happy with Browning. The two had a son, Robert, and remained devoted to one another until Barrett's death, in her husband's arms, in 1861 [sources: PBS, NNDB].

7: Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in London in 1975.
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Perhaps the most passionate, yet destructive, love affair in history was the one between actors Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. The pair first got to know one another in 1963, on the set of "Cleopatra." Taylor was 29 and married to Eddie Fisher, her fourth husband, at the time. The Welsh Burton, 38, had been married to his first wife, Sybil, since 1949 [source: Biography]. Liz and Dick quickly became inseparable, and by March 7, 1964, had divorced their respective spouses and married one another [source: Cahalan].

The Hollywood power couple worked on 11 movies together, received Oscar nominations and made millions. But both also battled addictions to booze and drugs, so despite their passion and devotion, their marriage was stormy. The couple divorced in 1974, remarried in 1975 and divorced again in 1976 [source: Cahalan].


But even divorced, they were never far from each other's minds or hearts, keeping in touch via letter or phone [source: Turner]. In 1982, shortly before Burton wed his second post-Liz wife, the two agreed to join forces in Noel Coward's play "Private Lives." Although the play got terrible reviews, people were dying to see the two together, and it was sold out every night. Who knows if the couple would have eventually married a third time; in 1984, Burton died from a cerebral hemorrhage [source: Cahalan].

6: Antony and Cleopatra

The couple described on the previous page fell in love while portraying Antony and Cleopatra.
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Antony and Cleopatra get points in the "torrid" department because they died for their love. Cleopatra was queen of Egypt in the 1st century B.C. An ambitious woman, she had an engaging personality that men found intriguing, despite her plain looks. Hence, she was able to become the mistress of Julius Caesar, king of Rome [source: Boykin].

In 44 B.C., Caesar was assassinated and three men uneasily joined forces to rule Rome: Gaius Octavian, Caesar's grandnephew; Marcus Lepidus, an army general; and Mark Antony, a Roman politician and general. Antony invited Cleopatra to visit in 41 B.C., hoping to forge a strategic alliance with Egypt. It was love at first sight for both, and a romance ensued. But the trio ruling Rome often fought with each other -- and with outsiders -- so eventually Antony married Octavian's sister to help keep the peace and secure his power [sources: Boykin, Amo Life, Encyclopedia of World Biography].


In 36 B.C., Antony returned to Egypt, and he and Cleopatra resumed their romance. The two definitely loved one another, yet they also used each other to their respective political advantage: Cleopatra had money, and Antony had power. So Antony could help Cleopatra fend off any invasion of Egypt by the Romans, while Cleopatra could help finance Antony's armies [source: ThinkQuest].

But the world didn't like these two political powerhouses joining forces. Octavian stirred up animosity against the couple, partly because Antony decided to divorce Octavian's sister to marry Cleopatra. During Antony's final battle against Octavian and his forces, he was told Cleopatra had committed suicide. Devastated, he killed himself with a sword. Cleopatra was actually alive, and was subsequently taken prisoner. The story gets a bit murky here. Legend says she somehow got a poisonous snake into her cell, then let it strike and kill her. Maybe, maybe not. But she did die, and the two were buried next to one another [source: Boykin].

5: Catherine the Great and Grigory Potemkin

Catherine the Great was never the same after Potemkin died.
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Time: 1762. Place: Russia. Ruling the country was Czar Peter III. At his side was his wife, Catherine the Great. Catherine was smart and ambitious. Peter wasn't sharp at all; he was incompetent and ineffectual. After her husband was in power just one year, she had him overthrown and killed so she could become empress [source: Montefiore]. While her husband was being murdered, Catherine was under the protection of one Grigory Potemkin, a soldier. Catherine immediately was smitten by Potemkin, despite the fact the he was overweight, rather pompous and missing an eye. The two became lovers [source: Boykin].

Catherine was named empress of Russia shortly after Peter was killed, and did an expert job ruling the country. Over the next few years, she rewarded Potemkin by having him declared a Russian statesman, count and commander of her armies. Although the two split in 1776 and Catherine had numerous other affairs, Potemkin was her true love. When he died, Catherine fell into a deep depression. Although she eventually recovered, historians say she was never quite the same [source: Boykin].


4: John Lennon and Yoko Ono

John Lennon and Yoko Ono worked to spread a message of world peace.
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Yoko Ono was an avant-garde artist and musician with a turbulent past. Born into an aristocratic Japanese family, Ono's parents hoped she'd stay single and become a concert pianist, her father's unrealized dream. Instead, she married twice, was briefly in a mental institution and had a daughter, Kyoko, with her second husband. Then, in 1966, she met John Lennon at one of her art shows [source: Gannon].

