12 Rulers Who Executed Their Relatives

12 Rulers Who Executed Their Relatives

Natasha sheldon - January 16, 2018

12 Rulers Who Executed Their Relatives
Henry VIII. Google Images

Henry VIII

The first twenty-five years of Henry VIII’s reign were reasonably tolerable for the King’s relatives. Only those involved in treasonous plots had anything to fear. During this period, Henry killed just two of his kin, both for treason. Edmund de la Pole, third duke of Suffolk and Henry’s maternal cousin, was the first to go in 1513 after he attempted to enlist foreign support to steal the crown. In 1521, Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, a direct descendant of Edward III followed him, beheaded for “imagining the death of the king’ by consulting fortunetellers.

However, following the break with Rome, Henry found himself deeply unpopular. The King’s ex-communication left England fair game for other European monarchs, and many nobles wanted a return to the Catholic faith. Fearful of foreign and domestic plots against him, the King’s paranoia escalated. Soon, not only ministers and nobles were in danger of the ax; Henry’s own family were too. First to go was Anne Boleyn on trumped-up charges of treason and adultery. Soon others followed who had: ‘little offended save that he [Henry] is of their kin, ”

This bloodbath was due in part to Henry’s paranoia about his claim to the throne. In the good times, it did not matter for the Tudor dynasty had brought stability to England. Now, in uncertain times, there were plenty of other candidates for the throne- especially those of Plantagenet descent. Chief amongst them was the family of Margaret de la Pole, Countess of Salisbury- and daughter of George, Duke of Clarence, the brother of Henry’s grandfather, Edward IV.

Unlike Henry’s mother, Elizabeth, whose parent’s marriage had at one time been declared invalid; there was no stain of illegitimacy against the De la Poles. So, in Henry’s eyes, they had to go. He could not touch Reginald, Cardinal Pole, Margaret’s son, who was safe in exile. However, the rest of the family was fair game. In 1540, Henry De la Pole, Margaret’s son was beheaded and her young grandson was imprisoned and left to die. Then in 1541, the 67-year-old Countess was herself beheaded to great public discord.

It could be that pure paranoia was not the cause of Henry’s murderous rampage through his relatives. A 2009 medical report suggests that a jousting accident that the King suffered in 1536, and which almost killed him, could be at fault. The accident, which left Henry unconscious for 2 hours may have caused a personality change by damaging his frontal lobe; damage which increased paranoia, decreased tolerance and as a consequence caused the heads of his relatives to roll.

One of Henry’s daughters was to follow in her father’s footsteps. However, her motivation was survival, not paranoia.

12 Rulers Who Executed Their Relatives
Elizabeth I. Google Images.

Elizabeth I

Elizabeth I was a survivor. She had weathered her mother’s fall, plots, and intrigues and her near execution at the hands of her sister Mary I after her implication in the Wyatt Rebellion of 1554. When she ascended the throne in 1558, Elizabeth determined to exercise a more moderate regime than her predecessors. Yet several times she was forced to execute individuals who threatened her throne and her life- including several people related to her.

First came Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk in 1572. Howard was Elizabeth’s second cousin on her mother’s side. Elizabeth executed him because of his support of Mary Queen of Scots in the Ridolfi plot. Then, in the last years of her reign, Elizabeth was forced to execute her former favorite and the son of her second cousin once removed Lettice Knollys, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. Essex had become involved in a plot to overthrow Elizabeth’s government, and despite her affection for the young nobleman, he met the axman in 1601.

However, the most famous of these deaths was that of Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary, who was Henry VIII’s great-niece through his sister Margaret had sought refuge in England in 1568, after losing her throne. Elizabeth received her cousin with caution, as she knew Mary was the perfect Catholic candidate for the throne of England. However, despite keeping her under house arrest, Elizabeth initially corresponded with Mary in a friendly manner. She claimed to have “great contentment and lyking” for a “frendshippe” of “one so neerely tyed unto us in blood and neighborhood.”

