With Valentine’s Day having roots in Pagan tradition and with the day’s celebration of romance dating back to the Roman era, there are thousands of years of romance to explore throughout history. Though we know the day as a celebration of love, did you know that in the Victorian age there was a trend in sending anti-Valentine’s cards?

Known as Vinegar Valentine’s they were sent out to fend off unwanted suitors or just to be mean. Some cards featured rhymes like:
“To my Valentine,
Tis a lemon that I hand you and bid you now skidoo
Because I love another
There is no chance for you.”

According to historians, almost half the cards sent in the Victorian era were vinegar cards rather than declarations of love! Now that we’ve set the tone, rather than follow the trend of love and romance this Valentine’s, let’s look at some of the worst relationships in history, after all, just because there is a little romance, doesn’t mean it will end well, as these historical figures and their beaus have proved.

Lord Byron and Lady Lamb

The basics:
George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron | Romantic Poet | 1788-1824
Lady Caroline Lamb, née Ponsonby | Aristocrat and Novelist | 1785 – 1828

As we’re discussing romance in all its forms, we can’t not mention perhaps the best-known romantic poet of all time, Lord Byron, though it would seem that romance was not exactly his strong point. Aside from being famous for his poems, he is also known for being a bit of a cad.

Lady Caroline was also known for her wild behaviour and the odd affair wasn’t unusual for her, as well as Byron, she also had quite the public affair with the Duke of Wellington, despite being in a self-proclaimed love match with her husband William Lamb, the future Viscount Melbourne and famous prime minister of Queen Victoria’s time. Really, looking at it, Byron and Lady Caroline should have been well matched, sadly, their relationship was anything but #CouplesGoals.

So, here’s the tea.
Byron, as his time’s equivalent to a celebrity, travelled widely, loved widely and filled many a gossip column. His womanising was perhaps more well-known than some of his poetry, scandal followed him wherever he went -  it is even believed that he fathered his own half-sister’s child! Lady Caroline was a fan of his, she even wrote him fan mail before they met but that didn’t stop her from spurning his attention when they were first introduced. Really, it should have stopped there, she did, after all, refer to him as being “Mad, bad and dangerous to know.”

Despite that initial meeting, the pair embarked on a whirlwind love affair, privately declaring their love and publicly swapping between sniping at each other and supporting each other. After just a few months, Byron publicly broke up with Lady Caroline. Her husband, hoping to repair her damaged reputation, squirreled her off to Ireland, where despite having no intention of rekindling the romance, Byron continued to write to her regularly. The modern-day equivalent of stringing her along.

On her return to London, Lady Caroline assumed that Byron would take her back. He didn’t. Instead, they began a series of public spats which culminated in a physical altercation at her former lover, the Duke of Wellington’s party, in front of all the society darlings. Byron insulted her and she responded by breaking a wine glass and attempting to slash her wrists, though she didn’t seriously injure herself. The whole thing caused a huge scandal and her mental health was called into question. Byron, naturally, took it in his stride and it served to add to his legend. With his reputation and debts catching up with him, Byron finally accepted that he would have to marry and settle down, choosing Anna Milbanke, Lady Caroline’s cousin. The pair had one child (Byron’s only legitimate child, but one of many), Ada Lovelace, who went on to become a founding figure in computer programming. It didn’t last, Byron abandoned his family and fled to Europe to escape his debts.

Being out of her life didn’t stop Lady Caroline’s obsession with Byron however. For the remainder of her life, she continued to write to and about him. In fact, the pair traded in publishing insulting poems, kind of like a historic diss track up until she died.

Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie)

The basics:
Oscar Fingal O'Flaherty Wills Wilde | Writer, novelist, playwright | 1854-1900
Lord Alfred Douglas | Poet, journalist | 1870-1945

Next on our list we have more aristocrats and more writers, this time, in the form of playwright and novelist, Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, who was known throughout his life by the nickname, Bosie. If you thought Byron and Lady Caroline’s relationship was full of red flags, you haven’t seen anything yet, this one saw one of them going to prison!

