Two hundred years ago, poet Percy Shelley persuaded 15-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin to run away with him. Like a fairytale character, she was fleeing a wicked stepmother who refused to pay for her education. He was one of the greatest lyrical poets of all time, but he was also one of history’s greatest cads. He abandoned his pregnant wife, Harriet, for Mary. Harriet was so devastated that she eventually committed suicide, a tragedy which allowed Mary and Percy to wed. Percy and Mary’s scandalous relationship had a lasting cultural impact. They were the O.G. hippies, hipsters and punks, who became extremely early adapters of nearly every modern alternative lifestyle, from open relationships to vegetarianism to sponging off their parents while pursuing writing careers.
But their most lasting legacy was literary. They pushed each other to do great work. Percy’s radical, controversial poetry influenced everyone from Henry Thoreau to the writers of Breaking Bad, who named the show’s brilliant episode Ozymandias after his sonnet. Mary wrote Frankenstein, which is regarded as the first modern horror novel, has been filmed numerous times, and has influenced every single monster story since.
Mary, Percy, and Harriet are not the only love triangle that made a lasting impact on our culture. Five other triangles rocked the world.
King Henry VIII, Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn
Way back in 1509, King Henry VIII was married to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. He loved her, but, after many of Catherine’s pregnancies ended in stillbirths, he fell hard for Anne Boleyn. She refused to become his mistress, in part because he had previously had an affair with her sister. So Henry decided to have his marriage to Catherine annulled.
When the pope refused to grant the annulment, Henry appointed Anne’s family chaplain the Archbishop of Canterbury so that he could end Henry’s marriage to Catherine. In retaliation, the pope had Henry and the Archbishop excommunicated. So Henry created the Church of England. Unfortunately for Anne, she, too, gave birth to a stillborn baby, which was apparently a deal breaker for Henry. He had her beheaded, then went on to marry four other women. This twisted romance was the only love triangle in recorded history to result in the creation of a new religious denomination.
Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and Their Spouses
Elizabeth Taylor already had a love triangle under her belt, having previously broken up Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds's marriage, but it seems she needed a messier challenge and soon she found herself in a love quadrangle. Fast forward to 1963, when Liz Taylor and Richard Burton met in Rome, on the set of Antony and Cleopatra. Both famous and married to other people, the two of them lusted after each other from the moment that they met. They were unable to keep their affair a secret, in part because of the then-new breed of aggressive photographers, dubbed the paparazzi. Their relationship was such a huge scandal that it was condemned by the pope, though thanks to Henry VIII, he didn’t have the power to do anything but voice his disapproval.
Eventually, the duo divorced their spouses and married each other. They had a volatile relationship complicated by both of their drinking problems. They divorced in 1974, remarried in 1975 and divorced again in 1976. Though both went on to acquire several other spouses, they never truly got each other out of their systems. When Liz died, she was buried with Richard’s last love letter to her. The lasting legacy of their love triangle was the creation of the modern, uncensored celebrity gossip industry.
Prince Charles, Princess Diana, and Camilla Parker-Bowles
The tabloid press would play an even bigger role in the love triangle of Lady Diana, Prince Charles, and Camilla Parker-Bowles. Charles and Diana’s elaborate 1981 wedding, which was televised around the world, seemed like a real-life Disney movie. But it was all an illusion. Charles was in love with his married ex-girlfriend Camilla Parker-Bowles who was not considered Princess of Wales material. As a prince, Charles was obligated to marry a virgin from an aristocratic family. Diana fit the bill. The rules for royal romance had not changed much since the 15th century. The two barely knew each other and turned out to have little in common.
Eventually, he began cheating on her with Parker-Bowles, and she had an affair with James Hewitt. Their infidelities became public knowledge when a book was written about their relationship and tape recorded phone calls were leaked to the press. Charles and Diana eventually separated then divorced. Diana died tragically in a car crash a year later when she and her boyfriend Dodi Fayed were pursued by paparazzi as they drove through a tunnel. Charles finally married Camilla in 2005. Charles and Diana’s divorce finally modernized the royal family, allowing Prince William to marry a commoner, Kate Middleton, whom he truly loved.
Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love, Billy Corgan
There is no royalty in the United States but during the early 1990s, Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love were the king and queen of grunge. He was the lead singer of iconic band Nirvana. She had her own group, Hole. Before she was with Kurt, she’d dated Billy Corgan, lead singer of the Smashing Pumpkins, who at the time rivaled Nirvana in popularity. Love admitted that she originally intended to sleep with Corgan on a trip to Minneapolis, but ended up hooking up with Cobain and conceiving their child, Frances Bean. The duo married in 1992.
Thanks to their drug addictions, they became the Generation X answer to Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. There are credible allegations that she cheated on him with Corgan and Cobain found out shortly before he committed suicide. But despite his death, Cobain is regarded as one of the greatest rock musicians of all time.
As for Love, after years of being known primarily for her bizarre antics caught on television and now Twitter, she may be rehabilitating her image by guest starring in the upcoming season of Sons of Anarchy. Corgan is also going to be on TV – in a reality series about his attempt to launch a professional wrestling league. Their non-music careers touch on the lasting result of this triangle: the death of grunge, and the rise of pop and electronica, which have dominated the charts ever since.
Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston, and Angelina Jolie
While Kurt and Courtney reenacted the substance abuse aspects of Liz and Dick’s relationship, it was another trio that updated the movie star love triangle for the 21st century. Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston were Hollywood’s golden couple. She was America’s sweetheart, the star of television’s number one show, Friends. He was the sexy movie star who had dated Gwyneth Paltrow and Juliette Lewis, before deciding that Jennifer was the one.
It all fell apart when Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were cast in the movie Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Angelina, like Liz, already had a homewrecker image thanks to an earlier on set relationship with Billy Bob Thornton that ended his engagement to Laura Dern. Like Liz and Dick, their chemistry was obvious to everyone on set. Soon it developed into an actual affair. Once again, the world was scandalized with the added twist that every detail was covered by Internet gossip sites, who were even more relentless than print tabloids.
Unlike Liz and Dick, however, Brangelina became a stable, happy couple. In one of the most remarkable image makeovers in entertainment history, Angelina is now revered for her humanitarian work. Brad is regarded as a serious actor. Jennifer also moved on and is now engaged to Justin Theroux. In addition to constant Internet surveillance of celebrities, the lasting legacy of their love triangle is the Team Jennifer and Team Angelina T-shirts that a Los Angeles boutique created.
To this day, followers of all fictional and real-life triangles feel the need to declare themselves Team Someone.