There is a thin line between love and hate, and if you’ve ever been involved in a passionate relationship that ended suddenly, messily, or smashed your heart into a million tiny pieces, then you get it. Heartbreak is one of life’s guaranteed rites of passage – virtually none of us make it through life without some romantic misadventure. From these trials we learn, we grow, we move on, and we love again. But for some, the experience is so profoundly earth shattering that it makes headlines, grabs the attention of the public, and goes down in history to become legend.
As a Valentine’s treat, we gathered the most intense splits in recorded history – some romantic, some platonic, some political….all epically devastating.
Jason and Medea
One of Greek Mythology’s most infamous power couples! Jason (son of Aeson, king of Iolcos and great-grandson of messenger god Hermes) met Medea (daughter of King Aeëtes of Colchis, granddaughter of sun god Helios, and GRADE-A BADASS) during his attempts to claim his inheritance to the throne through the capturing of the legendary Golden Fleece. Medea fell hard in love with him, and promised to help him on the condition that if he succeeded, he would marry her. Help him she did. Time and time again, obstacle after obstacle. She saved his life several times, and helped him overpower his adversaries. She had his babies. How does he repay her? After some unexpected events in the political landscape, Jason and Medea fled to Corinth, where Jason abandoned Medea for Glauce, the daughter King Creon. BAD CHOICE, DUDE. Medea killed Glauce AND two of their children, then escaped to Athens in a chariot given to her by Helios. Hades hath no fury like a demi-goddess scorned.
Julius Caesar and Pompeia
Politics is a dirty game and for centuries famous politicians and public figures have ended relationships to avoid embarrassment and separate themselves from scandal. Julius Caesar set the standard in this regard when he separated from his second wife Pompeia in 62 BC. Pompeia was hosting a ladies-only, Lilith Fair style religious festival called Bona Dea to celebrate the Goddess of Chastity and Fertility (cue Sarah McLachlan!) Well, a young prankster who definitely was a dude (Publius Clodius Pulcher) disguised himself as a woman, snuck into the Festival, and attempted to seduce Pompeia. Rather than investigate or defend her reputation and honor, Caesar immediately divorced her. Her argued that ‘Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion’. In a classic double standard, he then married the noble Calpurnica and then famously took Queen Cleopatra of Egypt as his mistress. Really classy. The rest is history. Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s….
Recommended Viewing (cut us some slack, only Calpurnia, his third wife, is in any movies, and this pairing shows up later in the list!):
Marc Antony and Octavia
When Antony took Octavia Minor as his fourth wife in October of 40 BC, (sooo many nobles, sooo many spouses!) much of Rome approved. The Roman Republic was at the time governed by a three-man dictatorship known as the Second Triumvirate; Marcus Antonius, a successful general, politician, and friend of Julius Caesar; Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, a Roman general; and Gaius Octavius, Julius Caesar’s grandnephew and heir. When relations between Mark Antony and Octavian became strained, threatening the Triumvirate, Antony wed his co-ruler’s hot older sister, Octavia. It was a good match for both families, and an uneasy peace was established between the two brothers-in-law. THAT IS, UNTIL – Antony turned to his former lover, Queen Cleopatra of Egypt (she definitely had a type…) to provide money and military aid during a series of military campaigns in the east. Apparently they both took that whole “All’s fair in Love and War” thing to heart, and picked up their affair right where it left off five years earlier. Soon Octavian began to publicly criticize Antony accusing him of abandoning Rome, abandoning his family, for being a man of low morals for taking up with another woman, and for disgracing Rome. Antony doubled down, ignored Octavian’s demands that he return to Rome, and stayed with Cleopatra in Alexandria. It was a personal and political scandal of epic proportions, and in 31 BC the two men clashed and Octavian defeated Marc Antony at the Battle of Actium. Antony and Cleopatra fled to Egypt where they both committed suicide, and Octavian subsequently declared himself Augustus, the first Emperor of Rome, ushering in the period known as the Pax Romana. When in Rome…
Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine
As the heir of the House of Poitiers, rulers in southwestern France, Eleanor was one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in western Europe during the High Middle Ages. When her father William X died, she became Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right and one of the most eligible brides in Europe. After putting in a quick fifteen years of marriage to King Louis VII of France, she sought annulment (the union failed to produce sons or win the Second Crusade – can you blame her?). She then married Henry, Duke of Normandy, and future King of England, baby. They had eight children together, and at least half of them were power hungry males who were chomping at the bit to depose their dear old dad. Eleanor helped oldest son, Henry “The Young King”, convince his brothers to join in on the attempted coup against her husband. This did not go so well in the marriage. The uprising didn’t take, Eleanor was arrested and placed under house arrest in England for 16 years, only being released after her estranged hubby’s death and the ascendancy of her eldest surviving son Richard to the throne of England in July 1189. NEVER go against an Aquitanian when lands and titles are on the line!
