History is filled with mad kings and queens who made their subjects miserable with cruelty, poor governance, and a detachment from reality—but the monarchs here are perhaps the worst examples of power and privilege gone horribly wrong. From jealous lovers to unhinged tyrants to those who used their creativity in service of cruelty, these maniacal monarchs took "savage" to the next level. Here are 50 unhinged facts about mad kings and queens.
Charles VI of France took power at 21 and things actually went well enough for a decade that he was called “the Beloved.” But then, at the age of 32, mental illness took hold, he murdered four of his knights and attacked his brother Louis of Orleans. Even more bizarre? He believed he was made of glass and would shatter if touched.
Quickly, he went from being known as "Charles the Beloved" to "Charles the Mad."
Henry VI of England was the grandson of Charles VI, and it looks like he may have inherited his grandfather’s mental instability. Unable to rule properly his entire reign, in 1453, he had a mental breakdown and fell into a vegetative state for over a year. This created a power struggle that led to the War of the Roses. Henry VI was eventually overthrown and died in the Tower of London.
Ivan IV of Russia was known by many as Ivan the Terrible. He was prone to fits of rage and during one such fit, he accidentally killed his own son. He also established a special force called the Oprichnina that terrorized nobility and killed anyone he saw as a threat. He personally led the Oprichnik and massacred the city of Novgorod.
There’s a reason they didn’t call him Ivan the Pleasant.
The Zhengde Emperor of China was one of the most notorious rulers of the Ming Dynasty. He would send his military out on pointless missions and often gave orders to an imaginary double called General Zhu Shou. He put a senior eunuch in charge of affairs of state and, after they fell out five years later, had him executed by being sliced into tiny pieces over three days.
Talk about cold cuts.
In 1640, Ibrahim I became Sultan of the Ottoman Empire at the age of 25. He was very clearly mentally unstable as he drowned his entire harem (what a waste of a harem) and imposed new taxes to fund his lavish lifestyle. He was deposed and then ten days later strangled. Drowning women is one thing. But new taxes? Unacceptable.
King Nebuchadnezzar was a Babylonian ruler whose first-person account of his seven-year descent into insanity, as documented in the Old Testament book of Daniel, made him a poster child for crazy. According to the book, he was arrogant and struck down for not believing in the Hebrew’s God, and left his palace to live in the wild like an animal.
At a young age, Carlota of Belgium married Maximillian, the archduke of Austria. After some political shenanigans in 1864, Maximillian became president of Mexico. Backed by French troops and conservative supporters, Maximillian and Carlota ruled over Mexico and instituted liberal policies to win over the people, but in doing so, lost their conservative supporters. The aftermath was utterly brutal.
Maximilian was executed and Carlota lost her mind. She struggled with mental illness until her death—but modern historians have an idea of what might have happened to her. They speculate that her madness may have been caused by "magic" mushrooms that she would have ingested while in Mexico.
Rudolf II was Holy Roman Emperor from 1575 to 1612. He made his political decisions based on his studies of the occult sciences, which as you can imagine, did not turn out well. On top of that, he also suffered from depression. Eventually, he was forced by his family to give up most of his effective power to his younger brother Matthias.
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George III of the United Kingdom had many mental issues, which may have been side effects of the medication he was taking for his physical maladies. However, he is remembered mainly for the British defeat in the American Revolutionary War and was thus known as the “Mad King Who Lost America.”
Christian VII of Denmark ruled over his Kingdom for 40 years, but like his cousin George III, he was mentally ill. His mental incapacity provoked power struggles as the king was easily manipulated. Anyone who could influence the him became the de facto King of Denmark.
Queen Maria I of Portugal was already a bit bonkers, but after the death of her husband/uncle in 1786, and her son and daughter shortly afterward, she really lost her mind. A religious fanatic, she became convinced she was going to hell and saw visions of her dead father’s blackened corpse being tortured by demons.
Her visitors complained that she screamed and wailed too much. Everything in moderation.
Vlad the Impaler was known for, well, impaling things, usually people. Impalement was his favorite form of violence. If you have a favorite form of violence, you’re probably more than a little bit insane. Vlad impaled a lot of people. Some would say, too many people. Estimates are between 40,000 and 100,000 people.
