The Seven Bloodiest Queens in History: War, Execution and Murder

The Seven Bloodiest Queens in History: War, Execution and Murder

Michelle Powell-Smith - November 17, 2016

Some of these queens were truly awful; others were skilled rulers and military leaders, perhaps viewed less favorably than is fair by history. Some, like Elizabeth I, are remembered more for their other achievements and less for either their bloody rule or their military might. You’ll likely be surprised by some of these names, and not at all by others, after all, Mary Tudor is most commonly called Bloody Mary.

These are only a few of history’s notable, and sometimes brutal, queens. Their reigns vary, as do their abilities as a queen and ruler. For this article, we’ve chosen a range of cultures and historical periods—it’s not conclusive, nor are these the only good examples.

The Seven Bloodiest Queens in History: War, Execution and Murder

Empress Wu Zetian

Empress Wu Zetian ruled China in 700 CE; she was the only woman to do so in her own right and her own name. She held power, through several avenues for more than 50 years. Over the course of her life, she was first the consort of the Gaozong Emperor, then held power as the mother of the emperor, and finally in her own name as Empress of China.

Chinese histories don’t look favorably on Wu. Not only was she female, she was a usurper without birthright to the imperial throne. She was accused of killing her sister and older brothers, murdering the Emperor and killing her own mother. It is even claimed that she smothered her own week-old daughter to blame one of the Emperor’s other wives. Which of these accusations are true, and which are not?

It is relatively likely that some of the accusations specific to Wu’s own family interactions were true, including, perhaps, murder. She certainly manipulated her own sons to eventually lead to the rule of the weak-tempered fourth son; the one she could easily control. Others, like her murder of Empress Wang and the Pure Concubine, do not appear in the contemporary reports, and are suspiciously similar to the records of other Chinese empresses, like the 2nd century BCE Lu Zhi.

While you might, at this point, think that Wu was, as Chinese historians remembered her, quite a dreadful woman, she was a fine ruler. She was, for her people, an effective and pragmatic ruler. Her policies were largely very much like those of her predecessors, and she played a key role in the longevity of the Tang dynasty.

Under Wu, China was peaceful and economically prosperous. She introduced a system of meritocracy for Chinese bureaucrats that lasted until the 20th century and welcomed ambassadors from distant countries, including the Byzantine Empire. She maintained policies of religious tolerance in her court and country. She was, however, most certainly guilty of maintaining her own harem of young men, just a Chinese emperor had a harem of young women.

Wu’s tomb remains unopened, but is unusual, with a shape reminiscent of a pair of breasts. Even in death, she was a bit uncommon and remarkable.

The Seven Bloodiest Queens in History: War, Execution and Murder

Isabella I of Castile

Isabella I, sometimes called the Catholic Queen, is one of the most memorable figures of the late Middle Ages and Early Modern period. Isabella married Ferdinand of Aragon and together the couple united Spain and formed a powerful kingdom, encompassing both Castile and Aragon in 1479. Unlike many royal couples, these two ruled as equals; Isabella’s voice mattered as much as King Ferdinand’s. Thus, Isabella bears equal, or in some instances, perhaps more responsible for the atrocities committed during their reign.

In 1478, Isabella and Ferdinand requested Pope Sixtus IV establish the Spanish Inquisition, and the Inquisition began in 1480. The goal of the Inquisition was simple; they wanted to remove any questionable elements of faith from Spain or to eliminate anyone who was not a devout Catholic. Jews practicing in secret and those who had recently converted to Christianity, called conversos, were at particularly high risk. Some 13,000 conversos were put on trial during the Inquisition. While the exact number of those killed, typically by burning at the stake, is unknown, it’s likely that around 2,000 people, nearly all of Jewish origin, were killed over a 12-year period. In 1492, Isabella and Ferdinand expelled the Jews from Spain, forcing them on a long and arduous trek to find sanctuary elsewhere.

During the same period, Isabella was actively at war to reclaim Muslim territories in Spain, including the city of Granada. The majority of the troops were provided by Isabella and the territory of Castile. After the war, the Muslim population was forced to flee, convert or become slaves. During this war, Castilian forces widely destroyed crops and pillaged the surrounding lands, relying heavily on both artillery and siege warfare.

Finally, Isabella supported the exploratory mission of Christopher Columbus, and benefited greatly from the substantial wealth imported from the New World. This wealth was, of course, mine on the backs of the native peoples of the Americas, on their enslavement, and in many cases, on their murders. Isabella herself hoped to convert the people of the Americas to Christianity and wished them to be well-treated.

For the Catholic people of Spain, Isabella was, in many ways, a good ruler. She created an artistic and intellectual court, expanded the land of Spain and united the country; however, she did all of this at a very high cost to other portions of her people, including and particularly the Jews of Spain, the Muslims of Spain, and the peoples of the Americas.

