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No Ordinary Love: Romances of Imperial Proportions

By ZODML on 28 Feb, 2013

No matter where we might lie on the scale of Valentine's Day enthusiasm - whether holding hands and buying roses or dodging Cupid's arrows - it's hard to resist a compelling love story. Poems, plays and novels capture the essence - both joyful and tragic - of this most fundamental of human emotions. From Shakespeare's soulful sonnets and star-crossed couples, to Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy's tempestuous relationship and Chibundu Onuzo's tale of surprising (street hawker meets rich girl) and moving teenage love set in modern Lagos, storybook love - whether happy or ill-fated - will always have its place in our hearts. However, it is real-life stories of devotion that illustrate most vividly the grand power of true love. And who does grand better than royalty?

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert
on their wedding day


Victoria and Albert

Queen Victoria, the longest reigning British monarch, is as famous for the remarkable development of the British Empire during the course of her rule as she is for her marriage to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. In the book Love Letters of Great Women, Ursula Doyle writes of how Victoria - "headstrong, stubborn, sociable" as a young woman - was "transformed" by her marriage to her clever and commanding cousin which took place just under three years after she had become queen at the age of eighteen. Although as queen she was obliged to buckle tradition and propose to him rather than vice versa, throughout the course of their marriage she grew increasingly reliant on his opinion on subjects as far ranging as the reform of education and the day-to-day running of the royal household. He quickly became her partner in government and she consulted with him on every decision she made. When he died in 1861,

She declared, "his wishes - his plans - about everything, his views about every thing are to be my law! And no human power will make me swerve from what he decided and wished."

Deeply affected by his death, she withdrew from public life - much to the chagrin of her subjects - to mourn for almost ten years. She eventually resumed full duties and is remembered as one of the most popular British monarchs. But as this quotation from a letter written to her uncle, King Leopold of Belgium, suggests, the strength of her love for her husband never waned:

His purity was too great, his aspiration too high for this poor, miserable world! His great soul is now only enjoying that for which it was worthy! And I will not envy him - only pray that mine may be perfected by it and fit to be with him eternally, for which blessed moment I earnestly long.


Mumtaz and Shah Jahan (from the cover of
Shah Jahan & The Story of the Taj Mahal)

Shah Jahan, Mumtaz and the Taj Mahal

The Mughal Empire covered most of modern-day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Established in 1526 by Babur, it was the product of a rich blending of Hindu, Persian and many other cultures.
Shah Jahan, the great-great-grandson of Babur, became emperor in 1628 after a bloody struggle for the throne (in Taj Mahal, Elizabeth Mann notes that "[t]hree of his brothers, two young nephews, and two cousins" died - either of "mysterious causes" or after being "murdered on his orders"). He had been betrothed at the age of fifteen to Arjumand Banu Begum (better known as Mumtaz Mahal, meaning "the chosen one of the palace") and eventually married her at the age of twenty in 1612. Their marriage was a happy one: Mumtaz travelled with her husband during all of his military campaigns and was a skillful and intelligent advisor admired for her grace and beauty. When Mumtaz died giving birth to their fourteenth child in 1631, Shah Jahan was heartbroken. He went into mourning for a year, shunning his lavish lifestyle and military duties and dressing in simple garments which matched his now white beard.

Shah Jahan's passion for architecture was the only thing which came close to the love which he had for Mumtaz. It was only to be expected that her tomb "would be an earthly paradise, a symbol of that which awaits all faithful to God". That tomb - the Taj Mahal (or "crown of palaces") - is one of the world's most striking works of architecture, a UNESCO World Heritage site with over three million visitors a year and a visual testament to the everlasting nature of Shah Jahan's love. Set on the banks of the Yamuna River, the Taj Mahal complex covers an area of 95 acres filled with fragrant flower gardens. The mausoleum, built of white marble, has a 44-metre high dome - a stunning combination of ethereality and imposing opulence. Building the mausoleum was as much an opportunity for Shah Jahan to express his devotion to his wife as it was for him to illustrate the wealth and power of his Empire. The Mughal dynasty eventually died out but the Taj Mahal has stood the test of time and set the bar for future lovers breathtakingly high.

Although you may not have the riches of vast empires at your command, may these stories inspire you to treat your loved ones as the kings and queens of your heart.

Below is a selection of books about famous lovers available to borrow at our main library:

This piece was first posted on February 15, 2013.

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