20. China’s First and Only Empress Was Hell on Her Own Family
When Wu Zetian’s lover became Emperor Gaozong, she became his favorite concubine, and was eventually elevated to second wife. Not content to remain second fiddle, Wu reportedly strangled her own infant daughter, and framed the emperor’s first wife for the death. The intrigue worked, and Wu became the emperor’s official consort, the highest-ranking woman in the imperial family. Her power in the imperial household and family grew, as she steadily eliminated opponents and potential threats. When Emperor Gaozong died in 683, Wu became empress dowager, and ran the empire as regent in the name of her son, the underage Emperor Zhongzong.
When Zhongzong ascended the throne in his own right in 684, he tried to get out from under his mother’s thumb. He lasted only six weeks on the throne, before Wu had him deposed, exiled, and replaced with her youngest son, whom she made Emperor Ruizong. She maintained all power in her own hands, and six years later, she tired of bothering with any pretense about who actually ran China. So she made Ruizong relinquish the throne, officially proclaimed herself empress regnant, and ruled in that capacity until she was overthrown in 705.
19. Peter the Great Steamrolled All Opposition, Including Opposition Within His Own Family
Tsar Peter the Great dragged Russia – often kicking and screaming – from its medieval ways and into the modern world. His achievements included revamping the government, weakening the Orthodox Church, modernizing and strengthening the military, and expanding Russia’s borders. He also moved the capital from Moscow to a new city that he built on the Baltic and named after himself, Saint Petersburg. As with any major reforms, Peter faced significant resistance from the old order. However, the Tsar ruthlessly enforced his will, and steamrolled over all opposition.
Tragically, those steamrolled included his own family. In order to safeguard his reforms, Peter ended up killing is own son and heir, the Tsarevich Alexei Petrovich. As kids often do, Peter the Great’s son and heir sought to stake out his individuality by contrasting himself with his father. To that end, Alexei became conservative and religious, and attracted admirers from amongst the traditionalists pining for the old days. Unfortunately for the Tsarevich, he was in the wrong family for that kind of stuff: the kinds of kids who get away with that are the kinds of kids who don’t have Peter the Great for a father.
The reformist Peter the Great, determined to protect his legacy from the threat of its getting overturned by a reactionary successor down the road, sought to force his son Alexei into seeing things his way. The pressure eventually got too much for the Tsarevich. In desperation, he escaped to Vienna, where he sought political asylum from the Habsburgs. That was bad enough, but then it got a whole lot worse. The roots of the family troubles were deep. Alexei’s mother had been religiously pious and conservative, so his father Peter forced her into a convent when Alexei was eight.
Understandably, that scarred Alexei and soured him against Peter. The father-son relationship cracked for good in 1715, when Peter, hoping to correct Alexei’s perceived weakness and other shortcomings, threatened to deprive him of the succession. To his astonishment, the Tsarevich agreed to relinquish his claim to the throne, and volunteered to enter a monastery. At the last moment, however, Alexei had a change of heart, and fled to Vienna, where he secured political asylum.
17. Peter the Great Had His Own Son Flogged to Death
The embarrassment of his own son seeking asylum at a foreign court enraged Peter the Great, who sent agents to track down the Tsarevich Alexei. In 1717, Count Peter Tolstoi, the most unscrupulous and subtle of Peter’s agents (and ancestor of the famous nineteenth-century writer Peter Tolstoy) tracked Alexei to a castle in Naples. He handed the Tsarevich a letter in which Peter berated Alexei, but promised not to punish him if he returned to Russia. Ignoring warnings that it was a trick, the Tsarevich returned to Russia in 1718.
Upon his arrival, Alexei was made to beg his father’s forgiveness during a public spectacle in which he was disinherited. The Tsar forced him to name those who had aided his flight, which resulted in the torture and execution of dozens of Alexei’s associates. That done, Peter ordered his son jailed. On June 19th, 1718, the Tsar had Alexei flogged for days, until he confessed to conspiring to murder his father. The flogging was so severe that Peter’s son died of his wounds within a week.
Crown Prince Sado (1735 – 1762) was the son of Korean King Yeongjo. He was the king’s second son, but the first one had died in 1728. For years, the king’s wives and concubines had given him only daughters, and he despaired of ever getting another male heir. When Sado was born in 1735, his arrival was greeted with great rejoicing throughout Korea. According to tradition, the infant was set up in his own palace with an army of maids and governesses and servants. However, his father took little part in raising and looking after his upbringing, so Sado was spoiled rotten and grew up doing what he liked. The result was a royal family tragedy.
When Prince Sado’s father bothered to stop by and visit his son, he was often highly irritable, and grew angry at even trivial missteps by his son. Sado grew up oscillating between a great fear of his father, and a desperate need to please him. Pleasing King Yeongjo was difficult, however, for his father was not given to displays of affection, and whenever the two met, the king was far more critical than affectionate. As a result, Sado grew up feeling unloved and resentful.