However, as the years progressed and more and more plots emerged with Mary at their center, Elizabeth’s regard began to cool to bitter disappointment. By 1584, Elizabeth had stopped writing to Mary directly, addressing correspondence instead to Mary’s jailor, Sir Ralph Sadler who was required to read them out to the imprisoned Queen. The letters “greeved” for the “altyeration and interruption” of Mary’s “friendshippe” because of Mary’s “sundry hard and daungerous coorses heald towarde” Elizabeth. The Babington Plot of 1586 was the last straw. Elizabeth’s spies intercepted a letter sent by Mary to the conspirators, endorsing their aims to remove Elizabeth from her throne. So, in 1587, with great reluctance, Elizabeth signed the order of execution, which ended her cousin’s life.

Other female rulers, disposed of close relatives with far few scruples and for ambition, not survival.

12 Rulers Who Executed Their Relatives
Empress Wu Zetian. Google Images Wu

Empress Wu

Wu Zetian defied convention from the start. As a former concubine of the Tang emperor Taizong, she broke all protocol by becoming the lover of his successor, Gaozong. However by 655AD, six years after the new emperor’s ascension, she had reached even more unprecedented heights, by becoming Gaozong’s Empress Consort at the age of 31.

Wu achieved this feat through a mixture of intrigue- and murder. She orchestrated the deposition of her predecessor Empress Wang by accusing her of murder. The victim was Wu’s one-week-old daughter. Wang had been the last person to hold the infant and so was charged with her death. However, it was reputedly Wu who ended the child’s life- just to ensure the removal of her rival.

In 660 AD, the emperor suffered a debilitating stroke. Wu began to rule for her husband- and she liked it. If she was going to yield the reigns of power to another man, it had to be one she could control. Wu had already wiped out several branches of the Tang dynasty. Now she began to dispose of those of her sons she could not manage.

In 675 AD, Wu’s eldest son the crown prince Li Hong died- reputedly poisoned by his mother for defying her. In 683, her second son, Li Xian was ‘discovered’ with a stable full of armor, suggesting preparations for a rebellion. Wu allowed him to live- but as a commoner before forcing him to commit suicide in 684 AD. The year before, Gaozong had died. His son by Wu, now known as Emperor Zhongzong, succeeded him. However, after only two months on the throne, Zhongzong was deposed and exiled by Wu. She replaced him with her more pliable youngest son, Emperor Ruizong.

Finally, in 690AD, aged 65, Wu was tired of the pretense. She forced Ruizong to abdicate in her favor, allowing him to live as her imperial successor. In doing so, she became the only woman in Chinese history to rule in her own right. However, her solo rulership was short-lived. In 705 AD, Zhongzong returned and deposed his ailing mother. Wu died under house arrest later that year.

It is tempting to see Empress Wu as a woman maligned for acting as a man in a man’s world. However, Wu’s memorial stone sums up her surviving family’s opinion of her. She had the blank stone set outside her tomb, ready for her surviving children’s magnificent epithet of her life. It remains unmarked to this day. In the end, no one had a good word to say to Empress Wu.

Some male monarchs who wiped out their children are remembered by history much more favorably.

12 Rulers Who Executed Their Relatives
Suleiman the Magnificent. Google Images

Suleiman The Magnificent

Suleiman the Magnificent earned his epithet because of his expansion of the Ottoman Empire, his architectural transformation of Constantinople into Istanbul and his patronage of law and the arts. What he is not so well known for, however, is the casual way he killed his sons.

Suleiman, like most Sultans, had an extensive harem- but only two consorts. His favorite wife, Roxelana had ascended through the ranks of the harem and Suleiman was so besotted with her that he went against tradition and married her. However, this did not satisfy Roxelana. Suleiman had six sons, and she knew that if one of the sons of the other consort, Mahidevran succeeded Suleiman, her own son’s lives were in danger. So she set about ensuring that Suleiman removed them from the succession and life.

Suleiman’s eldest son by Mahidevran, Mustafa was regarded as Suleiman’s natural successor. He was such an intelligent and able man that the Austrian ambassador, Busbecq prayed that: “God never allow a Barbary of such strength to come near us.” In 1553, Mustafa was commanding his father’s forces in the Persian campaign while a partisan of Roxelana, Rustem Pasha acted as commander of the chief of the expedition. Rustem began to report back to the Sultan that the soldiers favored making Mustafa Sultan immediately rather than on Suleiman’s death– and Mustafa wasn’t against the idea.

