The Ten Great Medieval Royal Romances
In honor of St. Valentine’s Day, we’d like to present our Top 10 Royal Romances among the Plantagenets and Tudors. In a world where arranged marriages were the norm, falling in love was more the exception than the rule. Hard to imagine with our 21st-century mindset, but certainly true in the Middle Ages when marriages were political moves designed to seal a treaty or strengthen an alliance or end a war. But this month, we celebrate love and the royals who were lucky enough to find it.
- Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville
Three years after Edward IV took the throne of England from Henry VI, he was still footloose and fancy free. Over 6 feet tall with a muscular body, blue eyed with blonde hair, he had the look of a Greek god. His skin was bronze from the hours spent in the fields in battle or riding or hunting. He never lacked for attention from women.
The Kingmaker, The Earl of Warwick – the man who had worked so hard to put Edward on the throne – enjoyed the minutia of government and was a good diplomat as well. Having The Earl handle the mundane side of ruling, left Edward free to do the things he enjoyed.
One fateful day, he encountered Elizabeth Gray and her two sons waiting for him by the side of the road. She wanted to ask him to redress a grievance. One look at her and Edward felt as if he was on top of the world.
Elizabeth, with her gilt blonde hair, took his breath away. The King arranged to meet her several times in hopes of persuading her to become his mistress. The lady said that if she was too low to be his wife, she was too high to be his mistress. Edward rode off to stew about this and in a few days he returned to propose.
They married in a secret ceremony attended only by her mother and a few Ladies. For four months, Edward kept his secret. When Warwick returned from France all cock-a-hoop about the brilliant French marriage he had arranged for Edward, Edward blurted out his news, which stunned the court, his family and the entire nation.
Warwick never forgave this and from that moment sought to overthrow Edward. He teamed up with the “evil” Margaret of Anjou, wife of the still-alive Henry VI, the Lancastrian King. It didn’t work and Warwick was killed, but enough politics, back to love.
Although it was a love match, his marriage brought Edward plenty of political and financial headaches. Elizabeth had a very large family and they now all needed royal marriages and positions at court. Just rewarding the enormous and ambitious Woodville family could bankrupt a country. The other established nobles did not look kindly on this usurper family. Elizabeth was never as popular with the court as she was with her husband. Even though a love match, Edward never really adhered to that “forsaking all others” part of the marriage vows. They had 10 children together, including the unfortunate Princes in the Tower.
- Edward III and Philippa of Hainault
Edward first met Philippa when he accompanied his mother Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer to Hainault. They were seeking her father William’s help in their attempt to overthrow Edward II and his evil “favorites”, the Despensers.
William agreed but with the stipulation that young Edward choose one of his daughters as his Queen. He chose Philippa. Philippa was a bit on the plump side, with dark hair — not a willowy beauty like his mother. Philippa loved books and learning and she was very fond of horses and riding. She laughed a lot and made him laugh too. They do say that laughter is a great attractor.
As soon as Edward II was deposed and the country began to settle down. Edward III sent for Philippa. Their marriage was a happy one. Philippa accompanied Edward on many of his travels, giving birth in many different locations.
They had 14 children, at least 10 of whom reached adulthood. Both parents doted on the children and were loath to part with them. When Edward had to be away from home, Philippa took care of the country’s business for him. It was a strong royal marriage.
Despite his dalliance with one of her Ladies-in Waiting, Alice Perrers, in his later years, Edward remained affectionate and very generous to Philippa and grieved for her when she died. They are buried together in Westminster Abbey.
- Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn
Okay, we all know that it didn’t end well, but no King has ever done the things Henry did to win Anne’s hand. Was it love that turned to obsession or vice versa? We don’t know, but this coupling was real and consequential.
Anne was not pretty in the conventional English way. Dark hair, black eyes, a tall, slender, flat-chested figure were at total odds with Henry’s usual choices.
Anne had a somewhat cutting wit, excelled at music and was very well read. Henry was fascinated by her. He sent her the most passionate love letters and poetry. He composed music for her. The honors and riches he heaped on her family and friends were almost unheard of in those times. He made her a Marquess in her own right, the only woman ever in English history to have that honor.
Still not enough? When the Pope refused him a divorce from his wife, Katherine of Aragon, Henry was livid. He wanted to marry Anne, so the Pope must go. Henry established his own church and made himself the Supreme Head. Now he could grant his own divorce.
His friends disapproved of Anne? Off to the tower went men such as Thomas More and many others who refused to refused to recognize Henry’s new marriage or his new role as head of the church.
What Henry wouldn’t do for Anne. For instance, Anne hated Cardinal Wolsey, the man who had run England for years (and quite well) leaving Henry to engage in the pursuits he enjoyed like hunting, dancing, music, reading and playing games of chance.
But Wolsey failed to get Henry his divorce. So Wolsey was dismissed with no notice and never saw the King again. (To appease Henry, Wolsey even gifted him his magnificent Hampton Court Palace. Henry took it and still banished him.)
