A blood-curdling countdown of history’s deadliest monarch’s
In .this day and age it’s quite difficult to imagine the sheer power that kings and queens once wielded over their subjects. In many ways these monarch’s were more similar to modern dictators than the regents that we know today. Murder was often a means to a political end, while crimes of passion would rarely be met with any immediate consequences.
Although the kings had ultimate power, it was a power they were forced to fight for — often using fear, war and murder, among other methods, to stay at the top. The position of king was a precarious one and, driven by this fact and an unhealthy dose of paranoia, certain monarch’s left a bloody trail through history.
But beyond paranoia, what drove them to such bloodshed? Several of these kings earned their place on this list with their military campaigns. War was a show of strength, a display of dominance. With an almost-constant state of conflict, territories were lost and won with great frequency, which, of course, meant that they had to be reclaimed. The glory of a kingdom was not just determined by its size necessarily, but by kings’ unwavering belief that the lands at stake belonged by right to the throne. Look at Edward I’s brutal campaigns in Wales and Scotland, or Charles II of Navarre’s ludicrous notions of what belonged to him — both of whom feature in this roundup of deadly royals.
Murder was often the simplest way to ensure that anyone plotting against the king was removed. Even with the introduction of the Magna Carta in England in 1215 and the emergence of parliament, the monarch’s essentially free rein to end the lives of their subjects remained. Flimsy evidence could be put forward to prove a case for treason and conspiring against the monarch, as Henry VIII demonstrated on several occasions. Meanwhile, with the whole country watching, any hint of rebellion would have to be squashed quickly and brutally, as Louis I of Aquitaine did to great effect.
In other cases, the reason behind a king’s bloodthirsty nature would now be attributed to some form of mental illness. Purity of the bloodline comes with a price, as lineages would abruptly end with offspring suffering from deformities, congenital illnesses and insanity.
Whether through violent fits of rage or cold calculation, these ten kings ensured that the pages of history books dedicated to them were written in blood, but which of them takes the crown as the deadliest?
10 Aethelred II
Worst Crime: Massacred all Danes in England
Aethelred’s tenure as king of England led to the inglorious epithet of Aethelred the Unready. However, a better translation of the moniker would be ‘ill-advised’, as it is generally agreed that the counsel Aethelred received was little and poor.
Although he was too young to have been complicity in the murder of his older brother (Edward the Martyr), who was killed after having been on the throne for only two and a half years, the crime was carried out by those loyal to him in order that the younger sibling would take his place. This meant that there was a lot of mistrust surrounding the young monarch and, as the reputation of the murdered boy grew after his death, it would become increasingly difficult for Aethelred to unite his subjects.
And the necessity for a united British army was urgent with a renewed threat from the north. The Danes had recommenced raids along England’s coast, breaking the treaty they had made with Aethelred’s father, Edgar. After the English suffered a serious defeat at the Battle of Maldon in 991, Aethelred began paying tribute to the Danes in return for peace. However, the Danes were hard to appease and had restarted hostilities by 997.
Finally, in 1002, Aethelred reached breaking point and took drastic action. On 13 November he issued an order that all Danes in England should be executed, calling it «a most just extermination». It was an indiscriminate attempt at a show of strength that claimed the life of Danish leader Sweyn’s sister, Gunhilde, and Sweyn invaded in retaliation, leading to Aethelred’s downfall.
09 Louis I
Worst crime: Had his nephew killed
Louis the Pious was, in many ways, as sensible a leader as his nickname would suggest. His father, Charlemagne, appointed him king of Aquitaine at the tender age of three. He became king of the Franks and emperor of Rome upon his father’s death in 814 and decided that, in order to avoid any diplomatic issues, any of his unmarried sisters would be packed off to nunneries.
When Louis nearly died in an accident in 817, he decided to ensure that, should he suddenly expire, there would be a neat plan of succession to set out who ruled what in the Frankish empire. He confirmed that his nephew Bernard would remain the king of Italy, but the will described his son Lothair’s position as ‘overlord’, implying that Italy would be submissive to him. Needless to say, the wording of this document did not please Bernard and, spurred on by rumours that Lothair was to invade, he set about preparing a rebellion.
However, word quickly reached Louis I of Bernard’s plan and the king immediately took an army to confront his errant nephew. Bernard was shocked by the speed of the king’s reaction and went to try and negotiate, before being forced into surrender. It’s here that Louis’ place in this list of murderous kings is assured…
He sentenced his nephew to death, before deciding that he should be blinded instead — a punishment that was apparently merciful. However, the procedure was not entirely successful. As a result, while Bernard was indeed blinded, he spent two days in unbearable pain before dying anyway. Three civil wars would follow but the legacy of this killing would haunt the deeply religious ruler for the rest of his life.
08 Charles II
Worst crime: Burned heretics at the stake
The reason for Charles II’s reputation as a bloodthirsty king is very much rooted in his heritage. He was the last of the Habsburg line — a lineage that was so devoted to preserving the purity of its bloodline through inbreeding that it eventually led to a man like Charles. Disfigured, infertile and cursed to spend his life suffering from various illnesses, the king was in a similar amount of mental anguish.