The Seven Bloodiest Queens in History: War, Execution and Murder

Mary I of England

Mary I of England was the only surviving child of Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. After spending her childhood as a much-loved princess, Mary was made illegitimate by her father’s divorce.

Mary inherited the throne after the death of her half-brother, Edward VI. During the reign of Henry VIII, he had converted England from a Catholic country to a Protestant one; however, Mary remained staunchly Catholic throughout her life. Her religious faith was almost certainly driven by her father’s treatment of her mother during their divorce and her mother’s final years. Her actions, and the reason she earned the name Bloody Mary, were directly related to her religious faith and fervor.

In 1553, Edward died. Lady Jane Grey, a Protestant, was briefly made queen, but Mary took the throne only days later. Her claim was significantly greater, and she had popular support. Mary soon had Jane, only 16 years old, beheaded.

The following year, Mary married Phillip II of Spain. She was already 37 at the time of her coronation. Mary had little popular support, was already infertile, and was deserted by her husband when he returned to Spain. Twice she declared herself pregnant, but these appear to have been hysterical pregnancies, or perhaps problems associated with her reproductive health. There is no evidence she ever became pregnant.

Her marriage to wealthy Spain had provided no benefits for England. In addition, she lost, during the course of her reign and due to Phillip’s influence, England’s last possession in France, the important port city of Calais.

She reimposed Catholicism on the country of England, and reinstituted old laws against heresy. Between 1554 and 1557, Mary burned several hundred Protestants at the stake for heresy against the Catholic Church. The first of those burned was her father’s longtime advisor, Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury. While the total number burned was around 300, dozens more died in prison, in some cases as the result of torture and many more fled England for Germany and Geneva.

Mary died alone and without children in 1558. Her only heir was her sister Elizabeth. While some of these queens were, if brutal, effective rulers in some right, Mary was not. She was disliked by her people, her nobles, and could not successfully accomplish her only true objective, to return Catholicism to England.

The Seven Bloodiest Queens in History: War, Execution and Murder

Ranavalona I of Madagascar

Ranavalona I of Madagascar, called Ranavalona the Cruel or the Mad Queen of Madagascar, came to power in 1828. Raised in poverty, Ranavalona was adopted by the king, and married to his oldest son, as the first of twelve wives, after her father discovered a plot to murder the king. While Ranavalona’s children were the rightful heirs, she bore no children during her marriage. The rightful heir was, therefore, the king’s nephew.

Her husband, Radama, died a horribly painful death, perhaps due to poisoning by Ranavalona, or due to syphilis. Following his death, she seized the palace and had the remaining members of the original royal family, including the heir to the throne, killed. Ranavalona herself was at significant risk during this time, making her actions logical, rather than mad. The traditions held that any of her children could become heir to the throne, even after the rightful king’s death. She held the palace and was crowned queen on June 12, 1829.

As queen, Ranavalona strongly opposed efforts at colonization, fending off the advances of both the British and the French in Madagascar. After one successful battle, the heads of Europeans killed were displayed on pikes as a symbol of her victory. Early in her reign, she created new industries in Madagascar to support the country’s independence. She was, during this stage, relatively well-liked, even after her actions opposing the traditional royal family, and her actions certainly benefited an independent Madagascar.

Later in life, Ranavalona became progressively more extreme in her actions; she actively persecuted any Christian elements in the country, resorting to both torture and execution. Several thousand Christians were persecuted during her reign, and most foreign missionaries fled. In addition, she relied upon forced marches through malaria-infested swamps to suppress any revolts among her troops.

She instituted a range of punishments and tests of loyalty that were, in some cases, impossible to pass. For instance, someone whose loyalty was in doubt, individuals were made to eat several chicken skins, and then vomit. If they did not vomit up all of the chicken skins immediately, they had been shown to be unfaithful to the queen.

Ranavalona was far from kind, but she was effective; she founded cities and retained the independence of Madagascar. In fact, Madagascar remained independent for some 30 years after Ranavalona’s death.

The Seven Bloodiest Queens in History: War, Execution and Murder

Isabella of France

Isabella of France, born in 1295, was the daughter of the French king, Philip le Bel. At fourteen, she was married to the King of England, Edward II. Isabella, sometimes called Isabella the Fair, was likely pleased with the match; Edward was relatively young and quite handsome. Unfortunately, his loyalty, and perhaps his heart, had already been claimed by a young man named Piers Gaveston. Edward II even gave some of Isabella’s wedding dowry jewels to the young man.

While she had been raised to be a lady, Isabella was far more strong-willed than one might expect, and she did not take kindly to this insult, particularly when Gaveston was accorded more honors than her in her own court. In 1312, a group of English barons, with the support of the queen, first imprisoned and later executed Gaveston. Isabella ensured that the barons were pardoned.