Henry the VIII and…..Literally Everyone He Ever Met
Where do we even begin? This stubborn, vindictive ass of a man divorced his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, after twenty-four years for having the AUDACITY to not produce a male heir . He threw Catherine out like week-old-meat-pie, he put her through an annulment trial, then banished her to live in exile, refused to let her reunite with their one daughter, Mary Tudor (who he had declared a bastard), until she died in 1536. THAT WAS JUST THE BEGINNING. After Catherine came what is perhaps the most infamous break up of all time – Anne Boleyn. Oh, Henry wanted Anne badly. She refused to become his mistress (learning from her sister’s mistakes), which is why Henry shook heaven and earth to get rid of Catherine. Henry the VIII literally split from the Catholic Church and created his own religious denomination in order to get with her. They eventually did marry in 1533. Three years later, he ordered her head to be chopped off for having the AUDACITY to not produce a male heir – just one daughter, Elizabeth, who would grow up to become one of history’s most celebrated monarchs. Officially, Anne Boleyn was charged with adultery, high treason, and incest. Henry went on to divorce AND behead two more wives (There were 6 total. Shout out to Catherine Parr for surviving him!) The tally doesn’t stop at his wives, either. Henry the VIII’s bromances were equally troubled – he had two of his closest friends and advisors (Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell) beheaded as well. His pettiness knew no bounds. Henry is THE King of the Breakup Hall of Fame.
Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill
Childhood friends, possible lovers, and ultimately political adversaries. Queen Anne (ruler of England from 1702 – 1714) was a prime example of the argument against ‘divine right to rule’. She was shy, lacking in political savvy, and suffered from a myriad of health issues ranging from gout and obesity to reproductive problems that resulted in no less than 17 miscarriages. To make up for her many inadequacies as ruler, she leaned heavily on her best childhood friend. Sarah Churchill was vivacious, cunning, and brilliant, and Anne loved her desperately. History remains unclear as to whether their relationship was purely platonic, or if the Queen’s love ventured into the romantic or sexual. Either way, Anne was co-dependent as all get out, and Sarah benefitted greatly from the relationship. She was named mistress of the robes; groom of the stole; keeper of the privy purse; and ranger of Windsor Great Park. She and her husband, John, were also given new titles—becoming the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough—and granted a handsome pension from Parliament. Additionally, John was made captain-general of the army and granted an Order of the Garter appointment. However, when Sarah’s ambitious cousin, Abigail, came to court, everything began to change. Abigail and Sarah were of vastly different political views (Sarah a Whig and Abigail a Tory) and they competed brutally for Queen Anne’s ear and favor. Sarah, feeling her power slipping, fought dirty in court – threatening blackmail against Anne, spreading rumors about the sexual nature of Abigail and Anne’s relationship, and demanding Abigail be fired. It didn’t work, and eventually Sarah was banished from court for good. Sarah got the last word – she wrote a memoir about her experiences with Anne, and held her ground to the last. – “[W]hen I first became this high favourite, I laid it down for a maxim, that flattery was falsehood to my trust, and ingratitude to my dearest friend.”
Napoleon and Josephine
This is a sad one. In 1796, Napoleon Bonaparte, then a young army officer, married Josephine de Beauharnais, a widow once married to a noble who was guillotined during the Reign of Terror. They adored each other, as evidenced by numerous love letters Napoleon wrote to Josephine while away on military campaigns. Despite infidelities committed by both, they were in it to win it, and worked hard together to become a power couple. In 1804, eight years after their wedding, he was crowned emperor of the French and she was proclaimed empress. However, by November 1809, because she had produced no male heir, Napoleon informed Josephine that they should divorce, leaving him free to remarry (sound familiar?). Broken hearted, Josephine agreed. Napoleon even arranged a ‘divorce ceremony’ to mark the occasion and on January 10, 1810 each read a statement of devotion to the other, Napoleon thanked her for 13 happy years, and their divorce was finalized. Napoleon re-married soon after to 19-year-old Austrian archduchess Marie-Louise, who bore him a son the next year. Despite his divorce from Josephine, Napoleon showed his dedication to her for the rest of his life. When he heard the news of her death while on exile in Elba, he locked himself in his room and would not come out for two full days. In 1821, Napoleon died while still in exile on the island of St. Helena and his final words were said to be: “France, the Army, the Head of the Army, Josephine.” History has a way of repeating itself, MON DIEU!
King Edward VIII and The English Throne
In December 1936, King Edward VIII abdicated the throne, in effect breaking up with Britain, so he could wed Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee with whom he’d been having an affair. The oldest son of King George V and Queen Mary, Edward was proclaimed king in January 1936 following the death of his father. Later that year, when the new monarch informed British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin of his plan to marry Simpson, who’d just been granted a divorce from her second husband, Baldwin tried to talk him out of it, arguing that the Church of England, government officials, and the British people wouldn’t accept a divorced woman as queen. Edward chose love over the crown and became the first English monarch to voluntarily abdicate. On December 11, 1936, he publicly announced his decision during a radio broadcast, stating: “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.” Prince Albert, Edward’s younger brother (and father of Britain’s current queen, Elizabeth) became king and Edward, who became known as the Duke of Windsor, left England. In 1937, he and Simpson married in France. The two spent the rest of their lives mainly on the European continent and in the U.S., and for many years had a strained relationship with the British royal family. However, when Edward died in 1972 he was buried in the cemetery for royals near England’s Windsor Castle; his wife was laid to rest there when she died in 1986. It is worth noting that both Edward and Wallis were pretty cozy with one Adolf Hitler, so don’t go feeling tooooo terrible for them.