15. Daddy Issues Wrecked This Prince and Turned Him Into a Monster
Between Sado’s daddy issues, perceived lack of affection, lack of fatherly supervision, indulgence and flattery by courtiers, and other deep-seated neuroses, something broke inside Sado. He was a troubled young man, given to extremely violent and erratic mood swings. One day, he would behave with such decorum, dignity, and probity, that he was all that his father had ever wanted in a son and heir. The next, he would undergo a transformation, and give free rein to violate outbursts during which he would turn rapist and murderer. Historians are unsure just what exactly ailed him, but he was clearly mentally unstable. Today, many think that he was schizophrenic.
Although alcohol was forbidden at court, the Crown Prince routinely downed copious amounts of wine and spirits, and became a raging alcoholic. When a depressive mood fell upon him, murdering servants brought Sado relief. On many a day, several dead bodies were carried out of the palace. He also enjoyed raping court ladies. His depravities extended to his own family: after murdering his concubine, he started sexually harassing his own sister.
17. Prince Sado Became a Monster Feared Throughout Korea
Prince Sado was a troubled young man, given to extremely violent and erratic mood swings. One day, he would behave with such decorum, dignity, and probity, that he was all that his father had ever wanted in a son and heir. The next, he would undergo a transformation, and give free rein to violate outbursts during which he would turn rapist and murderer. Historians are unsure just what exactly ailed him, but he was clearly mentally unstable. Today, many think that he was schizophrenic.
Although alcohol was forbidden at court, the Crown Prince routinely downed copious amounts of wine and spirits, and became a raging alcoholic. When a depressive mood fell upon him, murdering servants brought Sado relief. On many a day, several dead bodies were carried out of the palace. He also enjoyed raping court ladies. His depravities extended to his own family: after murdering his concubine, he started sexually harassing his own sister. That behavior made Sado widely feared throughout Korea as a serial rapist, serial killer, and all-around dangerous psychopath.
14. King Yeongjo Ordered His Son Executed Via Starvation
Prince Sado’s shocking conduct and murderous ways made him widely feared throughout Korea as a serial rapist, serial killer, and all-around dangerous psychopath. Eventually, the crown prince’s father, King Yeongjo, had enough. He determined that he could not, in good conscience, inflict his criminally insane son upon the Korean people as their next monarch. So on July 4th, 1762, Sado was summoned by his father, who ceremonially struck the floor with a sword and declared the crown prince deposed.
However, that still left unanswered the question of just what to do with Sado. His father ordered him to take the honorable path by committing suicide, but the prince refused to do so. Court rules and taboos prohibited the outright execution of member of the royal family. So the king had Sado placed inside a heavy wooden chest used for storing grain, and locked him inside. There, the deposed prince was left to starve to death. It took him eight days to die.
King Edward II of England (1284 – 1327) was the anti-knight and the opposite of the chivalric ideal. He stood in jarring contrast to his father Edward I, one of England’s greatest monarchs. A weak and flighty king, Edward II raised favorites who misgoverned the kingdom in his name. He 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 were a toxic mix. They earned Edward the contempt of his barons, subjects, and even his own family.
It brought him to grief at the end, when his wife Queen Isabella of France overthrew him. The problem began early in his reign, when Edward enraged his barons by making an earl out of Piers Gaveston, a frivolous favorite and his rumored lover. The barons demanded that the king banish Gaveston and assent to a document limiting royal power over appointments and finances. Edward caved in and banished Gaveston, but soon thereafter allowed him to return. The exasperated barons responded by seizing and executing the royal favorite.
12. Edward’s Disrespect of His Queen Led Her to Depose Him
In 1314, Edward II led an army into Scotland, but was decisively defeated at the Battle of Bannockburn. At a stroke, he lost all the hard-won gains his father had made with years of great effort and expense to assert English control of Scotland. Humiliated, he 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 and rumored lover, Hugh Despenser, and raised him. As with Gaveston, the barons demanded that Edward banish Despenser. This time, however, the king fought back. With the support of the Despenser family, Edward defeated the barons and regained his authority in 1322.
However, Edward’s public displays of affection for Hugh Despenser created trouble in the royal family by humiliating and alienating Edward’s wife, 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, and deposed Edward II. They replaced him with his fourteen-year-old son, who was crowned Edward III in January, 1327, with Mortimer as regent.
In April, 1327, Roger Mortimer heard of plots to rescue the deposed King Edward II. So he had him relocated to a more secure site. More reports of fresh plots to free Edward caused Mortimer to order him to move to various other locations during the spring and summer of 1327. Eventually, the fear that one of the numerous plots might finally succeed led Mortimer to decide on ending the problem once and for all, and putting Edward II beyond all rescue by having him killed.