In this odd pairing, one nagging question still remains: did Anne love Henry? What motivated her? No woman ever caused such a disruption in the English way of life. She didn’t give Henry the son he desperately wanted. So Henry said she bewitched him. As head of the Church, he had his marriage annulled. As King, he had her beheaded. Few women have paid such a price for love. But if it wasn’t for Henry and Anne, we would never have had Gloriana and England’s Golden Age.
- Edward the Black Prince and Joan of Kent
Joan, the Fair Maid of Kent was the type of girl who …. um …. matured early. Said to be the most beautiful woman in the realm of England, Joan was a law unto herself. Her first marriage was a secret elopement with Thomas Holland when Joan was just 12.
Needless to say, it did not include the required royal permission. Thomas soon left to seek their fortune on crusade. Knowing nothing about her first marriage, her family forced her into a marriage with William Monacute, heir of the Earl of Salisbury. Joan kept silent about her first marriage probably not sure it was really legal. She was, after all, just 12! because she feared Thomas would be charged with treason for marrying a royal personage without permission and beheaded upon his return to England.
When Thomas did return to England and the whole story came to light, Thomas appealed to the Pope, Joan supported Thomas and eventually the Pope ruled in their favor. For the next decade Joan was kept busy raising a family of five children and managing a large household. When Thomas died circa 1360, Joan was once again in search of a husband.
This time she aimed really high. Joan and the Black Prince had always enjoyed an affectionate relationship. On at least one occasion he is known to have presented her with an expensive cup. Once again Joan rocked the Court with a “secret” marriage. This time it was to the heir to the throne.
Again, getting a papal dispensation to over-ride the degrees of consanguinity, and ignoring her new mother-in-law’s disapproval, Joan and the Prince married again before the King and Queen in a proper marriage service. They stayed happily married for 16 years until the Prince died of a lengthy illness. Joan never remarried. Joan is also the first wife of the heir to the throne to use the title, Princess of Wales. She and Edward had two sons. together. Only one survived, the unlucky Richard II.
- Edward II and Piers Gaveston
Forbidden it may have been, but it was love all the same. From the moment they met, Edward was enthralled with this young man. Usually left on his own, cared for by negligent servants, Edward, to his parents’ disgust, developed friendships with the peasant children. He became adept at helping them with their chores and joining in their games. When his father, Edward I introduced Piers into his son’s entourage, it was with the hope that this promising young man gifted in martial arts and other masculine attributes would guide his son in the ways Edward wanted him to go.
But Edward became obsessed with Piers, so much so that his father had Piers exiled. When Edward I died, and Edward II becomes king, he immediately sent for Piers and created him Earl of Cornwall. The other nobility did not like Piers or his closeness and power over the king. Neither did Edward’s wife, Isabella of France. The earls managed to have him exiled twice more, but Edward always managed his return. On Piers second return, the earls had had enough of him. They tried him, found him guilty and beheaded him. Edward was enraged, and devastated.
For centuries, there has been speculation about the nature of their relationship, fast friends or lovers. It’s one on the mysteries of history.
- Blanche of Lancaster and John of Gaunt
If ever there was a marriage with great potential for happiness and success it was the one celebrated at Reading Abbey on May 19, 1359. Fourteen year old Blanche of Lancaster married nineteen year old John of Gaunt. She was the younger daughter of Henry 1st Duke of Lancaster, one of the wealthiest and most powerful nobles in England and he was the son of the mighty Edward III.
The bride was beautiful and gentle; the groom was handsome and courtly. They loved each other and the families were delighted. Unlike many medieval marriages, the happiness continued. They had 7 children of whom a son (Henry IV) and two daughters survived.
Unfortunately, the marriage ended after only ten years, when the Duchess died about a month after giving birth to her last child. She may have died of what is thought to have been the Black Death. The record is unclear.
John of Gaunt was devastated. He arranged a magnificent funeral at St. Paul’s Cathedral and later commissioned a lovely joint tomb for Blanche and him to share. Their effigies clasped each other’s right hands. He held memorial services for her every year for the rest of his life and even commissioned Chaucer to write a collection of poems about her called “The Book of the Duchess.”
When he died in 1399 at the age of 59, he was laid to rest beside his little Duchess in St. Paul’s Cathedral.
- Richard Duke of York and Cecily Neville
Betrothed to Richard of York when she was 9 and he was 13, Cecily Neville, the youngest of Ralph Neville’s 23 offspring, grew to be a breathtakingly beautiful woman. To her friends she was “The Rose of Raby”; those not her friends dubbed her “Proud Cis”.
She and Richard were at the center of the political upheavals of their era. Acknowledged as having a greater claim to the throne than Henry VI, Richard suffered years of frustration watching the realm of England become factionalized. The monarch suffered intermittent bouts of insanity, and even when sane was far more interested in religion and his educational building projects.
