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

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