Bizarre Deaths: 12 of History’s Weirdest Deaths, From Antiquity to the Middle Ages
Bizarre Deaths: 12 of History’s Weirdest Deaths, From Antiquity to the Middle Ages

Bizarre Deaths: 12 of History’s Weirdest Deaths, From Antiquity to the Middle Ages

Khalid Elhassan - September 17, 2017

Bizarre Deaths: 12 of History’s Weirdest Deaths, From Antiquity to the Middle Ages
Terracotta Army from unearthed portion of Qin Shi Huang’s tomb. Wikimedia

Qin Shi Huang

Qin Shi Huang (259 – 210 BC), founder of the imperial Qin Dynasty, was king of the Chinese state of Qin during the Warring States Period. Ascending the throne as a child, when he reached his teens he wrested power from the regents who had governed during his minority, and consolidated his power by massacring palace plotters who sought to usurp his prerogatives. He then went on the warpath, pushed back the northern barbarians, conquered all neighboring Chinese states and consolidated them under his rule, and declared himself the first emperor of a united China.

A capable ruler, Qin Shi Huang set out to unify his newly conquered empire, standardizing currency, weights and measuring, and introducing a system of government known as Legalism, based on strict laws and harsh punishments. He ended the feudalism which had led to the centuries of warfare that gave the Warring States Period its name, and replaced it with a centralized bureaucratic government in which advancement was based on merit. To keep the nobility in check, he kept those he favored in the capital, and controlling them with pensions and fancy titles, transformed them from an uncontrollable warrior class into dependents and tame courtiers. Then, abolishing all aristocratic titles and ranks, except for those created and bestowed by him, he had the rest of the nobility killed or put to work.

And he had everybody working. With unchecked power and the resources of an entire empire to draw upon, Qin Shi Huang grew megalomaniacal. He launched huge projects with massive amounts of forced labor, such as 700,000 laborers working on his tomb for 30 years – the famous Terracotta Warriors site, discovered in the 1970s and now open to tourism with its thousands of life-size statues, is but a fraction of his gigantic tomb complex, the bulk of which is yet to be unearthed. Millions more labored to dig canals, level hills, make roads, and build over 700 palaces. The biggest project of all was the Great Wall of China, which did double duty: keeping the northern barbarians out, and Chinese seeking to flee Qin Shi Huang’s heavy taxation and oppressive rule, in.

Another manifestation of his megalomania, which caused his bizarre death, was his pursuit of immortality drugs. He lavishly funded searches for a “Life Elixir” that would keep him alive forever, including an expedition with hundreds of ships that sailed off into the Pacific in search of a mythical “Land of the Immortals”, and was never heard from again. He also patronized alchemists who claimed that they were close to inventing the Life Elixir, but their R&D was hobbled by a lack of funding – a problem which Qin Shi Huang generously put to rights.

One of those charlatans gave the emperor daily mercury pills, which he claimed were a life-prolonging intermediate step in his research for immortality drugs, which should tidy Qin Shi Huang over until the Life Elixir was ready. Swallowing mercury every day, the emperor gradually poisoned himself and gradually grew insane, turning into a recluse who concealed himself from all but his closest courtiers, listened constantly to songs about “Pure Beings”, ordered 400 scholars buried alive, and had his son and heir banished. Rather than prolong his life, Qin Shi Huang shortened it in his pursuit of immortality and died of mercury poisoning at the relatively young age of 49.

Bizarre Deaths: 12 of History’s Weirdest Deaths, From Antiquity to the Middle Ages
Illustration from medieval manuscript of Eleazar Avaran. Wikimedia

Eleazar Avaran

Eleazar Avaran (died 162 BC) was the younger brother of Judas Maccabeus, leader of the 167 – 160 BC Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Empire. The revolt was caused by decrees from the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV, banning Jewish religious practices and ordering the worship of Zeus instead. The father of Eleazar and Judas sparked the rebellion by killing a Hellenized Jew who sacrificed to Greek idols, after which he fled into the wilderness with his five sons and began a guerrilla campaign. After his death, his son Judah took over the revolt, and in 164 BC, he succeeded in entering Jerusalem and restoring Jewish worship at its temple – an event commemorated in the feast of Hanukah.

Avaran’s bizarre death came at the Battle of Beth Zechariah in 162 BC, two years after his older brother Judas Maccabeus had defeated Judea’s Seleucid overlords and entered Jerusalem. However, Jerusalem’s conquest was incomplete, as a Seleucid garrison retained control of a fortress inside the city, facing the Temple Mount. Judas besieged that fortress, but a Seleucid army of 50,000 men, accompanied by 30 war elephants, marched to its relief. Judas lifted the siege and marched out at the head of 20,000 men to intercept the Seleucids.