Lennon, a member of the world-famous musical group, the Beatles, was married with a child of his own. But the two fell in love, divorced their spouses, and eventually married in 1969. Together, the couple began working to spread a message of world peace, a cause Ono had been pushing for a while. Ono introduced Lennon to experimental layered music too. Soon the Beatles, who were already feuding, broke up, and the blame was heaped on Ono -- who was also charged with ruining Lennon's music, since he was tinkering with non-mainstream sounds [source: Iley].


The couple tried to ignore the general public's anger and focus on themselves and their love. But they were celebrities, did everything together -- and did it all publicly -- so it was difficult to escape the criticism. In 1973, they separated, perhaps as a result of stress caused by all the scrutiny. Lennon then began an affair with his assistant, May Pang, with Ono's knowledge and blessing. Yet the two called each other daily, sometimes numerous times, and got back together a year later. Not too long after they reunited, they had a son, Sean [sources: Iley, Gannon].

Unfortunately, their newfound happiness wasn't to last long. In 1980, Lennon was shot by a deranged fan outside the New York City apartment building where the family lived. He died in Ono's arms [source: Tweedle]. She hasn't remarried.

3: Abelard and Heloise

Abelard and Heloise started out as tutor and student.
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Although this passionate love affair took place nearly 1,000 years ago, it still makes for a powerful story today. Heloise was a bright, gifted student in 12th-century Paris who wanted most of all to answer the question of human existence. To help further her studies, her uncle Fulbert, canon of Notre Dame, enlisted the assistance of Peter Abelard, an outstanding philosopher. Abelard began to tutor Heloise, and although he was 20 years her senior, the two fell deeply in love [source: Abelard and Heloise].

Soon Heloise was pregnant. A scandal was imminent, so the couple fled to Brittany, Abelard's home. Fulbert found out and was furious, and the two got married in an attempt to appease him. He wasn't satisfied, though. Heloise escaped to a convent in Argenteuil, but Abelard was attacked and castrated. They left their son, Astrolabe, in the care of Abelard's sister and ultimately took holy orders as a monk and nun [source: Abelard and Heloise].


Although Abelard and Heloise were separated for years, their love relationship lives on through their correspondence. Today, they are interred together in Paris' Pére Lachaise cemetery.

2: Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn

Henry VIII was instantly smitten with Anne Boleyn.
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Henry VIII is famous for many things, one of which is the fact that he had six wives. And even though he had wife No. 2, Anne Boleyn, beheaded, she's said to have been his favorite. Henry had been married to Catherine of Aragon for 16 years when he caught a glimpse of Anne around 1525. Instantly smitten, he begged her to become his mistress. Despite his power, Anne refused. She wanted to be queen or nothing. If he'd marry her, she said, she'd provide him with the male heir he coveted [source: Royal Paper Dolls].

Seven years later, Anne and Henry were both still holding out. But now Anne worried Henry would eventually look elsewhere, so she had a dalliance with the king and became pregnant. In 1533, he secretly married her, declared himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England -- a new church that allowed divorce -- and divorced Catherine. The two should have lived happily ever after, but it was not to be [source: Royal Paper Dolls].


Anne delivered a baby girl, not the promised boy, then had a string of miscarriages, much to Henry's chagrin. The two began to quarrel. Henry had always been attracted to Anne because she was different than most women -- assertive, lively and smart. Now these qualities angered him. He fell in love with another woman, Jane Seymour, then manufactured a story about Anne committing adultery so that in 1536, he had grounds to have her head lopped off. Although Henry eventually did fall out of love with Anne, the hold she had had on such a powerful, headstrong man -- and for such a long time -- is considered incredible [source: Royal Paper Dolls].

1: Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera

Kahlo and Rivera both had affairs.
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Another example of a passionate, tempestuous love affair filled with great joys and deep sorrows is the story of Mexican couple, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. The two, now famous, were artists in the early 20th century. Kahlo, thin and frail due to a terrible trolley car accident, was known for her emotionally charged and autobiographical artwork. The portly Rivera, 20 years her senior, was a master muralist. When the two married in 1929, Kahlo was 22 and Rivera was 42. It was her first marriage and his third [sources: 1300 Flowers, PBS].

The two greatly admired each other's art, and were quite productive during their marriage, encouraging each other to create more. But Rivera was a serial philanderer who openly had scores of affairs -- including one with a sister of Kahlo's -- throughout their marriage. So, Kahlo followed suit. Consequently, trouble and bitterness erupted, and the couple separated numerous times. They even divorced in 1939, only to remarry in 1940 [source: PBS].

When Kahlo was on her deathbed in 1954, Rivera was with her. He later wrote that the day she died was the most tragic of his life, and that he'd realized too late "the most wonderful part of my life had been my love for Frida." Rivera asked that his cremated ashes be placed with Kahlo's after his death [source: The Independent].

