In anticipation of Valentine’s Day, we take a spin through history’s greatest lovers—star crossed, cursed, life-long, and everything in between.Love is a powerful emotion. Throughout history couples in love have caused wars and controversy, created masterpieces in writing, music, and art, and have captured the hearts of the public with the power of their bonds. From the allure of Cleopatra to the magnetism of the Kennedy’s, these love affairs have stood as markers in history. Prepare to swoon over these love stories of the centuries.
Paris and Helen
She was another man’s wife, but when Paris, the “handsome, woman-mad” prince of Troy, saw Helen, the woman whom Aphrodite proclaimed the most beautiful in the world, he had to have her. Helen and Paris ran off together, setting in motion the decade-long Trojan War. According to myth, Helen was half-divine, the daughter of Queen Leda and the God Zeus, who transformed into a swan to seduce the queen. Whether Helen actually existed, we’ll never know, but her romantic part in the greatest epic of all time can never be forgotten. She will forever be “the face that launched a thousand ships.”
Cleopatra and Mark Antony
“Brilliant to look upon and to listen to, with the power to subjugate everyone.” That was the description of Cleopatra, queen of Egypt. She could have had anything or anyone she wanted, but she fell passionately in love with the Roman General Mark Antony. As Shakespeare depicts it, their relationship was volatile (“Fool! Don’t you see now that I could have poisoned you a hundred times had I been able to live without you,” Cleopatra said) but after they risked all in a war on Rome and lost, they chose to die together in 30 BC. “I will be a bridegroom in my death, and run into it as to a lover’s bed,” said Antony. And Cleopatra followed, by clasping a poisonous asp to her breast.
Hadrian and Antinous
We’ve heard of the Wall—no, not that one, the 2nd Century AD one stretching across England—but what about Emperor Hadrian’s heart? He lost it to Antinous (far left), an intelligent and sports-loving Greek student. The emperor displayed “an obsessive craving for his presence.” The two traveled together, pursuing their love of hunting; Hadrian once saved his lover’s life during a lion hunt. The emperor even wrote erotic poetry. While visiting the Nile, Antinous drowned mysteriously, but some say he was murdered by those jealous of the emperor’s devotion. The devastated Hadrian proclaimed Antinous a deity, ordered a city be built in his honor, and named a star after him, between the Eagle and the Zodiac.
Henry II and Rosamund Clifford
The first Plantagenet king of England had a rich, royal wife in Eleanor of Aquitaine and mistresses galore, but the love of his life was “Fair Rosamund,” also called the “Rose of the World.” To conceal their affair, Henry built a love nest in the innermost recesses of a maze in his park at Woodstock. Nonetheless, the story has it that Queen Eleanor did not rest until she found the labyrinth and traced it to the center, where she uncovered her ravishing rival. The queen offered her death by blade or poison. Rosamund chose the poison. Perhaps not coincidentally, Henry kept Eleanor confined in prison for 16 years of their marriage.
Dante and Beatrice
Rarely has a woman served as such profound inspiration for a writer—and yet he barely knew her. The Italian poet Dante Alighieri wrote passionately of Beatrice in the Divine Comedy and other poems, but only met the object of his affection twice. The first time, he was nine years old and she was eight. The second time, they were adults, and while walking on the street in Florence, Beatrice, an emerald-eyed beauty, turned and greeted Dante before continuing on her way. Beatrice died at age 24 in 1290 without Dante ever seeing her again. Nonetheless, she was “the glorious lady of my mind,” he wrote, and “she is my beatitude, the destroyer of all vices and the queen of virtue, salvation.”
Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII
When the Tudor king fell for a young lady-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn, who possessed eyes “black and beautiful,” he was long married to a Spanish princess. But Anne refused to be a royal mistress, and the king rocked the Western world to win his divorce and make Anne queen. Ambassadors could not believe how enslaved the king was by his love for Anne. “This accursed Anne has her foot in the stirrup,” complained the Spanish emissary. To comprehend the king’s passion, one need only read his 16th century love letters, revealing his torment over how elusive she remained: “I beg to know expressly your intention touching the love between us…having been more than a year wounded by the dart of love, and not yet sure whether I shall fail or find a place in your affection.” (Their love affair ended when he had her beheaded.)