Eschewing the guerrilla tactics which had won him victories and served him well so far, Judas formed his men to meet the Seleucids in formal battle. It was a mistake, as Judas’ forces proved no match for the Seleucid heavy infantry phalanx, professional cavalry, and armored war elephants which especially unnerved the Jewish defenders, who began to panic and break in fear of the pachyderms.

Eleazar Avaran sought to encourage his comrades by demonstrating the elephants’ vulnerability, so he charged at the biggest elephant he could find, got beneath it, and thrust his spear into its unarmored belly, killing the beast. He did not get to savor his success for long, however, because the dying elephant collapsed on top of Eleazar and crushed him to death. His comrades did not rush in to emulate him, and the courageous demonstration did not suffice to keep the Jewish army from breaking soon thereafter.

Bizarre Deaths: 12 of History’s Weirdest Deaths, From Antiquity to the Middle Ages
The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence, by Jacopo Palma the Younger. Christian Iconography

Saint Lawrence

Martyred during a wave of Christian persecutions ordered by the Roman Emperor Valerian, Saint Lawrence (225 – 258), patron saint of comedians, cooks, and firefighters, was one of seven deacons appointed by the Pope in the city of Rome, who was entrusted with safeguarding the Church’s goods and properties, and placed in charge of distributing alms to the poor and needy.

Born in Valencia in the then-Roman province of Hispania, Lawrence traveled to Zaragoza in his youth, where he met the future Pope Sixtus II, a famous and highly esteemed teacher in the Church of the third century. Sixtus became Lawrence’s mentor, and when Sixtus left Hispania for Rome, Lawrence accompanied him. When Sixtus became Pope in 257, he appointed his young protege archdeacon, or first of the Church’s then-seven deacons.

In 257, Emperor Valerian ordered a persecution of Christians and issued a decree that all bishops, priests, and deacons, be put to death. When his mentor and patron, Pope Sixtus II, was arrested and condemned to death, a weeping Lawrence followed him to the execution site, crying “father, where are you going without your deacon?” Sixtus is said to have replied “I am not leaving you, my son – in three days you shall follow me“. Rather than feel terrified by such an ominous prediction, Lawrence was cheered by the condemned man’s prophecy. He returned to the church and emptied its coffers to distribute the contents to the poor. He also began selling what Church assets he could in order to give even more to the needy.

A Roman prefect, believing that the Church must have a fortune stashed away, ordered Lawrence to bring him the Church’s treasure. Promising to do so in three days, Lawrence gathered Rome’s poor and sick, and returning on the appointed day, informed the prefect that they were the Church’s treasure. Incensed, the Prefect condemned Lawrence to a prolonged death and ordered him secured to an iron grill and placed over a slow fire. Lawrence, burning with religious zeal, seemed impervious to pain, and even joked at some point “turn me over, I think I am done on this side” – which explains why he became the patron saint of comedians.

Bizarre Deaths: 12 of History’s Weirdest Deaths, From Antiquity to the Middle Ages
Sigurd the Mighty. Ranker

Sigurd the Mighty

Sigurd Eysteinsson, AKA Sigurd the Mighty (died 892) was a Viking Earl who ruled the Orkney and Shetland Islands off the northern coast of Scotland. Allied with other Vikings chieftains, he launched an invasion of the Scottish mainland which conquered northern Scotland, overran Sutherland and Caithness, and asserted Viking control as far south as Moray. Sigurd’s exploits during that conquest earned him the epithet “the Mighty” from fellow Vikings.

He gained his earldom after the Viking king of a recently unified Norway sent Sigurd’s brother, Rognvald Eysteinsson, to conquer the Shetland and Orkney islands after they became a refuge for Norwegian exiles, from which they raided their homeland. During the conquest, Rognvald lost a son, so the king of Norway compensated him by giving him the islands and making him earl. Having interests elsewhere, Rognvald gave the islands, and the title, to his younger brother Sigurd.

Sigurd’s bizarre end came when, during the course of his conquest of northern Scotland, he challenged a local chieftain, Mael Brigte the Bucktoothed, head of the Mormaerdom, or kingdom, of Moray, to a 40 man per side battle. However, Sigurd cheated and showed up with 80 men. Outnumbered, the Scots were defeated and massacred, and Sigurd personally beheaded Mael Brigte.