Following Gaveston’s execution, the next ten years were relatively peaceful; however, that would not last. After some ten years, and the birth of an heir, the future Edward III, Edward II developed a close relationship with a much-hated noble, Hugh Despenser. With the support of the nobility, Isabella banished the Despenser family, burned their castles, claimed their possessions and tortured and killed their supporters. Edward II brought Hugh Despenser back, and several battles erupted.

Isabella took refuge in the Tower of London, where she met a prisoner, Roger Mortimer, and developed a relationship. She managed to smuggle Mortimer to France, then convinced Edward to let her take her son, the future Edward III to France. In France, she assembled an army and in 1327, invaded England. She had the support of both the nobles and the people and quickly defeated Edward II and the Despensers. Isabella became regent of England, during the minority of Edward III.

As a ruler, Isabella became power-hungry, executing a number of powerful nobles, as well as Edward II. Eventually, she was imprisoned and Edward III took control of England. Isabella, particularly later in life, most certainly earned her reputation as a bloody queen.

The Seven Bloodiest Queens in History: War, Execution and Murder

Elizabeth I of England

Elizabeth I was the daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Born early in their marriage, Elizabeth’s childhood was tumultuous after her mother’s beheading. She inherited the throne after the death of her half-sister Mary in 1558. Unlike her sister, she was a fine queen and a skilled ruler, so why do we remember her as one of the bloodiest of queens?

Just as Mary I punished Protestants during her reign, Elizabeth I banned Catholicism. Fines and prison were possible for anyone who even attended a Mass. Being a Catholic priest in England, or providing shelter to one, was treason, and punishable by death. Elizabeth certainly did put people to death when they threatened her reign; some 450 were executed after an uprising in the North, largely by Catholic nobles. During her reign, some 130 priests were executed solely for being priests, along with around 60 of their supporters.

While Elizabeth did not, by all accounts, take any pleasure in executions, she also signed the death warrant for a woman she knew rather well, although only through letters, Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary, the mother of Elizabeth’s successor James, became Queen of Scotland as an infant, but was raised in France. Throughout much of her adult life she was a pawn in various plots to execute Elizabeth and was eventually convicted for complicity in one such plot.

Elizabeth I did not succeed in limiting tensions with Spain, and may have escalated them. When Spain sailed into the English Channel in 1588, they did so, it was believed, with the support of English Catholics. Spain sent some 55,000 men to defeat England; fewer than 10,000 of those survived, and of the 130 ships, only 67 returned. The English victory established the prominence of the English navy that continued into the 20th century and allowed England to retain a key role in the political happenings of mainland Europe.

While she may have, when needed, been ruthless, and certainly did not support religious tolerance, Good Queen Bess was largely a fair and just ruler, and one fondly remembered by history.

The Seven Bloodiest Queens in History: War, Execution and Murder

Queen Rani Lakshmi Bai

Rani Lakshmi Bai is sometimes called India’s Joan of Arc. She was a warrior queen, leading her people. Born in 1835 to the King of Jhansi, Rani Lakshmi Bai was raised to be a warrior, taught to fight as a young age. This was, of course, quite unusual for 19th century India. By the time she was a young woman, she was teaching other women of the court the same fighting skills.

She was married off to an older man quite young, but lost her only child and husband within a short time; she adopted a son to rule Jhansi, and served as his regent. With a young boy on the throne, the British East India company, which then dominated India, deemed the region lapsed in control and sought to gain full control of it. This was already a period of significant conflict between the people of India and the British East India Company.

At only 22 years old, in June 1857, Queen Rani Lakshmi Bai entered full-blown revolt against the British East India Company following a mutiny of the Indian Army. The mutiny provided her with a much-needed opportunity. The Indian Army attacked the British fort in Jhansi and killed every British man, woman and child in the region. Rani Lakshmi Bai’s involvement here is under question; she later publicly opposed the slaughter, but some sources suggest she was directly involved in it.

When the British sent forces to attack Jhansi, she was able to withstand the assault for two weeks, until Indian reinforcements could arrive. Unfortunately, even reinforcements could not prevent the fall of Jhansi. When the kingdom fell to the British, she worked to evacuate as many of her people as possible, saving as many lives as she could.

Unlike some of the bloody queens discussed here, this queen was a warrior. She acted for the well-being of her people, who loved and respected her. The only people who would call this queen bloody are the British.

Rani Lakshmi Bai died on the battlefield, and was burned on a funeral pyre on that same field. She had not wanted the British to have her body. Her son renounced his throne, and eventually, the British gained control of India. The country remained a British possession until 1948. Rani Lakshi Bai is remembered as a hero of Indian independence.

Sources For Further Reading:

Smithsonian Magazine – The Demonization of Empress Wu

Sup China – Wu Zetian, The Most Controversial Woman in Chinese History

Smithsonian Magazine – The Little-Known Story of Madagascar’s Last Queen, Ranavalona III

BBC UK – The Rebellion of The Northern Earls 1569

National Geographic – India’s Warrior Queen Didn’t Back Down from The British