Edward’s killers did not want to leave marks of murder on him. They were also contemptuous of the deposed king and his perceived effeminacy and homosexuality. So they did him in 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, then a red hot metal bolt was dropped down the tube into his bowels. Either way, Edward II’s dying screams were reportedly audible from miles away.
10. Ivan The Terrible Was Also Terrible to His Own Family
Ivan IV, better known as Ivan the Terrible (1530 – 1584), richly deserved his name. He was the Grand Prince of Moscow from 1533 to 1547, after which he declared himself “Tsar of all the Russias” – which became the title of Russian monarch from then on. He created a centralized government and was a grand conqueror. He finally overthrew the last remnants of Mongol subjugation beneath which Russia had groaned for centuries, dominated the neighboring nomadic Khanates and greatly expanded Russia’s borders. On the other hand, Ivan was an insanely cruel despot who subjected his people to a decades-long reign of terror. That terror extended to his own family.
Ivan the Terrible ascended Russia’s throne at age three. His mother, as his closest family member, governed the country as regent in his name. However, she died when Ivan was seven, and a power struggle erupted between competing boyars, or Russian nobles, in which the child Ivan was left defenseless. The young ruler was exploited and tormented by boyars who mistreated and abused him in his own palace. That made him bitter, bitterness gave way to violent rage, and before long, Ivan was venting his frustrations by torturing small animals.
9. Soon as He Took Personal Control of Russia, Ivan the Terrible Unleashed a Reign of Terror on His Subjects
By the time he took personal control of the government, Ivan was a paranoid, resentful, and angry young man who distrusted people in general, and detested the boyar class in particular. So he instituted a system known as the oprichnina in the 1560s that amounted to a reign of terror. It augured the absolute monarchy that was to be Russia’s hallmark for centuries to come. With a special police force, the Oprichniki, Ivan kicked off a wave of persecutions that first targeted the boyars, and spread in ever greater ripples that soon covered all his lands.
Ivan the Terrible’s most infamous act of cruelty in a reign full of acts of cruelty occurred in Novgorod. In 1570, when that city defied him, he marched on it in the dead of winter, and after seizing it, went on an orgy of violent depravity. He started off with the clergy, whom he rounded up and ordered flogged from dawn until dusk, for days on end, until they each paid a 20 ruble fine. Hundreds died, and afterward, he ordered the survivors executed.
8. Ivan the Terrible Killed His Own Son With His Own Hands
Novgorod’s population fared no better than did the city’s clergy. Flogging and murdering priests did not slake Ivan the Terrible thirst for vengeance, so ordered the torture of leading citizens along with their families. Men were executed, and women and children were bound and thrown into a nearby river. There, the victims were trapped under the ice as soldiers patrolled the area on foot, wielding hooks and spears to push down any who surfaced. By the time Ivan was finally sated, over 60,000 had perished.
Even Ivan’s family was not spared from his fits of uncontrollable rage. In 1581, he violently assaulted his pregnant daughter-in-law when he saw her wearing clothes that he deemed too revealing. That caused her to miscarry. When his son and heir angrily berated him for attacking his wife, Ivan the Terrible smashed his head in with his scepter. The result was a fatal wound from which Ivan’s son died a few days later. The terrible Tsar followed him three years later, dying from a stroke while playing chess.
George Plantagenet, 1st Duke of Clarence (1449 – 1478), got himself into a family feud that ended up killing him in a remarkably weird way. George was the younger son of Richard, Duke of York, whose struggle to secure power kicked off the Wars of the Roses between the York and Lancaster branches of the Plantagenet Dynasty. His older brother became King Edward IV of England, and George engaged in several ill-advised conspiracies against him. That ultimately spelled his doom.
After a protracted war that saw numerous ups and downs various pendulum swings between the competing Plantagenet family factions, Edward broke the Lancastrians at the Battle of Towton in 1461. He then deposed the Lancastrian King Henry VI, and had himself crowned in his place as King Edward IV. He made his kid brother George Duke of Clarence. The following year, although only thirteen years old, George was also made the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. He rewarded his brother’s generosity with treason and betrayal.
6. Family Ties Did Not Matter Much to This Younger Brother
As he grew into early manhood, George Plantagenet, 1st Duke of Clarence idolized and came under the influence of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. Neville was also known as “The Kingmaker“, because of the key role his machinations played in deposing and installing kings. George married Neville’s daughter in defiance of the plans of his older brother, King Edward IV, to marry him into a European royal family in order to secure a dynastic alliance. That opened a family rift that soon grew wider over time.
Neville, who had been instrumental in deposing King Henry VI and replacing him with Edward IV, eventually 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.