Tying the defeated leader’s head to his saddle as a trophy, Sigurd rounded up his men and rode back home to celebrate the victory. However, on the way back, as the severed head tied to the saddle bounced around, the bucktooth which gave Mael Brigte his nickname cut Sigurd’s leg. The cut became inflamed and infected, and Sigurd died of the infection before he got back home.

Bizarre Deaths: 12 of History’s Weirdest Deaths, From Antiquity to the Middle Ages
Meeting of Edmund Ironside and Canute. A Clerk of Oxford

Edmund Ironside

Edmund II, AKA Edmund Ironside (circa 993 – 1016) was England’s king from April 23 to November 30, 1016. The son of one of England’s worst kings, the weak and vacillating Ethelred the Unready, Edmund was a vast improvement over his father, and proved himself made of sterner stuff than his predecessor. He earned the surname “Ironside” for his staunch resistance to a massive invasion led by the Danish king Canute.

Starting in 991, Edmund’s father, Ethelred the Unready unwisely sought to buy off the Danes then occupying northern England, and stop their incessant raids into his kingdom, by paying them tribute known as the Danegeld, or “Danish gold”. Unsurprisingly, that emboldened the Danes, who upped their demands for more and more gold, and fearing little from Ethelred, kept on raiding his domain. Finally, after bankrupting his kingdom and beggaring its people with the high taxes necessary to pay the Danegeld, Ethelred ordered a massacre of Danish settlers in 1002.

The massacre led to an invasion by the Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard, who conquered England in 1013 and forced Ethelred to flee to Normandy. However, Sweyn died the following year, at which point Ethelred returned, and with his son Edmund playing a leading role, chased Sweyn’s son, Canute, out of England in 1014. Canute returned the following year at the head of a large Danish army which pillaged much of England, but crown prince Edmund mounted a fierce resistance which stymied the Dane. When Ethelred died in 1016, Edmund, by now surnamed “Ironside”, succeeded him on the English throne.

Edmund II’s bizarre death came 7 months after he was crowned, on November 30, 1016. That night, Edmund went to the privy to answer a call of nature, but unbeknownst to him, an assassin was waiting in the cesspit for the royal posterior to show up. When Edmund sat down to do his business, the assassin stabbed upwards with a sharp dagger, and leaving the weapon embedded in the king’s bowels, made his escape. Unfortunately for Edmund, even if his sides had been made of iron, his bottom was not.

Bizarre Deaths: 12 of History’s Weirdest Deaths, From Antiquity to the Middle Ages
Medieval Tapestry depicting Mongol Siege of Baghdad. History Buff

Caliph Al Musta’sim

Al Musta’sim Billah (1213 -1258) was the last ruler of the Abbasid Caliphate, and Islam’s last Caliph. A weak ruler ruling a weak rump of what had once been a mighty empire, Al Musta’sim was surrounded by ineffectual advisors who offered conflicting advice when the Mongols demanded his submission. He rejected the demands, ignoring some and answering others with bluster and empty threats, but failed to prepare adequate defenses against what was sure to follow such rejection.

The Mongols first erupted into the Islamic world in the 1220s, when Genghis Khan destroyed the Khwarezmian Empire and conquered as far west as western Persia up to the edges of Mesopotamia. That outburst was followed by a decades-long relative lull, as far as the Middle East and the Islamic world were concerned, when the Mongols directed their energies elsewhere, against China, Kievan Rus, Eastern Europe, and in internal squabbles amongst themselves. The lull ended in the 1250s, when a new Mongol ruler, Genghis Khan’s grandson Mongke, turned his attention to the Middle East and sent his brother, Hulagu, to assert Mongol power over the region.

Hulagu began by first destroying the Assassins, a murderous cult led by a shadowy mystic known as The Old Man of the Mountain, that operated from a string of mountain holdfasts and which had terrorized the Middle East for over a century and a half. Completing that task by 1256, Hulagu turned his attention to the Abbassid Caliphate, based in Baghdad, and ordered its Caliph, Al Musta’sim, to submit to Mongol suzerainty and pay tribute.

The Abbassids, once a powerful dynasty that ruled the world’s largest, strongest, and most prosperous empire, were centuries removed from their heyday by the time Al Musta’sim became Caliph. By the 1250s, the Abbasid Caliphate’s sway did not stretch far beyond Baghdad, and the Caliph had been reduced to a mostly ceremonial figurehead, a puppet of Turkish or Persian sultans wielding real power and acting in his name. What the Caliph did have left was a remnant of spiritual and moral authority, and enough pride to refuse Hulagu’s summons to submit.

