World history is replete with despicable people. Some of these human monsters had the power to choose life or death for others. Whether king, queen, or emperor, these historical monarchs abused their power for awful ends. Millions of people suffered as a result.
The following fifteen examples of evil and vile monarchs highlight how absolute or almost absolute monarchies can turn sour with one bad apple wearing a crown or holding a scepter. Nothing can ruin a civilization quite like a depraved, decadent, and murderous ruler.
The Roman Empire fell because of a string of blood-thirsty emperors and a citizenry bedazzled by “bread and circuses.” Ancient China had its fair share of vain, war-mongering emperors. Ancient Greece gave us the word “tyrant” in order to describe autocratic rulers, most of whom used their power for personal gain. Medieval and Early Modern Europe is synonymous with torture dungeons, interrogations conducted by the Inquisition, and witch hunts that ended in crisp bodies turned to ash at the bottom of wooden stakes.
While most of these lunatic rulers can be found in history books, modern history has produced a shocking number of maniacal rulers in just one hundred years. Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Ho Chi Minh, and the various kleptocrats of Africa all attest to the fact that tyranny is not a thing of the past.
15. King Rudolf II – Responsible For Thirty Year War
Central Europe was the bloody battleground where the soul of Christendom was contested between Catholics and Protestants. Between the 16th and 17th centuries, Catholic and Protestant armies fought one another in a series of gory duels that at one point killed a full thirty-percent of the German population.
King Rudolf II became the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 1576. At that time, the Catholic Habsburgs felt under threat from the new Protestant (mostly Calvinist and Lutheran) princes of northern and central Germany. Rudolf’s solution to this crisis was to completely suppress the Protestants.
Until his death in 1612, Emperor Rudolf II, who was known to suffer serious bouts of depression, raised Protestant churches and severely limited the political and religious freedoms that had been granted to the empire’s Protestants by his predecessor, Maximilian II. This campaign of repression directly led to the Thirty Years’ War, which decimated Europe’s population.
14. King John Of England – Starved His Wife To Death
England’s “Bad King John” has been forever immortalized as the arch-tyrant at the heart of the Robin Hood tales. In truth, the real King John was far more horrible than the fictional version.
Despite being most famous for signing the Magna Carta, the important document that officially limited the powers of England’s monarchs, King John was no humanitarian or closet republican. While his own brother, Richard the Lionheart, was away fighting the armies of Islam, John conspired with France’s King Philip Augustus in order to steal England’s crown for himself. John also faced numerous noble-led rebellions because he had a nasty habit of forcing himself onto their wives.
Worst of all, King John was directly responsible for several murders. He once starved twenty-two knights to death inside of Dorset’s Corfe Castle. King John also starved his wife to death and ordered the murder of his own nephew.
13. King Richard III – Killed Two Princes
Most people today know that King Richard III was evil simply because William Shakespeare made him into a villain. As with King John, the real King Richard III may have been much worse.
Richard III’s infamy is most closely associated with his supposed role in the deaths of two young princes inside of the Tower of London. When Queen Elizabeth, the widow of the recently deceased King Edward IV, moved to have her son, then just 12, named as the King of England, Richard III arrested the boy, his mother, and members of the Woodville family. Richard III then executed Lord Hastings because of his support for Queen Elizabeth. Richard III would not only kill off more political rivals, but in 1674, the discovery of two adolescent skeletons provided grist for the rumor mill. Richard III, the last Plantagenet king of England, was a considered a murderer.
12. Ranavalona I – Killed 75% Of Her Population
Ranavalona I is frequently called the “Mad Monarch of Madagascar.” Described as a “proud” and “cruel” woman by Austrian explorer Ida Pfeiffer, Ranavalona I ruled the African island for thirty-three very harsh years.
Unlike other monarchs, Ranavalona I was born into very humble surroundings. The daughter of a commoner, Ranavalona’s family fell into the good graces of the royal house of Madagascar when her father warned King Andrianampoinimerina of an assassination plot. In return for such kindness and loyalty, the king adopted Ranavalona as his own daughter. Ranavalona cemented her access to the throne by marrying Prince Radama.
