They say that behind every successful man there stands a woman. But that lady looming in the background isn’t always his spouse. Meet four powerful women who bedded but never wedded their influential paramours, leaving their mark on history by serving as confidantes, muses, strategists and advisers.
Born into a noble French family in 1499, the celebrated beauty Diane de Poitiers received a humanist education fit for a Renaissance king. At 15 she married Louis de Brézé, a royal officer 40 years her senior. Her husband’s prominent position thrust Diane into the core of François I’s household, where she served as a lady-in-waiting to Queen Claude. A favorite at court, Diane attended the birth of Henri II and was later given the task of teaching the future king courtly manners. She became a widow in 1531, and in 1533 Henri was joined in gloomy matrimony to Catherine de’ Medici.
By 1538 the close relationship between Henri and Diane had evolved into a passionate love affair. After her lover ascended the throne in 1547, Diane advised Henri on political matters and penned many of his official letters, signing them “HenriDiane.” Her likeness appeared on coins and inspired works of art. The young king remained in unwavering thrall to his middle-aged mistress, who would periodically send him to his wife’s bedchamber to produce legitimate heirs. (Diane bore him no children, but three of his other mistresses did.) Henri’s death after a 1559 jousting accident brought an abrupt end to Diane’s de facto reign. Catherine confiscated her chateau and banished her to the countryside, where she died—allegedly with her beauty still intact—at 66.
References to a powerful woman named Aspasia, the live-in partner of the ancient Greek statesman Pericles, appear in the writings of Plato, Aristophanes, Xenophon and other classical Athenian authors. It is thought that she was born in the Ionian colony of Miletus around 470 B.C. and moved to Athens, where she became a hetaera—a type of courtesan who received an education in order to keep intelligent, sophisticated men company—and possibly ran a brothel. She then moved in with Pericles and bore him a son; according to Plutarch, the prominent politician loved her so much that he kissed her every morning and evening until the day he died. Because Aspasia was a foreigner, Athenian law prevented the couple from marrying.
Ancient sources relate—derisively, at times—that Pericles frequently consulted his companion about political and military matters. Plato even joked that Aspasia, described as a skilled orator and engrossing conversationalist in her own right, ghostwrote Pericles’ most famous speech, a funeral oration delivered during the Peloponnesian War. Though we may never know the extent of her influence, Pericles achieved ambitious building projects and presided over a golden age of democracy during their relationship. According to some accounts, Aspasia outlived her famous lover and was later linked to another Athenian bureaucrat, Lysicles.
Little is known about the early life of Eliza Rosanna Gilbert, born in Ireland in either 1818 or 1821. Described as exotically beautiful, she eloped as a teenager and spent some time in India; her marriage dissolved within several years. Around 1843 she made her debut on the London stage under the name Lola Montez, billing herself as a “Spanish dancer.” After performing in various European capitals she wound up in Munich, where she became the mistress of Ludwig I of Bavaria. The aging German king raised eyebrows by making her a countess, building her a palace, granting her a large annuity and deferring to her on political matters.
For more than a year Lola essentially ruled Bavaria with an iron first, spying on and destroying her critics as her besotted lover indulgently stepped aside. Revolutionary stirrings caused largely by her influence forced Ludwig to abdicate in 1848. Lola fled Bavaria and resumed her career as a performer, spending time in Europe, the United States and Australia before settling in New York. (Along the way she crammed in two illegitimate marriages, a murder charge and various scandals due to the provocative nature of her signature “spider dance.”) She died in New York in 1860, one month short of her 40th birthday.
As ambitious as she was beautiful, King Charles II of England’s most infamous mistress was born Barbara Villiers into a family of modest means in 1640. At 19 she married Robert Palmer and traveled with him to Holland, where Charles was living in exile during Oliver Cromwell’s decade of parliamentary rule. A royalist sympathizer, Barbara quickly became the ousted king’s lover; when he returned to London later that year, he summoned her to his side. Barbara soon gave birth to the first of seven children, of whom five were acknowledged by Charles. Her estranged husband reluctantly accepted the relationship and even received a peerage for his complacency.
The uncompromising Barbara’s famous control of her royal lover hardly waned after Charles’ 1662 marriage to Catherine of Braganza. She had herself appointed Lady of the Bedchamber, a position that guaranteed her a hefty salary and access to the most powerful figures at court. Barbara amassed a small fortune serving as an intermediary for those hoping to gain the king’s favor; she also wrangled royal titles for her sons despite their dubious paternity. (Barbara, like Charles himself, had a stable of paramours, including her cousin John Churchill, Winston’s ancestor.) Charles cast Barbara aside around 1674, and she died in 1709 at the age of 68. Barbara’s many notable descendants include the late Diana, princess of Wales.