Violets are blue, I don’t want our arranged marriage, so I’m having you exiled and imprisoned and yes, I’m willing to go to war over it. The story of Blanche of Bourbon and Pedro the Cruel is hardly the stuff Hallmark cards are made of. You’d be able to guess that when one of parties carries the moniker “the cruel.” 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 the sixteen-year-old French princess. The two were wed with great pomp and ceremony. On the *third day, the groom had his bride spirited away and locked up so he could return to his mistress, with whom he had ten children. What can I say? Love hurts.
Today is Tuesday February 12, which means it’s two days until Valentine’s day, or as we call it around our house, Bob Liberation Day, in honor of the date my husband’s divorce from his first wife was finalized with the courts. Some of us have a love story for the ages, but not for the reasons we would have wanted. Today, we’re looking at some of history’s worst break-ups or generally most toxic relationships. There will be talk of very bad behavior and reference to mental health.
These two literary figures of the romantic era were two people who seemingly got more pleasure from breaking up than they got from their relationship. In 1812, Caroline Lamb, the aristocratic wife of future British prime minister William Lamb, embarked on a tempestuous public affair with the celebrated English poet George Gordon Byron, whom she described as “mad, bad and dangerous to know.” Byron described Lamb as “the cleverest, most agreeable, absurd, amiable, perplexing, dangerous, fascinating little being that lives.” Byron shot to stardom with his narrative poem “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” published in 1812, and went on to become a major figure in the Romantic movement. Their relationship lasted less than a year, but what it lacked in length, it made up for in gestures. Byron gave lamb a gold locket; she gave him a lock of hair. Pubic hair. In September, Lamb’s husband, William, took her to Ireland, but it did little to quell the obsession.
Lamb wanted a miniature painting of Byron that was in the possession of his publisher, John Murray. So she forged a letter from Byron that said Lamb could take whatever painting she liked. The forgery was so convincing that when she gave the letter to Murray, he gave her the painting, no questions asked. Byron was not pleased. After months of negotiations, Lamb agreed to give back the painting for a lock of Byron’s hair. Byron agreed to this—but instead of sending his own hair, he sent a lock of his new girlfriend’s hair. Lamb bought the ruse, and sent the painting back.
But that wasn’t the end of it. Lamb burned Byron in effigy, classic. Both Lamb and Byron used their split as an opportunity to exercise all of their angry feelings for a long, long time after the breakup. They both got pretty into it. Lamb remained seemingly obsessed with her former paramour and spread rumors that he was having an affair with his half-sister, Augusta, who in 1814 gave birth to a child alleged to have been fathered by the poet. In 1816, following a brief, disastrous marriage to William Lamb’s cousin, Annabella Milbanke, the scandal-tinged Byron (who over the course of his life became notorious for his many affairs) left England permanently. That same year, Lamb published a novel, “Glenarvon,” which was loosely based on her relationship with the literary bad boy. He wrote mean things about the tell-all book she wrote about him later, saying it wasn’t so much a ‘kiss-and-tell’ as it was a ‘— and publish.’” In 1824, the 36-year-old Byron died from illness in modern-day Greece, where he’d gone to help support the war for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire. Lamb, who published several novels after “Glenarvon,” died four years later.
Think of how bad the average person can be during a break-up, then imagine that person with nearly-unchallenged power over half of the known world. Emperor Nero and Poppaea Sabina make today’s philandering politicians look tame. Picture a Roman version of Christina Hendricks, add in wealth and wit, and you have Poppaea. Naturally, the Roman emperor Nero decided that she was his soul mate. Don’t worry about the fact that Nero was married to someone else; he didn’t. So he married Poppaea off to his friend Otho to keep her near at hand, hoping that Otho would be too busy with other women to pay much attention to her. Mistake. Otho fell in love with Poppaea. Nero was not allowed in their house and was reduced to begging outside to see Poppaea. Otho was banished to Lusitania, leaving Poppaea able to marry again. However, Nero still had that pesky wife. He eventually divorced her, and when the public objected, he had her killed, making room for Poppaea and Nero to get together. They had a daughter, who died shortly after being born. You’ll probably be shocked to hear that their relationship was temptestuous and short-lived. This was Nero after all. Roman emporers were a zany lot, so you know someone who stands out from that crowd cannot be desribed as well-adjusted. One night, after Nero had been at the races and brothels, Poppaea, who was pregnant at the time, began yelling at him. The argument turned physical and Nero stomped Poppaea to death. He was equally twisted in his mourning, castrating a slave boy name Sporus who looked like Poppaea and using him as a stand-in, even marrying the slave. When Nero died, an ambitituous politican seized Sporus as a trapping of the throne, though he was killed by his own guards before he could make a real play for the empire. Sporus was then forced to marry Otho, Poppaea’s ex, who kiled himself after eing emporor for only three months. Sprous then became the property of emperor Vitellius, but rather than treating Sporus as a wife, Vitellius treated him a an undesireable hold-over of hs predecessor. Vitellius humilited Sporus in public, even planning a public spectacle at his expense in the arena, but Sporus had undertandably had enough and committed suicide.
