Life is uncertain and, at times, unnecessarily cruel. As Benjamin Franklin famously quipped, “nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes”. Whether royalty or commoner, a single thread connecting all lives throughout history is the inevitable fact that they must, one day, come to a conclusion. However, whilst some individuals enjoy glorious deaths worthy of commemoration in songs of praise echoing across the centuries, others, even grand royalty, are condemned to unfortuantely derisory ends to their stories.
Here are 20 of the stupidest ways royals have met a most undignified end:
20. William the Conqueror, the victor of the Battle of Hastings, was killed, accidentally, by his own horse in 1087 when it suddenly bucked
William I, also known as William the Conqueror or William the Bastard, reigned from 1066 until his death in 1087 as the first Norman King of England. Seizing the crown after his famed victory at the Battle of Hastings, defeating the forces of Anglo-Saxon King Harold II, William’s tenure was marked by an increased focus on military governance. Countless castles were constructed across England, a new nobility was settled to oversee his possession, and the possibility of revolt or invasion by the Danes remained prominent throughout his reign. At the age of approximately 59, in 1087 William embarked upon one final campaign in northern France.
In the course of capturing Mantes in July 1087, William was suddenly struck down; two competing accounts exist regarding the cause of his demise six weeks later. The official proclamation stated an unspecified illness, but the historical record strongly suggests a far less dignified end for the conqueror. Instead, it has been contended William’s horse unexpectedly bucked, throwing the aging king onto the saddle’s pommel and causing massive internal organ damage. Not the end of his humiliations, as William’s body was being interred his putrid corpse was accidentally burst, releasing a sickening smell throughout the cathedral.
19. Catherine the Great of Russia, although not dying from having intercourse with a horse as commonly believed, instead died on the toilet after becoming enraged at the King of Sweden
Catherine II, also known as Catherine the Great, was the longest-serving female ruler of Russia. Overthrowing her husband, Peter III, in a coup d’état in 1762, Catherine would reign as Empress of Russia until her death in 1796. Widely considered as leading her country into a Golden Age, Catherine’s tenure oversaw a period of marked improvement across Russia and the elevation of her nation from a weakened state into a position once again as a great power of Europe. Supporting the scientific and political progressions of the Enlightenment, Catherine presided over an expansion of the arts, marginal but important steps towards female empowerment, and and the enlargement of the state.
Plagued in legacy by numerous outlandish and untrue myths concerning her private life, which admittedly was salacious, several rumors abounded concerning the circumstances of her death. Although there is no evidence to suggest the Russian monarch ever engaged in intercourse with a horse, or indeed died as a result of the act as was perpetuated by her servants, the end for the Empress was hardly more dignified. Becoming aggravated during a visitation by King Gustav IV Adolph of Sweden, Catherine collapsed the following morning whilst on the toilet. Not found until three-quarters of an hour later, the great ruler had fallen into a fatal coma on her bathroom floor.
18. George Plantagenet, of the House of York, elected to die by drowning in a vat of wine after being sentenced to death in 1478
George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence, was a member of the House of York and brother to the English Kings Edward IV and Richard III. Despite being the third son of Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, George decided to support the rival House of Lancaster in the War of the Roses. Believing he could potentially leverage himself into a position to inherit the English crown, George allied with Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. However, after Neville married his daughter to the son of Henry VI in 1470, George realized that he was not as favored as he has previously assumed and fled back to the Yorkists.
Initially benefiting from this reconciliation, being named Earl of Warwick after the death of Neville, ultimately George had chosen the wrong side in the dynastic conflict. Arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London, George was charged with treason. Found guilty of “unnatural, loathly treasons”, aggravated by his betrayals against his own brothers, George was privately executed at the Tower on February 18, 1478. Accepting that he was to die, George resolved to meet his maker in what he thought would be an appropriate and dignified fashion. Consequently, by his own request, the English aristocrat was luridly drowned in a vat of claret wine.