Suleiman ordered Mustafa to leave the front line and attend him to explain himself. When Mustafa arrived at Suleiman’s tent, the Sultan was nowhere to be seen. However, his eunuch bodyguards were very much apparent. While Suleiman directed events from behind a curtain, with gestures and nods, the bodyguards set about the prince. Mustafa fought bravely, but in the end, he was overcome and strangled with a bowstring.

Not even the children of Roxelana were safe. With their elder brother out of the way, two of these sons, Selim and Bayezid began to squabble about the succession. In 1559-61, the Princes, who each commanded different parts of Suleiman’s empire started a civil war over the issue. Suleiman supported Selim and gave him the use of his army. This loan ensured the defeat of Bayezid, who promptly fled into exile with his four sons.

But Suleiman pursued him. He demanded that Beyezid’s host, Safavid Shah make a choice: return Beyezid or execute him. Suleiman promised Safavid would be well rewarded in gold for any breaches of his obligations as a host. So in 1561, Safavid ordered Beyezid and his sons strangled. Roxelana may have lost one son. But she had the satisfaction of seeing Selim become Sultan Selim II on Suleiman’s death.

Elsewhere in time and history, warring siblings waited until they had ascended the throne before killing each other.

12 Rulers Who Executed Their Relatives
Coin of Cleopatra. Google Images.

Cleopatra VII

Cleopatra VII was the last Ptolemy and by the time of her ascension, the eldest surviving daughter of Ptolemy XII. She had remained loyal to her father when her older sisters Cleopatra VI and Berenice briefly usurped the throne of Egypt- and died for it. By the terms of Ptolemy’s will, she became Queen on his death in 51 BC. However, that same will demanded that she conform to tradition and marry her younger brother and co-rule with him. It was a stipulation that was to rack Egypt with civil war.

Neither Cleopatra or Ptolemy XIII as he became known was keen on co-rule Soon, the eleven-year-old Ptolemy, under the influence of his regent, the eunuch Pothinus, was plotting to oust Cleopatra who was acting too independently. In 48 BC, civil war began. Cleopatra secured a powerful ally in the shape of the Roman general Julius Caesar, who Ptolemy had already offended. When Caesar’s defeated rival, Pompey, sought refuge in Egypt after the recent Roman civil war, Ptolemy had him beheaded, thinking to please the new dictator. It was a move that had quite the opposite effect.

However, Caesar took a balanced approach to the sibling’s squabbles. He restored Cleopatra to her throne- but allowed Ptolemy to remain too. At the same time, he ordered the marriage of the couple’s younger siblings, Ptolemy and Arsinoe and settled them in Cyprus. The youngsters had also joined in the fight for the throne, and Caesar mistakenly hoped Cyprus would mollify them. However, as soon as his back was turned, Arsinoe and Ptolemy XIII joined forces against Cleopatra to make a joint bid for the throne of Egypt. The pair were quickly defeated.

Ptolemy XIII drowned in the Nile while attempting to escape. Arsinoe, on the other hand, was taken to Rome and narrowly escaped execution after Cesar’s triumph. Instead, he exiled her to the temple of Artemis at Ephesus. Cleopatra, still dependent on Caesar’s goodwill submitted to another marriage to her remaining brother who became Ptolemy XIV.

However, as soon as Caesar was dead in 44 BC, she began to take care of her siblings her way. Almost immediately, she poisoned Ptolemy with aconite. Arsinoe, however, had to wait until 41 BC. By then, Cleopatra, had a new Roman general, Mark Antony, as a lover. She persuaded Anthony to execute her troublesome younger sister for her and this he did, striking the young woman down on the stairs of her temple prison. Cleopatra was finally without rivals. However, she was not the only leader in history who removed her

Cleopatra was finally without opponents. She was not, however, the only leader in history who had killed a co-ruler.

12 Rulers Who Executed Their Relatives
Attila the Hun. Google Images

Attila the Hun

Atilla the Hun was the scourge of the Romans between 434 and 453 AD. He created an empire that ran from Germany to the Baltic Sea, forged from Roman territory, and the deaths of thousands of Roman citizens. The name ‘Attila’ is not his actual name. Instead, it was an honorific meaning ‘little father’ a title that was awarded when Attila ascended to become the leader of the Huns. In 433 AD. However, Attila did not begin that rule alone.