The fictional Dracula was actually based on the non-fictional Vlad.
Erik XIV of Sweden was super paranoid. It wasn’t unusual for people caught laughing, smiling, or whispering within Erik’s earshot to be sentenced to death for treason. Somewhat ironically, he died in 1577 when someone poisoned his pea soup. We guess just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.
Princess Alexandra Amalie of Bavaria was, by all accounts, a lovely and charming woman who had the slight defect of being convinced she had swallowed an all-glass piano. She was also obsessed with cleanliness and wore only white.
Although Ludwig II of Bavaria isn’t considered insane by modern historians, at the time he was regarded as mad because he lived extravagantly and shirked his royal duties. He spent most of his rule dedicated to over-ambitious artistic and architectural projects that emptied the royal treasury. Although they are now popular tourist attractions, his detractors used these flights of fancy against him and deposed him—but his strange story doesn't end there.
The ministers who deposed Ludwig sent a commission to arrest Ludwig and place him in the custody of Dr. Von Gudden. Ludwig holed up in Neuschwanstein with a private army for two days while 36 armed guards surrounded the castle. He was finally caught trying to escape. When arrested, he said to Von Gudden, “How dare you declare me insane? You’ve never examined me before!”
Insane or not, Ludwig had a point.
The doctor took Ludwig to rest at Berg Castle just south of Munich. On the evening of June 13, 1886, the two men took a walk together along the shore of Lake Starnberg. What happened next is still the subject of a great mystery. The bodies of Ludwig and Von Gudden were found that night floating in the lake. Neither had water in their lungs, but Von Gudden’s body showed signs of strangulation and bludgeoning.
The mystery has never been solved, though modern historians suggest that Ludwig and his doctor may have been murdered by Ludwig's enemies while he was attempting once more to escape.
Poor Mustafa I of Turkey was locked in a room for ten years by his brother. He was let out momentarily when his brother died and then locked in a few months later by his nephew. When his nephew was assassinated four years later, he was let out again. He was frequently found running through the palace, banging on doors, and screaming for his dead nephew to come back and rule Turkey.
Maria Eleonora of Brandenburg desperately wanted to give her husband a son, but after a number of stillbirths and miscarriages, she was dismayed to finally deliver a girl, Christina—and her chilling reaction got worse from there. She tried several times to kill her child, “accidentally” dropping her or shoving her downstairs.
After her husband died, she forced her daughter to sleep under a golden casket containing her father’s heart. Somehow, Christina grew up as fully functioning normal woman.
Like so many monarchs before him, Ferdinand I of Austria was the product of inbreeding. His parents were double first cousins. Ferdinand was epileptic, encephalitic, and had problems with simple tasks. He is best remembered for his command to his cook: when told he could not have apricot dumplings (Marillenknödel) because apricots were out of season, he said: "I am the Emperor, and I want dumplings!"
Tsar Peter the Great of Russia was a well-beloved figure in Russian history, responsible for many great changes and advances. However, he also suffered from paranoia due to a childhood of watching family members die cruelly (or as the Russians call it, "Tuesday"). He did things like practice dentistry on his own court nobles, and once when the nobles were rightly disgusted at the dissection of a corpse, he reportedly ordered them to take a bite out of said corpse—but that was nothing compared to what he did to his son.
Fanatical about loyalty, when his son temporarily fled to Sweden, he had him tortured to death. Thankfully for his second wife, Catherine, he was a bit nicer to her. Peter suffered from fits throughout his life, and only his beloved second wife, Catherine, was able to help him through these moments. In return, Peter helped pave the way for Catherine to become ruler of Russia after his death, setting a new precedent for women in the Russian monarchy.
Emperor Qianfei ruled the Liu Song dynasty and he enjoyed killing two types of people. His family and other people’s families. He killed his brother, caged his uncles, and scooped out a nobleman’s eyes, which he put in a jar of honey and called “pickled ghost eyes.” He was eventually killed by his servants and his approval ratings were so low that nobody objected.
Justin II of Italy spent the end of his reign rolling around his palace on a throne with wheels. The RollerThrone™ was designed by his servants who needed to find a way to distract the king because he had an utterly disturbing tendency—he had a penchant for eating them.