As queen, Ranavalona I targeted the Christian community of Madagascar, forcing many native and foreign Christians to flee the island. In 1845, she demanded that all 50,000 members of the royal court go on a buffalo hunt. In four months, approximately 10,000 people died while on the hunt. Some sources even say that Queen Ranavalona I killed as much as seventy-five-percent of Madagascar’s entire population.
11. Prince Vlad Dracula – Vlad The Impaler
In most of the world, the name “Vlad Dracula” is synonymous with vampires, ruined castles, and a novel by the Anglo-Irish author Bram Stoker. However, in his native Romania, Prince Vlad Dracula, son of Vlad II Dracula, is the great warrior prince of Wallachia. Between 1448 and 1477, Prince Dracula fought the Ottoman Turks tooth-and-nail. Although the Muslim armies of Constantinople ultimately defeated Wallachia and the other Romanian princedoms, Vlad’s bravery and his willingness to use terror tactics saved millions of Balkan Christians from extermination or slavery.
However, despite being a frontier fighter in a holy war, Vlad Dracula’s tyranny was frequently criticized by other European rulers. Romania’s boyar class of nobles and merchants, many of whom were ethnically German, hated Vlad for his populism. At one point, Vlad killed five hundred nobles whom he suspected of subterfuge. In another act, Vlad invited several boyars to his capital at Targoviste. There, for the crime of being disloyal to his father, Vlad had them all arrested and forced to undertake a grueling fifty-five mile walk.
Once they reached their destination, Vlad impaled all of the nobles. Impaling was Vlad’s favorite method of execution. Nobles, criminals, and Turkish prisoners had the greased ends of wooden stakes shoved up their anuses. The victims would then slowly slide down the stake until most of their vital organs had been pierced.
10. Wu Zetian – Killed Any Possible Rivals
Chinese Empress Wu Zetian has been remade in the image of a female hero. This is of course despite her impressive body count. During China’s Tang Dynasty, Wu began her political career as a concubine of the court. The ever-ingenious Wu used this position to get close to Emperor Taizong and his son, Prince Gaozong. After the emperor’s death, Wu married the prince in order to become the Empress Consort of China.
Even before Gaozong died in 683 A.D., Wu was the real power in the land. She had her sons named as the successors to Gaozong, while, at the age of eighty-one, Wu broke ancient custom and proclaimed herself as the sole ruler of China.
During her rise, Lady Wu showed a willingness to kill all of her possible rivals. She had Lady Wang and Lady Xiao murdered. Worst of all, Lady Wu killed her own daughter and blamed the crime on Lady Wang. For these crimes, along with her behind-the-scenes power, Confucian scholars called Lady Wu the “usurping woman” who ruined the natural harmony of power between the sexes.
9. Phalaris – Tortured People In Strange Ways For Entertainment
Phalaris was the Greek tyrant of the city-state of Akragas in Sicily. His reign is believed to have lasted between 570 and 554 B.C. In that time, Phalaris was known as a cruel ruler who used the wealth of his city to look for new ways of executing criminals.
According to legend, a Greek inventor named Perillos of Athens promised Phalaris an entirely new method of torture. Called the “Brazen Bull,” this horrific contraption involved placing a person inside of a bronze bull. Even before they had been forced into the bull statue, the victims had had their tongues cut and their hands bound. Once inside, a fire was lit underneath the bull’s belly. Right before death, the victims would thrash around and make terrible moaning sounds that made the bull appear alive.
8. King Henry VIII – Famously Killed His Wives
King Henry VIII was driven by a single-minded determination to have a male heir. This egomaniac proved that he would stop at nothing to marry a woman who could bear a male child. Before Jane Seymour gave birth to Edward VI, Henry VIII executed his wife and lover Anne Boleyn. Although decapitation was the execution reserved for nobles (hanging was for commoners), the executioner apparently had to hack at Anne’s head several times before it fell off her shoulders.
An earlier marriage, this time to the Spanish Catherine of Aragon, pitted England’s king against the Vatican. Upset that the Pope would not grant him an annulment, King Henry VIII created the Church of England, a Protestant sect headed by all future English monarchs. Some historians claim that when Catherine died, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn celebrated the death by wearing yellow in public.