Before investing your heart, soul and furniture into a relationship, look at how your ew partner is about their exes. If their relationship history could be summed up as “Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived,” maybe don’t move in with them. Yeah, there was no way of doing this epiode without Henry VIII. Henry VIII was an accomplished theologian and accomplished musician, and is considered the father of the English Navy, among other things. But if you ask someone today what they know about him, the only thing someone will remember is that he chopped off his wife’s head. Henry VIII famously wed his way through six wives. Two of the unlucky brides lost their heads: Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard.
Henry had broken from the Catholic Church to annul his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon, and wed Anne, who he had been seeing for six years and was already pregnant with their daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth I. When Anne didn’t conceive the son and heir Henry wanted, Anne was charged with incest, witchcraft, adultery and conspiracy, and sentenced to death. On the scaffolding, moments before her execution, Anne spoke with poise and mercy, maintaining that Henry was the “godliest, noblest, and gentlest prince that is” and asking Jesus to save him. How many of our exes would do that?
Speaking of Henry, VIII’s ancestor Henry II’s marriage deserved inclusion here. Eleanor of Aquitaine already had one wedding under her belt (an annulled marriage to French king Louis VII) when she married Henry of Anjou in 1152; two years later, he became Henry II, King of England. 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. Although their marriage produced five sons and three daughters, the relationship suffered from arguments, ambivalence, and Henry’s rampant philandering. They separated in 1167, and, in 1173, Eleanor supported three of her sons in open revolt against Henry. Whether for political reasons – namely, Eleanor wanted to have more charge of her own hereditary lands – or because of Henry’s long-standing mistress, Rosamund de Clifford, Eleanor urged her sons to war against their father more than once. They didn’t win and Eleanor found herself under house arrest, i.e. locked in a tower, where she remained until his death in 1189. Maybe sparing her life was proof of Henry’s 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. Bonus break-up: Henry’s infidelities caused more than one relationship issue, as he allegedly slept with his son Richard’s fiancée, seriously straining relations between himself and Richard, who would go on t be called Lionheart, as well as between himself and the fiancee’ father, the king of France.
Although Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine’s marriage certainly contained more passion, Isabella and Edward II’s had a 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 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, had his father imprisoned, where he likely met his death, though many tales have been told about this. Whether Edward II was killed via a hot poker. The same legendary fate as Peter the Great, died by starvation, or escaped to live out his life in hiding, his marriage to Isabella was an utter disaster by anyone’s standards.
Old timey times had royalty of bloodline, but in America, our royals are celebrities, especially of the Hollywood variety. Me, I don’t do celebrity stuff, so I tagged two friends of mine, Erik and James from the Fan Theory World podcast to help me out.
Thanks, guys. Be sure to check out their show for fan theories ranging from the engaging plausible to the downright bizarre. They were enough nice enough to have me on to talk Game of Thrones, another bastion of unhealthy relationships.
When Gustav Mahler died in 1911, his widow Alma first sought comfort in the arms of her already-lover Walter Gropius. However, Alma still resented Gropius for “intentionally” mis-addressing an envelope and thus exposed their affair to Gustav, so she engaged in a brief but passionate affair with a Viennese biologist. He turned out to be a rather possessive, with an unseemly morbid streak, so she turned her attention to the young and highly eccentric painter Oskar Kokoschka. Kokoschka was a key figure in the development of Expressionism and an accomplished dramatist. But he was also volatile, angry, aggressive and violent.
They first met in 1912, when Kokoschka spontaneously produced a drawing of Alma while she was playing the piano. Hours later he asked her to become his wife, an offer she politely declined. Nevertheless, their unbridled passion over the next 3 years was only interrupted when Alma posed as a model for his paintings. One painting was featured at the 26th Exhibition of the Berlin Secession in the spring of 1913. Walter Gropius was one of the organizers of the event, and we might well imagine his surprise at seeing his lover publically holding hands with Kokoschka. Gropius had always suspected that Alma was keeping secrets about her relationship with Kokoschka, but being confronted by the truth in such a public way affected him deeply. I know a girl who basically did this, I’ll tell you about it someday.
Kokoschka was plagued by obsessive jealousy. He waited until 4 in the morning outside her apartment to make sure that no one sneaked out in the dead of night. Alma had reverently arranged a number of her photographs around a bust of her late husband Gustav Mahler’s head, and Kokoschka would passionately kiss the photographs to spite Gustav. Even Kokoschka’s mother got involved, writing to Alma, “If you see Oskar again, I’ll shoot you dead!” They still were unable to control themselves. After emotionally tumultuous trips to the Swiss Alps and Naples, Kokoschka fashioned his most famous painting of their relationship. Die “Windsbraut” (The Tempest) shows the lovers side by side sheltering from a ferocious storm. Alma looks peaceful and content, but Kokoschka’s face shows signs of worry. Maybe he finally realized that his relationship with Alma was unsustainably unhealthy.
