13 lessons in love from the most famous couples in history
Unfortunately we were unable to contact any of the folks in this list for comment, largely on account of them all being dead, and so instead we have simply explored the ups and downs of their relationships in order to discover what links them. Perhaps, by paying a visit to loves long past, we can learn how to build successful relationships in the present.
Plus, everyone loves a good romance!
The 13 Most Famous Couples in History: Timeline
Adam and Eve (The Dawn of Time)
Before they were immortalised with their induction into Cockney rhyming slang, Adam and Eve were, according to the Bible, the first man and woman in existence. Despite being the first ever couple, they suffered just as many troubles as any pairing you’ll find on modern TV shows featuring celebrity couples hurling accusations of infidelity at each other on pristine white beaches. Adam and Eve’s troubles were less ‘omg you kissed Brad’ and more ‘omg we ate the Forbidden Fruit and doomed humanity’, however, so perhaps it’s not an entirely fair comparison.
Cleopatra and Mark Antony (c.30BC)
Has there ever been such a delightfully juicy love story? The tale of Mark Antony and Cleopatra has it all – passion, infidelity, political intrigue, and loads of stabbing. The full extent of their love affair is, as was seemingly everything in Ancient Rome, too convoluted to explain without several charts, a stack of character cards, and a laser pointer. Instead, we shall summarise thusly:
Cleopatra had an affair with Ceasar, until he got stabbed to bits. Cleo then fell in love with Antony. His wife found out, but then she died. Antony married someone else for political reasons, Cleo got wind of this while pregnant by Antony but forgave him. War broke out in the Empire, Antony sided with Cleopatra, was misinformed she had died, so took his own life in despair. Cleo heard this and killed herself too, via cobra bite. And you think your love life is messy.
Heloise and Abelard (1115AD – 1164AD)
Abelard, a philosopher, and Heloise, a bright young student, tumble helplessly into a forbidden romance in 12th century Paris: the seminal love story.
The philosopher and his student flee the city when she falls pregnant, are tricked by the student’s lecherous uncle into coming out of hiding, the philosopher is castrated by cronies of said wicked uncle, the student is forced to give up her baby, and in order to avoid further chaos, both student and teacher take holy vows and join the church: less so.
The pair exchanged letters for the rest of their lives, and at a chance meeting in Paris decades later, declared their undying love for one another, and though they never met again, their love endured ever after – probably the happiest ending you’re going to find on this unintentionally macabre list. Sorry!
Henry VIII and Catherine Parr (1543 - 1547)
While Anne Boleyn is arguably the most famous of Henry VIII’s wives, he did order her head chopped off with a big axe, and this event slightly overshadows any romance their relationship may have entailed. Catherine Parr takes the top spot over the mad-for-divorcing king for the simple fact that, unlike pretty much all of her predecessors, she got off scot free. Plus, she gets bonus points for outliving three successive husbands. Three!
Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal (1607–1631)
Although Western society may not instantly recall Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal as one of the most famous couples in history, their whirlwind romance is incredibly well known in India.
In 1607, the young prince Jahan was wandering through a marketplace when he first glimpsed the daughter of a noble family, Mumtaz Mahal, and fell instantly and irrevocably in love, as people in ye olden days tended to do. They were betrothed for five years, and married in 1612. Shah did amass two or three other wives during this period, but of all his wives, he only loved Mumtaz; the other marriages were political. At least that’s Shah’s spin on things.
The royal sweethearts were much loved by the people of the Mughal Empire, and when, 24 years and 14 (fourteen!) children later, Mumtaz died, Jahan ordered two years of mourning be observed and had the Taj Mahal, one of the seven wonders of the world, constructed in her honour.
Shah Jahan: making boyfriends look bad since 1607.
Napoleon and Josephine (1795 – 1810)
What’s an old-timey love story without a light sprinkling of adultery? In the case of Napoleon and Josephine, Emperor and Empress of France in the early nineteenth century, it was less of an April shower of adultery and more of a tropical deluge. Early on in their relationship, their romance was fierce, with a lusty Napoleon penning letters to Josephine composed of such poetry as, “I awake full of you. Your image and the memory of last night’s intoxicating pleasures has left no rest to my senses.”
However, while Napoleon was away conquering Italy and whatnot, Josephine began an affair with a handsome young lieutenant; the brilliantly-named Hippolyte. Napoleon was understandably peeved when he caught wind of the affair, and subsequently had a few of his own, and eventually remarried. Nonetheless, even after they divorced, Napoleon insisted that Josephine retain the title of Empress of France, saying "It is my will that she retain the rank and title of empress, and especially that she never doubt my sentiments, and that she ever hold me as her best and dearest friend." N’aww.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (1840 – 1861)
Before he bestowed his name upon the popular piercing, Prince Albert was married to Queen Victoria for 21 years. After centuries of royals running amok, having affairs and being generally unpresentable, Queen Victoria was the monarch to bring some respectability back to Buckingham Palace. Together, Victoria and Albert projected an image of happy coupledom that the public could aspire to, and the royals became well respected and loved once more. When Albert passed away, Queen Victoria embraced her inner goth and wore black for the next 40 years.