Oscar Wilde, like Byron, remains one of the best-known writers in British history, he’s probably best known for his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and sadly, for being convicted of gross indecency. He was born in Ireland and was educated at some of the best institutions in the UK, Trinity College, Dublin and Magdalen College, Oxford. Bosie similarly had the best education money could buy and the pair embarked on literary careers, Wilde quickly becoming famous for his plays and flamboyant nature and Bosie working as a journalist and poet, while also living off his family’s wealth.

Wilde had always been known as someone who was flamboyant and fashionable. He was known to entertain close relationships with both men and women in his youth, famously being known for taking young men to fancy restaurants for dinner and for forming life-long relationships with actresses and other celebrity ladies of the time. He married Constance Lloyd in 1881 and the pair had two children. Though he had always been interested in what he referred to as “Greek Love”, he wasn’t known to have intimate relations with men until he met the journalist Robbie Ross, who became his first male lover. Unlike Wilde, Bosie had several relationships with men in his youth and from a young age and well into his relationship with Wilde, was known to spend his money on male sex workers and gambling. Something he fully expected Wilde to contribute to and led to many fallings out.

The pair met in 1891 and almost immediately began a stormy and tempestuous relationship, full of intense arguing and equally intense reunions. Bosie introduced Wilde to the Victorian underground gay scene and would regularly bring young male sex workers into their relationship. At the time, homosexuality was illegal, but neither Wilde nor Bosie were discreet. Bosie in particular was known to be reckless in his public displays of affection for men. Their relationship was very off and on, with Bosie being described as being selfish – on one occasion, he and Wilde went away together. Bosie fell ill, so Wilde nursed him back to health, predictably, Wilde then came down with the illness, so Bosie left him, taking a room in another hotel, having a great time and then sending Wilde the bill as a 40th birthday present. He was also careless with the letters the pair exchanged, often leaving them in pockets of clothes he then donated, these letters would later be used against Wilde when he was convicted of gross indecency.

The main thing keeping their relationship from being plain sailing was Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensbury. He often confronted the pair about their relationship and even publicly referred to Wilde as a “sodomite”. Encouraged by Bosie, Wilde initiated a libel suit, the thing is, in order to avoid conviction, Queensbury had to prove that what he said was true. Which he did with the help of private detectives and coercing other members of the pair’s inner circle to testify. Wilde lost the case, something that bankrupted him and then had a warrant issued for his arrest for gross indecency. Though he and Bosie were both begged to flee, he refused and was initially imprisoned at Holloway Prison, where Bosie visited him every day. Following what is described as being the first celebrity trial in British history, Wilde was convicted and sentenced to two years hard labour, one of the harshest sentences one could receive for the charge of gross indecency. Historians do debate whether or not this was just because of the homophobia of the day or if it also took into account the ages of some of Wilde’s partners.

Wilde’s conviction did spur Bosie into leaving England for a time and the harsh treatment he received, is said to have contributed to Wilde’s death. After his release, Wilde made his way to Europe where he and Bosie were reunited and cohabited for some time before their families threatened to cut them off financially, leading to a permanent separation. Wilde remained bankrupt and at the financial mercy of his wife and of Bosie, who would toy with him, refusing him an allowance. After Wilde’s death, Bosie served as chief mourner, something that resulted in a graveside altercation with Robbie Ross. Later, Bosie would marry a bisexual heiress and befriend her girlfriend, but they would separate not long after. Another fun fact, Bosie was imprisoned too – though for libelling Winston Churchill rather than anything to do with his personal life. Thankfully for Wilde, he was one of the 50,000 men to be posthumously pardoned for crimes associated with homosexuality in 2017.

