Spies and dancers, queens and courtesans. WeGoRo gathered together stories about femmes fatales of the past, whose beauty often played a bad joke on them. They didn’t have university degrees, but they were wise and charismatic enough to influence history. They were beautiful, they knew it, and they knew how to use it. Their lives are surrounded by myths and legends. They are the most charming women in history.
Cleopatra is known to history as the last active ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt. As per Egyptian custom, she first married her brothers. At the age of 21, she was smuggled into the palace of Julius Caesar and gave birth to their son 9 months after they first met. At this point, Caesar abandoned his plans to annex Egypt, instead backing Cleopatra’s claim to the throne. The relationship between Cleopatra and Caesar was obvious to the Roman people and caused a scandal because the Roman dictator was already married to Calpurnia. But Caesar even erected a golden statue of Cleopatra represented as Isis in the temple of Venus Genetrix. After Caesar’s death, she charmed Marc Antony, married him, and gave birth to 3 children.
History states she had some kind of an issue with an Egyptian cobra: either she applied a toxic ointment or she was bitten by an asp on her breast. We don’t know the truth, but she died at the age of 39. After her reign, Egypt became a province of the recently established Roman Empire.
Cléo de Mérode was an international dancing star from France. Her image appeared on postcards and playing cards. A particular new hairstyle she chose to wear became the talk of Parisian women and was quickly adopted as a popular style for all. Even royalty courted her. Rumor spread that she became the mistress of King Léopold II and that he became infatuated with her after seeing her dance at the ballet. The King had fathered 2 children with a prostitute, and her reputation suffered as a consequence. But this was the Belle Époque, the very dawn of modern celebrity culture. Such indiscretions were soon forgotten, and Cléo de Mérode became an international star, giving performances across Europe and the United States. She accepted an offer to dance at the risqué Folies Bergère cabaret, and that decision only served to heighten her following. And when she met artist Gustav Klimt, whose specialty was female sexuality, a romance blossomed that inspired the 2006 movie Klimt.
Born in the Netherlands, Margaretha Geertruida "Margreet" MacLeod (her real name) married a Dutch colonial army captain who was heading to Indonesia. The marriage didn’t go well. After moving back to Europe, she began to win fame as, well, let’s say it straight, a striptease dancer. The most celebrated segment of her act was her progressive shedding of clothing until she wore just a jeweled bra and some ornaments upon her arms and head. She was seldom seen without a bra as she was self-conscious about being small-breasted.
By the end of her dancing career, she had become a successful courtesan and had relationships with high-ranking military officers, politicians, and others in influential positions in many countries. Long story short, at the beginning of World War I, she became a double agent. Documents state that she wasn’t actually that good a spy. But she probably knew too many secrets about the sex lives of French politicians and generals, so Mata Hari was sentenced to death for spying for the enemy during a time of war.
The idea of an exotic dancer working as a lethal double agent and using her powers of seduction to extract military secrets from her many lovers made Mata Hari an enduring archetype of the femme fatale. In the numerous films that followed, and in popular imagination to this day, she has remained the perfect spy in the service of Germany.
Lina Cavalieri was an Italian operatic soprano, actress, and one of the most photographed stars of her time. She could tighten her corset so much that her waist was only 30 centimeters. On December 5, 1906, Lina Cavalieri gave tenor Enrico Caruso a passionate kiss in front of an astounded audience, caught completely by surprise by the opera singer’s intense gesture. After that, “the most beautiful woman in the world,“ as fans called her, also became ”the kissing prima donna."
Her personal life was as intense as her career: countless lovers, 5 husbands, and a son born out of wedlock from a relationship with a singing teacher. She left the world of opera in 1921, moved to Paris, and opened a beauty salon. She died in 1944 during an airstrike that hit her villa in Florence. The 1956 drama Beautiful but Dangerous (original title The Most Beautiful Woman in the World) starring Gina Lollobrigida was based on the biography of Cavalieri.
There is at least one real-life story where the Prince married Cinderella. Praskovia Zhemchugova and her family belonged to the Sheremetevs, one of the richest noble families in Russia at the time. Blessed with a fine voice, Praskovia trained to be a singer in an opera company being put together by Count Pyotr and his son Nikolai Sheremetev. She became the mistress of Count Nikolai Sheremetev, and they married secretly. They were later granted official recognition from the Emperor, which caused a huge scandal in polite society.
Anne Boleyn was the 2nd wife of King Henry VIII. She resisted his attempts to seduce her for a long time, refusing to become his mistress, which her sister Mary had been. It soon became the one absorbing object of Henry’s desires to annul his marriage to Queen Catherine so he would be free to marry Anne. When it became clear that Pope Clement VII would not annul the marriage, the breaking of the Catholic Church’s power in England began.
Forthright and graceful with a keen wit and a lively, opinionated, passionate personality, Anne was depicted to be "sweet and cheerful" in her youth. She enjoyed cards and dice games, drinking wine, eating French cuisine, flirting, gambling, gossiping, and hearing a good joke. She was fond of archery, falconry, hunting, and the occasional game of bowls. Yet Anne also had a sharp tongue and a terrible temper. Doesn’t sound like a queen, right? Henry’s marriage to her, and her subsequent execution by beheading, made her a key figure in the political and religious upheaval that was the start of the English Reformation.
