5 Of The Worst Husbands In Royal History

By Meghan Dillon··  13 min read
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Who doesn’t dream of marrying a prince one day? Unfortunately, it’s not always a happily ever after.

We all saw how the supposed-to-be fairytale marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana fell apart due to Charles' infidelity, but that was actually pretty tame by historical standards. Here’s a breakdown of five of the worst husbands in royal history that will make you want to rethink your dream of marrying a prince in a faraway land.

Emperor Nero of Rome

John William Waterhouse, The Remorse of Nero After the Murder of His Mother
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Emperor Nero has a reputation for being evil (even by Ancient Roman standards, which says a lot), so it’s no surprise that he wasn’t a good husband to any of his wives. Some historians believe that his reputation has been fabricated, but we’re going to assume it’s true for the sake of this article. 

Nero had his mother (and alleged lover, gross), Agrippina the Younger, murdered in 59 AD. When he was 15 (one year before becoming Emperor of Rome), he married his stepsister Claudia, daughter of Emperor Claudius. After nine years of marriage, he divorced her, had her murdered, and had her killer deliver her head.

After nine years of marriage, he divorced her, had her murdered, and had her killer deliver her head.

Nero had Claudia killed because he wanted to marry Poppaea, so it only makes sense that things didn’t end well for Poppaea either. To say their marriage was tumultuous would be an understatement, as the couple fought constantly. During their final fight, Nero allegedly kicked a pregnant Poppaea in the stomach, which killed both her and their unborn child. 

Nero apparently felt remorseful over Poppaea’s unfortunate demise, and he dealt with  the grief and regret in the sanest and most rational way possible. Jennifer Wright, author of It Ended Badly: Thirteen of the Worst Breakups in History, says, “[Nero] felt kind of bad about it. Then, [he] castrated a 14-year-old slave boy and made him pretend to be the new empress of Rome. [Nero] dressed him up and referred to him as Sabina.”

Nero went on to marry three more times and even married the young slave boy he castrated. Only one of his wives outlived him, the other two suffering similar fates to his first two wives.

Philip I of Castile

Juan de Flandes (-), , Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Gemäldegalerie - Philipp der Schöne (1478-1506) - GG 3872 - Kunsthistorisches Museum
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Known as “Joanna the Mad,” Queen Joanna of Castile is mainly remembered for her "madness" (many believe she suffered from depression or schizophrenia), but much of her bizarre behavior can be attributed to her abusive husband, King Philip I of Castile. 

Joanna was one of the daughters of Queen Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, who are famous for uniting medieval Spain, their involvement in the Spanish Inquisition, and for financing Christopher Columbus’ famous 1492 voyage. Since she was the third child and second daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand, Joanna never expected to inherit the throne and married Philip, Archduke of Austria, in 1496. She was 16, and Philip was 17.

Joanna and Philip (who was nicknamed “Philip the Handsome” and “Philip the Fair” for his famous good looks) were instantly attracted to each other and married on the spot after meeting each other for the first time. The newlyweds moved to Philip’s homeland of Flanders in pure marital bliss. Despite the promise of their marriage, Philip was unfaithful to Joanna, which was detrimental to her mental health.

After the deaths of her brother, sister, and nephew, 20-year-old Joanna became heir to the Spanish throne in 1500, which brought out the worst in Philip. Aside from constantly cheating on her, Philip was emotionally abusive toward Joanna and became obsessed with the idea of using her for political power, increasing his controlling and gaslighting behavior towards Joanna, and even locking her up in her room. 

Aside from constantly cheating on her, Philip became obsessed with using Joanna for political power.

In 1503, he abandoned her in Spain while she was pregnant with their fourth child, which caused her to have an emotional breakdown. When she followed him to Flanders with their child, she discovered he had a mistress whom she attacked with scissors. This incident made Philip even more controlling over her, and he told her parents about her bouts of depression and rage.

Queen Isabella saw straight through Philip, however, and when she died in 1504, she made sure that Philip could only rule as consort. Enraged at Isabella’s snub (which was a really bad*ss move by Isabella), Philip continued to abuse Joanna as she grieved her mother. He also began arguing with Joanna’s father, Ferdinand, both attempting to exert control over her and start rumors of her “madness” to gain control of her throne, because why not? Philip mysteriously died in 1506, and the grieving Joanna allegedly never left his side until he was buried.