17. Sigurd Eysteinsson, Earl of Orkney, was felled by the severed head of his enemy after he contracted an infection from a resultant scratch on his leg
Sigurd Eysteinsson, also known as Sigurd the Mighty, reigned as the second Earl of Orkney from 875 until his death in 892. With the island becoming a popular refuge for exiled Vikings after the Battle of Hafrsfjord and the unification of Norway under Harald Fairhair, Orkney served as a base from which to conduct raids against their former homelands until King Harald pacified the inhabitants and granted an ally dominion over the territory. Seeking to expand his holdings, Sigurd repeatedly attempted to acquire a foothold on the northern Scottish mainlands, garnering a fearsome reputation as a warrior and raider during his lifetime.
Challenging a native ruler, Máel Brigte the Bucktoothed, to a 40 versus 40 man battle, Sigurd, in an act of great dishonor and deceit, secretly brought 80 men. Easily besting his opponent and winning the battle, he beheaded his defeated opponent. Strapping the head of Máel Brigte to his saddle as a trophy, at some point during his ride home the famed buck-tooth of his enemy scratched Sigurd’s leg. The resultant wound became infected as a result of intimate contact with the necrotic tissue, with Sigurd dying soon after from the contracted illness.
16. After bankrupting his country and leaving his daughter to face insurrection on all sides, Emperor Charles VI died from consuming poisonous mushrooms by mistake
Charles VI, King of Bohemia, Hungary, Croatia, and Serbia, Archduke of Austria, and Holy Roman Emperor, was a European monarch of the House of Habsburg. Presiding over the decline of his house and territories, his daughter, Maria Theresa, would ultimately rejuvenate these lands and serve as the only female Habsburg sovereign. Attempting unsuccessfully to claim the throne of Spain in 1700, Charles would also break with the tradition of male-line succession. Favoring his daughters over his brother, Charles negotiated agreements with other European nations to support his wishes; among the costs attached to this deal were the abolition of Austria’s trading companies.
With his empire in significant debt and near bankruptcy, Charles fell seriously ill in Vienna in October 1740. According to Voltaire, the death of the failed monarch was due to the consumption of poisonous mushrooms and resultant renal failure. Maria, finding a paltry 100,000 florins in the royal exchequer and facing insurrection on all sides, was forced to wage the War of the Austrian Succession to defend her position. Lasting until 1748, against all odds and in spite of her destitute father, Maria was able to hold onto both her crown and much of her lands.
15. Philip, the teenage co-king of France between 1129 and 1131, was killed when a pig hiding in dung tripped his horse and caused him to fall
Philip, known colloquially as Philip, Crown Prince of France, was King of France from 1129-1131. Ruling as co-regent along with his father, Louis VI, known as Louis the Fat, he was the favorite son of Louis who insisted his son was enthroned with him upon turning 13. However, Philip failed to demonstrate that his father’s trust and faith in him was well-placed, refusing to pay attention at court or adhere to the standards expected of a French monarch. Chronicler Walter Map recorded the young ruler “strayed from the paths of conduct traveled by his father and, by his overweening price and tyrannical arrogance, made himself a burden to all”.
Conveniently, perhaps, Philip’s tenure at co-ruler did not last long. Just two years after his coronation, whilst riding at speed with companions along the banks of the Seine in Paris, his horse was suddenly tripped by a black pig emerging from a dung heap on a quay. Falling forwards, the teenager was flung over the top of his steed, with the fall fracturing many of the bones in his body. Falling into a coma, he would die the following day having never regained consciousness. His younger brother, seeking to fulfill the deceased Philip’s dream, succeeded him as co-king and embarked on the disastrous Second Crusade in his place.
14. King Bela I of Hungary suffered fatal injuries after his throne collapsed beneath him whilst he was preparing to abdicate
Bela I, also known as Bela the Champion or Bela the Wisent, was briefly King of Hungary between 1060 and his death shortly after in 1063. Invited by his brother, Andrew I, who had been crowned King of Hungary, to return from exile and become a prominent duke, Bela ultimately rebelled against his generous relative in 1060. Succeeding with the assistance of the Polish, Bela dethroned Andrew, who would die of battle-inflicted wounds, and claimed the crown himself. Introducing numerous reforms, including of monetary policy and religious practices, Bela also ended pagan revolts in Hungary.
