Royally Painful Facts About Tragic Rulers

November 6, 2023 | Christine Tran

Royally Painful Facts About Tragic Rulers

“Life is a dream for the wise, a game for the fool, a comedy for the rich, a tragedy for the poor".–Sholom Aleichem

To the cultural imagination, stories about tragic rulers are appealing because regular folk like to imagine that royals—with all their scary yet seductive privilege—are “just like us". After all, what is more human that suffering? But being royals, there’s something bigger and grander about their suffering, at least when told through the glamorous lens of popular history. Who wants to hear about our banal, everyday sufferings when people with expensive hats broken feelings is caught up in the larger-scale drama of public execution and disgrace? A crown isn’t protection from everything. From phantom babies to treacherous molehills, let’s set the royal jewels for these 43 harrowing facts about tragic rulers.


1. The Mother of All Tragedies

Over a 30-year career, Kösem Sultan rose from slave concubine to Regent of the Ottoman Empire. Unfortunately, she lost practically every close male family member on the way there. She lived through the reigns of six sultans (Ahmed I, Mustafa I, Osman II, Murad IV, Ibrahim I, and Mehmed IV) and survived every single one but her last, her grandson. After Kösem met her untimely end due to the actions of her daughter-in-law in 1651, the people appropriately referred to the enduring queen as "Vālide-i Maḳtūle" (fallen mother) or "Vālide-i Șehīde" (martyred mother).


2. Outgrowing Her

Throughout her adulthood, Catherine de Medici enjoyed getting her way when it came to her son-kings. In the final months of her existence, this era drew to a close; her son, Henri III, pledged not to do harm to the Duke of Guise under her counsel, expressed appreciation to his mother for her guidance...and then, in a shocking turn of events, caused grave harm to the Duke in the room directly above her. Some argue that the shock of her favorite son's disobedience contributed to her passing a few weeks later. In my humble opinion, it sounds like she authored one last motherly guilt trip.

Tragic rulersWiimedia.Commons

3. Messy Memories

When King Louis XVI of France was beheaded in 1793, he apparently prayed that his blood would not fall back on France. Well, it literally fell onto the streets and several spectators jumped to dip their hankies in the not-so-blue blood. For centuries, this story was believed to be a myth. But in 2012, DNA testing of saved tissue samples confirmed its truth. People did turn personal tragedy and political revolution into the ultimately souvenir.

Tragic rulersWikipedia

4. The Arrow of Fate

Richard I "the Lionheart" of England experienced a less than dramatic end that seemed unfitting for such an epic king skilled in battle. In March 1199, the mighty lion was shot by a stray arrow outside of Chalus Castle in France. However, the arrow didn’t kill him—it was the deadly infection he caught from the wound, which took two weeks to do the job on April 6. As if that weren’t dignified enough, the lucky arrow was shot by a random little boy who became mythologized as “the ant” who slayed “the lion".

Tragic rulersWikimedia.Commons

5. In and Out Hal

Henry V would be immortalized by history—and Shakespeare’s plays—as an epic warrior king of England. However, his reign was tragically cut short. With his reign lasting just nine-and-a-half years, Henry V is actually the shortest reigning of all the English King Henrys. Even more tragically, he left behind a son, Henry VI, who was only nine months old.

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6. Extremely miserable

"Officially", Henry VI of England's cause of departure was documented as "pure melancholy and displeasure". Not to mitigate the impact of mental illness and depression, but it’s highly doubtful that he went out so quietly. Many historians agree that it's highly probable Henry met his untimely demise at the hands of his cousin, Edward IV, after a prolonged battle for supremacy over the throne.

Tragic rulersWikipedia

7. Little King Lost

The 12-year-old Edward V has the dubious honor of being England’s shortest-reigning king, or at least he’s the shortest serving king to not be crowned. Edward never even made it to his coronation, as he and his little brother Richard were restricted to the Tower of London for the rest of their presumed lives. These legendary “Princes in the Tower” simply disappeared, leaving the throne to his captor/uncle, Richard III. Most believe he was eliminated on Richard's orders after only a 78-day reign.

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8. Dentally Damned

An analysis of Richard III of England's remains implies that the last York king also had some seriously terrible dental hygiene. Apparently, daily indulgence in alcoholic beverages did not complement his chronic teeth grinding condition well. However, as the last English king to die in battle, Richard III, of course, had bigger problems.

Tragic rulersWikipedia

9. Trading Down

#TFW getting replaced by a younger model runs in the family: at the age of six Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire rose to power upon the violent deposition of his own father, Ibrahim I (Ibrahim the Mad). However, Mehmed appeared to enjoy hunting and other sports more than rulership. By the time he reached adulthood, Mehmed himself was forced into exile and replaced by his little brother, Suleyman II.