Though this story is heartbreaking, one can’t help but wonder if the rumors of Joanna’s “madness” were true. If she was as mentally ill as sources claim, what are the odds that her symptoms were the results of an abusive and neglectful husband?

Henry VIII of England

After Hans Holbein the Younger - Portrait of Henry VIII - Google Art Project
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Henry VIII is probably the worst husband in history, and all six of his wives had to tolerate his nonsense before he died in 1547. I could write a dissertation on all the reasons why he was such a bad husband (and person in general), so I’ll stick to the most prominent facts here.

Henry’s first marriage was to Catherine of Aragon, the youngest daughter of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon. It’s safe to say that bad marriages ran in their family, as Catherine was just as unlucky as her sister Joanna. Catherine was originally married to Henry’s older brother Arthur, but he died in 1502. Since Arthur and Catherine’s marriage was never consummated, Catherine was allowed to stay in England and marry Henry when he ascended the throne in 1509. She was 24, and he was 17.

Though the first years of their marriage were happy, Henry began to grow tired of Catherine when he realized she was unlikely to give him the male heir he desired. After unsuccessful pregnancies resulting in miscarriage, stillbirth, or early death, Catherine only gave him one daughter, Mary, in 1516. Though Catherine was devoted to Henry, his eye began to wander in 1525 when he met Catherine’s newest handmaiden, Anne Boleyn. He convinced himself that he loved Anne and that she could provide him with the son he desperately wanted, and chaos ensued.

In 1527, Henry requested an annulment from Catherine (he was convinced their marriage was illegitimate because he suddenly believed her marriage to his brother was consummated) to marry Anne. Due to her devotion to Henry, her strong Catholic faith, and being a strong woman in general (side note: I’m obsessed with her), Catherine refused to comply. The Pope also refused to grant them a divorce, so Henry took the logical route and decided to create the Church of England, through which he could grant himself a divorce.

After a long battle in creating the Church of England, Henry’s marriage to Catherine was annulled in 1533. He married Anne Boleyn later that year, and Catherine died in exile in 1536. Henry’s happiness in his marriage with Anne was short-lived; the beginning of the end came when she gave birth to their first child later in 1533 (was the child conceived scandalously out of wedlock? The world may never know). In a twist of fate only M. Night Shyamalan could write, the child wasn’t a boy either, but a girl named Elizabeth. All went downhill after that, and Henry accused Anne of "adultery, incest, and conspiracy against the king." Anne was found guilty and beheaded in 1536. Shortly after Anne’s execution (eleven days, to be exact), Henry married Jane Seymour. It’s alleged that it was a happy marriage, and she brought out the best in him, but she died of childbed fever shortly after giving birth to their son Edward in 1537.

Henry made sure to pick his next wife carefully and decided on German noblewoman Anne of Cleves after falling in love with her portrait in 1540. The happiness was short-lived, as he claimed to find her ugly in person. Historians debate whether or not he truly found her ugly or if he was impotent in his old age and poor health (he was 49 and obese at the time), but Anne was arguably the luckiest of the six wives and was granted a divorce from Henry later in 1540. She lived the rest of her life in peace.

Anne of Cleves was arguably the luckiest of the six wives and was granted a divorce from Henry.

Later in 1540 (which was quite an eventful year for Henry), he married 17-year-old noblewoman Catherine Howard, with whom he was enamored. Due to Catherine’s young age, it was easy to assume that Catherine was a virgin on her wedding night, but she allegedly had premarital affairs before marrying Henry. Shortly after her marriage to Henry, she began an affair with Henry’s favorite courtier, Thomas Culpepper. After the affair was discovered, she and Thomas were arrested for treason, and Thomas (alongside her other alleged lovers) was executed in 1541. Catherine was beheaded two months later in February 1542. She was 19 years old.

Henry wed his final wife, noblewoman Catherine Parr, in 1543. Like Henry, she had been married multiple times before. Known to be a good stepmother to Henry’s three children, Catherine was highly educated and embraced her role as consort before she was widowed when Henry died in 1547. Alongside Anne of Cleves, she’s considered to be one of the luckiest of Henry’s six wives, as she had the luxury of outliving him and living the rest of her life in peace.

