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Five (In)famous Medieval Break-Ups

By Danièle Cybulskie

The other day, a friend put me on to the very funny It Ended Badly: Thirteen of the Worst Break-Ups in History by Jennifer Wright, a modern and cheeky look at some truly awful splits from Emperor Nero to Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher (and Elizabeth Taylor). Wright looks at two pretty nasty medieval break-ups, and I thought I’d expand on her idea a bit to include even more nasty break-ups, because – after all – who doesn’t love a good train wreck as long as you’re not on board? Without further ado, here are five infamous break-ups from the Middle Ages, starting with Wright’s top picks.

14th-century representation of Henry and Eleanor
14th-century representation of Henry and Eleanor

1. Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine

Whatever these two were doing at any given time, you can bet that it was supercharged, from begetting heirs (they had eight children), to fighting. Wright chose Henry and Eleanor because when things went south for these two, they got medieval. Like, imprison-your-wife-in-a-tower medieval. Whether for political reasons – namely, Eleanor wanted to have more charge of her own hereditary lands – or because of Henry’s longstanding mistress, Rosamund de Clifford (as Wright suspects), Eleanor urged her sons into open war against their father more than once, which landed her under house arrest for fifteen years. While Wright sees Henry’s imprisoning Eleanor instead of killing her as partial proof of their love, it’s more likely that Henry could never have seriously considered killing her, given that most of Europe – and his own sons – had too much respect for Eleanor for execution to have been an option. Although Henry was too smart to have destabilized his rule by killing his troublemaking wife, I have no doubt both of them wanted to strangle the other many times.

* Bonus break-up: Henry’s infidelities caused more than one relationship issue, as he allegedly slept with his son Richard’s (that’s the Lionheart) fiancée, Alys, seriously straining relations between himself and Richard, as well as between himself and the king of France, her father.

2. Lucrezia Borgia and Giovanni Sforza

Wright’s second choice for a bad medieval break-up is that of the marriage between two powerful Italian families that, well, were always out to get each other, which just goes to show that the whole woman-as-peaceweaver thing wasn’t always a great idea. Lucrezia Borgia and Giovanni Sforza broke up shortly after their marriage in 1493, and her father (Pope Alexander VI) tried to persuade Giovanni to annul the marriage on the grounds of his impotence. Giovanni pointed to much evidence (namely illegitimate children) of this blatant untruth, and refused to lie. “And then,” as Wright says, “the mudslinging started” (p.53). Giovanni spread rumours claiming Lucrezia was sleeping with her father and brothers, papacy notwithstanding; rumours so nasty and unshakable that they still haunt the Borgias’ memory today. Finally, under intense pressure (i.e. death threats), Giovanni caved and agreed to lie. The trouble was, Lucrezia was now in the difficult position of having to swear to being a virgin while very, very pregnant. “The Borgia family,” says Wright, “just decided to proceed as though she wasn’t pregnant, and essentially dared anyone to bring it up. And it totally worked” (p. 54). The marriage was annulled on the grounds that Giovanni was impotent and Lucrezia was a virgin. “There’s nothing noble about this break-up,” Wright concludes, “but it does seem like proof that if you do things with conviction you can get away with just about anything” (p.55). Just don’t try this at home.

3. Pedro the Cruel and Blanche of Bourbon

In this break-up, the name of the man involved is kind of a spoiler in itself: no one gets a nickname like Pedro the Cruel by being nice to people. Pedro was a Castilian king, who loved his mistress and hated lots of other people. Being king, though, Pedro was obligated to marry someone suitable, so he was pressured into marrying sixteen-year-old French princess Blanche of Bourbon after dragging his feet for as long as possible. The two were wed with great pomp and ceremony, and enjoyed spectacular wedding celebrations for two days. On the third day, the groom promptly dumped his bride flat and returned to his mistress. Despite the horror and outrage this caused to the pope, the French, and the Castilians, Pedro never had much to do with his lawfully married wife after that, except possibly to kill her when she was twenty-five. As far as break-ups go, Pedro’s was pretty darned cruel.

4. Peter Abelard and Heloise

Abelard and Heloise by Edmund Blair Leighton
Abelard and Heloise by Edmund Blair Leighton

So, this one may be a bit of a cheat because Abelard and Heloise didn’t break up as much as they were split up by her relatives, but in terms of bad endings, their relationship deserves to be on every top five list. Heloise was a brilliant noblewoman who fell hard for her dashing tutor, the great thinker Peter Abelard, and the two began passionately sharing more than just intellectual ideas. Unsurprisingly, their secret love affair led to Heloise’s pregnancy and the birth of their son, embarrassingly named Astrolabe. Abelard and Heloise married in secret, but their marriage vows were not enough to keep them safe from the wrath of her family: Heloise’s uncle had men break into Abelard’s room, where they castrated him. After his ordeal, both Abelard and Heloise joined monastic communities, quickly rising to the top by virtue of their brilliance. They never stopped writing love letters to each other, but their marital relationship in the conventional sense was definitely over.

Bibliothèque Nationale MS Fr. 2675 - An imaginative medieval interpretation of Edward's arrest by Isabella, seen watching from the right.
Bibliothèque Nationale MS Fr. 2675 – An imaginative medieval interpretation of Edward’s arrest by Isabella, seen watching from the right.

5. Isabella of France and Edward II

Although Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine’s marriage certainly contained more passion, Isabella and Edward II’s had a much worse ending. Historians have long speculated that Edward II was possibly homosexual, which could explain his coldness towards his French wife, although she did bear him children. Nevertheless, it’s very likely that Isabella outright hated her husband for his casual neglect, his foolish favouritism among his courtiers, or his disastrous ruling style – probably all three, and more besides. Like Eleanor, Isabella led her son into open war with his father, although this time, the people were on her side, and she conquered, placing her teenage son on his father’s throne. The new Edward III, under the advice of his mother and her new lover (Roger Mortimer), had his father imprisoned, where he likely met his death. Whether Edward II was killed via a hot poker (which is extremely unlikely), by starvation (much more likely), or escaped to live out his life in hiding (as Ian Mortimer suggests), his marriage to Isabella was an utter disaster by anyone’s standards, and theirs was an unequivocally awful break-up.

For a great, fun read and more crazy historical break-ups, including Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn’s, do check out Jennifer Wright’s It Ended Badly. For more on Pedro the Cruel, check out this article by Medievalists.net or this book by Clara Estow. For more on Abelard and Heloise, here’s a great New York Times article, and for more on Isabella of France and Edward II, check out Alison Weir’s Isabella: She-Wolf of France.

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You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist

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