As king, Henry VIII was the first English monarch to articulate the idea of the “divine right of kings.” Claiming that his authority was granted by God, Henry VIII’s actions directly led to the English Civil War of the 1640s. All told, as many as 72,000 people were executed on Henry VII’s orders during the English Reformation.
7. Sultan Murad IV – Executed Anyone Found To Be Disloyal
Murad IV became the ruler of the vast Ottoman Empire at eleven years old. By the time he took control of the throne all by himself (as an adolescent, his mother and grand viziers handled all day-to-day decisions), he discovered that the Ottoman state was in chaos. Rebellions in the provinces and an unruly Janissary corps (a crack Ottoman army unit made up of former Christian slaves) defined Ottoman politics in the 17th century. Murad IV changed all of that through sheer power.
Murad IV first acted against subversion by closing down all coffeehouses and wine shops. Next, he outlawed the use of tobacco. If any of these laws were broken, or if someone was suspected of disloyalty, Murad IV had them executed. Abroad, Murad IV reconquered Baghdad in 1638 after a long siege. At the battle’s end, Murad IV killed all those he found still alive inside of the city’s walls.
Murad IV also angered the religious conservatives of the Ottoman Empire. His notorious act was the execution of the shaykh al-islām, the highest religious authority in the land. According to one story, Murad IV liked to dress as a commoner and look for anybody breaking one of his draconian laws. If he found such a lawbreaker, he immediately sentenced them to death.
6. Emperor Diocletian – Burned Christians Alive
In many ways, Diocletian was actually the savior of a unified Roman Empire. Between 284 and 305 A.D., Diocletian, an Illyrian by birth, restored the integrity of the Roman state after the anarchy of the third century. Under Diocletian, the seeds were planted for the later administrative break-up of the Western and Eastern Roman empires. While Western Rome was swamped by Germanic barbarians in the fifth century, the Eastern Roman Empire maintained the treasure of Greco-Roman culture well into the 15th century.
Despite his reforms and his successes, Diocletian is best remembered as one of Rome’s most ardent persecutors of Christianity. Fearing the power of the new religion, Diocletian sought to shore up imperial support for the old Roman religion. He surrounded himself with religious fanatics and pagan governors who were ready and willing to kill off their Christian populations.
Under Diocletian, Christian martyrs were burned alive, crucified, and publicly executed. While they may not have been fed to the lions of the Coliseum, Roman Christians suffered the worst under Diocletian and his supporters.
5. Ivan The Terrible – Killed Tens Of Thousands, And Beat His Pregnant Daughter-In-Law
Tsar Ivan IV was a ruthless monarch who ended his life as a raving lunatic. For Russia, Ivan IV actually provided several benefits, most notably land. Under his command, Muscovite armies conquered the Muslim Khanate of Kazan and Khanate of Astrakhan. Russian soldiers and settlers also pushed deeper into Siberia, thus making Moscow the center of a new Eurasian empire.
In the royal court however, Ivan IV was nothing less than an absolute terror. At one point, an enraged Ivan IV murdered his own son and heir, Tsarevich Ivan Ivanovich. In Moscow and its surrounding environs, Ivan IV used the dreaded oprichniki, or secret police, to squash all dissent. In 1570, oprichniki troops arrived in the Russian city of Novgorod in order to stop the possible handover of the city to the Polish king. Ivan IV’s men raised the entire city and may have killed as many as 30,000 people.
Like Vlad Dracula, Ivan IV cemented his power by murdering and dispossessing boyar families. Ivan IV also blinded the architect of St. Basil’s Cathedral and beat his pregnant daughter-in-law until she had a miscarriage.
4. Emperor Nero – Murdered His Mother (Among Other Women)
Roman Emperor Nero came to power thanks to the murderous intrigues of his mother, Agrippina the Younger. Agrippina used poison to kill her second husband, thus opening the way for her marriage to Emperor Claudius. Nero was adopted by Claudius and married Claudius’ daughter. In order to make sure that the throne was totally safe for her son, Agrippina fed poisoned mushrooms to Claudius. Nero came to the Roman throne at the age of seventeen.