Historical records of Attila’s reign are admittedly few, and the most complete was written by the chroniclers of the eastern and western Roman empires who were the Huns and so Attila’s enemies. The most reliable is that of Priscus, a Byzantine diplomat who, although biased, did actually serve in Attila’s court as an ambassador in 449 AD and so witnessed and heard of many events.

Piecing together the evidence, it seems that Attila inherited the throne from his Uncle, Rugila. Rugila had no sons to succeed him, so his natural heir was Attila- and his brother, Bleda. Both boys were presented at Hun war councils and educated to become formidable fighters. In 433 AD, Rugila died during one of the Hun campaigns against Constantinople and his leadership passed jointly to Attila and Bleda.

Initially, at least, the brothers ruled jointly, and seemingly in harmony. They took charge of their own regions but still acted in accord- especially when facing foreign foes. In 439 BC, the brothers jointly brokered the Treaty of Margus with the western Romans. The Huns promised to leave the city of Rome unmolested- in return for tribute and a promise that Rome would return any refugees who fled from Hunnish lands into the empire. Once the treaty was concluded, the brothers continued to their next joint venture: stealing territory from the eastern Empire.

However, soon afterward, Bleda disappears from history, with all documents referring solely to Attila as the commander of the Huns. According to Priscus, who met Bleda’s widow during his sojourn in Hunnish lands, Bleda disappeared because: “Bleda, King of the Huns was assassinated as a result of the plots of his brother Attila.” Other accounts, however, claim that both brothers were plotting to kill each other. In one report, Bleda’s death occurred on a hunting trip. He died either because Attila killed him in self-defense or from mutual combat that arose between the two. Either way, all accounts agree that Attila killed his brother.

A similar power struggle occurred between cousins in Europe just over a thousand years later. This time, however, both parties eventually ended up dead.

12 Rulers Who Executed Their Relatives
John the Fearless. Google Images.

John The Fearless

Born in 1371 to Philip the Bold, first Duke of Burgundy and Margaret of Flanders, John the Fearless was well schooled in leadership, but for the first 33 years of his life given very little chance to use it. At the age of 24, John was nominally in charge of the Burgundian crusade in Hungary against the Ottoman Turks. However, the real decisions were made for him, resulting in a crushing defeat for the Crusaders at the Battle of Nicopolis– and John being held to ransom for a year by the Turks.

However, the young nobleman acquitted himself with great bravery throughout the campaign and his imprisonment, earning himself the epithet “fearless.” In 1403, John succeeded his father as Duke- and began to grab the real power he had so long been denied. Rather than remain in Burgundy, he moved to Paris, where he involved himself in the government of France. John’s first cousin was the French king, Charles VI. Charles however, was unfit to rule as he suffered from severe mental illness. So John maneuvered to become the power behind the throne.

However, he had a rival in the shape of the King’s brother, Louis, Duke of Orleans. John initially attempted to consolidate his power through political means. He married his daughter Margaret to the heir to the throne and after an attempt to kidnap the dauphin was made, had himself declared the guardian of all the royal children. This move only antagonized the Duke of Orleans, and civil war broke out. The pair’s mutual uncle, John, Duke of Berry, did organize a brief peace in November 1407. However, this collapsed after only 3 days.

So John decided to resolve things once and for all. That same year, he hired assassins to brazenly murder Louis on the streets of Paris. John did not attempt to deny the crime and openly justified it as an act of ‘tyrannicide.’ King Charles eventually absolved him in 1409 and made him regent of France, a position John held until 1418.

However, the Duke of Orleans supporters regrouped under the Duke of Armagnac, the father-in-law of Charles, the murdered Duke of Orleans’s son. In 1418, they drove John back to Burgundy- and the disgruntled Duke promptly tried to make a deal with the invading English. When this failed, John began negotiations for reconciliation with the Armagnacs. Both sides agreed to cement their agreement on the bridge at Montereau- where the Armagnacs had their final revenge on John by assassinating him as he had assassinated Louis.

Bad blood between cousins in Scotland also led to bloody, judicial vengeance at the hands of one king of Scotland.