Things got even more complicated when Alma became pregnant with his child, but her decision to terminate the pregnancy drove abort caused a depression that Kokoschka addressed by volunteering for the front lines in WW I, where he was seriously wounded in Russia in 1915. Meanwhile, Gropius was recovering in a Berlin hospital from his own war wounds. Alma rushed to his side and they married later that year. The news devastated Kokoschka, who took another non-standard approach to his emotions. He ordered a life-size doll from a Munich doll-maker. The doll was to resemble Alma in every little detail, including “the incipient hollows and wrinkles that are important to me. Please make it possible that my sense of touch will be able to take pleasure in those parts where the layers of fat and muscle suddenly give way to a sinuous covering of skin.” The final product, rather predictably, didn’t live up to Kokoschka’s desires. He writes, “After I had drawn it and painted it over and over again, I decided to do away with it. It had managed to cure me completely of my passion. So I gave a big champagne party with chamber music, during which my maid Hulda exhibited the doll in all its beautiful clothes for the last time. When dawn broke—I was quite drunk, as was everyone else—I beheaded it out in the garden and broke a bottle of red wine over its head.” His expressionist drama Orpheus and Eurydice of 1918 also reflects his failure of his love for Alma. It was set to music by Alma’s son-in-law Ernst Krenek as an opera in three acts, Op. 21. Kokoschka was Orpheus, Alma was Eurydice, and Anna Mahler was Psyche. And wouldn’t you know it, Gustav Mahler appeared as Pluto, god of the Underworld.
This is a really hard episode to segue into my Patreon spiel, so that was the pivot right there, I hope you liked it. The day this episodes comes out is the last day to get in on the special offer at patreon.com/YBOF. Joining at *any tier gets you a custom laser-cut keychain made by the aforementioned husband Bob and *two bonus mini-sodes a month. One came out a few days ago, on the sordid and absurd history of putting animals on trial. The donation-sharing plan will continue after the special offer. After I’ve met my goal to cover expenses, I begin to share your member contributions with people who make free resources for creators like myself and with charities suggested by our patrons, so there’s never a bad time to join.
No matter how good you are at writing books, it doesn’t really give you a free pass to go around stabbing people. In 1960, Norman Mailer and Adele Morales threw a party where Mailer announced his intention to run for mayor of New York City. That night, Mailer was drinking heavily and wearing a ruffled bullfighter shirt. He began challenging people to step outside and start fighting. He returned to the party with a black eye, bragging about how he was one of the greatest writers the world had ever known. Adele replied that he was “no Dostoyevsky” and dared him to come at her, insulting him in very colorful and graphic language. Mailer responded by grabbing a penknife and stabbing her in the chest, then the back, telling the rest of the crowd to leave her to die.
Adele eventually received medical care and a divorce; the rest of her life was spent in poverty. Mailer got off without criminal charges or even much damage to his reputation, a gendered double-standard that feels frustratingly familiar. “Male writers, especially male writers during the 1960s,” writes Jennifer Wright, author of It Ended Badly, “somehow tricked people into thinking that they were demigods because they had an understanding of language. Breakups are still terrible, she says, but these days “nobody’s going to get beheaded by their spouse — at least not legally.”
Jennifer Wright’s silver medal choice for a bad medieval break-up is that of the marriage between two powerful Italian families, the Sforza’s and the Borgia’s. Lucrezia Borgia, yes that one, 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 some convincing evidence to the contrary, namely his illegitimate children, and refused. That’s when the mudslinging started. Giovanni spread rumours claiming Lucrezia was sleeping with her father and brothers, papacy notwithstanding. Under intense pressure (i.e. death threats), Giovanni caved and agreed to the annulment 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 decided not to get bogged down in details and proceed as though she wasn’t pregnant, essentially daring anyone to bring it up. And it totally worked. The marriage was annulled on the grounds that Giovanni was impotent and Lucrezia was a virgin.
And that’s where…
When Olinka Vištica, a film producer, and Dražen Grubišić, a sculptor, broke up in 2003 after four years together, they had accumulated enough stuff to fill a museum. Three years later, they decided to actually make one. They asked friends to contribute their own failed relationship artifacts and curated an exhibit in their hometown of Zagreb, Croatia.
The exhibit eventually toured the world, collecting cast-off mementos, love letters, and forget-me-nots, along the way. In 2010, the Museum of Broken Relationships settled in a permanent spot in Zagreb’s Upper Town neighborhood. It was awarded the 2011 Kenneth Hudson Award for being the most innovative museum in Europe.