If the gruesome tale of Eric XIV of Sweden is anything to go by, it was hard out there for a 16th-century king. Then again, Eric was unhinged, immoral, and the perpetrator of one of the most infamous acts ever committed in royal history. In fact, his incredibly bloody reign was almost enough to justify his infamous end.
King Eric XIV Facts
1. He Suffered an Enormous Tragedy
Though Eric XIV would soon earn a reputation as one of the maddest men in Sweden, his beginnings were tragic in another way entirely. Born December 13, 1533 as the heir of King Gustav I and Queen Catherine of Sweden, the boy got precious little time with his mother; she passed before he was even two years old. Maybe this explains his horrific rage later in life.
2. He Was Scarily Smart
Eric was an eerily bright child who excelled at both languages and mathematics, particularly under one of his favorite tutors, the radical thinker Dionysius Beurraeus. But this relationship had a dark side. Though Dionysius was one of Eric’s biggest defenders, as we’ll see, the king would repay him with a brutal betrayal.
3. He Betrayed His Own Sister
You’ll learn quickly that Eric had an allegiance to exactly one person: himself. In 1559, he even threw his own sister Cecilia under the bus, and in the worst way possible. When Eric stumbled upon the unmarried Cecilia in bed with a man, he promptly caused an enormous scandal by telling everybody and their mother about it, nearly ruining his sister in the process.
4. He Had a Strange Charm
By all accounts, Eric was a physically healthy, good-looking man, and his portraits show a flush complexion and close-cropped, reddish-blonde hair. He also liked to grow his beard long and oh-so manly, as was the style in Sweden at the time.
5. He Had Insatiable Appetites
As he grew into a strapping young adult, Eric started to become interested in women—like, uh, really interested. At 25, the Crown Prince wasted no time proving his manhood by picking the beautiful Agda Persdotter as his official mistress. He even nicknamed her “Caritas,” which is Latin for “love.” But before you go thinking Eric was a smooth operator, just wait.
6. He Was a Scorned Lover
When it came to choosing a royal bride, Eric was more than just unlucky in love...he was downright cursed. The prince made a slew of marriage proposals to the greatest women rulers of his day, including Renata of Lorraine and Mary, Queen of Scots—and they all said “heck no.” But his cringiest moments were saved for his most famous target.
7. He Tried to Bed a Famous Monarch
Like every other ruler of his day, Eric had a mega crush on Queen Elizabeth I, AKA the Virgin Queen, a moniker that probably tells you his suit was a total disaster. Eric pursued Elizabeth for literal years while Liz strung him along. Then, when he thought he almost had her, he rushed into an act he’d later regret.
8. He Was Willing to Sacrifice Everything for "Love"
In 1560, Eric was so sure he was irresistible that he drew up ambitious plans to sail to England and convince Elizabeth he was hot stuff in person. But this came with a high price. Eric dropped his poor mistress Agda Persdotter like a hot potato in the process, since he’d have no need for her as a married man.
9. He Abandoned His Children
Eric’s “girl, bye” treatment of Agda gets even more flippant when you consider that the pair had two love children together, Virginia and Constantia, who were both barely toddlers at the time Daddy went away. But hey, anything to bag a Queen of England, right? Except this isn’t what ended up happening. At all.
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10. He Became King at the Worst Moment
Right before Eric was due to embark for Queen and country, he received some horrific news. His father King Gustav had passed, and Prince Eric was now the new King Eric XIV of Sweden. Eric immediately cancelled his date night with Elizabeth…and promptly set about making himself one of Sweden's most hated rulers.
11. He Was Power-Hungry
Eric’s first act as king definitively proved that Elizabeth I had dodged a bullet. The young king gathered all the Swedish nobles—including his half-brothers John and Charles—and promptly demoted them. He didn't want anyone else but him to gather too much power in The Age of Eric. But man, guys, it got so much darker than that.
12. He Gave His Mistress a Cruel Punishment
Almost the minute Eric became king, he dealt his former mistress Agda yet another unbearable cruelty. For one, even though his marriage plans fell through, he still never brought her back to his bed. But that wasn’t even the worst part. He then also accused Agda of being an unfit mother, and sent their daughters away to live with his sister.