The Abbasids were not prepared to face the Mongols, who had conquered bigger and tougher opponents than the small rump which still remained to the Abbasid Caliphate. However, Al Musta’sim believed that the Mongols would not be able to seize Baghdad, and that if the city was endangered, the Islamic world would rush to its aid. Hulagu marched on Baghdad, the Islamic world did not rush to its aid, and after a 12-day siege, the city fell. The Mongols sacked Baghdad, massacred its inhabitants, burned its vast libraries, and put the city to the torch. Al Musta’sim was captured, but the Mongols had a taboo against spilling royal blood. So they had him executed by rolling him in a carpet, and their army rode over him when it marched off to further conquests, their horses trampling the last Caliph to death.

Bizarre Deaths: 12 of History’s Weirdest Deaths, From Antiquity to the Middle Ages
Effigy of Edward II from his tomb at Gloucester Cathedral. Gloucester Cathedral

Edward II

Edward II of England (1284 – 1327), son and successor of Edward I, one of England’s greatest monarchs, was a disappointment to both his father while the latter lived, and to his subjects, after he succeeded Edward I to the throne in 1307. A weak and flighty king, Edward II relied on and elevated favorites who misgoverned the realm in his name, and compounded the problem by doing little to counter the perception that those favorites were his gay lovers. Poor government and perceived effeteness in a homophobic age earned Edward the widespread hatred and contempt of his barons and subjects and brought him to grief in the end.

Early in his reign, Edward II angered his barons by elevating to an earldom a frivolous favorite, and rumored lover, Piers Gaveston. The barons demanded that Edward banish Gaveston and assent to a document limiting the king’s power over appointments and finances. Edward caved in and banished Gaveston, but allowed him to return a short while. The barons responded by seizing and executing Gaveston.

In 1314, Edward led an army into Scotland, but was decisively defeated at the Battle of Bannockburn, and at a stroke lost all the gains his father had made with years of toil and great expense to assert English control of Scotland. Humiliated, Edward was unable to resist his magnates when they formed a baronial committee that sidelined the king and ruled the realm. It lasted until Edward found another favorite, another rumored lover, Hugh Despenser, and elevated him. As with the king’s earlier favorite, the barons demanded that Edward banish Despenser, but this time he fought back, and with the Despenser family’s support, Edward defeated the opposing barons and regained his authority in 1322.

However, his public displays of affection for Hugh Despenser humiliated and alienated Edward’s queen, Isabella. While on a diplomatic mission to Paris in 1325, she became the mistress of Roger Mortimer, an exiled baronial opponent of the king. In 1326, the couple invaded England, executed the Despensers, deposed Edward II, and replaced him with his 14-year-old son, who was crowned Edward III in January 1327, with Roger Mortimer acting as regent during the new king’s minority.

Edward II’s bizarre death came later that year. Roger Mortimer, hearing that his opponents were plotting to free the deposed king, had him moved in April 1327, to Berkley Castle in Gloucestershire, a more secure location. Reports of fresh plots to free Edward caused Mortimer to order him moved to various locations during the spring and summer of 1327 before he was finally returned to Berkley Castle. The continued political instability, and the uncertainty whether one of those plots might finally succeed, determined Mortimer to end the problem once and for all, and put Edward II beyond rescue, by having him killed.

Not wishing to leave visible marks of murder on the body, and contemptuous of Edward and his perceived effeminacy and homosexuality, his killers did him in on the night of September 21, 1327, by holding him down and shoving a red hot poker up his rectum to burn his bowels from the inside. Another version has it that a tube was first inserted in his rectum, and a red hot metal bolt was then dropped down the tube into his bowels. Either way, his screams were said to have reverberated around the castle, and were heard far beyond its walls.

Bizarre Deaths: 12 of History’s Weirdest Deaths, From Antiquity to the Middle Ages
Illustration from medieval manuscript depicting death of Charles II of Navarre. Morphosis

Charles the Bad

Charles II of Navarre, AKA Charles the Bad (1332 – 1387) was a powerful French magnate, with extensive holdings in Normandy and other parts of France. From 1349, he was also the king of Navarre, a small kingdom on the Pyrenees mountains between France and Spain. He earned the epitaph “the Bad” because of his propensity for intrigues, bad faith dealings, betrayals, dishonesty, and double-crosses as he attempted to expand his kingdom at the expense of France and Spain.

