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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.