Tragic rulersPicryl

10. At Least He Got It Back

Charles I of England is still the only official English king to be formally executed by his own people. To give him some dignity, they sewed Charles’s head back onto his neck—à la post-Red Wedding Robb Stark—for his burial.

Tragic rulersWikipedia

11. Making Mountains Out of Molehills

William III of England met an undignified end after falling off his horse and breaking his collarbone. According to legend, the guilty speed bump was none other than a molehill.

Tragic rulersWikipedia

12. The Final Square Off

Afflicted with gout and dropsy, Queen Anne of Great Britain could barely walk by the last years of her life. Her body was so bloated, her royal coffin was shaped like a square.

Tragic rulersWikipedia

13. Don’t Stop the Presses

For George V of England, the divine right of kings extended to first pick of obituaries. You see, the dying king's physician intentionally administered a lethal dose of morphine. Why? In order for George's demise to align perfectly with the next morning's newspaper headlines, because to reveal the loss of a king in the evening paper would be inappropriate. Hey, kings come first in everything.

Tragic rulersWikipedia

14. Canonically Awesome

In 1460, King James II of Scotland met his demise by his own cannon. Apparent, the artillery fanboy wanted to inspect these new canons—freshly imported from Flanders—while they were in action. He set one off, but instead of working as intended, it blew up and sent two pieces of debris into his royal thigh bone. Unlike most medieval battle injuries—which typically led to a slow and painful end due to infection—James mercifully departed instantly right where he stood.

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15. Bad Seed

King Yeongio of Joseon ruled over 18th century Korea for 52 years, with most agreeing he was very good at it. However, he is primarily remembered in history for commanding the end of his son, Prince Sado's life. Yeongio’s heir was as sadistic as his father was temperate. With his son notorious for mistreating servants and court members, Yeongio made the difficult decision (with consent of the boy’s mother) to confine Sado inside a heavy rice chest. After eight days, the chest was opened to show Sado, who had tragically suffocated.

TRagic rulersWikiepdia

16. Royal Jerk, Well-Done

Charles II of Navarre earned the nickname "Charles the Bad" for double-dealing with France and England during the hundred-year lasting conflict. Thus, his violent and seemingly avoidable demise was considered as divine justice. According to the legend, when Charles fell ill, his doctors decided to heal him by naturally wrapping him from head to toe in cloth soaked in a potent alcoholic beverage. When one of the attendants was cutting up the remaining thread—so he would be nice and tight—she didn’t want to use scissors for fear of cutting his royal body. Instead, she used a lit candle to burn off the thread. However, the blend of fire and spirits proved disastrous for Charles, as his regal form ignited like a cigar.

Tragic rulersWikipedia

17. Blazing Saddles

Dying on horseback is less glorious than it sounds. Especially if your life ended while riding a horse. William the Conqueror charged onto battlefield upon his royal steed, when said steed came to a sudden stop. William's innards suffered a brutal impact upon the pommel of his saddle, severely damaging his internal organs, which ultimately resulted in his demise.

Tragic rulersWikimedia.Commons

18. Leave a Charming Remains

Not only did George II of Great Britain die on the toilet on 25 October 1760 (of apparent cardiac arrest); he cut his face on the fall down. The chalet discovered him lifeless on the floor once the king retreated into his private closet, producing a royal thump, marring his handsome face during the fatal fall.

Tragic rulersWikipedia

19. Black is the New Black

File this under tragic rulers who could’ve been: Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales was first in line to be Queen of the United Kingdom as the only child of George IV. Regrettably, she lost her life during childbirth at the tender age of 21. She was so publicly beloved—and grieved—it’s said that the nation’s merchants ran out of black fabric because mourning Charlotte was just that fashionable.

Tragic rulersWikipedia

20. All or Nothing

On June 1, 2001, the 29-year-old Crown Prince Dipendra of Nepal walked into a royal family gathering and opened fire on his kin. Nine people, including Diependra's own mother, father, and daughter, lost their lives before the Prince ended his own. In a chilling final detail, Dipendra actually survived for a few more days after inflicting self-harm using a firearm, so he was technically made the King of Nepal for three days, while in a coma, before succumbing to his wounds. To this day, the motive behind his violent act remains ambiguous—but most speculate he was distraught at the country’s transition from absolute monarchy to a democracy. In any case, Nepal’s royal monarchy was officially dismantled in 2008.

Tragic rulersWikipedia

21. All Hail the Mountain King

In 1934, King Albert of Belgium went out for a rock-climbing adventure by himself and never came back. For years, people whispered about foul play, even as his body was eventually found. It took until 2016 to confirm that was just a tragic accident—he literally fell off a cliff.