Elvis Presley and Priscilla Presley
Hello, American Royalty. The King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Aaron Presley, met Priscilla Ann Wagner in Germany in 1959 while he was stationed there for military service. She was fourteen and he was twenty-four, and that is just the first red flag in what was ultimately a doomed relationship. Before they were married, when she was seventeen, Priscilla’s parents agreed to let her visit him in the US for two weeks on the condition that Elvis pay for a first class round trip, arrange for her to be chaperoned at all times, and that she write home everyday. Elvis agreed. When she arrived in LA, Elvis swept her away to Vegas and simply had her write fake postcards to her parents that would be mailed by members of his staff to throw them off the scent. Quality marriage material, right there. Priscilla eventually moved to the US to go to school and be with him in 1963, and after reported pressure from her parents, they were married in 1967. Shockingly (sarcasm), their marriage was rocked by many affairs and infidelities, and they divorced in 1973. Elvis behaved like a real hound dog’s hound dog, and after all, you really can’t go on together with suspicious minds.
Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor
Dick and Liz did it so well the first time that they got back together and did it again! Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton are THE Hollywood breakup. Arguably the most turbulent public relationship ever, the two met on the set of Cleopatra in 1963 (she played Cleopatra and he played Marc Antony), when they were both already married to other people. At the time, she was married to Eddie Fisher who was her former best friend Debbie Reynolds’ husband (Liz and Eddie got together while Eddie and Debbie were still married), and Richard Burton was married to Sybil Williams, a Welsh actress and theater director. They wed in 1964, divorced 10 years later, then married each other again in 1975. “I think they had fights for the glory of making up,” actor Rod Taylor said of the pair. “It was foreplay to them.” When a Lifetime movie is made about your tumultuous relationship, you KNOW you’ve done the breakup thing right.
Charles, Prince of Wales, and Diana, Princess of Wales
Perhaps no modern relationship, marriage, and split up has garnered the attention and fascination of the world as did that of Charles and Diana, the Prince and Princess of Wales. Charles, the son of Queen Elizabeth II and heir to the British throne, wed the Lady Diana Spencer after a brief six-month engagement. Their wedding on July 29, 1981 was seen by an estimated 750 million people around the world and was hailed as the “Wedding of the Century.” But it was not to be the fairytale existence everyone believed. Diana was nineteen at her engagement and Charles was thirty-one, twelve years her senior. The difference in age, practical experience, and maturity would prove to be a divisive factor in their relationship. During their engagement, Charles was off around the world conducting business on behalf of the Crown while Diana moved into Buckingham Palace. She was isolated, alone, rarely saw her friends and family, and never spoke to her fiancee while he was gone. Coupled with the knowledge that Charles still had feelings for his former love interest, Camilla Parker-Bowles, made for a miserable time for her and she developed an eating disorder that lasted for several years. Once married, he continued to communicate with Camilla. Charles and Diana’s first son, Prince William, was born on June 21, 1982, and Prince Harry was born on September 15, 1984. Despite the outward appearance of a happy family, it was turmoil with Charles’ continuation of his relationship with Camilla, Diana stealing the proverbial spotlight from her husband, the adulation of the public for her, and Diana having affairs of her own. The never-ending pursuit by the press, rumor mills, speculation by the public, and ongoing invasions into their privacy drove their relationship to the breaking point and the marriage was unsalvageable. The couple’s separation was announced in December 1992 and their divorce was finalized on August 28, 1996. It was a heartbreaking experience for the couple and for everyone around the world who had followed them from those first days before they were engaged. Diana was tragically killed in an automobile accident one year later, her star ascending even higher than it had in life. If only she had been able to live happily ever after.
Is there anything more bitter than an epic breakup? And there’s no better way, short of slashing your ex’s tires, to process fury and heartache than blasting a playlist that veers between melancholy and rage; named, to quote famed lover Romeo, “A choking gall”.
Our team curated a fabulous, diverse music playlist for you, our Renaissance Festival aficionados and readers. It’s a mix of styles and moods to help you get in touch with your powerful, recovering side. We’ve collected songs from the second half of the twentieth century to songs that are popular right now, jazz standards to 80s pop to contemporary singer/songwriters.
Click the link to open iTunes in a new tab, or look for us on Spotify or iTunes: LadyFaire: A Choking Gall. Then pour yourself a whiskey, gather all the old photos, and commence to burning them while you listen to artists including Amy Winehouse, Nina Simone, Fleetwood Mac, and The National.
We hope you’ll find a grim satisfaction and weep out all your sorrow, tomorrow’s another day!
Stacy A. Bakri was a performer with the Texas Renaissance Festival for thirteen seasons including nine as the Assistant Director for the Performance Company. She is an Estate Planning and Probate paraprofessional and currently serves as the Artistic Director the Company OnStage Theater in Houston, Texas.