13. He Took a Downhill Turn
Eric wasn't off to a great start, but in 1563 his courtiers started noticing even more unsettling behaviors in their ruler. The king was turning violent, paranoid, and ever-so-slightly illogical about his reign and his enemies. In particular, he began to believe all his nobles were plotting against him. It was the seeds of what would become full-blown insanity.
14. He Imprisoned His Brother
King Eric thought only of himself, so it’s no surprise he wasn’t too fond of his half-brothers John and Charles. That dislike soon turned to bitter cruelty. When John married an influential noblewoman without seeking his permission, Eric grew paranoid about his brother’s power—and quickly had him arrested for high treason. Thanks, bro.
15. He Had an Arch Nemesis
Somehow, Eric had an even bigger supposed nemesis than his brother: A man named Nils Sture, the heir of a powerful Swedish family. Why did Eric’s wrath land on Sture? Because he was crazy, that’s why. Nils and the rest of his clan had done almost nothing to their king…yet that didn’t stop Eric from exacting a brutal revenge.
16. He Mis-Used His Power
First, King Eric treated Nils with erratic and atrocious punishments. Under trumped-up charges for “neglect of duty,” the king sentenced Sture to execution, but not before treating him to several hours of dungeon torment. Then, at the last minute, he changed his mind and commuted the fatal sentence to one very bizarre humiliation.
17. He Came up With Cruel and Unusual Torments
On June 15, 1566, Eric XIV forced his, uh, “rival” Niles Sture to drive through the streets of Stockholm in a broken-down carriage while wearing a straw hat, which is apparently the Swedish version of “SHAME.” To make matters more undignified, Sture’s wounds were still openly bleeding. But as we'll see, Eric wasn't exactly appeased.
18. He Was in Love With a Peasant
Starting in 1565, King Eric XIV got a new love in his life—and this one would change history. One day, Eric was downing a few drinks with his court musician when he locked eyes with his beautiful serving wench, the comely Karin Mansdotter. The king quickly made Karin his sole mistress…but she became so much more.
19. He Was "Bewitched"
Eric had had mistresses before, but Karin was something else entirely. He was so utterly overcome with passion for the humble maid that rumors flew around court that Karin was a witch, or else that she had paid a witch to make a love potion for the king. Obviously, no witchcraft was involved, but that doesn’t mean things didn’t get real weird.
20. He Spoiled His Mistress
Though infamous for his brutality, King Eric XIV could also be extravagantly generous, and he set about his own personal My Fair Lady story with his new mistress. He gave Karin an entirely new wardrobe, servants, and her own room at court. He even taught her how to read and write. Yet the whole time, the young girl was hiding some big baggage…
21. His Lover Had a Big Secret
Reportedly, when Karin entered into the royal relationship, she wasn’t exactly a free agent. She was already betrothed to an ensign named Maximilian, who she’d coldly (but also wisely) dumped the moment Eric started turning his attentions on her. Well, apparently Maximilian didn’t get the message, because he came back to haunt her.
22. He "Eliminated" His Competition
One day while Karin was living the high life in the royal palace, Maximilian managed to sneak in and tried to convince her to come back. This turned out to be a huge mistake. According to one version of the story, King Eric found him out and had the poor lover executed without a second thought. She ain’t worth it, bud.
23. He Made One Last Attempt to Find a Queen
In 1566, Eric was still apparently obsessed with finding a royal bride, and decided his old “enemy” Nils Sture could repent of his “sins” and help him out. Eric sent Nils off as an official bridal envoy to Renata of Lorraine, getting the poor man to do his wooing. Sure, this sounds like a reconciliation, except Eric was actually lying through his teeth.
24. He Had a Hidden Agenda
By this time, Eric was already plotting to take a scandalous step: He wanted to marry his upstart mistress Karin, not Renata, and Sture's mission was just for show. But this is where it gets really unhinged. Eric was paranoid his courtiers would try to stop the wedding, and he yet again fixated on Nils as the scapegoat for all this paranoia. So the butcher king enacted bloody "vengeance."
25. He Had a Mental Breakdown
In May 1567, the king's obsession with Nils tragically coincided with a total mental breakdown. Just as Nils was returning from his fake mission, Eric detained him at Uppsala Castle along with Nils' father Svante and a handful of other nobles. The charges? "Something something I can marry who I want." Eric's next actions have lived in infamy.
