In fiction, kings and queens who succumb to madness are a great time. In reality, not so much. It’s no fun having huge chunks of the world controlled by someone who is irrational and unstable. Here are ten kings and queens whose craziness changed the course of world events.
This list could have been all tsars. These rulers were raised under conditions guaranteed to make anyone a sociopath. Most of them saw close relatives murdered by other close relatives. Though abused relentlessly as children, as adults they had both absolute power and a sword of Damocles over their heads. Ivan’s father died when Ivan was only three, and his mother was poisoned when he was eight. During his minority an unruly gang of noblemen governed the land, and starved, beat, and neglected the boy and his brother. He took the abuse out on small animals, which he would throw off the roofs of palaces. Hurling things about proved good practice for the tsar-in-training. At 16, Ivan marched into the throne room, grabbed the leader of the noblemen, and threw the man to Ivan’s trained hunting dogs.
Ivan’s reign was marked by violent paranoia. When Ivan suspected a nobleman wanted the throne, he dressed the man up as a king, put him on the throne, and gutted him. Ivan created a special police force, the members of which rode around with dogs’ heads hanging from their saddles and could murder anyone at any time, in public. Once, when Ivan heard a rumor that a town called Novgorod was rebellious, he killed every single person in the town, sewed the town’s archbishop up into a bearskin, and had his dogs hunt the bearman down.
It’s hard to write all that and then use the phrase, “conditions deteriorated,” but, somehow, conditions deteriorated. Ivan started having fits. In paintings he’s depicted as having a prominent nose and forehead. These are the way kind (and probably fearful) artists rendered calluses that Ivan had built up by banging his head on the stone floor in front of religions icons. Ivan would also have fits of rage. During one fit, he kicked his pregnant daughter-in-law in the stomach and caused her to miscarry. His son, an able and promising ruler, yelled at him. Ivan beat his son to death with his scepter, then went into paroxysms of remorse. It was that moment that changed history. Ivan was a member of the ancient Rurik line of nobility. With the only strong heir to the throne swept out of the way, Russia descended into chaos after Ivan’s death. At last, nobles cast around for any noble family that the nation could rally around. They came up with an heir called Michael Romanov.
Peter the Great was, in many ways, a wonderful sovereign. Passionately committed to both his country and his own education, he spent much of his childhood (imprisoned and under constant threat from his half-sister Sofia) learning army tactics and designing ships. As an adult, he toured Europe, learning about the latest advances in the sciences so he could bring them back to Russia.
Sometimes he took his love of learning, and his impatience with those who didn’t get on board, too far. When he was learning dentistry, he would practice on his nobles. When a group of attendants were upset while watching the dissection of a corpse, he ordered them to walk up to the corpse and take a bite out of it. Then there was his terrible paranoia. Peter was the child of the former tsar’s second wife. When he was ten, he saw the relatives of the tsar’s first wife toss his uncles and aunts off the roof of a building to the courtyard below, where they were torn apart by supposedly “loyal” soldiers. He was fanatical about loyalty, to the point of having his own son tortured to death for temporarily fleeing to Sweden.
One person he trusted was his wife, Catherine. Catherine’s life was a Cinderella story made into a horror movie. Captured by the Russian army, she was passed around by soldiers. She happened to be passed up the chain of command. Eventually she met the tsar, who became enthralled to her. Peter had fits of terror, and during those fits, Catherine was the only one who could soothe him. Peter decreed that a tsar should be able to name his own successor, and though he never specified Catherine should succeed him, she did. More importantly, this decree marked a sharp turn away from blood ties and first born sons, and the beginning of a belief that any ruler would do, provided they were a good Russian.
It says something about Peter III that the only reason historians believe that his son, Paul I, was legitimate was that Paul has his “father’s instability.” Peter was an entirely contemptible ruler, but he was also a pitiable figure. Like many of the Romanovs in line for the throne, he had almost no contact with his parents. Instead, he was raised by a tutor who was horribly abusive to the slow pupil. Peter was regularly beaten, starved, and humiliated. He developed into a creepy blend of manchild and sociopath.
He didn’t consummate his marriage to Catherine, a pretty little German nobody who had been imported as a brood mare, for at least nine years, because he spent every night in bed playing with toy soldiers. When he wanted a little power, he would force his wife to dress up as a soldier and put her through military drills. For a change of pace, he indulged in animal abuse, “training” a pack of hunting dogs by beating them, and conducting military trials and hangings of the rats he found nibbling his toy soldiers. So predictable was his insanity that, in order to get him away from Catherine while she was giving birth to a definitely illegitimate child (instead of just a probably illegitimate child), a minister loyal to her set fire to his own house. He knew the tsar would rush off to see the flames and leave Catherine alone.