Charles II’s condition was no secret among the European court. He was just three years old when the throne became his and his mother, Mariana, became queen regent, designating much of the work of governing the country to advisors.
His mother remained regent long after Charles could have taken kingship himself, but it was decided that such a move would be unwise. A struggle for power began when Mariana was exiled, and Don Juan Jose (Charles’s half-brother) took responsibility for the country and the king.
Charles’s illness was grotesquely misunderstood at the time — interpreted as a sign that the king was probably bewitched; he would even undergo an exorcism in the final years of his life.
His worst crime was the 1680 auto-de-fe (display of public penance and executions) in Madrid, during which many heretics were burned. Charles II attended the trial and burnings, though the executions were probably ordered by someone else. A blood-soaked reign, but a misunderstood one.
07 Charles II
COUNTRY: NAVARRE (SPAIN/FRANCE)
WORST CRIME: MURDER, TREACHERY AND COWARDICE
Charles II believed that the kingdom of Navarre was far too small for a man with such a noble lineage as his and spent his life trying to wheedle his way to a more important status. He ordered the assassination of the Constable of France in
1354 and made a deal with the English, forcing the French King John II to make peace.
John grew tired of his treachery and finally arrested him in 1356, only for Charles to be broken out in 1357. When John II agreed to a peace treaty with the English, Charles II freed all the prisoners in Paris. With the city on the verge of revolution, Charles U-turned and took the opportunity to lead the aristocracy at the Battle of Mello and the subsequent massacre of the rebels.
He blindly swore patriotism and honour while consistently reaching out to the opposition in the hope of a better deal.
His meddling in the war between Castile and Aragon proved disastrous and he staged being captured to avoid having to participate. Towards the end of his life he tried to convince English king Edward III to invade and overthrow Charles V, as well as being involved in two attempts on Charles’s life. When his scheming with Gascony against Castile went wrong, Navarre was invaded in 1378 and he was forced to agree to an alliance with Castile and France. He burned to death in 1387, allegedly when the sackcloth filled with brandy he was bathing in caught fire.
06 Herold I
REIGN: 37-4 BCE
WORST CRIME: KILLED HIS WIFE AND CHILDREN
There are many who would claim that King Herod committed his most heinous deed with the Massacre of the Innocents. However, the story of the slaughter of all boys in Bethlehem under the age of two is only found in the Bible; there are no historical records from the time detailing such an atrocity. Herod’s crimes were much more personal.
In fact, Herod was an excellent ruler of Judaea. Having obtained the position after being forced to flee Galilee when the Palestinians had reclaimed their land, he strengthened his kingship when he divorced in order to marry Mariamne, which pacified a leading sect of Jewish priests (the Hasmoneans). However, as time went by, it became clear that Herod was not well.
He was prone to fits of mental instability, which made his fierce love for his wife all the more dangerous. At one point, before leaving for a political expedition, he ordered that Mariamne should be executed if he didn’t return because he couldn’t face the idea of her being with another man. His jealousy was used by his sister, Salome -who despised Mariamne — to convince Herod that his wife was plotting against him. Mariamne was executed in 29 BCE, and Herod — believing that their two sons, Alexandros and Aristobulus, would try to take revenge for their mother — had both their children killed in seven BCE. Two years later, Antipater — Herod’s only son by his first wife — was also executed for the same reason.
05 Richard I
WORST CRIME: WAR CRIMES OF THE CRUSADES
The man dubbed ‘Lionheart’ spent most of his life fighting. He first took up arms against his father, Henry II, in 1173 and continued to aggressively pursue the throne until Henry’s death in 1189, when some quite reasonably suggested that Richard had driven the king to his grave.
Blood was spilled on the same day that Richard took the crown, when the barring of Jewish figures from the coronation was misinterpreted as an order to instigate violence against all of London’s Jews. Richard ordered the executions of those who took part, but the instances of copycat ‘Christian’ violence would set the tone for a king who was desperate to join the Crusades.
Together with Phillip II of France, who had assisted Richard in his fight for the throne,
England joined the Third Crusade. Spending the bulk of his father’s treasure chest to raise a new army, Richard set off for the Holy Lands in 1190. He blazed a bloody trail through Sicily and Cyprus before arriving at Acre, Israel, in 1191.
Following the successful siege of the city, he ordered the execution of 2,700 Muslim prisoners. The crusade eventually ground to a halt and Richard was forced to retreat in 1192, only to be captured in Vienna by Leopold V. Once ransomed, he discovered that his brother, John, had given Normandy back to King Phillip in his absence.
In 1196, Richard built castles in Normandy to fortify his presence. He continued his war against Phillip until 1199, when he was struck by an arrow from the nearly undefended Chalus-Chabrol chateau. The wound turned fatally gangrenous -an undignified end for the warrior king.