Louis XV of France and Madame de Pompadour
In 1730, a Parisian prophetess told a nine-year-old girl she would rule the heart of a king. Years later, at a masked ball, Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, dressed as a domino, danced with King Louis XV, dressed as a tree. Within weeks, the delicate beauty was maîtresse-en-titre, given the title Marquise de Pompadour. “Any man would have wanted her as his mistress,” said another male admirer. The couple indulged in their love of art, furniture, and porcelain, with Madame de Pompadour arranging for her jaded royal lover small dinner parties and amateur theatricals in which she would star (of course). While watching one play, Louis XV declared, “You are the most delicious woman in France,” before sweeping her out of the room.
John and Abigail Adams
Abigail Smith married the Founding Father at age 20, gave birth to five children (including America’s fifth president, John Quincy Adams), and was John Adams’s confidante, political advisor, and First Lady. The more than 1,000 letters they wrote to each other offer a window into John and Abigail’s mutual devotion and abiding friendship. It was more than revolutionary political ideals that kept them so united; they shared a trust and abiding tenderness. Abigail wrote: “There is a tye more binding than Humanity, and stronger than Friendship … and by this chord I am not ashamed to say that I am bound, nor do I [believe] that you are wholly free from it.” As for John, he wrote: “I want to hear you think, or see your Thoughts. The Conclusion of your Letter makes my Heart throb, more than a Cannonade would. You bid me burn your Letters. But I must forget you first.”
Mary Godwin Shelley and Percy Shelley
When the young Romantic poet Percy Shelley met Mary Godwin, she was the teenage daughter of a famous trailblazing feminist, the long-dead Mary Wollstonecraft. The two of them shared a love of the mind—”Soul meets soul on lovers’ lips,” he wrote—but physical desire swept them away too, consummated near the grave of Mary’s mother. When they ran away to Europe, it caused a major scandal, but the couple proclaimed themselves indifferent to judgment. “It was acting in a novel, being an incarnate romance,” she later said. They traveled together to visit the debauched Lord Byron, and Mary wrote Frankenstein during two weeks in Switzerland. After Percy died in a boating accident in 1822, Mary never remarried. She said having been married to a genius, she could not marry a man who wasn’t one.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning
Elizabeth Barrett was an accomplished and respected poet in poor health (and nearly 40 years old) when Robert Browning wrote to her: “I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett,” and praising their “fresh strange music, the affluent language, the exquisite pathos and true new brave thought.” They courted in secret because of her family’s disapproval. She wrote, “I am not of a cold nature, & cannot bear to be treated coldly. When cold water is thrown upon a hot iron, the iron hisses.” They married in 1846, living among fellow writers and artists for the rest of her life. When she died, it was in Robert Browning’s arms.
John Keats and Fanny Brawne
The celebrated young poet’s romance with his neighbor, Fanny Brawne, sparked what is probably his most famous poem “Bright Star”, though the relationship was fraught with jealousy. Brawne was a precocious and flirtatious young woman, Keats a fiercely overzealous bard. The two clashed as often as they coalesced, but the full requisition of their love was hindered by Keats’ lack of money and his illness. Bedridden by tuberculosis, which he contracted from his late brother and mother, Keats yearned in envy over his coquettish Brawne, whose frivolous nature marred her love for the young poet and subsequently aggravated his wellbeing. Though engaged to Brawne, Keats had to end the engagement in an effort to get well in Rome. He died there not long after his arrival, his romance to remain unrequited.
Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas
For nearly 40 years, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas were inseparable, famous for their literary salon in Paris, which was frequented by Picasso, T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and many more. When Toklas (far left) first met Stein, she wrote, “It was Gertrude Stein who held my complete attention, as she did for all the many years I knew her until her death, and all these empty ones since them. She was a golden brown presence, burned by the Tuscan sun and with a golden glint in her warm brown hair.” Their love gained international fame after Stein published The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Wrote Stein, “One must dare to be happy.”
Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo
The talented young Mexican painter Kahlo paid a visit to the studio of famous muralist Rivera in search of career advice. “She had unusual dignity and self-assurance and there was a strange fire in her eyes,” he said. Theirs was a volatile relationship, yet Rivera knew from early on that Kahlo “was the most important fact in my life and she would continue to be until she died 27 years later.” As for Kahlo, she said, “You deserve a lover who listens when you sing, who supports you when you feel shame and respects your freedom; who flies with you and isn’t afraid to fall. You deserve a lover who takes away the lies and brings you hope, coffee, and poetry.”
Wallis Simpson and King Edward VIII
When Edward VIII fell in love with American divorcée Wallis Simpson it was an affair shocked a nation and threw Britain’s monarch into a constitutional crisis. Due to strong opposition from the church and government over their marriage, Edward chose to abdicate the throne. He famously proclaimed his love for Simpson as he addressed the nation in 1936. “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,” he said in his abdication speech. Choosing love over kingship, the Duke of Windsor spent most of his life outside the royal family as the couple married and settled in France. Note: Years later it was revealed in previously hidden German Documents that not only did Simpson and the Duke of Windsor have Nazi associations, but there were also plans for the Germans to re-install him as King after they invaded the U.K.
Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward
Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward met during the production of Picnic and shortly married after filming the movie The Long, Hot Summer. Unlike most on-set Hollywood romances, Newman and Woodward were happily devoted to one another for fifty years. When asked about his marriage to Woodward and infidelity, Newman was famously responded, “I have a steak at home. Why should I go out for hamburger?” The couple traded the California spotlight for Westport, Connecticut, where they raised their family and remained until Paul Newman’s death in 2008.
Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier of Monaco
In the wedding of the century, American film star Grace Kelly left Hollywood behind at the height of her career to wed Prince Rainier and become Princess of Monaco. Prince Rainier was immediately taken with Grace, whom he met when she filmed To Catch a Thief in the French Riviera. He courted her through letters for some time before the couple announced their engagement in the Kelly family’s Philadelphia home and married in 1956. Prince Rainier never remarried after Grace’s tragic death in 1982.
Johnny Cash and June Carter
There isn’t a more iconic country music love story than that between Johnny Cash and June Carter. Both stars in their own right, the two met backstage at the famed Grand Ole Opry. When first meeting Cash, Carter supposedly told him, “I feel like I know you already.” The couple went on to tour together and fell in love, eventually marrying in 1968. Cash credited Carter with helping him recover from drug addiction, further solidifying their bond. The couple shared two Grammys, along with two solo Grammys for Carter and 11 for Cash. The both had storied careers and welcomed one son. The happy couple stayed together their whole lives and died within just four months of each other. It’s clear that this love was true – when once asked for his definition of paradise, Cash stated plainly, “this morning, with her, having coffee.”
Carolyn Bessette and John F. Kennedy Jr.
Carolyn Bessette and John F. Kennedy Jr. married in a secret ceremony on a small island in Georgia, indicative of their desire to keep their relationship private from the feigning press and public attention. The couple tried as much as they could to live a normal life out of their Tribeca apartment and with any normal marriage they had ups and downs. “They would love hard, and they would fight hard,” said a friend of the couples, Ariel Paredes. It was evident the love was there and as public attention mounted Carolyn and JFK Jr. became an iconic duo. Sadly, their love was cut short when the couple tragically died on July 16, 1999 in a plane crash over the Atlantic ocean.
Amal and George Clooney
George Clooney was Hollywood’s self-proclaimed bachelor of many decades, making his whirlwind love story with British human rights lawyer even more sweet. The two were introduced by a friend and soon after began exchanging emails that George comically penned as his dog Einstein. After six months of dating George proposed to the song, ‘Why Shouldn’t I?’ while making dinner. “It’s a really good song about why can’t I be in love?,” said George. The couple balances Amal’s career as a human rights lawyer, George’s acting, and their two twins, Ella and Alexander.
Meghan Markle and Prince Harry
It was a love story that captured hearts around the world when Meghan Markle and Prince Harry wed in May 2018. Their life as a couple began in November 2017, when Harry popped the question while the two were roasting a chicken at their apartment in Kensington Palace. Since then, their fairytale has been untraditional, to say the least, but the love shared between the happy couple is clear. As they begin to carve out their new royal roles, amid much controversy, it remains certain that the couple cares deeply about each other and their adorable son, Archie. It’s hard to know what the future holds, but it seems like Meghan and Harry will take it all on together.