In 1838, it was estimated that Queen Ranavalona I of Madagascar had allowed nearly a fifth of her kingdom to die under the tangena ordeal, which was a traditional test of innocence where the subject ate three chicken skins and then poison to see how many they threw up. We bet those chicken skins didn’t even come with a secret blend of eleven herbs and spices.
Anna ruled as Empress of Russia from 1730 to 1740. In the most famous example of her insanity, she set up an old prince with her maid, organized the wedding, and had a special palace made of ice for the ceremony. She made the wedding party dress like clowns and spend the night in the ice palace during one of the harshest winters Russia had seen in years.
And here we thought Elsa was the ice queen.
Born in 1735, Prince Sado of Korea was hated by his father, the King, from an early age. Perhaps this hatred led to his insanity, but regardless, Sado was cruel, assaulting and murdering servants on a whim, and even stalking his own sister. Eventually, his father locked him in a rice chest for eight days, until he died. Would it have been so hard to have just given the boy a hug?
Today, Emperor Caligula's reputation as an unhinged madman precedes him. He killed men for pleasure, had intimate relations with their wives, demanded to be worshipped as a living god, and caused a financial crisis with his extravagant and unnecessary spending. Of course, all these actions were just an average Tuesday for Caligula.
In the various writings about Caligula, nearly all historians agree that he placed very little value on human life. In one story, he was supposedly meant to make a sacrifice to the gods by hitting a bull over the head with a mallet, but at the last minute, he turned and hit the priest instead. He then apparently laughed at the priest as he was dying.
When it came to his treatment of humans, Caligula was known for his cruelty, but there was one creature he revered: He loved his horse Incitatus so much that he gave him his own house with a marble stall and manger made from ivory. Caligula had planned to make the horse a consul as an expression of his total power, but died before he had the opportunity.
Caligula was so hated by the Roman people at the end of his reign that the citizens began to demand that he be removed from power. A plot developed within the senate to assassinate the emperor, and on January 24, 41 AD, Cassius Chaerea slashed his throat from behind, followed by a blow to the chest from another man.
The killing of Caligula marked the first time that a Roman Emperor was assassinated. He was stabbed 30 times by the Praetorian guards at the Palatine Games. Tragically, his innocent wife and daughter were also executed.
By the time Caligula died, he was so hated that the Senate pushed to have him completely erased from Roman history. Apparently violent assassination simply wasn't enough: They ordered the destruction of his statues and public inscriptions, and his coins were pulled from circulation and melted down whenever possible.
Caligula had a malevolent sense of humor. Once at a dinner party, he reportedly burst into raucous laughter. When asked to explain the reason for his mirth, he replied, “I’ve just thought that I’ve only to give the word and you’ll all have your throats cut.” Hilarious, right?!
Queen Joanna of Castile didn’t become known as “Juana La Loca” for her sound and righteous rule. Yet to what extent was this “mad” Spanish queen simply a victim of bad luck and greed? As a vulnerable female heir to a rich country, Queen Joanna was surrounded by male relatives who had much to gain from her loss of power.
I imagine it’s hard to catch a break when your mom literally engineered the Spanish Inquisition. According to some sources, Queen Isabella was deeply enraged by Princess Joanna’s insufficient piety and took it out on the girl in the most brutal way possible. It’s been suggested Isabella “corrected” her daughter’s religious disposition with methods such as “La cuerda,” where Joanna was hung in the air by ropes and weighted down by her feet.
We can’t imagine that felt great—either for Joanna’s body or her mental health.
When she was just 17 years old, Joanna was formally engaged to Philip of Flanders (future Duke Philip I of Burgundy), who was the son of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian I. Joanna’s marriage to Philip was one of mutual but lopsided passion. Joanna worshipped him; Philip found Joanna beautiful and charming, but not worth staying faithful to.
Her Burgundian beau quickly began to see other ladies on the side. His infidelities often sent Joanna into jealous rages and depressive tailspins—and as we'll see, they were the least of his betrayals.
Some men can’t handle their wives making more: the pressure of being Castile’s heir and future Queen put a strain on Joanna’s marriage to Philip of Burgundy. He had moved his court to be with Joanna in Castile as the country’s heirs, but their arguments intensified until he eventually left Joanna pregnant and alone in Madrid.