12 Rulers Who Executed Their Relatives
James I of Scotland. Google Images

James I

James I, became king of Scotland in 1406 when he was just 12 years old- and a hostage of the English. The third son of King Robert III, by the age of eight had become heir to the throne. His eldest brother Robert had died, leaving the next oldest, David, to run the kingdom for their ailing father. However, other family members had their eye on the Kingdom; especially the King’s brother and Chamberlain, Robert Stewart, Duke of Albany. In 1402, Albany, had Prince David arrested unjustly for extortion and incarcerated in Falkland castle where the prince died several weeks later.

King Robert, fearful for his remaining son’s life, resolved to send the boy to France. However, the nine-year-old Prince was severely seasick, and his ship was forced to land on the English coast- where the English promptly apprehended James. Two weeks later, Robert III died. James was now king, but uncrowned and a hostage of Henry IV of England, leaving Scotland to the de facto rule of the Albany Stewarts.

James remained in England for the next 18 years. He was well-treated and even trusted enough to serve in the army of Henry V during the campaigns against France in the 1420s. This, however, meant he faced his countrymen on the field of battle, for Scotland was France’s ally. It was events like these that soured James’s reputation and caused contemporaries like Sir Robert Graham to later brand him as “a tyrant, the greatest enemy the scots or Scotland might have.”

Finally, when he was aged 30, the English released James- on the proviso that he paid a ransom of £40,000. He returned to Scotland with an English wife, Joan Beaufort and ideas of government after the English style he so admired. In 1425, he was returned to power as King and finally crowned. James’s first acts included raising taxes to pay for his ransom and sending noble hostages south. Next on his list was vengeance against the Albany Stewarts who had killed his brother, usurped his power and indirectly led to his captivity.

Robert Stewart was dead. But his son Murdoch Stewart had stepped into his shoes. James wasted no time in capturing Murdoch and executing him. Murdoch’s son, Walter Stewart quickly followed him, as did his brother Alexander. In a short space of time, James had completed his revenge. He had destroyed the Albany Stewarts.

Vengeance, treason and rivalry were amongst the explanations for the killings of the cousin and brother of the penultimate Yorkist king of England’s.

12 Rulers Who Executed Their Relatives
Edward IV. Google Images

Edward IV

Edward IV was the eldest son of Richard, Duke of York and Cecily Neville. As England’s King, Henry VI was mentally unstable, the Duke of York had acted as Lord Protector of England. Henry’s weakness and Richard’s claim to the throne had exacerbated tensions between the houses of York and Lancaster, leading to the War of the Roses. In 1460, after Richard took King Henry captive, it was agreed that Richard and his heirs would inherit the throne after Henry’s death. However, the Lancastrians made a last-ditch attempt to hold onto power, and Richard died soon after at the Battle of Wakefield.

A few weeks later, 18-year-old Edward consolidated the Yorkist Victory at the Battle of Towton and even though Henry was still alive, was crowned King. He received crucial support from his maternal cousin, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, later known as “The Kingmaker.” However, this alliance faltered when Edward married Elizabeth Woodville, instead of making a marriage alliance with France as Warwick desired. Disappointed in Edward’s lack of pliability, Warwick began to look for a puppet King elsewhere.

Warwick accordingly shifted his allegiance to the deposed King Henry. He also recruited his son-in-law, George, Duke of Clarence who was also Edward’s youngest brother, by promising to make him King. In 1470, Edward was deposed and fled to the Netherlands while Warwick restored Henry VI to the throne. However, Clarence angered at Warwick’s duplicity, shifted his allegiance back to his brother and aided Edward to regain the throne in 1471.

Warwick was killed in battle, saving Edward the trouble of executing him. However, another close relative needed to die so he could secure his throne. After his defeat, Edward imprisoned King Henry in the royal apartments in the Tower of London. Soon after Edward’s re-ascension, he was killed while at prayer in his private chapel.

Clarence was awarded half of Warwick’s land as a reward for ultimately supporting his brother. However, the Duke’s ambitions remained unabated. He began to demand more land and power. He was also openly insubordinate towards the King. So, in 1477, Edward had his brother arrested for treason. A show trial followed and in 1478, Edward ordered Clarence’s execution. The Duke was secretly killed in The Tower, by a means never officially revealed. But legend says that he was given a choice of death- and chose to drown in a vat of Malmsey wine, in tribute to his dissolute lifestyle.

