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