Cecily was her husband’s valued helpmate. She travelled with him, ran his household, was of sufficient nobility to be given a hearing before the King to express her husband’s points of view. It amused me to read that she loved to shop especially for clothes, so much so that her husband appointed a guardian to keep an eye on her expenditures.
They had at least 12 children of whom 7 survived. Two of them became Kings of England. When her husband, Richard was killed at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460, Cecily turned to religion and became quite devout. She never remarried.
- Mary Tudor and Charles Brandon
Mary Tudor was the younger sister of Henry VIII. As children Mary and Henry had been very close and were very fond of each other. Mary did not want an arranged marriage. She wanted to choose her own spouse. As she was acknowledged as one of the most beautiful princesses of her time, there was no lack of interest in courting her.
Unfortunately for Mary, Cardinal Wolsey negotiated a peace treaty with King Louis XII of France and the beautiful 18-year-old Mary as one of the bargaining chips. Mary was furious. She said she would not go. That she would not marry an old man of 55. Henry kept increasing the bribe. A treasure trove of jewelry, a fabulous wardrobe, a large entourage and finally, the agreement that should she be widowed she could choose her own groom.
Mary finally went to France where she was married in an exceedingly elaborate wedding. The marriage lasted three months before Louis died. (Some said from the exertion of trying to beget an heir on his beautiful teenage bride.) Mary was a widow.
Henry sent his best friend, Charles Brandon, to bring his sister home and then started looking around for her next husband. Unfortunately for Henry, Mary knew her brother very well.
Before she left France she had persuaded Brandon (whom she had secretly loved since she was a girl) to marry her. Henry was apoplectic – he threatened them with everything up to and including the Tower. But Charles and Mary stood firm. So Henry settled on a ruinous fine and Charles and Mary retired quietly to the countryside where they lived quite happily with their children, two daughters and two sons.
Their eldest daughter, Frances, was the mother of the unfortunate nine-day Queen, Lady Jane Grey. It is through Mary Tudor that Jane’s parents claimed the throne.
- Catherine Valois and Owen Tudor
Catherine of Valois was married to the great Henry V of England on June 2, 1420. It was an effort to forge peace between France and England. Although this could have been a great romance (reports indicate the King was quite smitten), Henry died just two years later, leaving a 9-month-old son (Henry VI) and a beautiful 21-year-old widow.
Despite a law passed forbidding her to remarry without Royal Consent, Catherine fell in love with a former member of Henry V’s army who had come to join her household as keeper of the wardrobe. Owen Tudor was of Welsh descent and a commoner… and her servant to boot! The Tudor historians insist that a marriage took place but no evidence has ever been found.
They had at least six children of whom three or four survived. The two most famous of their children are Edmund Tudor, created Earl of Richmond by his half-brother, Henry VI and Jasper Tudor, created Earl of Pembroke. Henry VI thought so much of his younger half-brothers that in addition to creating them Earls, he arranged for the great Lancastrian heiress, Margaret Beaufort to marry Edmund Tudor.
Catherine died shortly after giving birth in 1437 and Owen was imprisoned for marrying the queen dowager without royal consent. When Henry VI reached his majority, he pardoned Owen and knighted him. Owen remained true to Catherine’s memory and never remarried. After the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross when the Lancastrians lost, Owen was beheaded. Before he died he is alleged to have said, “The head that used to lie in Queen Catherine’s lap, will now lie in the executioner’s basket”.
- Edward I and Eleanor of Castile
Edward I and Eleanor of Castile were married in Spain on November 1, 1254 at extremely young ages. He was 15 and she was 13. From that point on, they were devoted to each other and were seldom separated. By all accounts, they had a loving, tender thoughtful relationship.
Eleanor bore her husband 16 children of whom only 6 survived, including Joan of Acre born on crusade to the Holy Land and their only surviving son Edward II. There are no records of Edward being unfaithful or having any children out of wedlock.
Edward often asked her advice and put her in charge when he had to be elsewhere. When Eleanor died in Lincolnshire on November 28, 1290, Edward was distraught. He commissioned twelve elaborate crosses to be erected wherever her coffin had rested for the night on its journey to London. These became known as Eleanor crosses. She was buried at Westminster Abbey.
Her husband’s comment was the best epitaph a wife could wish. “As I loved her in life, I cannot cease to love her in death.” Even though he remarried Margaret of France for dynastic and political reasons, (he had only one son and he needed to strengthen his alliance with France), he waited nine years after Eleanor’s death to do so. He attended memorial services for Eleanor for the rest of his life. He too is buried at Westminster Abbey.
Who have we missed? Do you have a royal love story you’d like to share? Let us know below.
Note: We do not include John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford on this list. They definitely deserve a place but figured they were the most well known. If you’re interested in learning more about these lovers, we have an article entitled, John and Katherine: The Charles and Camilla of their Day?