Attempting to conclude a protracted conflict with the Holy Roman Empire, Bela released German prisoners in a show of good faith. However, undeterred, the German princes launched an expedition in 1063 to overthrow Bela. In the course of making plans to abdicate in favor of his cousin, Soloman, who enjoyed the backing of the Germans, Bela suffered a fatal injury when “his throne broke beneath him”. Enduring in a “half-dead” condition, Bela was carried into exile with his sons before dying at the western border of Hungary on September 11. His children were forced to continue their exodus, with Soloman ascending to the vacated throne.
13. William II, son of William the Conqueror, also died in undignified circumstances, being killed in a hunting “accident” by one of his own men and left to rot in the New Forest until discovered by a peasant
William II, also known as William Rufus, was the third son of William the Conqueror, whom he succeeded as the second Norman King of England. Surviving an attempt to reunify the holdings of the House of Normandy under a singular ruler in 1088, divided upon the death of William I among his sons, William II responded by invading his antagonistic brother Robert’s lands before eventually settling into an uneasy truce. Never fathering children, nor marrying, historical debate continues regarding the personality of William II. An inveterate belligerent, quick to anger, it has also been suggested the Norman monarch was a closet homosexual.
Becoming increasingly unpopular, in August 1100, during a hunting expedition in the New Forest, William was struck and killed by an arrow through the lung. Shot by one of his own men, later identified as Walter Tirel, who fled the scene and abandoned the body, the deceased king was found by a peasant. William’s younger brother, Henry, rushed to Winchester to take command of the royal treasury, whereupon he was crowned in such haste that the archbishop had not yet arrived. As a result of these circumstances, it has been strongly suggested William was deliberately assassinated by his relatives, with chroniclers claiming it was an “act of God”.
12. Adolph Frederick of Sweden, a weak and powerless ruler, was so gluttonous he literally killed himself by eating too much
Adolph Frederick (b. 1710) was King of Sweden from 1751 until his death twenty years later. The first Swedish king from the House of Holstein-Gottorp, Adolph was installed as monarch after the death of Frederick I, of the House of Hesse-Kassel, after the latter’s disastrous performance during the Russo-Swedish War and failure to recover lost lands in the Baltic. However, due in part to the nature of his enthronement, Adolph enjoyed little power as the nation’s ruler. Rather than an absolute monarch, Adolph reigned in a highly restricted constitutional role, permitted to make few decisions and instead governed by parliament.
Attempting on two occasions to claim greater power, including the Coup of 1756 and the December Crisis of 1768, Adolph failed to acquire any political benefit from these moves. On February 12, 1771, having enjoyed a large meal comprised of lobsters, kippers, caviar, and champagne, Adolph completed his gluttonous engorgement with fourteen servings of semla and hot milk. Suffering from a severe bout of indigestion due to this binge eating, Adolph would swiftly succumb to his stomach. He was followed by his son, Gustav II, who succeeded in claiming absolute power in less than a year through a military coup.
11. Qin Shi Huang, the founder of a unified China, died after consuming mercury in an attempt to circumvent the human condition and attain immortality
Qin Shi Huang, born Ying Zheng in 259 BCE, was the first emperor of a unified China and founder of the short-lived Qin dynasty. Inheriting the Kingdom of Chin at the age of thirteen, the young ruler unleashed campaign after campaign against his neighboring rivals. Gradually assimilating smaller and weaker components of larger China, by 230 Zheng initiated the final campaign of the Warring States period. Conquering Zhao in 228, Yan in 226, and Wei in 225, by 221 he had achieved his dream: a unified China. Proclaiming himself “First Emperor” and possessing a “Mandate from Heaven”, Zheng set about organizing his new dominion.
Continuing to expand the size of the Chinese state, including the annexations of Hunan and Guangdong, the reign of Qin Shi Huang was also marked by extreme political repression. Scholars were executed en masse, philosophical texts burned, and the creation of the Great Wall of China and his city-sized mausoleum entailed the use of slave labor on an unprecedented scale. In 211, after the fall of a meteor, a prophecy was made foretelling the death of the emperor. Fearing his own mortality, it is believed the emperor ingested mercury pills in the mistaken belief they could prolong his life; instead, he died on September 10, 210 BCE.