Tragic rulersWikiepdia


22. Bad Beans

Sultan Osman II of the Ottoman Empire was too young to rule. At age 14, he ascended to the throne and carried out several unsuccessful combat operations, for which he quickly pointed fingers at the Janissaries. According to some, Osman punished them by closing their coffee shop. That crossed the line, and they immediately choked him until he ceased to breathe. Hey, don’t mess with a man’s morning brew.

Tragic rulersWikipedia

23. Couples Inspo

Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal had 14 kids and rule of an empire together. Tragically, Mumtaz lost her life while giving birth to her 14th child. This tragedy would inspire Jahan to build the Taj Mahal in memory of her, and one of the world's great landmarks was born.

Tragic rulersWikipedia

24. Outsourcing to the End

As Roman emperor Nero faced the end of his derelict reign in 68 AD, he couldn’t fully bring himself to take his own life. To gain the nerve, Nero began by begging one of his nearby friends to kill themselves first to “set an example". But as the enemies got closer, Nero finally forced his private secretary to do the deed—and after all that whining, I'm sure they jumped to the task.

Tragic rulersWikimedia.Commons

25. Downer Epilogue

As the unofficial leader of House Lancaster during the dispute of the Roses, Margaret of Anjou deserved a more dramatic conclusion. The incapacity of her husband Henry VI meant the role of England’s chief strategist fell to her. She even commanded her own army at the Battle of Tewkesbury—an unfortunate event concluding with her only son, the 17-year-old Prince Edward of Westminster, no longer being among us. The precise circumstances that led to his untimely demise remain unclear. Margaret's dynastic aspirations were thwarted; she was taken into captivity by the Yorkists and then bought back by her French kin in 1475. She spent the remainder of her days under the charity of the King of France, living in relative obscurity until 1482, when she left this world and was entombed next to her parents. 

Tragic rulersWikipedia

26. Lesson One

According to Robert Dudley, Elizabeth I of England’s earliest anti-marriage vows came in the wake of her stepmother Catherine Howard’s execution. The young girl vowed, “I will never marry". Not sure if that’s the only reason, but Elizabeth did keep her promise.

Tragic rulersWikipedia

27. Mommy Deadliest

When he was only eight years old, Paul III of Russia, son of Catherine the Great, lost his father to poison. Later in life, Paul would be utterly convinced that his mother did the deed—and he was right, but he made the mistake of focusing his rage outwards. The estrangement between mother and son drove Catherine to cultivate his brother, Alexander, as the successor. Fortunately, Catherine's life ended before she could establish it legally. Paul became the Tsar, but we’re not sure those maternal wounds could ever be fixed by a crown.

Tragic rulersWikipedia

28. Cycle of See You Later

Mary, Queen of the Scots, ascended to the throne as a newborn. Her father, James V, departed this life when she was only six days old. In a tragic stroke of history repeating itself, after a young adulthood of political chaos, Mary ended up having to abdicate the throne to her own son James VI of Scotland when he was just a one-year-old. She left for England and the two never saw each other again.

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29. They Call Me “Friar Fast Knives”

Henri III was the last Valois king (and son of Catherine de Medici) to inherit the French throne. At the age of 37, he was taken out of life by someone disguised as a figure of peace - specifically, a monk. Armed with forged documents, and also a concealed sharp instrument, the monk managed to gain access to his palace and inform his king of highly classified information. Henri sent the servants away, so he could have privacy. The monk then whispered in Henri's ear, swiftly ending his life.

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30. The Pauper King

Richard II of England goes to show that the “divine right of kings” had its limits. In late 1399, it was deemed that Richard had messed up so bad at this monarch thing, he had essentially made himself “unworthy” to be king. He abdicated on the condition that his life would not be forfeit. After October 1399, what exactly happened to Richard becomes unclear. He was confined to Pontefract Castle for the remainder of the year. By February 1400, Richard had perished, allegedly due to starvation.

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31. Baby Come Back

Mustafa I of the Ottoman Empire hardly wanted to be Sultan, but he was dragged from his “golden cage” twice to do the job. After being overthrown by his teenaged nephew, Osman II, the mentally unstable Mustafa got a second chance when Osman himself was deposed. It's said Mustafa would sometimes run through the palace, screaming for his little nephew, who was no longer alive, to come back and take the throne from him.

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32. Oh, Boy!

Queen Christina of Sweden’s mother was never shy about her disappointment in the gender of her only child. Maria of Brandenburg was desperate to give her husband a son. When presented with the baby girl Christina, Maria rather tastefully screamed, “Instead of a son, I am given a daughter, dark and ugly, with a great nose and black eyes. Take her from me, I will not have such a monster!” Maria would then “accidentally” almost kill Christina was repeatedly dropped or pushed down the stairs; she was even made to sleep under the decaying heart of her deceased father. All things being considered, Christine turned out very well.