Lots More Information

Author's Note: 10 of History's Most Torrid Love Affairs

Passionate love affairs seem like they'd be quite exciting. But after writing about the folks above, it seems like intense passion is very often coupled with plenty of unhappiness. I guess it's true you can't have it all.

Related Articles

  • 1300 Flowers. "The Greatest Love Affairs in History." March 7, 2012. (Dec. 4, 2012) http://www.1300flowers.com.au/flowers/greatest-love-affairs-history/
  • Abelard and Heloise. "The Story." (Dec. 4, 2012) http://www.abelardandheloise.com/Story.html
  • Amo Life. "Top 20 Most Famous Love Stories in History and Literature." (Dec. 4, 2012) http://amolife.com/reviews/top-20-most-famous-love-stories-in-history-and-literature.html
  • BBC. "End of a love story." June 5, 2004. (Dec. 4, 2012) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/265714.stm
  • Biography. "Richard Burton." (Dec. 8, 2012) http://www.biography.com/people/richard-burton-9232503
  • Boykin, Sam. "10 Great Love Affairs in History." Mental Floss. Feb. 14, 2009. (Dec. 4, 2012) http://www.mentalfloss.com/blogs/archives/22664
  • Cahalan, Susannah. "'Furious love': The love letters of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor." Jan. 22, 2012. (Dec. 4, 2012) http://www.nypost.com/p/news/opinion/books/furious_love_the_love_letters_taylor_3RREnDd0ABuOMWMFVNDcGO
  • Classic Reader. "Elizabeth Barrett Browning." (Dec. 12, 2012) http://www.classicreader.com/author/162/about/
  • Encyclopedia of World Biography. "Mark Antony Biography." (Dec. 9, 2012) http://www.notablebiographies.com/Lo-Ma/Mark-Antony.html
  • Gannon, Louise. "'I didn't break up the Beatles. My small hand could not have broken these men up': The world according to Yoko Ono." The Daily Mail. Dec. 30, 2010. (Dec. 5, 2012) http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/moslive/article-1341102/Johns-Lennon-widow-Yoko-Ono-I-didnt-break-Beatles.html
  • Iley, Chrissy. "Yoko Ono: 'John's affair wasn't hurtful to me. I needed a rest. I needed space." The Telegraph. March 27, 2012. (Dec. 5, 2012) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/photography/9160041/Yoko-Ono-Johns-affair-wasnt-hurtful-to-me.-I-needed-a-rest.-I-needed-space.html
  • Montefiore, Simon Sebag. "An Affair to Remember." The New York Review of Books. (Dec. 5, 2012) http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2005/feb/24/an-affair-to-remember/?pagination=false
  • NNDB. "Elizabeth Barrett Browning." (Dec. 8, 2012) http://www.nndb.com/people/036/000031940/
  • PBS. "People in Frida's World." (Dec. 10, 2012) http://www.pbs.org/weta/fridakahlo/life/people.html
  • PBS. "Robert Browning (1812-1889) Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861)." (Dec. 4, 2012) http://www.pbs.org/wnet/ihas/poet/browning.html
  • Royal BC Museum. "Edward VIII: The Future King (R. 1936)." (Dec. 8, 2012) http://royaltybc.com/1936/03/20/edward-viii-the-future-king-r-1936/
  • Royal Paper Dolls. "Anne Boleyn's Story." (Dec. 5, 2012) http://www.royalpaperdolls.com/ABStory.htm
  • Schneider, John. "Napoleon and Josephine." The Napoleon Series. (Dec. 7, 2012) http://www.napoleon-series.org/research/napoleon/c_napjos.html
  • The Independent. "Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo: Portraits of a very modern marriage." July 18, 2011. (Dec. 4, 2012) http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/diego-rivera-and-frida-kahlo-portraits-of-a-very-modern-marriage-2315354.html
  • The XO Directory. "Top Ten Great Love Affairs in History." Dec. 31, 2007. http://thexodirectory.com/2007/12/top-ten-great-love-affairs-in-history/
  • ThinkQuest. "Mark Antony." (Dec. 12, 2012) http://library.thinkquest.org/J0112722/Cleopatra/Affairs/markantony.htm
  • Turner, Robin. "Richard Burton and the wife he 'bought' for a million dollars." Wales Online. Oct. 15, 2010. (Dec. 8, 2012) http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/2010/10/15/burton-and-the-wife-he-bought-for-a-million-dollars-91466-27474181/
  • Tweedle, Sam. "For the Love of Yoko: A Reexamination and Appreciation of Yoko Ono." Confessions of a Pop Culture Addict. (Dec. 10, 2012)