Most crazy tsars, unpleasant as they were, kept their throne. Why did Peter get deposed in a coup that left the foreign Catherine free to become one of Russia’s most famous rulers? Because Peter was crazy like a Prussian, not crazy like a Russian. Peter was, for some time, considered the heir to the Swedish throne. He was raised to dislike Russia, and he did. He idolized the Prussian leader Frederick the Great, who was, when Peter became tsar, at war with Russia - and losing. At the moment when it looked like Frederick was done for, Peter ordered his army to settle with his idol on very favorable terms. Catherine, who actually was born in Prussia, had spent the first few years of her marriage vigorously Russianizing herself and equally vigorously cultivating the Russian army. The army preferred a Prussian who had decided she was Russian to a Russian who had decided he was Prussian, and Peter was captured, deposed, and killed in short order.
At last, we shall leave Russia. On to France! Charles the VI was king for a very long time, during which a united, prosperous, and powerful country fell into civil war and chaos. Charles had all the paranoia of the tsars, but none of the aggression. This was a shame, as he arguably had more cause to be aggressive. Charles’ brother, Louis of Valois, enjoyed everything that made the people around him miserable, including money, prestige, and other people’s wives. “Other people’s wives,” in this case, included the Queen. People soon began questioning how far Louis would go to get the Queen, when, during a ball, the king and some fellow noblemen dressed up as “wild men” in full-body suits of tar and flax. Charles had happened to wander away from the group when Louis grabbed a torch and, declaring he wanted to figure out who the men were, thrust it at the group. The other men burned to death.
Charles soon began having spells. Convinced he was made of glass and would shatter if he moved too quickly, he would hardly move for hours on end. He became incoherent and paranoid. Perhaps out of resentment, he grew enamored with Louis’ wife, and would demand she stay with him at all times. During these spells, Louis became the de facto king. This made him a formidable opponent. Anyone who made a move to weaken the Count of Valois would find, a month or so later, that they were the enemy of the acting king of France. One night, John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, decided to put an end to Louis. He hired a group of conspirators to hack Louis to death in the street (as he was coming from the Queen’s apartments). The conspirators weren’t particularly talented. They wore the livery of the Duke of Burgundy. It wasn’t long before people found out exactly who killed Louis.
The nation erupted into civil war, which the fragile king couldn’t quell. John the Fearless went to the English for military support, which they happily gave him, in exchange for land in France. After John the Fearless was killed, the English seemed strangely reluctant to leave. Charles “the Mad” had to declare an English king the heir to France. The treaty didn’t hold, because of turmoil in the English court, but it did give England and France an excuse to go to war for the next few hundred years.
Here’s another line that could populate the entire list. The members of the Liu Song dynasty enjoyed killing two types of people: (1)their family and (2)everyone else’s family. Qianfei started out his life as a prisoner of his own uncle. The young Qianfei was under constant threat until his father killed his uncle, and set the boy free. That turned out to be a mistake, both historically and personally. The boy showed his gratitude by hating his father so much that, when he became emperor at the age of 15, he demanded all his father’s portraits be given a large ugly nose. He also repealed all his father’s laws at once, throwing the country into chaos.
It’s never a good sign when a mother’s last words are, “Somebody bring me a sword and cut me open to see how this animal came out of me.” Qianfei killed nearly everyone in his family, starting with his brother His brother was a third son and the last few emperors had been third sons as well. Qianfei was superstitious. He left some of his uncles alive, but caged them and put them on public display. One nobleman who plotted against him got his eyes scooped out. Qianfei put the eyes in honey and called them pickled ghost eyes. In between bouts of murder he engaged in sexual depravity, ordering his female relatives to have sex in front of him. If they refused, he killed their family. One aunt did not refuse, and started an affair with Qianfei. When her husband objected, Qianfei faked her death by killing a servant and sending the husband the mutilated body. And he killed the husband. And he killed the general who suggested that he not kill the husband.
This episode provides the first clue as to why he didn’t last long. As Qianfei’s paranoia increased, he slaughtered anyone who even looked like a traitor. Once he killed a servant because she looked like a woman who had told him, in a dream, that he would be killed. Then he was killed.
Amazingly this act was not committed by his family, or by the military. (If there is one thing about being a monarch I’ve learned from making this list, it’s never piss off the military.) He was killed by his attendants. Just to drive that home, a group of servants killed the emperor, and nobody objected. That’s how bad Qianfei was. One of the caged uncles was put on the throne, but the dynasty was done for. The uncle killed everyone except for another underaged nephew, who succeeded him but who was killed at fourteen, by his general. (See? Military.) The general began the Qi dynasty, and that’s all she wrote for the Liu Songs.
