History’s Most Ruthless Monarchs
It’s no secret that throughout history there have been some very mean monarchs, kings, and queens (we will include emperors too) that have not just spilled the blood of their external enemies but also killed those closest to them. The show Game of Thrones might be a fictionalized account of the often bloodthirsty, greedy, cold-hearted nature of rulers, but it’s also not too far away from reality when we look back through history. “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” wrote William Shakespeare in his play King Henry IV, which is basically the same as the saying “Heavy is the head that wears the crown.” Ruling can be a curse and a burden. But some of those rulers were simply cruel. Let’s see who were the worst in this episode of the Infographics Show, Who were the most murderous monarchs in history?
Henry VIII of England
We’ll start with someone most of you have heard about. You could say Henry VIII wasn’t anywhere near as bad as some other monarchs, but he deserves a mention, and we’ll get to the worst at the end of the list. Just a quick search on who was executed during the king’s reign will pull up 92 names, many of whom were burned at the stake for heresy. But these were just the well-known people. History websites say anywhere from 57,000 to 72,000 people were executed during his reign from 1509 to 1547. Some say these numbers could be exaggerated, but there’s no doubt the king had a taste for blood. His most notable victims were two of his wives. One was Anne Boleyn. Some historians say she had her head taken off because of adultery and being involved in a plot to kill Henry VIII; others say she was accused of witchcraft. Anne was his second wife, and it wouldn’t be until his 5th wife that another would be executed. Her name was Catherine Howard, and the charges against her were treason and adultery.
Yep, it’s a drink, and the name is partly based on the queen. She was Mary I of England, and she was the daughter of wife-killer Henry VIII. When she took control, she tried to reverse what had started to happen during her father’s reign, which was called the Reformation. In short, it was the Church of England pulling away from the Catholic church. This was in line with the Protestant Reformation. Mary got her name from persecuting anyone embracing this movement, finding them, and burning them at the stake. She burned so many dissenters she earned the title of “Bloody Mary.”
His full name was Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus. There are many tales of his horrific actions during his rule as Roman emperor from 41 AD to 37 AD. It seems he was outrageously narcissistic and had delusions of grandeur. It’s said he believed he could talk to gods and was sadistic at times. He did some horrible things during the Roman games too. One time, he fought a gladiator who only had a wooden sword and then stabbed him to death, looking particularly pleased with himself. Another time, it’s said he was frustrated at the lack of prisoners he could watch being devoured by wild animals, and so forced part of the crowd into the arena to be torn apart by the beasts. It’s not known how many people he tortured or killed, but it’s thought to be many. We can’t really call this man a monarch, but Roman emperors were treated much like kings.
Ivan the Terrible
This is another ruler that was given an appropriate nickname. Under his rule as the Grand Prince of Moscow and then Tsar of Russia, it’s said he did many good things, and much of them were related to innovation and expansionism. He was at his worst, though, for what is called the Massacre of Novgorod, in which he had his army put men, women, and children into freezing waters and kill them. It’s said he tortured and killed thousands more, and it was all because he was paranoid the rich city was planning to defect from his rule. It’s also rumored that when he was just 13 he had one aristocrat eaten alive by a pack of dogs. Many of his own people suffered too, as expansion doesn’t always mean a sharing of the bounty. It has to be said that this ruler was formidable in his reign in terms of conquest and modernizing. He just gets the name because it seems he had a brutal way about him.
King Leopold II of Belgium
He was sometimes called “The Butcher of the Congo.” Under King Leopold II’s rule, it’s thought millions – no one has the exact number and theories differ – Congolese Africans died in the early 20th century. It’s thought that during his bid to westernize Africa – something many European powers would try to do – large-scale massacres happened. He is also known for being exceptionally cruel to the Congolese if his rubber quotas weren’t met. This sometimes meant viciously flogging people and often cutting off their genitals or their limbs. After one village protested the incredibly harsh working conditions, one Belgian wrote, “The commanding officer ordered us to cut off the heads of the men and hang them on the village palisades, also their sexual members, and to hang the women and the children on the palisade in the form of a cross.” This really was the Heart of Darkness.
Attila the Hun
He ruled the Huns with his brother Breda from 434. This man and his powerful army were called “the scourge of God” by the Romans and greatly feared. Attila, it seems, was the worst half as he likely killed his own brother for power. He was also a great leader and led many successful campaigns across Europe. It’s often said it was the way he won that was especially barbaric and cruel, so that’s why he gets a mention here: modus operandi and body count. It’s not known exactly how many people the barbarian and his army killed, but the number is said to be in the hundreds of thousands.
Vlad the Impaler
You might have heard of Vlad from the Dracula legend, but, unlike the blood-sucking count, the blood-thirsty Impaler, who was the ruler of Wallachia from 1436, was certainly real. Wallachia was part of present-day Romania. According to historical documents, after one attack on the Ottoman army, Vlad’s own army left what was called a “forest of the impaled.” Then he hit the town. Historian Laonikos Chalkokondyles wrote in The Histories that “about twenty thousand men, women, and children had been impaled, quite a sight for the Turks and the sultan himself.” He also added, “There were infants too affixed to their mothers on the stakes, and birds had made their nests in their entrails.” In fact, following the invention of movable type, stories spread around Europe about how this man was the most sadistic ruler ever. It’s said he invented new and horrific methods of torture that were unheard of even in those times. He’s also said to be a national hero for some, or he is sometimes called yet another cruel ruler. Those he defeated obviously tell the more gruesome tales.
Khan was the first Great Khan of the Mongol Empire. He was born in 1162 and died in 1227. During his life, he became the most feared man in the world, and today he’s still routinely judged as perhaps the most brutal but also the most successful war campaign manager. He is credited for modernizing culture and also for his trade aspirations. He’s also credited with killing 10 to 15 million people in a time when military technology couldn’t take out great numbers in one fell swoop. There are mixed depictions of him from country to country, but it’s generally agreed that this ace military leader had a penchant not just for fighting soldiers but also for killing millions of nonmilitary personnel such as he did in the Iranian Plateau. Many international historians write how he would enter towns, burn them to the ground, and then systematically
kill everyone that was in them. Some historians write that when he invaded the Persian city of Nishapur, he spared the locals at first. But when his son-in-law was killed by a Nishapuran, his wife demanded revenge. It was then anything breathing was slaughtered – women, children, and reportedly even their cats and dogs. Some say around 1.7 million people were massacred. But was that entirely true? Many people think the number is too big.
Khan is also a national hero in Mongolia. As the saying goes, the victors write history, but what version of history you get often depends on which language you are reading it in. Or it may even change depending on where the historian stands politically. Writer George Lane said in the book Daily Life in the Mongol Empire that after one battle with the Rus’ Principalities, the Mongol leaders put a heavy wooden platform over Russian generals and ate a “Victory Feast” as they were all squashed to death underneath. Despite varying interpretations of history, we think it’s safe to say Genghis Khan had a lot of blood on his hands.
We certainly could have added many more rulers. Can you add to this list? Tell us in the comments.