King Henry VIII and well… most of his wives

The basics:
King Henry VIII | King of England | 1491-1547
Catherine of Aragon | Queen of England | 1485 - 1536
Anne Boleyn | Queen of England | 1507 - 1536
Anne of Cleves | Queen of England | 1515- 1557
Catherine Howard | Queen of England | 1523-1540

Ok, Henry had six wives and I’m sure that he probably treated all of them terribly, but the two Annes and two of the Catherines had it the worst. Catherine of Aragon was initially married to his brother in an arranged marriage having been plucked from the arms of her family and the country she knew and deposited in England where she barely spoke the language and didn’t know anyone. After spending twenty odd years as queen and thinking, despite his continuous affairs, that she was happily married, Henry suddenly decided that their marriage was cursed and attempted to break up with her in favour of one of her ladies in waiting.

Poor Catherine found her marriage annulled, her child declared illegitimate and was pretty much forced into exile. She wasn’t even allowed to spend any time at all with her daughter. Henry meanwhile moved on pretty quickly, marrying Anne Boleyn.

The gumption and autonomy she displayed was very attractive in a mistress and less so in a wife. Also she had the audacity to give him another daughter when all he wanted was a son, so naturally, the pair argued and he turned his eye to her lady in waiting, Jane Seymour. If that had been all, that would be bad enough but Henry had to take it a step too far, charging his right hand man to dig up some dirt on Anne, which resulted in her being accused of adultery, incest, treason and witchcraft. The day after she was beheaded, he married wife number three.

His fourth wife probably got off the easiest but there is nothing nice about your husband picking you based on the Tudor version of a profile picture and then deciding that they don’t actually like you that much after spending some time together. The marriage between Anne of Cleeves and Henry VIII was never consummated, probably because he had already started grooming one of her ladies in waiting, Anne Boleyn’s teenaged cousin, Catherine Howard. Poor young Catherine ended up being wife number five not long after the annulment from Anne of Cleeves came through. She also ended up going the same way as her cousin. Henry didn’t take too kindly to finding out that he wasn’t the only one to have groomed her or that she had a more age appropriate relationship with one of the palace staff.

Honestly, there are so many red flags here, there’s little point in continuing. You can find out more about Henry VIII here and his six wives here.

Mary Queen of Scots, Lord Darnley and the Earl of Bothwell

The basics:
Mary Stuart | Queen of Scotland | 1542-1587
Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley | King Consort of Scotland | 1546 – 1567
James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell and 1st Due of Orkney | 1534-1578

We have another royal relationship up next and don’t worry, this isn’t a weird thruple, although that might not have made the situation any worse.

Firstly, Mary Queen of Scots – poor Mary didn’t have a great track record with men. Her first marriage took place when she was just five years old, so safe to say, she didn’t have much choice in the matter. It was when she was five that she left her parents and her home of Scotland and moved to France where she would stay for the next thirteen years, her husband, Francis, succeeded to be King of France, but died young not long after and Mary, as the Dowager Queen of France and the monarch of Scotland, found herself being shopped back to her home country with little knowledge or experience of either the country or its political landscape.

As a descendant of Henry VII and grand niece of Henry VIII, she had a claim to both the Scottish and English thrones, so her cousin Elizabeth I naturally saw her as a threat and the powers at be wanted her married as soon as possible, to firstly create political alliances and secondly, to make her easier to control. There were several suitors suggested but Mary chose her cousin, Henry Stuart, the Lord Darnley. She and Darnley first met in 1561 when she was in mourning for her first husband, his parents sent him to France to offer condolences, as well as hoping for a potential match in the future. They then met again in 1565 and by all accounts, did genuinely like each other. They married later that year at Holyrood Palace, but it wasn’t exactly an auspicious start – firstly, they share a grandmother (Margaret Tudor, sister of Henry VIII), which meant they were supposed to have permission from the pope in order to wed, something they didn’t get. As Darnley was an English subject, he also needed permission from their cousin Elizabeth I. Something else they didn’t bother with. If that wasn’t bad enough, the marriage caused problems within the Scottish court, especially with Mary’s half-brother and the other Protestant nobles, something that almost ended with a battle, however Mary managed to keep control and a tense peace was negotiated but wouldn’t last.