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33. Too Close to the Family

As the last Hapsburg king of the Spanish empire, Charles II was a victim of his family’s inbreeding. Bald before the age of 35, he suffered from numerous image and health issues, leaving no male heir (he was almost definitely impotent).

Tragic rulersWikimedia.Commons

34. For Sale: Prince Crown; Never Worn

It was difficult for Ottoman Sultans to leave no heirs when one considers they were encouraged to sire multiple heirs off multiple concubines. Murad IV was one of those unlucky few; he had at least eleven sons and five daughters, but none of the boys survived past childhood. All of his sons were buried at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. Despite a fairly illustrious career in the armed forces, Murad vanished at the tender age of 27, like a true rockstar, without a son to carry on his legacy.

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35. A Little Help?

When Francis II of France ascended to the throne, it’s said the crown was so heavy—in comparison to his sickly body—nobles had to hold it steady on his head for him. Not an ideal beginning to what ended up being a brief reign; he expired just a year-and-a-half later.

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36. All of the Feels

On his deathbed, Charles IX of France’s moods alternated between contrition, pride, and the classic, “It’s all your fault, Mom!” He was, of course, referring to the Huguenot tragedy that had occurred under his reign.

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37. No Visitors Allowed

For decades, Henri II of France embarked on a lifelong love affair with his mistress Diane de Poitiers. Even on his deathbed from a tragic jousting accident (a lance had wounded him in the eye), Henri begged to see her. His wife, Catherine de Medici, was less than sympathetic to his final pleas and refused Diane entry to his room. He departed this life without Diane at his side, and Catherine banished Diane to a remote, yet comfortable, obscurity.

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38. Target Practice

On the morning of their execution, the Romanovs were guided down to the cellar of the house, and the execution squad arrived to perform their assigned task. The men were each supposed to fire at a different family member, but many privately didn’t want to shoot the girls, so they all aimed at Nicholas and Alexandra instead. The firing was so wild that the men managed to injure each other in the process.

In the months leading up to their executions, Alexandra had the children sew valuable diamonds into specially made underwear in case they needed quick money for an escape. On the evening of the execution, the children were dressed in unique undergarments that essentially served as protective armor against projectiles. The bullets ricocheted off the clothing, injuring but not causing the demise of the children. When the smoke cleared and the killers realized the children were still alive, they had to attempt to complete the fatal task once more.

Tragic rulersWikipedia

39. A Smell to Remember

What smells? William I of England’s 1987 funeral was one of the most messed-up wakes in English history. For one, a guest actually heckled his lifeless body, claiming that the church had been erected on his father's land without appropriate reimbursement. Also, the coffin was built too small for his kingly body (he had grown extremely obese in his old age). William had to be literally squeezed inside, which caused his bowels to burst open and emit a horrific smell across the crowd of mourners.

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40. Teen Idle

Jane Grey wasn’t called “the Nine Days’ Queen” because she led a long and prosperous career. When she was just 16 years old, her dying cousin, Edward VI, left her the throne of England in his will. Only problem: Edward skipped over his half-sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, to ensure the throne went to a true Protestant. This put Jane in a dangerous position. As it turns out, both Mary and England's people did not take well to Edward’s flaunting of tradition. After barely a week and a half, Mary I of England deposed Jane on 19 July 1553. After much contention about her fate, the young Jane was executed five months later.

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41. She Got The Last Word

Napoleon Bonaparte’s marriage to Josephine de Beauharnais was riddled with mutual infidelity, struggles with infertility, and, ultimately, divorce. When it became apparent Josephine could not have children, he left her to marry a more fertile consort. Yet, on his deathbed, Napoleon’s final words were still, “France, the Army, the Head of the Army, Josephine".

Tragic rulersWikipedia

42. False Alarms

The shadow of Elizabeth I has not been kind to her older sister and queenly predecessor, Mary I. Aside from her prosecution of Protestants, Mary’s other tragic legacy is the public humiliation of her phantom pregnancies. By September 1554, Mary exhibited all the signs of finally being pregnant. But by July 1555, it became evident that there never was a baby. Mary took this as a punishment from God for perhaps being too lenient on heretics. It happened again, in 1557, when Mary convinced herself she was actually pregnant. This alteration in her womb, too, was a pseudo pregnancy... and perhaps indicative of the uterine cancer that was assumed to have caused her demise.

Tragic rulersWikimedia.Commons

43. Good Enough to Kiss, Not to Bury

Some carry their grief with them everywhere. In the case of Juana of Castile, this was not just a metaphor. Deeply affected by the loss of her cherished spouse, Phillip the Handsome of Burgundy, Juana had her late husband exhumed and his casket opened numerous times to lovingly kiss his much-missed (decaying) face.

From that moment on, she brought his coffin with her everywhere, even her bed. Only years later did she return Philip to the ground—burying him right outside her window.

Tragic rulersWikipedia

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30

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