26. His Was Terrifyingly Unpredictable
King Eric XIV’s behavior in the coming days and hours was more than just erratic; it had obviously lost touch with all reality. He wandered around the dungeons at Uppsala Castle, at some points even begging the Stures for forgiveness for his wrongs. Still, he never made a move to release them…and then his second visit turned bloody.
27. He Committed a Grave Sin
A few hours after his first repentant visit to Uppsala Castle and his prisoners, King Eric XIV marched in again and, without warning, unsheathed his dagger and stabbed Nils Sture in the chest or arm while the poor, unsuspecting, and above all innocent man was in his cell. Then it somehow got even more disturbing.
28. He Destroyed a Family
While Eric let one of his lackeys finish up the job on Nils, the king then entered the patriarch Svante Sture’s cell and delivered an absolutely bone-chilling speech. While Svante was on his knees, Eric rambled an illogical “apology” about how he now had to kill him too, since the noble would never forgive him for his son’s death. Yeah, no duh, Eric.
29. He Incited a Massacre
Was King Eric XIV done with his violent breakdown yet? Heck no. Before he left the castle, he ordered his men to massacre most of the remaining prisoners. After all, they also would never forgive him, so why not commit even more unforgivable acts? His guards obeyed…but even this wasn’t enough to snap the mad king out of it.
30. He Slew an Innocent Bystander
When he left the castle, Eric happened to run into his old, beloved tutor Dionysius Beurraeus, who immediately started trying to calm down the unhinged monarch. It was a good-guy thing to do, but Eric's next actions proved his insanity. The king "thanked" Dionysius for his help by ordering his men to slay the tutor, too.
31. His Sins Were a Secret
The aftermath of the so-called "Sture Murders" is just as chilling as the event itself. When the dust settled, five men lost their lives that day. Most unsettling of all, though, is that it was briefly Sweden’s best-kept secret. The guards simply pretended the prisoners were still alive, and continued to accept food from their family members. And as for Eric…
32. He Mysteriously Disappeared
In the delirium of his horrific acts that day, Eric wandered into a forest—and disappeared. For two entire days, the mad king of Sweden was nowhere to be found, even as his courtiers both desperately searched for him and desperately tried to keep his royal sins under wraps. On May 27, 1567, they finally found him.
33. He Gave Himself a Bizarre Disguise
When the royal court re-discovered their king, he was in an even stranger state than when he started. Not only was he still in the throes of his breakdown, he was also dressed as a peasant, and had turned up in the tiny village of Odensala. They took him back to Stockholm and his throne, but it was far from a return to normal.
34. His Court Forced Him Into Isolation
When Eric installed himself back at the royal palace—still barmy as a belfry and under a regency—he found his halls eerily empty. You see, anyone with half a brain wanted absolutely nothing to do with their mad king, lest they experience one of his temper tantrums and find themselves six feet under. Instead, the court had to bring the big guns out: Mommy.
35. He Only Allowed a Single Visitor
Okay, okay, Eric’s real mother was long gone, but he did have a close relationship with his battle-axe stepmother Catherine Stenbock, and the courtiers decided she was their only hope. They dispatched her from her home to Stockholm, and Catherine became the first person to see Eric since baby’s first murder. His response was heartbreaking.
36. He Begged for Forgiveness
Reportedly, the moment Eric set eyes on his stepmother, he fell to his knees and started begging for mercy from his (many, many) sins. Catherine must have listened, because she doled out repentance in the form of reparations. The king had to pay out the slain nobles’ families and promise never to go near them again. Fair. But Eric wasn’t done with his foolish decisions…
37. He Had a Scandalous Marriage
The king might have been 100% insane at this point, but that didn’t mean he forgot his sweetums. In fact, his obsession with Karin Mansdotter only seemed to grow in his lunacy, and now that all the supposed naysayers were conveniently gone, he married her in a secret ceremony on December 29, 1567, and then in an official one in 1568. But this too nearly became a bloodbath.
38. He Almost Ruined His Wedding Day
Erratic lunatic or not, Eric had one seriously consistent M.O., and in the lead-up to his nuptials with Karin, the king was back on the “everyone is a conspirator” bandwagon. He planned to have his hated half-brothers offed for fear that they, too, would somehow try to block the marriage—and he only spared them through a near-miracle.