04 Edward I
WORST CRIME: HAMMERING THE SCOTS
When Edward I came to the throne he had a very clear goal in mind: to take back what he saw as English land which had been stolen.
Upon Henry III’s death Edward returned to England from the Crusades and started planning a military campaign in Wales. Beginning with a successful invasion in 1277 he executed the Welsh leader, Llewelyn, in 1282 and Llewelyn’s brother, David, a year later in response to rebellions.
The war in Wales had a devastating effect on the nation’s finances. This was compounded when Edward responded violently to French King Philip reclaiming the territory of Gascony by sailing to attack in 1297, later returning to quell the Scottish rebellion. Edward intervened to such an extent that the Scots allied with the French and attacked Carlisle. Edward invaded in retaliation, beginning a brutal and lengthy conflict that earned him his nickname, Hammer of the Scots.
03 Erik XIV
WORST CRIME: STABBING A NOBLEMAN TO DEATH
While many kings can lay claim to ordering the deaths of hundreds — even thousands — during the course of their reign, not many can say they committed murder with their own hands.
The king of Sweden Erik XIV suffered from mental instability, but not to an extent that made him incapable of ruling. He strengthened Sweden’s position in northern Europe by claiming territory in Estonia, leading to the Seven Years’ War of the North which played out between 1563 and 1570. Although his military campaigns were successful Erik’s mental state was rapidly deteriorating and evidence points towards schizophrenia.
He became paranoid, eager to believe rumours of treason. He even executed two guards for ‘making fun of the king’. But it would be the Sture murders that would break him. Believing that the noble family would make a play for the throne, Erik began to persecute the Stures — specifically
Nils Sture. In 1567, one of Sture’s pages was tortured until he told Erik what he wanted to hear. Following a trial, death sentences began to be issued but the king could not make up his mind. Finally he visited them at the castle in Uppsala (north of Stockholm) where they were imprisoned and told them that they were forgiven. When Erik left he discovered that a rebellion was underway, led by his brother, John. It was only a few hours later that Erik returned and stabbed Nils Sture before ordering the execution of the others.
02 Henry VIII
WORST CRIME: EXECUTING ALL WHO OPPOSED HIM
English king Henry VIII’s voracious nature and hot temper have become the stuff of legend. He is renowned for being a man of ferocious appetites — in all aspects of life — and he was prepared to use any means necessary to quell his opposition.
Shortly after ascending to the throne, Henry married Catherine of Aragon, as his father, Henry VII, had wanted to secure an alliance with Spain. At the time he executed Edmund Dudley and Richard Empson — two of his father’s advisors — on the grounds of treason. This was to become a pattern for Henry. From Thomas More to Thomas Cromwell, anyone who Henry perceived as either a threat to the throne or to his secession from the Catholic church was liable to find themselves with their head on the block.
However, he’s most notorious for his list of spouses, driven by his desperation for a male heir and straightforward lust. The annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon was prompted by a combination of the two as Anne Boleyn had already caught his eye. As we all know,
Anne Boleyn did not last long before facing the executioner’s axe — having been dubiously accused of infidelity, treachery and incest. Anne was followed by Jane Seymour, who died in childbirth; Anne of Cleves, who Henry soon separated from; and then the unfortunate Catherine Howard. Henry accused Catherine of being unfaithful with her secretary, Francis Dereham, while she claimed that Dereham had raped her. Despite her protests, she was sent to her death. Fortunately for his last wife, Catherine Parr, he died before she could fall out of his favour.
The exact number of executions ordered by Henry VIII has not been conclusively agreed upon, but it is generally believed to be between 57,000 and 72,000. As a gruesome aside, he also made ‘death by boiling’ a legitimate form of execution.
01 Leopold II
WORST CRIME: FORMING A SLAVE COLONY IN AFRICA
Desperate to establish a colony overseas, Belgian king Leopold II turned to Africa and the potential riches of the Congo. To circumvent his own parliament, he created a dummy organisation called the International African Association, which he claimed would act in the interests of philanthropy and scientific research with a view to converting the citizens to Christianity. It was all completely legal and it gave the monarch the freedom to act however he wanted in the land under his control.
Its stated aim could not have been further from the truth. What had attracted Leopold to the Congo, in addition to the notion of creating an empire, was the tremendous supply of rubber in the area. He would spare nothing in order to get what he wanted. Despite having promised that he would protect the people of the Congo from slavers, Leopold promptly and brutally turned the country into a slave state.
The treatment of the workers was savage and uncompromising. Leopold allowed some missionaries into the Congo in order to allay the fears of foreign powers who believed he might be doing exactly what he was doing, and reports began to reach Europe about the maiming and executions of the men and women working on the plantations, as well as of the mass dumping of corpses.
It’s impossible to know exactly how many people died during Leopold’s rule of the Congo but the estimated figure is in the millions. The atrocities led to the establishment of the first human rights movement and Leopold was finally compelled to give up the Congo to the Belgian parliament in 1908.