(Note: This is a picture of Liu Yu of the Song dynasty, as there don’t appear to be any pictures available of Qianfei)
Maria, unlike almost everyone else on this list, had an idyllic childhood. Her father, the King of Portugal, doted on her and her sisters. He spent most of his days taking the court from one beautiful location to another, giving his daughter dolls modeled on the saints, and patronizing musicians and artists. For anyone else, this would have made for a happy life, but that’s not the kind of thing one can do when one is king. While the King played around, his minister, the Marquis of Pombal, managed the country. In the Marquis’ view, “managing” the country meant imprisoning everyone who questioned him, and killing the rest. When an attempt was made on the King’s life, the Marquis rounded up his strongest political enemies, tortured them into confessions, broke their bones on a scaffold, and then burned the scaffold down.
This might not have touched Maria so deeply if religious mania didn’t run in her family. (Her family also ran in her family. She was married to her own uncle. Her son was married to her sister.) When she acceded to the throne, she became tormented by the thought that her beloved father was in hell for being a bad king, and that she was soon to join him. She amnestied all the political prisoners, and gave many positions at court. This did not help things, as decades in a 18th century Portuguese prison do not make for mental health. Many of her counselors and courtiers were as unstable as she was.
When, within the space of a year, her eldest son, her only living daughter, and two of her closest ministers all died, Maria fell apart. Some days she would embrace the fact that she was already damned by talking in an “unchaste” manner. Some days she would pace the halls screaming. Her twenty-six-year-old second son was made regent, but he was a lackadaisical man with no ability to reform an entire court of lunatics. The country was in no shape to meet Napoleon in 1807. The moment he marched on them, the entire family fled to Brazil.
As with the Russian tsars and the Liu Song dynasty, so with the sultans of the Ottoman empire - and for much the same reasons. The sultans’ stories are complicated by many wives and many sons. Strap in. Our tale begins with a group of brothers, the most prominent among them being Ahmed I and Mustafa. Ahmed, wanting power to himself, put his eleven-year-old brother Mustafa in “The Cage,” a tower with no windows, a brick wall built over the door, and no human contact. Ahmed had a few sons, but died at the exceedingly early age of twenty-eight. His most influential consort knew that her sons were too young to hold the throne, and that any of Ahmed’s other sons would probably either kill or imprison hers. Out of the Cage Mustafa came, fourteen years after being put in what was basically an above-ground pit.
Some found it odd that he walked around, always accompanied by two naked slave girls, but that wasn’t the problem. The problem was he had a habit of giving important positions to random people he liked - such as a man by the side of a road who offered him some water on a hot day. Without a strong and organized central government, the empire started to crumble. Back into the Cage he went, with the two women this time.
He was replaced by Ahmed’s oldest son, Osman. The young man might have made a decent ruler. He tried to reorganize the government and put in capable people. But he forbade drinking and smoking, especially for soldiers, and tried to chastise the elite royal guard, called the Janisarries. They rebelled and sentenced him to death by “compression of the testicles.” (Does anyone remember what I wrote about not angering the military?)
Out of the Cage came Mustafa again. At this point, he had a habit of sitting and giggling to himself. In between giggle fits, he would go around looking for his nephew, Osman, forgetting the man was dead. When reminded that his other nephews were alive, he made plans to kill them. He also went back to his old tricks, appointing random people to important positions. Tax revenue from the provinces was choked off. The officials in the provinces were one step from declaring themselves local kings. To put a cap on things, the Safavid Persian Empire attacked and grabbed what is now Iraq. Back into the Cage Mustafa went, for good this time.
Mustafa was succeeded by Murad IV, one of the nephews that he’d considered killing. Murad IV was a ruthless but effective ruler. His last act, before dying, was ordering the execution of his last surviving brother. He had nothing against little Ibrahim -although as it turns out he should have. Murad simply believed that the line was “cursed” by madness and needed to be annihilated. Sadly for at least 279 women, Ibrahim’s mother successfully pleaded for her son’s life.
Ibrahim had spent his entire life in the Cage, with only occasional contact with humans. He came out with what can be tactfully described as a lust for life. Made frantic by his years of deprivation, he acquired everything he could, and lashed out violently at anyone who might take his possessions away.