39. His Wife Saved His Soul
His poor bride-to-be Karin—why are you still here, girl?—had to stop Eric’s fratricide by warning his step-mother of her deranged groom’s plans. Very wisely, the king’s siblings did not make an appearance at the wedding ceremony, thereby keeping their heads. Thing is? This turned out to be Eric’s fatal mistake.
40. He Relapsed
According to court records, King Eric had a brief period of recovery in 1568, and started taking over official royal business once again. Still, his actions sure didn’t seem sane. One day, his personal secretary said something disparaging about a friend of his, so Eric pierced the man with a fire iron, sending him to the grave. Man, some people don’t change.
41. He Had an Imposter Queen
Eric did do his new Queen Karin a solid, and spent mountains of money trying to legitimize her as his true queen, even though she was a peasant. It didn’t just backfire, it blew up in his face. The court scorned her whole-heartedly and their resentment grew. In the end, Eric’s paranoia came true: His marriage was the last straw in his ruin.
42. He Had a Bizarre Effect on Women
In a bizarre twist of fate, Eric’s original mistress Agda Persdotter somehow ended up back in his bed years after he dumped her; the couple had another illegitimate child in 1564. At that point, though, it definitely wasn't an exclusive arrangement. Eric had so many lovers by then that the court nicknamed them the Frillohopen or “The Crowd of Mistresses.” Real classy, Eric.
43. He Was Obsessed With the Occult
Although the court whispered ridiculous “witchcraft” rumors when it came to Karin Mansdotter’s hold over Eric, these rumors weren’t necessarily that far-fetched. The king actually had an obsession with the occult, particularly astrology; he’d initially grown suspicious of poor Nils Sture because his horoscope told him a “light-haired man" would succeed him. Uh, okay.
44. He Sent a Selfie
One of the most famous portraits of Eric XIV has a pretty embarrassing back-story. 16th-century singles didn’t have Tinder, so they had to find different ways to promote themselves in the dating pool. One of the only full-length depictions we have of him is a portrait Eric sent Queen Elizabeth I when he was trying to woo her; it was his way of saying, “Hey baby, here I am.”
45. His Brothers Got Revenge
The entire time Eric was slowly unraveling, his brothers John and Charles were watching from the sidelines and waiting for their time to pounce. Well, in 1568, mere months after the royal wedding, they finally jumped—the nobles rebelled and put John in power. Meanwhile, they threw Eric in a dungeon, and the end he met there belongs in the ninth circle of damnation.
46. He Lost His Babies
Both King Eric and his poor queen Karin were detained together, and they spent years on end in captivity while the government denounced the king as, er, insane. Their treatment was horrific. Eric and Karin had two children in captivity together, but the frantic parents had to watch helplessly as the babes both perished in the dismal conditions. And more heartache was around the corner.
47. He Tried to Escape His Fate
As a prisoner, King Eric XIV was both too intelligent and too unhinged for his own good, and he plotted at least one great escape from his cell, cleverly using Karin’s lady-in-waiting. It ended in tragedy all the same. The new regime caught and executed the conspirators, though Eric XIV and his queen got to keep their lives. This time at least.
48. He Faced His End Alone
On June 14, 1573, the once-and-former King Eric’s captors made him suffer one final indignity. To prevent the king and Karin from having any more children, they separated the royal couple, taking Karin to a different castle. As Eric XIV wrote, "My wife has been taken from me.” He now had to live out the rest of his days in solitude…not that there were many days left.
49. He Passed in Captivity
On February 26, 1577, attended found King Eric XIV of Sweden cold and unresponsive in the cell he had called home for seven years. The government had faced one too many attempts to reinstate him, and he had become too big a threat to live. But it wasn’t until scientists autopsied his body that we learned the full, dark truth about the mad king's end.
50. The Secret of His Death Was Revealed
In 1958, forensic specialists exhumed the king’s body to find out the secrets of his final moments. Their made a grim discovery. According to their findings, conspirators had offed Eric with arsenic, and the substance ravaged his body until his last breath. His supposed final meal? A fatally spiked offering of pea soup.