As you might expect, Joanna did not take Philip's abandonment very well at all. In a dark omen of things to come, she fell mentally and physically apart when he left: The heiress indulged in the rather unroyal conduct of crying herself to sleep every night, refusing lavish meals, and flinging her royal body against the walls.
During Joanna's period of abandonment with Philip, her mother eventually allowed her to follow him back to Flanders. She arrived home to the worst possible sight: Philip had taken an in-house mistress. Not one to be usurped without a fight, Joanna allegedly started hacking off her rival’s hair with scissors. When this act of violence failed to heal Joanna’s heart, she simply stabbed the woman in the face.
The pivotal tragedy of Joanna’s life occurred in 1506: her beloved Philip died suddenly at the tragically young (but still beautiful) age of 28. The cause of his untimely death was ostensibly typhoid fever…but it was believed by many—including a very paranoid Queen Joanna, reportedly—to be the result of poison.
When her beloved (and traitorous) husband Philip died, Queen Joanna didn't just grieve in the normal way; in fact, it sent her into her worst emotional tailspin yet. For a considerable period, she refused to leave her husband’s already-embalmed body. During this time, she was pregnant with their final child, Catherine.
But it gets worse: the widowed Joanna couldn't even accept Philip's mortality after he was buried and in the ground (at her father's insistence). Shortly after his death, she reportedly ordered his body exhumed, had the casket opened, jumped to his side once again, and kissed his dearly departed feet. From this point, wherever Joanna went, so did Philip’s casket.
Joanna’s jealousy over Philip’s love also continued after his death. While “accompanied” by her late husband’s casket, it’s rumored Joanna would only travel at night; she didn’t want other women tempting Philip of Burgundy’s corpse during those sexy daytime hours. Her entourage avoided nunneries for this reason—you can never be too careful, even around holy sisters.
For the most part, Joanna had the sense to keep her husband’s casket closed. It was simply transported to be with her at meals and her bedside. She only occasionally opened it to gaze upon her beloved’s pretty (and rapidly decomposing) face. Only years later was Philip finally laid to rest again. Of course, this was apparently right outside of Joanna’s window, where his notorious eye could wander no more.
Joanna's insanity, however, has an even darker and more personal side: Recent scholarship has suggested Joanna’s own beloved husband spread the rumors of his wife’s “insanity.” While Joanna’s real behavior hardly helped, the ambitious Philip had incentive to push the image of his wife as an incapable ruler. He was certainly insecure about his role in Joanna’s regime and looked to usurp her authority.
Although she only reigned for five short years, King Henry VIII's first-born daughter "Bloody Mary" was a busy Queen. As she attempted to reverse the Protestant reforms of her father, Mary had over 280 dissenters of the Catholic Church burned at the stake, earning her the terrifying nickname by which we know her today.
In the summer of 1554, the English court was bracing for news of Mary’s first child. Mary started to show signs of a pregnancy months earlier, and everyone was taking precautions for the next heir to the throne. Her husband King Philip was possibly even planning to marry Mary’s half-sister Elizabeth in the event that his wife died (he was a stand-up guy). There was just one problem...
Mary wasn’t actually pregnant at all. Perhaps for psychological reasons, she had a rare case of false pregnancy. Tragically, it would not even be her last. During one these episodes, Mary was so convinced that she was with child that she had letters drafted announcing the birth of her heir. They would never be needed.
Mary died, childless, in 1558 during an influenza epidemic. However, the reasons for Bloody Queen Mary’s death are not totally clear, even to this day. Some accounts suggest she succumbed to the influenza outbreak, while others suggest she died of cancer, and that her false pregnancies were actually the result of a tumor.
My mom never told me how her best friend died. Years later, I was using her phone when I made an utterly chilling discovery.
Madame de Pompadour was the alluring chief mistress of King Louis XV, but few people know her dark history—or the chilling secret shared by her and Louis.
I tried to get my ex-wife served with divorce papers. I knew that she was going to take it badly, but I had no idea about the insane lengths she would go to just to get revenge and mess with my life.
Catherine of Aragon is now infamous as King Henry VIII’s rejected queen—but few people know her even darker history.
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