5. The Duke of Clarence Betrayed His Family Once Too Often
After betraying his brother Edward IV, George, Duke of Clarence, started to mistrust his father-in-law, “the Kingmaker”. So he switched back to his own Yorkist family and supported the restoration of his brother. Edward IV returned to England in 1471, defeated the Lancastrians in a battle during which the Kingmaker was killed, and was restored to the throne. He 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.
In 1478, George was once again caught out plotting against his brother. Finally fed up with his wayward sibling, Edward IV ordered George arrested and jailed in the Tower of London, and had him tried 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 18th, 1478, George Plantagenet, 1st Duke of Clarence, was executed by being dunked into a butt, or big barrel, of Malmsey wine. He was forcibly held under the surface until he was drowned.
4. Julius Caesar Might Have Been Killed by His Own Son
Marcus Junius Brutus the Younger (85 BC – 42 BC) was made famous or infamous by the “Et tu, Brute” quotation from Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar. Brutus was Julius Caesar’s friend, and although he might have also been Caesar’s biological son, that family tie did not stop him from becoming Caesar’s best-known assassin. A patrician, he was born to Marcus Junius Brutus the Elder, who was treacherously murdered by Pompey the Great, and Servilla, who became Julius Caesar’s mistress for many years.
After his father’s murder, Brutus was raised by his maternal uncle, Cato the Younger, one of Rome’s leading conservatives and a staunch advocate of returning to the values and lifestyles of the Roman Republic’s early days. Brutus had been a close ally of Julius Caesar and a supporter of his Populares faction. However, as Caesar sought greater power, Brutus came to view him as a tyrant. So he switched to Caesar’s conservative Optimates opponents. Brutus fought within the Optimates ranks and under the leadership of his father’s murderer, Pompey the Great, in the civil war against his erstwhile friend, mother’s lover, and probable father.
3. Family Ties Did Not Prevent Brutus From Murdering Caesar
Julius Caesar won the civil war, then pardoned Brutus and restored him to favor. Paradoxically, that just enraged Brutus even more, as he resented the fact that any Roman should have the power to pardon another Roman in the first place. Caesar eventually assumed dictatorial powers. When he started acting increasingly like a monarch, a faction of Roman senators, styling themselves the “Liberators”, formed to assassinate him. They recruited Brutus, whose family name and descent from Lucius Junius Brutus, the Roman Republic’s founder who did away with the monarchy and expelled the last Roman king, carried significant symbolic weight.
Brutus betrayed Caesar and delivered one of the stab wounds during the dictator’s assassination on the Ides of March in 44 BC. Afterward, the Senate declared an amnesty for the killers, but rioting forced Brutus and the other assassins to flee Rome. The following year, Caesar’s nephew and heir, Octavian, secured a resolution revoking the amnesty and declaring Caesar’s assassins murderers. That led to another round of civil war, which culminated at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC. The combined forces of Octavian and Mark Antony crushed those of Brutus and the surviving assassins. Brutus committed suicide after the defeat.
Shaka Zulu (circa 1787-1828) was a tribal warrior who rose to become chief of the Zulus, then launched a ruthless campaign of conquest against other Southern African tribes. A military visionary, he revolutionized tribal warfare in the region, bringing it to a hitherto unprecedented pitch of destructiveness. By the time he was done, he had established Zulu Empire. His fall came not from defeat at the hands of his open enemies, but at the hands of his own family.
When Shaka came to power, tribal warfare in Southern Africa was a low-intensity affair. It was dominated for the most part by rituals and display, with warriors parading in front of their respective armies, shouting challenges and defiance at the enemy, and throwing the occasion spear. There with relatively little actual fighting, and thus few fatalities. Shaka was of a bloody-minded bent, however, so he set about changing that. He introduced fighting formations, organized his men into regiments known as impis, and transformed the Zulus into a disciplined army.
1. Shaka Zulu Killed Millions Before He Was Killed by His Family
Shaka Zulu revolutionized tribal combat tactics by abandoning the throwing spears used in the region for centuries. This taught men to use short stabbing spears, emphasizing shock tactics and decisive close combat. Zulu tactics and training made them unstoppable, triggering a catastrophe known as the Mfecane, meaning the “crushing” or “forced migration”. Tribes forced to flee Shaka’s onslaught were forced to encroach upon their neighbors, who were then forced to fight or become refugees, encroaching upon their neighbors in turn. The result was a cascade of violence that claimed the lives of millions.
Shaka’s reign finally came to an end in 1828. That year, he sent a regiment raiding up to the borders of the Cape Colony. When it returned, rather than allow it the customary rest, he ordered the regiment out on yet another raid. That and increasingly megalomaniacal behavior led to widespread grumbling. Taking advantage of the disgruntlement, Shaka’s half-brother Dingane organized a plot within the conqueror’s own family. At a signal one day at camp, he and his co-conspirators fell upon Shaka and stabbed him to death.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading