History Stories


5 Epic Breakups

From how love went wrong for Lord Byron and his mistress to the French power couple Napoleon and Josephine's spilt to how King Henry VIII became the poster boy for horrible breakups, explore the epic breakups of eight well-known historical figures.

1. Lord Byron and Lady Caroline Lamb

Portrait Lady Caroline Lamb. (Credit: Public Domain)

Portrait Lady Caroline Lamb. (Credit: Public Domain)

In 1812, Lamb, the aristocratic wife of future British prime minister William Lamb, embarked on a tempestuous public affair with the celebrated English poet George Gordon Byron, whom she described as “mad, bad and dangerous to know.” Byron shot to stardom with his narrative poem “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” published in 1812, and went on to become a major figure in the Romantic movement. After he broke off his months-long liaison with Lamb, who he once called “the cleverest, most agreeable, absurd, amiable, perplexing, dangerous, fascinating little being that lives,” she tried to stab herself and later burned Byron in effigy in front of local villagers. Lamb remained seemingly obsessed with her former paramour and spread rumors that he was having an affair with his half-sister, Augusta, who in 1814 gave birth to a child alleged to have been fathered by the poet. In 1816, following a brief, disastrous marriage to William Lamb’s cousin, Annabella Milbanke, the scandal-tinged Byron (who over the course of his life became notorious for his many affairs) left England permanently. That same year, Lamb published a novel, “Glenarvon,” which was loosely based on her relationship with the literary bad boy. In 1824, the 36-year-old Byron died from illness in modern-day Greece, where he’d gone to help support the war for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire. Lamb, who published several novels after “Glenarvon,” died four years later.

2. King Edward VIII and Great Britain

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor in England. (Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor in England. (Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In December 1936, King Edward VIII abdicated the throne—in effect breaking up with Britain—so he could wed Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee with whom he’d been having an affair. The oldest son of King George V and Queen Mary, Edward was proclaimed king in January 1936 following the death of his father. Later that year, when the new monarch informed British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin he planned to marry Simpson, who’d just been granted a divorce from her second husband, Baldwin tried to talk him out of it, arguing that the Church of England, government officials and the British people wouldn’t accept a divorced woman as queen. Edward chose love over the crown and became the first English monarch to voluntarily abdicate.On December 11, 1936, he publicly announced his decision during a radio broadcast, stating: “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.” Prince Albert, Edward’s younger brother (and father of Britain’s current queen, Elizabeth) became king and Edward, who became known as the Duke of Windsor, left England. In 1937, he and Simpson married in France. The two spent the rest of their lives mainly on the European continent and in the U.S., and for many years had a strained relationship with the British royal family. However, when Edward died in 1972 he was buried in the cemetery for royals near England’s Windsor Castle; his wife was laid to rest there when she died in 1986.

3. Napoleon and Josephine

Josephine kneels before Napoleon during his coronation at Notre Dame. (Credit: Public Domain)

Josephine kneels before Napoleon during his coronation at Notre Dame. (Credit: Public Domain)

In 1796, five months after meeting, Napoleon Bonaparte, then a young army officer, married Josephine de Beauharnais, a widow and mother of two who was six years his senior. Born Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de la Pagerie, Josephine (Napoleon dubbed her that because he didn’t like her given name) wed at age 16 in France to Viscount Alexandre de Beauharnais. During the French Revolution, Josephine was imprisoned and her husband was guillotined. After Napoleon and Josephine got together, he wrote her passionate love letters while away on military campaigns. Although the pair eventually cheated on each other, they worked together to become a power couple. In 1804, eight years after Napoleon and Josephine wed, he was crowned emperor of the French and proclaimed her empress. However, in 1809 Napoleon told his wife he was divorcing her because she hadn’t produced an heir. Josephine reportedly responded to the news with blood-curdling screams, but the union soon was annulled. In 1810, Napoleon married Austrian archduchess Marie-Louise, who bore him a son the next year. In 1821, Napoleon died in exile on the island of St. Helena (Josephine had passed away seven years earlier in France). The former emperor’s final words were said to be: “France, the Army, the Head of the Army, Josephine.”

4. Henry VIII, Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn

Portrait of Henry VIII.  (Credit: Public Domain)

Portrait of Henry VIII. (Credit: Public Domain)

The poster boy for bad breakups, the teenage Henry became king of England in 1509 and soon afterward married his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, the widow of his older brother Arthur. By the mid-1520s Henry had grown unhappy that Catherine hadn’t produced a male heir; although she’d given birth multiple times, only one daughter lived past infancy. Additionally, the Tudor king had become besotted with Anne Boleyn, the sister of one of his mistresses. Intent on tying the knot with Boleyn, Henry, a Catholic, asked Pope Clement VII for an annulment of his first marriage. The pope refused, not wanting to upset Catherine’s nephew, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Henry married Anne in 1533 anyway and was excommunicated by the pope. The monarch subsequently had himself declared head of the Church of England and took over the nation’s monasteries, selling off much of the land. Anne, who gave birth to a daughter in 1533, eventually fell out of favor with Henry when she failed to provide him with a son. In 1536, she was found guilty of trumped-up treason charges and beheaded. Henry had four more wives: Jane Seymour, who died shortly after giving birth to a son; Anne of Cleves, whose marriage to Henry was annulled so he could wed wife No. 5; Catherine Howard, who was beheaded for treason and adultery; and Catherine Parr, who avoided the fate of her predecessors and managed to stay married to the king until his death in 1547.

5. Abraham Lincoln and Mary Owen

Hand colored print of Lincoln greeting people with Mary Todd Lincoln at left.  (Credit: The Washington Post/Getty Images)

Hand colored print of Lincoln greeting people with Mary Todd Lincoln at left. (Credit: The Washington Post/Getty Images)

It might not have been an epic breakup, but for the man who would go on to become one of America’s greatest presidents, the split was awkward. In 1831, Lincoln, then in his early 20s, moved to New Salem, Illinois. There, he became enamored with a young woman named Ann Rutledge, who got sick and died in 1935. Later, a local married woman with whom the broken-hearted Lincoln was acquainted, Elizabeth Abell, told him she’d convince her sister, Mary Owens, to come to Illinois if Lincoln would promise to tie the knot with her. Lincoln had briefly met the Kentucky-based Owens a few years earlier while she was visiting her sister and found her attractive. After the future president jokingly said yes to Abell’s offer, Owens arrived in town under the assumption she was betrothed, and Lincoln realized he’d made a mistake. Determined to keep his word, though, Honest Abe didn’t break off the engagement. However, the future 16th U.S. president, who moved to Springfield, Illinois, in 1937 to work as a lawyer, did write to Owens to let her know she wouldn’t like the state capital. Lincoln’s accidental engagement subsequently unraveled, and in 1839 he met Mary Todd at a dance in Springfield. The two wed in 1842.

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