He quickly accumulated 280 concubines in a harem. One day, when he saw a young cow’s genitals he had a cast made of them, circulated it throughout the empire, looking for a woman to match them. (Here is our second horrifying version of Cinderella.) At last, a woman was found. She became his favorite concubine. He nicknamed her “sugar lump” or “sugar cube.” Sugar didn’t care for competition, so she told the psychotically jealous Ibrahim that one of the women in the harem was unfaithful, only she didn’t know which one. Ibrahim had all 280 tied up in sacks and thrown in the Bosphorus. Only one survived when her sack came undone. She was taken aboard a French freighter bound for Paris - which was probably the minimum safe distance from Ibrahim.
This he got away with. What finally did Ibrahim in was deciding that one of his concubines should be the daughter of the Grand Mufti - the interpreter of religious law. He kidnapped the girl, but returned her after a few days, so she was not among the women drowned. Meanwhile, he was fanatically acquiring all the gold and jewels he could, pulling jewels from temples and threatening to stuff his ministers with straw if they objected. Just to put a further strain on resources, Ibrahim started a war with Venice. He soon couldn’t pay the Janissaries. They might have felt guilty deposing, sending to the Cage, and eventually executing their sultan. How fortunate for them that there was an interpreter of religious law there to assure them that it was the right thing to do. The war with Venice outlasted Ibrahim by 22 years.
Justin II, like most of the other monarchs on this list, spent his formative years wondering if he was going to be murdered. He was one of the potential heirs to the Byzantine Empire, and he grew up under the empire’s most notorious couple, Justinian and Theodora. Eventually only Justinian was left, but all the potential heirs knew they could get the chop either before or after the emperor’s death. Justin was one of two Justins in a whole crop of cousins. He had been Theodora’s favorite, the child of one of her sisters, and Justinian remained a uxorious man. So this Justin got crowned. The other Justin got killed.
Let’s be fair. Justin II inherited a tough situation. Justinian’s foreign policy had consisted of expanding militarily as far as he could, then paying his new neighbors not to attack him. Although not something that one would think about while saluting a flag, it was a crackerjack idea. Tribute was not anywhere near as expensive as war. Unfortunately, the empire was going through some tough financial times, and Justinian had been borrowing to cover his annual payments. Justin believed he would do better by refusing payment to the Persians in the east while playing the tribes to the north against each other. It did not go well.
It was then, under the strain of multiple nearing armies, that Justin started to disintegrate. While ministers asked him what they should do, he would claim that he heard voices and climb under his bed to escape them. Those were good days. On bad days, he would violently attack the servants, biting them on the arms and head. Legend has it that he literally ate a couple of his servants. In desperate self-preservation, the servants tried to think up some way to keep the emperor too distracted to eat them all. They came up with a throne on wheels. The servants raced him around the halls of his palace in the throne, trying to keep him amused with the speed.
In the end Justin II fared pretty well - perhaps better than he deserved considering his last words as emperor were complaints about his servants. He regained some of his senses, and handed over power to one of his generals. (Military. Military. Military.) He lived out his life in obscurity, unmurdered.
Ludwig II of Bavaria is also known as the Swan King, or the Fairy King, names he no doubt would have encouraged during his lifetime. He liked the idea of being a king, but wasn’t particularly good at it. How not good? He lost his whole nation within two years. Two years into his reign, Bavaria was swallowed up by Prussia. King Ludwig was allowed to retain his title and some powers, but beyond the title, he wasn’t much interested in government.
He was interested in the things that have made him, subsequently, a beloved monarch. He built a succession of stunning palaces. He hired theater managers to revolutionize theater in Munich, setting new standards of drama for the western world. He was the most important and enduring patron of Wagner. (Well. They can’t all be winners.) What’s more, he did all this with royal funds. Naturally, he accrued a lot of debt.
It was this debt that caused a council to declare him insane and unfit to rule. That’s right, building too many pretty things and funding the arts qualified as madness. Standards for insane monarchs really dropped in the 19th century. Today, many people believe that Ludwig was unfairly condemned. It’s tough to say whether the fact that three days after he was deposed Ludwig was found dead in a shallow lake along with the doctor who diagnosed him strengthens or weakens their case. Whatever the conclusion, Ludwig II was the one mad monarch who left his country a great legacy. Bavaria remained the cultural center of Prussia for the next sixty years, many people enjoy Wagner for some reason, and to this day Ludwig’s palaces draw millions of visitors. And not even one member of the clergy was dressed up as a bear and hunted by dogs.
[Via The Secret Lives of Tsars, Absolute Terror, Blood Royal, 1000 Words for 1000 Days, Maria I of Portugal, Mustafa I of Turkey, Ibrahim I of Turkey, Murad IV, Bavaria’s Mad King Ludwig May Not Have Been So Mad After All, King Ludwig II, Justin II.]