During the Hundred Years War, he plotted with the English to betray France, and was arrested and imprisoned by the French king John II when his treachery came to light. Charles escaped from prison and 1357, and began a series of intrigues with a variety of French parties, betraying nearly all, one after the other. After John II’s death, his successor forced Charles to renounce most of his holdings in France. In 1378, Charles the Bad was forced to cede nearly all of his remaining French holding when evidence of new treachery was discovered, proving that Charles not only planned to again betray France to the English, but plotted to go one better this time and poison the French king.

To the south, Charles’ poor reputation was no better in Spain, where he allied with Peter the Cruel of Castile against Peter IV of Aragon in 1362, only to turn around and betray Castile the following year, allying with Peter IV against Peter the Cruel. In 1378, Castilian armies invaded Navarre and Charles was forced to flee. Out of allies, having betrayed them all, Charles was forced to agree to a humiliating treaty that defanged his kingdom and reduced him and his realm to Castilian clients.

Charles the Bad’s bizarre death came in 1387 when an illness that impeded the use of his limbs led a physician to prescribe that he be swaddled from head to foot in linen cloth steeped in brandy or other spirits of wine. A maid, tasked with securing the swaddling cloth snugly around the king’s body by sewing it in place with yarn, realized when she was done that she had no scissors with which to snip the excess yarn. Resorting to a common alternate method for thread cutting, she reached for a candle to use its flame to burn off a section of yarn. The alcohol-infused cloth caught on fire, and Charles the Bad, tightly swaddled in the burning linen, was unable to escape. He suffered horrific burns all over his body and lingered for two weeks in extreme agony before he finally succumbed.

Bizarre Deaths: 12 of History’s Weirdest Deaths, From Antiquity to the Middle Ages
The drowning of George Plantagenet, 1st Duke of Clarence. Pinterest

George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence

George Plantagenet, 1st Duke of Clarence (1449 – 1478) was the younger son of Richard, Duke of York, whose struggle to secure power precipitated the Wars of the Roses between the houses of York and Lancaster, and the brother of King Edward IV of England, against whom he engaged in several ill-advised conspiracies, which ultimately brought about George’s doom.

After his brother broke the Lancastrians at the Battle of Towton in 1461, deposed the Lancastrian king Henry VI, and had himself crowned in his place as Edward IV, George was made Duke of Clarence. The following year, although only 13 years old, he was also made the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. As he grew into early manhood, George idolized and came under the influence of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, AKA “The Kingmaker”, and married Neville’s daughter in defiance of the king’s plans to marry him into a European royal family to secure a dynastic alliance.

Neville, the Kingmaker who had been instrumental in deposing the prior Lancastrian king Henry VI and replacing him with Edward IV, fell out with king Edward and deserted to the Lancastrians. George rewarded his brother’s earlier generosity with betrayal, took his father-in-law’s side, and despite being a member of the York family, switched his support to the Lancastrians. With the Kingmaker’s machinations, George’s brother Edward IV was deposed and forced to flee England in 1470, and the once-deposed Lancastrian King Henry VI was restored to the throne.

However, George started to mistrust his father-in-law, the Kingmaker, and switched his support back to his brother. Edward IV returned to England in 1471, defeated the Lancastrians in a battle during which the Kingmaker was killed, was restored to the throne, and ensured that the twice deposed Henry VI would trouble him no more by having him murdered, after having already executed Henry’s son and sole heir. Edward pardoned his younger brother George and restored him to royal favor.

George’s bizarre death came in 1478, after he once again betrayed his elder brother, and was caught plotting against the king. Finally fed up with his wayward sibling, Edward IV ordered George arrested and jailed in the Tower of London, and had him put on trial for treason. Personally conducting the prosecution before Parliament, Edward secured a conviction and Bill of Attainder against George, who was condemned to death. On February 18, 1478, George Plantagenet, 1st Duke of Clarence, was executed by being dunked into a butt, or big barrel, of Malmsey wine, and forcibly held under its surface until he was drowned.

 

Sources For Further Reading:

Ancient Olympics – Arrichion

Today I Found Out – Death Before Defeat- The Badass Story of Arrichion of Phigalia

History Collection – Really Inappropriate Deaths in History

History Collection – Unusual Deaths from the History Books

History Collection – Dramatic and Bizarre Ways People Died in Ancient Greece and the Hellenistic World

History Collection – Ridiculous Symbols, Beliefs, and Habits from History

History Collection – Odd Historic Moments that Are Almost too Weird to Handle

Ancient Origins – How the Search for Immortality Killed the First Emperor of China

Medium – The Viking King Who Died of Head Bite

The Vintage News – King Charles II of Navarre Was Burnt Alive by Accident

Advertisement