Anne "Ninon" de l’Enclos was a French author, courtesan, and freethinker. In her early 30s, she was responsible for encouraging the young Molière. When she died, she left money for the son of her accountant, a 9-year-old named François Marie Arouet, later to become known as Voltaire, so he could buy books. As a courtesan, Ninon took a succession of notable and wealthy lovers, including the King’s cousin. But these men did not support her, and she prided herself on her independent income. This life (not as acceptable in those days as it would become in later years) and her opinions on organized religion caused her some trouble, and she was imprisoned for a while. In France, her name is synonymous with wit and beauty. As an author, she defended the possibility of living a good life in the absence of religion, which was a big deal back in the 17th century.
Nicknamed "La Bella Simonetta," she was famous as the greatest beauty of her age in North Italy, and she was the model for many paintings (many not showing similar features at all) by Botticelli. If you’ve ever seen the painting The Birth of Venus, then you’ve definitely seen this girl. Rumors say that she not only looked modest and innocent but also behaved so, probably too much, and even her husband was never allowed to enter her bedroom. She died at the age of 22, presumably of tuberculosis, and was carried through the city in an open coffin for all to admire her beauty.
Sorel was a favorite and chief mistress of King Charles VII of France and is considered the first officially recognized royal mistress. The King gave her the Château de Loches (where he had been persuaded by Joan of Arc to be crowned King of France) as her private residence. Her presence was soon felt at the royal court in Chinon, where her company was alleged to have brought the King out of a protracted depression.
She is credited with starting a fashion when she wore low-cut gowns at court with one breast fully bared. She had a very strong influence on the King, by whom she bore 3 daughters. Her extravagant tastes earned her powerful enemies at court, and she died of mercury poisoning at the age of 28. History is not clear about whether the mercury was intentionally added to her food or was used to treat worms and in cosmetic preparations, which was normal back in the 15th century.
At the age of 15, this girl married a guy who later became the King of France, and they had 2 daughters. They divorced, he got the daughters, she got the land, and she married the future King of England, Henry II. So now half of France belonged to England, and that was probably one of the first reasons for the Hundred Years’ War. Over the next 13 years, she bore Henry 3 daughters and 5 sons, including Richard the Lionheart and John Lackland. When her sons grew up, she, supported by her first husband and sons, launched a revolt against Henry and was imprisoned for the next 16 years. After Henry’s death, his eldest son, Richard, ordered his mother’s release. Despite her age (now in her mid-60s, which was considered elderly in the 12th century), Eleanor became very closely involved in government. Endowed with intelligence, creative energy, and a remarkably long life, Eleanor of Aquitaine played a major role in the 12th century, an impressive achievement given that medieval women were considered nothing more than chattel.
Ono no Komachi, a Japanese waka poet, was renowned for her unusual beauty, and Komachi is a synonym for feminine beauty in Japan today. She is also known for her cruelty and cold heart. One of the numerous legends that surround her tells a story of a high-ranking courtier who fell in love with her. Komachi promised that if he visited her continuously for 100 nights, then she would become his lover. He visited her every night, regardless of the weather, but he caught the flu and died on the 99th night. Inspired by this, she wrote one of her melancholic poems.
Phryne was an ancient Greek courtesan. It is said that the sculptor Praxiteles, who was also her lover, used her as the model for his statue Aphrodite of Knidos, the first nude statue of a woman from ancient Greece. Legend says that once she was accused of impiety. When it seemed as if the verdict would be unfavorable, her defender removed Phryne’s robe and bared her breasts before the judges to arouse their pity. Her beauty instilled the judges with a superstitious fear, and they could not bring themselves to condemn "a prophetess and priestess of Aphrodite" to death. They decided to acquit her out of pity.
Yang Guifei was known as one of the 4 Beauties of Ancient China. At the age of 14, she married the son of the Chinese Emperor and his consort, Wu. After Consort Wu died, the Emperor was greatly saddened by the death of his then-favorite concubine. However, Princess Yang somehow came into his favor, and the Emperor decided to take her as his consort. He made a couple of tricks, and she became an imperial consort after bestowing a new wife on his son Li Mao. She became so favored that 700 laborers were conscripted to sew fabrics for her, and officials and generals flattered her by offering her exquisite tributes. The Emperor also gave high ranks and power to all members of her family. This all resulted in rebellion and Civil War.
Yang was known for having a full and fleshy figure, which was a much sought-after quality at the time. She was often compared and contrasted with Empress Zhao because Yang was known for her full build while Empress Zhao was slender. This led to the 4-character idiom in the Chinese language that describes the physical range of the types of beauties.
According to the legend, Lady Godiva took pity on the people of Coventry, who were suffering grievously under her husband’s oppressive taxation. She asked him to remit the tolls several times until he said he would grant her request if she would strip naked and ride on a horse through the streets of the town. Lady Godiva took him at his word. After issuing a proclamation that all persons should stay indoors and shut their windows, she rode through the town, clothed only in her long hair.
Although Lady Godiva lived in the 11th century, the legend only appeared 2 centuries later and is not regarded as plausible by modern historians. But what a story. Can you imagine that happening now?
We intentionally didn’t include stories about such famous figures as Nefertiti and Marilyn Monroe as they are too obvious as icons and symbols of the world’s beauty. It is also very hard to narrow down the list of all the beauties to one article, but this was our choice. What is your top 3 of the most charming women in history? Share with us in the comments.
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