Scandals in History: 4 Shocking Secret Marriages

Scandals in history are often centred around relationships, especially illicit sex or secret marriages. It could sometimes be a way to destroy a rival, or could be driven by love. Today we’re going to look at four secret marriages that caused a scandal in the 15th and early 16th centuries.

Marriage has always been seen as an important milestone in a woman’s life. Although now it’s expected that the couple getting married love each other, that’s not always been the case: the purpose of marriage was to create children.

For women in history, marriage was the point where she became a woman proper; it was a chance to run a household, have a family. In a world where career choices were limited and survival as a single woman incredibly difficult, it was a big life decision to make.

It was also something that your family was interested and involved in. Families wanted their children to be happy and settled, and so tried not to marry them off to someone they hated (for the most part, anyway).

However, choice of spouse had an impact on more than just your personal happiness. It was also vital for a woman to take into consideration whether your husband could actually provide and take care of you, and any children you might have. With no welfare state, local parishes could end up responsible for destitute families – which is something they really did not want to do.

Equally, your marriage would form long-term bonds with other families in the local community, whether it was a small rural village, or the royal court. Building ties with other families would have social or financial impacts, so it was important for the family of any prospective bride to consider.

And finally, it was important to marry well, as in, someone who would either maintain or elevate your own status and that of your family.


People are people: reckless; foolhardy; romantic; falling in love in places they shouldn’t. And the royal family in the 15th and 16th century were no exceptions to the rule.

We begin with Jacquetta of Luxembourg, and trace the secret and scandalous marriages of her descendants through the Wars of the Roses and the early Tudor period to her great-granddaughter, Princess Mary Tudor.

Scandals in history: 4 shocking secret royal marriages

Scandals in history: secret royal marriages

Jacquetta of Luxembourg

The first of our scandals in history features Jacquetta of Luxembourg, who boasted an impressive lineage of counts, princesses and kings. As a teenager, she married John of Lancaster, the Duke of Bedford, who was incredibly wealthy and, as the uncle to the child King Henry VI, very powerful. However, he was also a lot older than his wife, and he died after just two years of marriage.

This left Jacquetta a young, childless, and very rich widow. She had been left a third of the Duke’s lands and had been granted the lands from her dowry to live off, which would set her up very nicely – but on one condition: that she did not remarry without explicit permission from the king.

Sir Richard Woodville was young, handsome and had served as the Duke of Bedford’s chamberlain. In a foreshadowing of the events of his great-granddaughter’s life, he was sent to France to bring a beautiful, out-of-his-league-in-every-way widow back to England. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the two fell in love, and soon married secretly.

Initially, Henry VI was furious when he found out, and refused to see them. However once Jacquetta and Richard forked up an eye-watering sum of £1000, funnily enough he found space in his heart to soften towards them.

As a Duchess, Jacquetta’s place in society was far superior to Richard’s, but their marriage was long, happy and successful. She continued to be known as Duchess, as it was tradition to be known by the highest rank you’d achieved, while her husband moved up the ranks due to his hard work and loyalty to the King.

However, this is only the start of the story, as Richard’s low birth would later impact upon another marriage and other, far-reaching scandals in history: that of his infamous daughter, Elizabeth Woodville.

Elizabeth Woodville

Elizabeth is by far the most infamous of the four women, but she is also the only exception, as she is the only one who didn’t marry beneath her – instead she caused a scandal by stepping up from the gentry, into the role of queen.

Elizabeth’s first marriage was to a man of similar rank, Sir John Grey of Groby. They had two sons together, but Elizabeth was left widowed when John was killed in battle, fighting for King Henry VI in the Wars of the Roses.

In the same year as John’s death, her future husband, Edward, won the throne of England. A little over three years later, he would, as tradition has it, ride past Elizabeth standing on the side of the road and fall in love with the most beautiful woman in the country.

Edward and Elizabeth married secretly shortly after, although the news would not be made public for a while, and Elizabeth was not crowned until the following year. Their marriage caused huge outrage: the king’s mentor, ally and friend Richard Neville, the “Kingmaker” Earl of Warwick was horrified – he had planned for Edward to make a great alliance by marrying a French princess. Neville’s power began to slip away from him, and their relationship never really recovered.