As emperor, Nero was something of a decentralizing monarch. He willingly shared power with the Roman Senate and the empire’s noble class. Nero was not terribly interested in ruling, and left day-to-day politics to his mother, the stoic philosopher Seneca, and Burrus. However, under the tutelage of Seneca, Nero made a power move against his mother. In turn, Agrippina began supporting Britannicus, her step-son. Britannicus was killed first, then Nero had his own mother stabbed to death. Two more women would be killed by Nero — the Empress Octavia and later wife Poppaea. The latter was supposedly killed by an enraged Nero, who ruptured her liver with one hard kick to the stomach.
Nero’s most infamous moment came when a fire gutted Rome in 64 A.D. For nine days, as Rome burned, scholars claim that Nero recited the Greek poem “The Sacking of Illium” from the roof of his palace. It has also been claimed that Nero started the fire himself in order to rebuild Rome in his own image.
3. Timur – Known For Bloody Military Campaigns
Timur, also known as Tamerlane, was a Turco-Mongol conqueror who established a feared military dynasty in what is now Uzbekistan. His ancestors had taken part in the conquests of Genghis Khan, and as a result, they had considerable land holdings in Central Asia. Eventually, after serving another khan, Timur besieged the important city of Balkh and killed Khan Husayn. Timur then marched on to the royal city of Samarkand and declared himself the ruler of the reborn Mongol Empire.
While Timur and the Timurids controlled a highly civilized kingdom that wedded Sunni Islam with Persian, Turkish, and Mongol cultures, Timur is best known for his very bloody military campaigns. In 1389, Timur led a massive army into India with the express purpose of defeating and dethroning that nation’s Hindu rulers. Timur’s armies destroyed villages and cities, ultimately sacking and obliterating the city of Delhi. Timur justified his actions by claiming the need to spread Islam to the “unbelievers.”
2. Emperor Caligula – A Deviant Pervert Who Forced Parents To Watch Executions Of Their Children
History remembers the Roman Emperor as a bloodthirsty tyrant and sexual deviant. All told, Caligula only controlled the Roman Empire for four years before his own Praetorian Guards assassinated him.
While it is highly likely that later Roman historians smeared Caligula because of his mental illness and his various attacks on Rome’s nobility and Senate, it may be true that Caligula had sexual relations with his three sisters. Caligula’s possible perversions later manifested themselves in his very strange behavior. He was known to have conversations with the moon, made his horse an official consul, and oversaw arbitrary executions of Roman citizens.
Besides being insane, Caligula was known for his dedication to pleasure and opulence. Two of his “pleasure barges” were unearthed in Lake Nemi during the 20th century. For a time, Caligula was a popular Roman leader who abolished unfair taxes and released the political prisoners of former Emperor Tiberius. However, after suffering a life-threatening illness that left him with chronic headaches, Caligula began holding public executions, including ones where parents were forced to watch the murder of their children. Caligula’s greatest crime was his declaration that he was nothing less than a god come to Earth.
1. Genghis Khan – Responsible For Deaths Of Over 40 Million People
Genghis Khan is the greatest military conqueror the world has ever known. His small band of warriors from the remote and backwards nation of Mongolia defeated the more advanced armies of China, India, Russia, and Eastern Europe. When he died in 1227, he left behind the largest contiguous empire in recorded history.
The quick dissolution of this empire proved that so much of Mongol greatness was dependent on Genghis’ brilliant leadership. Although an excellent tactician and the man who engineered the Mongol-influenced cultures of Mughal India, the Timurid Empire, and the Yuan Dynasty of China, Genghis Khan may be history’s bloodiest butcher.
It is today believed that Genghis’ conquests killed as many as 40 million people. China alone lost tens of millions of people due to the savagery of Genghis’ armies. In 1258, a Mongol army with several Chinese and Christian allies laid siege to the city of Baghdad. The Mongols not only killed all 50,000 soldiers of the Abbasid Caliphate, but they also killed as many as 2 million civilians (Western sources place the civilian body count at 800,000).
Besides destroying entire civilizations, Genghis Khan’s conquests may have helped to spread the bubonic plague across Asia and Europe, thus killing another 75 to 200 million people.
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