10. Henry II became King of France after his elder brother died playing tennis, before himself dying in a jousting tournament at the age of 40
Henry II was King of France from 1547 until his death in 1559. The tenth king from the House of Valois, the future king spent more than four years as a child as a hostage in Spain. Never expected to inherit the crown, with his elder brother Francis superseding his claim, Henry suddenly became the heir apparent in 1536 after Francis dramatically died in a game of tennis. Ascending to the throne at the age of 28, Henry continued his father’s militaristic policies to limited accomplishment. His efforts to suppress the Protestant Reformation were ultimately ineffectual, whilst the conclusion of the Italian Wars saw France achieve minimal gains.
Failing to fundamentally reshape the European balance of power, with Spain remaining the preeminent power on the continent, Henry increasingly attended to his hobbies. Fond of both hunting and jousting, to celebrate the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis, ending the Italian Wars, a tournament was held near Place des Vosges. Whilst competing on June 30, 1559, Henry suffered an eye wound when a fragment of a splintered lance wielded by Gabriel Montgomery, Captain of the King’s Scottish Guard, penetrated his visor. Becoming infected, Henry would die on July 10 of septicemia. Succeeded by his fifteen-year-old sickly son, France entered into a period of weak leadership and decline.
9. In a rather undignified end, Alexander I of Greece died of a monkey bite after doctors hesitated in amputating a septic limb without explicit prior permission
Alexander I, not to be confused with “the Great”, was King of Greece between 1917 and 1920. Ascending to the throne in the aftermath of World War I, with his father, Constantine I, and elder brother, the Crown Prince George, forced into exile by the Entente Powers, George possessed limited political experience or acumen. Reduced to the status of a ceremonial puppet, George was stripped of his royal powers by Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos and virtually imprisoned within his palace. Despite this, George presided over a period of expansion for Greece, with the victory of the Entente in World War I and early acquisitions in the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922.
On October 2, 1920, whilst walking through the grounds of the Tatois royal estate, his German Shepard, Fritz, got into a fight with a Barbary macaque. In attempting to separate the two animals, the monkey turned on the monarch, biting him deeply on the legs and torso. Although not considering the injuries serious, the wounds, which were not suitably cauterized, rapidly became infected and George fell into a state of delirium. However, no doctor wished to take personal responsibility for the amputation of the king’s leg without authorization. As a result of this medical inaction, the king died of sepsis on October 25.
8. Martin of Aragon, according to some historical accounts, died after laughing too hard whilst suffering from indigestion
Martin of Aragon, also known as Martin the Humane, was King of Aragon, Valencia, Sardinia and Corsica and Count of Barcelona from 1396, in addition to reigning as King of Sicily from 1409, until his demise in 1410. Succeeding his elder brother, John I, who had died without male heirs, his claim to the throne of Aragon was not without dispute. Successfully defeating a rebellious invasion in favor of John’s eldest daughter, Joanna, Martin, as was common for Spanish Christian monarchs, turned his attention to the Moors. In addition to a brief, and successful conquest of Sardinia, Martin’s reign heralded a period of comparative peace for the troubled Kingdom of Aragon.
Supporting Pope Benedict XIII fearlessly, Martin garnered much praise for ordering the rescue of the imprisoned Pope in 1403. On May 31, 1410, Martin died in a monastery outside the city of Barcelona. The historical record remains unclear regarding the precise cause of death, with plague, uremic coma, and poison all suggested. However, one account that garnered sustained attention was that the Spanish monarch died from laughing too hard. According to some chroniclers, whilst suffering from severe indigestion Martin’s jester, Borra, told a sufficiently funny joke to render the king fatally incapacitated.