Wine, religion, and military might all featured in another Mughal Princes’s quest to wipe out his opposition to the throne.

12 Rulers Who Executed Their Relatives
Aurangzeb. Google Images.


Aurangzeb was the last of the great Mughal emperors and the third of the four sons of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, whose tomb was the Taj Mahal. He had proved himself to a great military leader while serving as his father’s Viceroy and unlike many of his family, he was a devote, orthodox Muslim, spurning Mughal sensuality and drunkenness. These two traits were to serve him well when in 1657, he began to make his power play for the throne.

That year, Shah Jahan fell dangerously ill and, the possibility of a vacant Mughal throne spurred Aurangzeb into action. His first step was to take out his eldest brother and his father’s preferred successor, Dara Shikoh. Promising his younger brothers a share of the empire to elicit their aid, Aurangzeb beat Dara at the Battle of Samurgarh in May 1658. While the heir apparently fled, Aurangzeb took their father into custody, confining him in his palace at Agra.

Although not yet emperor, Aurangzeb was now the de facto ruler of the Mughal empire. However, he had to consolidate that power. He began to erode support for Dara by calling into question his Muslim faith. Dara had been interested in reconciliation between Islam and Hinduism. So Aurangzeb, (who would later remove all Hindus from positions of authority and openly persecute Sikhs), set about portraying this tolerance as apostasy.

In the meantime, he had to eliminate his other brothers with whom he had no intention of sharing power. In 1658, he imprisoned his brother Murad for three years in the Gwalior fort after first stupefying him with alcohol. He then executed him on the trumped-up charge of the murder of the Diwan of Gujarat some years earlier. However, with Murad safely imprisoned, Aurangzeb felt confident enough to organize his coronation- even though his father still lived and would not die until 1666.

However, Dara chose this time to make one last attempt to attack his brother. Once again he failed, and Aurangzeb, now having him safely in custody, had him charged as an apostate. On August 10, 1659, Aurangzeb had Dara beheaded for this crime. Meanwhile, Aurangzeb, now free of his brothers began to remove the next generation just to be on the safe side. He had Dara’s son, Suleiman Shikoh slowly poisoned with opium until he died three years later.

But not all rulers, killed their relatives deliberately. Some died by ‘accident.’

12 Rulers Who Executed Their Relatives
Peter the Great. Google Images.

Peter the Great

Peter Alekseyevich Romanov became tsar of the Russian empire at the age of 10 as co-ruler with his older half-brother Ivan. The two boys had found themselves at the center of a violent factional dispute, led by Peter’s mother, the former tsar Alexei’s second wife and Sophia, Alexis’s daughter from his first marriage. The co-rulership was a compromise between the two factions, with Sophia acting as regent. However, in the process, the young Peter had witnessed the violent deaths of many of his relatives.

Until he was 17, Peter took very little interest in ruling directly, preferring to spend his time drinking and on military matters. His mother, organized his marriage to a young noblewoman Eudoxia Lopukhina and Peter seemed to wake up. He finally removed his sister Sophia from power and had her committed to a convent, while continuing to rule, nominally at least, with Ivan.

In 1696, Peter decided to visit Western Europe, often traveling in disguise. He returned to Russia in 1698 to put down a revolt, replete with new ideas- and a desire to drag Russia out of the dark ages into the age of enlightenment. Courtiers were required to abandon traditional dress and instead adopt western, German fashions. Peter even instigated a beard tax to force nobles to shave their long beards. He established St. Petersburg as his capital, introduced western-style architecture and put his heir, Alexei in charge of a German tutor.

He divorced Eudoxia that same year, committing her to a convent because of her conspiracy against him. In 1712, Peter married again to Catherine, his Lithuanian mistress. So far, Peter had achieved much and disposed of many troublesome relatives- yet not ended the life of a single one of them. However, in 1718, Prince Alexei, who had wished to renounce the succession, was implicated in a plot to overthrow his father.

Peter ordered his son to be tried by a secular court. To extract a confession, the court officials ordered the Prince tortured until he confessed. Having done so, Alexei was convicted and sentenced to death. However, the order of execution could only be ratified by Peter’s signature. The Tsar had not hesitated to have his son tortured- but he delayed ending his life. While peter deliberated, fate decided to take a hand, and Alexei died in prison from the effects of his torture.