The Scandalous Sex Lives of the World's Ruling Class
Historically, the ruling class has attempted to dictate how sexual their subjects should be. Or rather, how sexual they shouldn't be. Despite this, many of these rulers operated with a "Do as I say, not as I do" mentality.
For example, during the Tudor reign from 1485 to 1603 in England, sex was considered sacred and forbidden on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Meanwhile, one Tudor monarch, Henry VIII, had six wives, multiple mistresses and even slept with his second wife's sister, Mary Boleyn. Not exactly chaste behavior.
While many monarchs posed as strict, regal beings, they were simultaneously taking part in the most scandalous of activities. Were these activities hypocritical? Likely, yes. Were they also thrilling? Absolutely yes, and this is evident from rulers all around the world.
Italy: Emperor Caligula of Rome, 37 to 41 A.D.
Caligula was known as an insanely violent emperor, but he was also pretty insane in the bedroom. Despite being married, he bedded numerous sex workers and routinely slept with his sisters, according to the writings of Florence-based historian Alexander Meddings.
Caligula liked to bring home pantomime actors after hijacking their shows by kissing them onstage. He was even infamous for bedding the wives of his senators and then evaluating the wives' sexual performances to those same senators. Caligula showed that for the ruling class, "Love, sex and marriage in which competition, acquisitiveness and accumulation can apply, are eminently commodifiable and exchangeable," according to the book "Ruling Class Men: Money, Sex and Power," written by Mike Donaldson and Scott Poynting.
Egypt: Queen Cleopatra, 51 to 30 B.C.
While, historically, Cleopatra has falsely been depicted as an oversexed, evil temptress, the real Cleopatra didn't hesitate to have fun. However, many of Cleopatra's sexual encounters—such as with her brothers, who she then had killed—would repulse most people.
She famously had Roman generals Julius Caesar and Mark Antony as lovers, and she sometimes used costumes in her sexual escapades. For her first meeting with Caesar, Cleopatra wrapped herself in carpet and smuggled herself into his private quarters. She was even more theatrical with Antony, the National Geographic suggested. When meeting him in Tarsus, she is said to have arrived on a golden barge dressed as the goddess Aphrodite, while her attendants were dressed as cupids. As Antony considered himself akin to the god Dionysus, Cleopatra was specifically appealing to him, and she was very successful in that regard.
France: King Henry IV and Queen Margaret of Valois, 1589 to 1599
Henry and Margaret's reign was dominated by tales of how they both loved to shop outside their marriage. Henry's behavior, which included abandoning his armies to meet with his mistresses, was generally accepted. But Margaret, known for her licentiousness, brought about the real scandal because her most prominent lover, Joseph Boniface de La Môle, was later executed for plotting treason.
Though misogyny had something to do with this double standard, "higher-status women were more restricted. This was partly due to concerns about honor," explained Katherine Harvey, a research fellow at Birkbeck University of London. "In the case of married women,another big concern was the legitimacy of heirs."
Producing heirs was considered a queen's main role, so it caused great scandal if she strayed from this duty.
China: Emperor Wu of Jin, 266 to 290 A.D.
Though Chinese emperors often had many concubines, Emperor Wu of Jin is notable for the sheer size of his harem: By the end of his life, he had over 10,000 concubines. He wanted as many women as he could get, often selecting his officials' daughters, and even making it a crime to get married until he was finished picking his concubines.
Wu also had a rather unorthodox way of picking his concubines: "He used to ride along in a goat-drawn carriage, letting the goats stop wherever they liked. Where they stopped, there he slept," wrote Keith McMahon in a 2013 article titled, "The Institution of Polygamy in the Chinese Imperial Palace."
England: King Edward VII, 1901 to 1910
Despite Victorian/Edwardian England being thought of as prudish, one of its kings, Edward VII—aptly nicknamed "Dirty Bertie"—heavily disproved this presumption. Edward had a constant rotation of mistresses, including Winston Churchill's mother, according to Stephen Clarke's book "Dirty Bertie: An English King Made in France."
Whenever a party was held at the palace, Edward would wait until the women had retired to their bedrooms. Then he'd creep down the corridors, guided by written notes from palace maids, and simply let himself into the room of his choice. He even had a specially designed "sex chair," which aided him when entertaining two ladies at once.
Ultimately, Edward likely slept with 18,000 women during his lifetime, stated associate professor Clare Monagle, of the department of modern history, politics and international relations at Macquarie University in Sydney.
However, Monagle also noted that presenting "virility" was a priority for monarchs.
"There's also a chance [kings] were actually spreading stories about how many women they were having," Monagle said. "There's a chance this was part of the cultivation of the myth, a PR tactic."
The double standard
The scandalous sex lives of monarchs have often drawn inconsistent reactions.
"In well-regarded leaders, promiscuity may be excused or even celebrated, but in unpopular rulers, it becomes a significant failing, indicative of serious character flaws," Harvey argued.
But as is often the case with class dynamics, there tends to be one rule for them and another for us. Even in 2022, with the U.S. Supreme Court threat to Roe v. Wade and abortion rights, governments are punishing their people's freedom of sexuality. Meanwhile, as stated in Donaldson and Poynting's book, monarch promiscuity "is recommended and encouraged by ruling-class mentors. Septuagenarian Lord Louis Mountbatten [once told the adulterous Prince Charles,] 'I believe, in a case like yours, that a man should sow his wild oats.'"
Female rulers are often not granted the same grace, as Mountbatten continued saying to Charles, "'But for a wife, he should choose a suitable and a sweet-charactered girl before she meets anyone else.'"
Ultimately, everyone should be free to have as much (safe and consensual) sex as they like, regardless of class. If we are to take anything from these monarchs, it is not that we should follow what they preach but perhaps we should get sex chairs of our own.