Henry II of France

Henry II of France.
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Henry never expected to inherit the throne of France. He was the second son of Francis I and Claude of France, becoming heir to the throne when his brother Francis died in 1536. Three years before Francis died, 14-year-old Henry (who was then the Duke of Orleans) married 14-year-old Catherine de Medici of the famous Medici family in Florence. Like many royal marriages, this was not a love match but a political and economic match. Catherine’s cousin, Pope Clement VII, funded her dowry of precious jewels and 100,000 gold coins. Clement died a year after the wedding, and his successor refused to continue to pay her dowry.

It’s safe to say that the marriage was doomed from the start, for neither had any interest in each other. Henry’s affections were focused on a 38-year-old female courtier named Diane De Poitier, which is not disturbing in the slightest. While Henry was lusting over a woman old enough to be his mother, Catherine embraced her role as the Duchess of Orleans by learning everything she could about her new country. Despite the royal court knowing of Henry and Catherine’s marriage, Henry loved nothing more than to parade around with De Poitier and his many other mistresses for the entire court (and Catherine) to see.

Henry’s affections were focused on a 38-year-old female courtier old enough to be his mother.

17-year-old Henry became heir to the French throne in 1536, making it essential for Catherine to give Henry a male heir. This task proved to be difficult, since Henry refused to sleep with Catherine while he was busy with his many mistresses. Since Henry had already sired a few children with mistresses, he blamed Catherine for the lack of an heir. She took drastic measures to improve her fertility, including drinking mule urine. Catherine gave birth to their first son, Francis, in 1544, so either the mule urine finally started working or Henry came to terms with the fact that he’d have to have sex with his wife to reproduce. Catherine went on to have eight more children with Henry, so my money is on the latter.

Henry was crowned Henry II of France in 1547. As if he couldn’t get any worse, he gave all of the responsibilities of the consort to his mistresses, making Catherine no more than a vessel for his children. He continued to parade around his mistresses for the rest of his life before dying from wounds obtained in a jousting accident in 1559 (karma is a b*tch). Catherine went to live on for three more decades and died at the age of 69 in 1589.

Peter III of Russia

Coronation portrait of Peter III of Russia -1761 (cropped)
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

They say that behind every great empress is a great man (or something like that), but the opposite would be true for Catherine the Great, as her husband, Peter III of Russia, was a complete nightmare. If you’ve seen The Great on Hulu, then you have an idea of how crazy he was, but he was actually worse in real life.

Peter and Catherine married in 1745 when she was 16 and he was 17. Though they became the heirs to the Russian throne when they married, they were both born in Germany. Although Catherine went out of her way to assimilate herself into the Russian court and learn everything she could about the country’s culture and history, Peter couldn’t care less about his new country or his wife. 

It was probably best for Catherine that he wanted nothing to do with her because, according to Catherine’s own memoirs, saying that Peter was off his rocker would be an understatement: “Her letters and memoirs are filled with tales of his boorish, drunken, and frequently cruel behavior (she would later allege that he had forced her to watch him hang and ‘execute’ a mouse he found in their apartments). He abandoned her on their wedding night to party with friends, and things went downhill from there.”

He abandoned her on their wedding night to party with his friends.

It’s also alleged that Peter made Catherine play with his toy soldiers with him before bed and often forced her to dress up as a soldier while he pretended to be her commander. Though there is no concrete evidence that he was abusive towards her, nobody would be surprised if he was. When he was crowned tsar in 1762, he publicly threatened to send Catherine to a nunnery, as she had already fulfilled her duty of giving him a male heir.

Six months into his reign, Peter was an absolute disaster. Catherine decided to take matters into her own hands and organized a coup to take him off the throne and become tsarina herself. The coup was successful (and Peter was assassinated by Catherine’s lover a few days later), and Catherine went on to rule Russia for over 30 years.

Closing Thoughts

From Henry VIII’s six wives to Peter III killing innocent mice for his own amusement, some royal husbands aren’t exactly Prince Charming material. These stories make Prince Charles seem like Prince Charming, which is horrifying. Hey, things can always get worse!

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