7. George II of Great Britain, at the advanced age of almost seventy-seven, died from over-exerting himself whilst on the toilet
George II was, from 1727 until his death in 1760, King of Great Britain and Ireland, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg and a prince-elector of the Holy Roman Empire. The last British monarch to be born outside of Great Britain, being born and raised in northern Germany, George was also the last British monarch to personally participate in battle, leading his armies at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743. Becoming king after the death of his father George I, speaking limited English and thwarted at many opportunities by Parliamentary independence, George resided in Germany for much of his reign, where he enjoyed far greater authority and sought to expand his domain.
Surviving the last of the Jacobite rebellions in 1745, led by Charles Edward Stuart, by 1760, then aged 76, George II was partially blind and nearly deaf. Arising as normal at six in the morning on October 25, after consuming his daily cup of hot chocolate he retired to the royal privy. A few minutes later his valet entered in response to a loud noise, finding the monarch collapsed on the floor in his own stool. Carried into bed, he was declared dead at the scene by physicians. The longest-lived of all of his predecessors, a postmortem discovered he had suffered a massive thoracic aortic dissection, likely from the strain of excreting.
6. Alexander III of Scotland died after rejecting the advice of his retainers and breaking his neck whilst riding in the dark on the road to Fife
Alexander III, the only son of Alexander II, was King of the Scots from 1249 until his death in 1286. Inheriting the throne from his father at the age of just seven, who had died suddenly from a fever, Alexander’s early reign was beset by court factionalism and a struggle for power among leading lords. Nonetheless, after his marriage in 1251 to Margaret of England, the young Alexander successfully denied Henry III of England’s demand to submit to Scotland’s southern rival. Reaching the age of independent rule, 21, in 1262, Alexander immediately set about resuming his father’s final endeavor: the conquest of the Western Isles.
Triumphing over Haakon, King of Norway, Alexander successfully won the Isle of Man and the Western Isles for Scotland. Less creditably, after the death of his wife in 1275, Alexander, “sometimes in disguise” and “as the fancy seized him”, would selectively visit nuns, widows, and virgins to demand pleasure. Advised not to ride to Fife on the night of March 18, 1286, due to bad conditions, at some point during the journey Alexander’s horse stumbled and threw the king. Found dead at the bottom of a steep embankment with a broken neck, his death without a male heir plunged Scotland into political disarray and, eventually, war with England.
5. Inheriting the French throne at the age of 13, Charles VIII died at just 27 after bumping his head on a doorframe and falling into a coma
Charles VIII, also known as Charles the Affable, was the seventh King of France from the House of Valois, reigning between 1483 and his death in 1498. Ascending to the throne at the age of just thirteen after the death of his father, Louis XI, the early period of Charles’ reign was overseen by his elder sister, Anne, who acted notably proficiently as regent and emerged victorious in the Mad War (1485-1488) to secure the power of the French crown. Marrying Anne of Brittany in 1491, Charles successfully avoided the encirclement of France by the House of Habsburg – an important victory in the centuries to come.
Offered the Kingdom of Naples, upon which Charles enjoyed a claim, by Pope Innocent VIII in 1489, in 1494 Charles invaded Italy with an army of 25,000 men to press his ownership. Although initially successful, his campaign would quickly stagnate and become subsumed in debt, with the Italian Wars dominating the politics of Western Europe until 1559. In 1498, whilst on his way to spectate a game of tennis, Charles accidentally bumped his head on the lintel of a doorframe. At approximately 2 pm, upon his return from the match Charles suddenly fell into a coma. He died nine hours later of what is now believed to have been an epidural hematoma.
4. John of Bohemia, despite being blind for more than a decade, led a charge at the Battle of Crécy which unsurprisingly cost him his life
John of Bohemia was the Count of Luxembourg from 1309, and King of Bohemia from 1310, until his death in 1346. The eldest son of Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII, with the support of his powerful father John, who had been raised in Paris, was able to capture Prague in December 1310 and depose the reigning monarch Henry of Carinthia. Attempting to succeed his father, John was passed over in favor of Louis IV of Wittelsbach in 1314. Nevertheless, John was loyal to his triumphant competitor, supporting him in the Battle of Mühldorf in 1322 and was rewarded with the Egerland for his dispassionate committal of duty.