Elizabeth Woodville in her coronation robes (from Worshipful Company of Skinners’ Fraternity Book)

Generally speaking, people were highly unimpressed with Edward’s choice. Elizabeth was widowed and brought with her no lands, great wealth, political advantage or international alliances; just a very large family looking to snap up as much power and privilege as they could.

Still, despite all of the objections, Edward’s infidelities, and their sometimes very tenuous hold on the throne, the marriage was loving and fruitful, and again, triggered several other scandals in history. They had two sons (the so-called “Princes in the Tower”) and seven daughters, including Elizabeth of York, future queen of Henry VII, and Cecily Plantagenet, our next shocking lady.

Cecily of York

Cecily of York was the third daughter of Edward and Elizabeth Woodville. As a young princess she had lived a tumultuous life as her father fought to hold onto his throne, and had been betrothed a few times: once to the heir to the Scottish throne and once to the Duke of Albany, but neither came to anything.

Following Richard III’s seizure of power, she was first married off to John Scrope, who’s family were big supporters of the new king. However, a year later, the new-new King, Henry VII, had this marriage annulled and married Cecily off instead to John Welles.

John was 19 years older than his teenage bride (still only 18 at the time of their wedding), but the relationship seems to have been a successful one, and when he died in 1499, Cecily grieved for her husband. However a few years later, around 1502-1504, Cecily fell in love again – this time, with someone far beneath her.

Cecily of York, (stained glass, probably 1482–83, formerly Canterbury Cathedral, now Burrell Collection)

Her second love was a man called Thomas Kyme, who was a squire. Thomas and Cecily married secretly, as they would have known that there was no chance the king would have approved the match. Cecily was a princess, and not only was she far superior socially to her husband, she was still only in her early thirties, and could have been married off again for political advantage.

Whether Cecily thought that by marrying below her she would be less of a threat, or whether she just didn’t care anymore, she paid for the consequences of her actions. The king was livid, and exiled her from court and confiscated her estates. She did get them back eventually, but was unable to pass them on to her husband or children, and in the end, died in obscurity.

Princess Mary Tudor

Our final lady involved in scandals in history (for now) is Cecily’s niece, Princess Mary Tudor, the second daughter of Elizabeth of York and Henry VII. Princess Mary was widely considered to be the most beautiful woman in the kingdom, and in 1514 she was young, rich and at the peak of her beauty, which, as everyone knows, is the best time to pack a woman off to another country to marry a dying king.

King Louis of France was old and ill, and Princess Mary was revolted by the thought of marrying him, especially when she was already in love with the dashing (if romantically dubious) Charles Brandon. She struck a deal with her brother, King Henry VIII, agreeing to marry the King of France provided that when she was widowed (a prospect that probably didn’t sound too far off, judging by descriptions of Louis at the time) she could choose her next husband.

Whatever Henry loosely said, Mary took that as a promise, and went off to France to do her duty. Louis lasted a grand total of 3 months before succumbing to his illness, and Princess Mary grabbed her chance with both hands.

Princess Mary and her second husband, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk

Foolishly, Henry had decided that Charles Brandon would be the best man to go and collect his widowed-and-thrilled-about-it beautiful younger sister from France. When Charles arrived, Mary, weeping, confided in him that she was terrified her brother would marry her off again. Luckily, she had already come up with a solution.

Within days (probably minutes) of their marriage, Charles was worried. The marriage was consummated, so there was no backing out of it now. Mary held firm. She knew that they had caused a huge scandal – not only was she newly widowed, not only had she married someone beneath her, they had also done so without the king’s permission. Whatever Henry had promised Mary, it’s doubtful he had given her permission to just marry whenever she felt like it. And that didn’t even take into account the fact that it was actually treasonous for Charles to marry a Princess of the Blood without permission.

Back in England, the king was apoplectic with rage, and the lords were shouting for Charles’ head. However, Cardinal Wolsey, probably spotting an opportunity to get Charles and Mary in his pocket, worked hard to keep Charles from execution and for Henry to allow them back. Just like her great-grandmother Jacquetta, Mary and her new husband had to pay the king an enormous fine, and went on to have a successful marriage, with several children, including one Frances Brandon, who along with her daughters Katherine and Mary Grey, would go onto to form their own secret, scandalous matches.

Which of these marriages do you think was the most shocking? Are there other secret marriages that you think are amongst the biggest scandals in history?

If you enjoyed this, why not check out

Nobles Go Dating: The Five Wives of Charles Brandon

Elizabeth of York and her Sisters

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