Darnley very much enjoyed his elevated position and was known to be incredibly arrogant and unpleasant around court. It didn’t take him long to take offence at being known as King Consort and not king – he wanted to have an equal right to rule and he certainly wanted guarantees that he would be able to claim the throne for himself should he outlive his wife, something Mary had absolutely no intention of giving him. Despite conceiving a child, their marriage became increasingly more strained, which led Darnley to join forces with some rebels and burst into a private dinner that  a pregnant Mary was hosting. The group stabbed one of her close friends and advisors, David Rizzio, to death in front of her, which obviously didn’t do their relationship much good.Not long after welcoming their son, the future James VI/I, Darnley was murdered, but was it Mary’s doing? History still hasn’t made up its mind. What we do know is that Mary was discussing divorce with her lords and there is some evidence to suggest that, with Mary’s knowledge or not, the lords were planning to remove Darnley by any means necessary. Darnley certainly seemed to be in fear of his life, as after James’ birth, he sought sanctuary at his father’s lands where he remained for some time. The pair did briefly reunite on 9th February 1567. Darnley was staying at a house in Edinburgh and Mary visited him before making her way to a wedding celebration. A few hours later, there was an explosion at the house, Darnley was found dead in the garden, however his injuries were not consistent with being blown up.

Suspicion almost immediately fell on Mary and her lords, in particular the Earl of Bothwell. Shortly after Darnley’s death, Bothwell abducted the queen and impregnated her, almost certainly forcibly.

While Darnley was arrogant and violent and was thought to have a drink problem, Bothwell was a different beast. He was cunning and had little care for anything other than his own promotion. Like Mary, he too had been married several times, he abandoned his first wife after travelling to France, where he initially met Mary and was part of the group that organised her return to Scotland following the death of the King of France. His second wife, Lady Jean Gordon spoke of terrible treatment but likely she felt she had a lucky escape when she was able to get a divorce on grounds of adultery. Bothwell married Mary just 12 days later, the marriage elevated Bothwell, much to the disgust of the Scottish lords and Mary was despondent and deeply unhappy with her situation. Eventually, the lords turned against them, forcing her to abdicate in favour of James. Mary made her way to England and claimed asylum from her cousin, Elizabeth I, miscarrying twins and being placed under house arrest. She remained in custody until her execution in 1587.

Bothwell was also forced into exile. He also died in 1578, allegedly becoming insane before succumbing to ill health.

So, there you have it, couples in history that didn’t have the best wishes of St Valentine. Just to prove that love isn’t dead however, here are some couples that had truly epic love stories.

Hadrian and Antinous

You’ve heard of Hadrian’s Wall? Well, the man who gave the wall its name was one half of a Roman era power couple. The other half? Antinous, a Greek student. Hadrian was said to have been obsessively in love with Antinous and the pair travelled widely together, Hadrian even saved Antinous’ life once during a lion hunt and wrote erotic poetry about him. Antonius died in mysterious circumstances and Hadrian responded by ordering a city to be built in his honour, named a star after him and proclaimed him a deity.

Mary Shelley and Percy Shelley

Love struck teenage goths the world over wished they could have what these two did. Percy Shelley was a romantic poet and Mary was the daughter of feminist writer, Mary Wollstonecraft. They met when they were still rather young (he was 21 and she was 16) and Percy was married to someone else. Allegedly they consummated their relationship on the grave of Mary’s mother.  Which is… something. The pair ran away to Europe and married after Percy’s wife died, which caused a major scandal and moved in the same circles as Lord Byron, even shacking up with him in Switzerland where Mary wrote Frankenstein. Percy died in a boating accident in 1822, Mary never remarried claiming that having been married to a genius, she couldn’t marry a man who wasn’t one.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning

More writers coming up – Elizabeth Barrett was a respected poet who was in her 40s and in poor health when she received a fan letter from Robert Browning. The pair courted in secret before getting married in 1846, from which point they were inseparable. So much so that she died in his arms.




Comments are disabled for this post.