Marie and Pierre Curie (1895 –1906)
As many EliteSingles articles have previously suggested, sharing a hobby with your lover is a fantastic way to feel close and connected. And if that shared passion happens to be revolutionising the world of medicine, winning two Nobel prizes, and making huge advances in cancer treatment? All the better. Marie and Pierre Curie were history’s ultimate tag team, giving a good shoeing not only to cancer through their discoveries in radiology, but also to the sexist scientific community, who opposed Marie’s work on account of her being a woman.
Though Marie’s career was soundtracked by the grumblings of many portly old intellectuals with big white beards, the Curies simply shrugged it off and got on with making yet more incredible advances in medicine. The couple’s mixture of science and romance is epitomised by the fact that the blue wedding dress Marie married Pierre in functioned as her lab coat thereafter.
Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas (1907-1946)
Alice B Tolkas met Stein on the very first day she arrived in Paris from America, and the two shacked up more or less immediately. Their home at 27 rue de Fleurus was famous for being a hub of budding artistic and literary characters, and of all the couples on this list, the story of Stein and Toklas is perhaps the least convoluted/adulterous/blood-soaked: they pretty much just hung out together and loved each other. Who knew it could be so simple?
Toklas was Stein’s lifelong muse, and on nights when she would stay up late writing, she would leave love notes for Toklas on her pillow. After many years of being generally ignored by critics and publishers (despite her knack for guiding other writers to fame) with the 1933 publication of her book ‘The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas’, the lovers became famous.
Bonnie and Clyde (1930-1934)
Morrissey once famously warbled “to die by your side, well the pleasure, the privilege is mine”. Bonnie and Clyde are the only couple on this list to have achieved that most aspired-to romantic feat. The archetypal partners in crime, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker set the imagination of 1930’s America on fire with a string of robberies and shoot-outs, before they were eventually caught and machine gunned to smithereens.
Perhaps we should avoid romanticising them too much, because their gang did kill quite a lot of people. Regardless, the beautiful young lovers on the run from the law continue to inspire almost a century later.
Robert Capa and Gerda Taro (1935 – 1937)
Capa and Taro met in Paris, where they had both moved to flee the rise of fascism, and soon fell in love. Sharing a passion for photography and a thirst for adventure, the pair embarked on an illustrious career together as war photographers. Travelling across Europe together, their love affair only lasted for two years, but together they gained a reputation as two of the greatest war photographers of all time. Their rise to fame probably wasn’t hindered by the fact that they were both sultry, dark haired knock-outs, either.
Their love was tragically short lived: they both died young, one of the hazards of sprinting around warzones with a camera.
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King (1951 - 1968)
Long before they would alter history as the leaders the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr and Coretta Scott King met on their university campus. Dr King fondly recalled their first ever conversation as “about the question of racial and economic injustice and the question of peace. After an hour, my mind was made up.”
Apparently not one for taking it slow, Dr King told Coretta in their first conversation that he wanted to marry her. As most people might do when proposed to by a stranger, Coretta gently rebuked Dr King, saying she hardly knew him. However, the two would tie the knot a year later.
The tumultuous period of the civil rights movement brought many challenges for the couple, not least an FBI audio recording of Dr King allegedly committing adultery, as part of a government smear campaign. It is unknown whether the tape was fabricated, and despite this the couple maintained a close, loving bond.
Johnny Cash and June Carter (1968 – 2003)
Sometimes, there are couples who just seem destined for each other. Johnny and June’s relationship began after they met backstage at a show. They were both married at the time, and a smitten Cash attempted to woo June over the subsequent years, even as it led to the collapse of his own marriage. June was a calming presence in the wilder period of Cash’s life, playing the angel to his internal demons. Cash proposed live onstage in 1968, and June said yes (duh).
After 45 years married, Johnny and June passed away just 3 months apart; a fitting and romantic end for an iconic musical duo, and one of the most famous couples in history.
We set out in this article to see what some of the most famous couples in history could teach us about relationships, and there you have it: if you’ve ever made an utter dunce of yourself in the name of love, take solace in the fact that literally every person ever, from Cleopatra to Napoleon Bonaparte, has at some lost all control and done something unfathomably stupid when bitten by the love bug (or in Cleopatra’s case, a big snake).
If there are lessons to learn from the romances of history’s most famed couples, it’s that love makes fools of us all and, in reality, perfect relationships don’t exist. By examining some of humanity’s most enduring love stories, history can teach us that lasting love grows from mutual support and shared passion, forgiveness, growth, laughter, and understanding. You just need to sift through all the murdering first.