Widely disliked inside Bohemia, viewed as a foreign ruler, John lost his eyesight from ophthalmia in 1336 whilst in Lithuania. Refusing to let his disability prevent him from discharging his office, John allied himself with Philip VI of France in the Hundred Years’ War. Commanding the vanguard at the Battle of Crécy in 1346, the blind fifty-year-old king was killed fighting the English. According to chroniclers, the king demanded he be allowed at least one strike to bloody his sword and charged into the midst of the battle. However, in the course of this foolhardy attack John, along with his bodyguard retinue, were slain.
3. William Adelin, a spoiled prince of England, drowned after leaping into and capsizing a lifeboat after his companions drunkenly crashed the royal yacht into a rock
William Ætheling, also known as William Adelin, was the son of Henry I of England and heir apparent to the English throne until his untimely death in 1120. Born 1103, a product of the marriage between Henry and Matilda of Scotland, designed to appease objectors to Norman rule of Anglo-Saxon England, his father placed enormous hopes on his only son to unite the divisions in his kingdom. As a result of this preferential treatment, however, William became “a prince so pampered” that, according to contemporary chroniclers, he seemed “destined to be food for the fire” and was totally unprepared to inherit the contested throne.
Invested as the Duke of Normandy from 1115, William partook little in the minutiae of ruling. Whilst crossing the English Channel aboard the Blanche-Nef, the fastest ship in the royal fleet, William was killed as part of the White Ship incident. After a night of drinking ashore in France, William and his retainers sought to navigate the still seas. The helmsman, drunk, unintentionally rammed the ship in a rock, resulting in the ship filling with water. Launching a life-dinghy, the drunken prince leapt from the ship into the emergency vessel and in so doing caused it to capsize. Killing all aboard, the death of William precipitated a major succession crisis in England.
2. James II, King of the Scots, fought for years to gain control over his country before being killed by a misfiring cannon at the age of 29
James II, the second son of James I, reigned as King of the Scots after the assassination of his father in 1437 and until his own death in 1460. Becoming heir apparent after the death of his elder twin, Alexander, James succeeded his father aged just six. As a result, much of his early reign was beyond his control, including the events of the “Black Dinner” where, allegedly, the young king pleaded ineffectually for the lives of his guests before their executions. After reaching adulthood, James struggled persistently to gain practical control over his kingdom and culminated in the murder of the Earl of Douglas in 1452.
Beginning a sporadic civil war, after the Battle of Brechin in May 1455 James finally emerged dominant. Exiling the Douglases and seizing their property, James continued this militaristic streak, intervening consistently and designed, fruitless, plans to capture Orkney and Shetland. Actively promoting artillery, which had proven successful in his fight against the “Black Douglases”, James besieged the English-held Roxburgh Castle in 1460. On August 3, whilst standing near a cannon known as “the Lion”, the artillery piece suddenly exploded. Struck with shrapnel in the thigh, the king was killed almost immediately.
1. Henry I of England died after consuming an excessive quantity of lampreys whilst on campaign in France
Henry I, also known as Henry Beauclerc, was the fourth son of William the Conqueror and King of England from 1100 until his death in 1135. Left landless after the death of his father, passed over for inheritance in favor of his elder brothers, Robert Curthose and William Rufus, Henry was even deposed as Count of Contentin by his brothers in 1091 after purchasing the title from Robert. Gradually building a coalition of support, Henry, present during the mysterious circumstances surrounding the “accidental” death of his brother William in 1100, seized the throne of England. Although challenged by Robert, who invaded in 1101, Henry repelled his brother.
Returning the challenge, Henry invaded the Duchy of Normandy in 1105. Capturing his brother, Robert was imprisoned until his death in 1134, and Henry successfully reunited the family possessions of Normandy and England under a singular ruler. After the death of his pampered heir, William Adelin, the heirless Henry faced sustained challenges to his authority in Normandy. During a military campaign in 1135, after overindulging in a feast of lampreys, the king fell seriously ill. Although trying to rectify his stubborn refusal to name successors before his terminal illness took effect, his death precipitated a protracted civil war lasting until 1153.
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