The Biggest Jerks In Royal History

The Biggest Jerks In Royal History

Khalid Elhassan - May 15, 2023

Jerk rulers, just like normal jerks in everyday life, have been all too common throughout history. Major difference, of course, being scale: if a king, queen, or other royal, is a jerk or pulls off a jerk move, the impact could be orders of magnitude greater than the jerkiness of a random Joe Schmoe. Below are twenty five things about kings, queens, and other royals who pulled off jerk moves that range from the mildly distasteful to the utterly horrific.

The Biggest Jerks In Royal History
Maharaja Abhai Singh of Marwar. Sotheby’s

The Maharajah Who Murdered Hundreds of Tree Huggers

Civil disobedience can prove powerfully effective at changing the world for the better. For example, the nonviolent movements led by Gandhi and Martin Luther King. However, civil disobedience is effective only against authorities that are susceptible to such campaigns of moral pressure. It requires at least a bare minimum of civil society, bare minimum rule of law, and rulers who have a bare minimum of respect for the essentials of civil rights. Or at least rulers with a bare minimum of fear of the public’s reaction if such rights are too flagrantly flouted. Against rulers who can’t care less about justice and the need to treat their subjects humanely, and have the power to enforce their will no matter what anybody thinks, the consequences of civil disobedience can prove horrific. Take for example eighteenth century Indian Maharaja Abhai Singh of Marwar (1702 – 1749).

The Biggest Jerks In Royal History
The Khejarli massacre. Pinterest

A nasty piece of work and a major jerk, Singh conspired with his brother to murder their father and seize power in 1724. In 1730, he needed wood for a new palace, and the forest near the village of Jehnad seemed like a good source. However, the forest was sacred to the locals. So they literally hugged the trees to keep them from being cut. Singh simply ordered the tree huggers beheaded, and for the timber to be collected. When other protesters from nearby villages showed up to hug the trees in a bid to save them, the maharaja’s men sawed right through them to get to the trees. All in all, 363 were slaughtered to get the trees for Singh’s palace. September 11, the anniversary of what came to be known as the Khejarli massacre, is commemorated in modern India as National Forest Martyrs Day.

The Biggest Jerks In Royal History
Queen Victoria. Wikimedia

Queen Victoria Could be a Jerk at Times

Queen Victoria was an excessively prim and proper monarch, after whom the excessively prim and proper Victorian era was named. She was also a bit of a jerk at times. Take her attitude towards British looting and plundering of other countries. Nowadays, the British Museum faces a global pressure campaign to restore cultural and historical artifacts seized in the days of the British Empire. In her lifetime, however, Queen Victoria saw nothing improper about that. Her Majesty neither knew nor cared for modern sensibilities about such things.

The Biggest Jerks In Royal History
Looty, Queen Victoria’s looted Pekinese dog, by Friedrich Wilhelm Keyl, 1861. Royal Collection Balmoral

For example, in the Second Opium War (1856 – 1860), British and French forces plundered, then destroyed and burned to the ground, China’s imperial Summer Palace complex. Among the loot seized and presented to Victoria was a small Pekinese dog – a breed previously unknown in Britain – that had belonged to the Chinese empress or one of the imperial ladies. Unlike the British Museum today, Victoria neither pretended not to know, nor acted deliberately obtuse about how she got that bit of loot. Indeed, she rejoiced in the fact that the cute little pooch was looted, and so named it “Looty”. Queen Victoria was many things, but PC wasn’t one of them.

The Biggest Jerks In Royal History
Ferdinand I of Naples. Art Net

King Ferdinand I of Naples

King Ferdinand I of Naples (1424 – 1494) ruled from 1458 until his death, and liked the logic of “keep your friends close, and your enemies even closer“. He was a capable ruler who brought peace and prosperity to his realm. Through diplomacy and strategic marriages, he created a network of interlocking friendships and alliances with other sovereigns. It made him so influential, that he was nicknamed “The Judge of Italy”. He was also a generous patron of the arts, and was an important figure in the Italian Renaissance. So much for Ferdinand’s good side.

As to the bad side that made him a jerk, Italian politics back then were not for the squeamish. The Italian Peninsula was full of small states and independent cities, constantly on the brink of anarchy as rival aristocrats fiercely competed for power and prestige. Betrayals, poisonings, assassinations, murders, and wars were commonplace, in what amounted to a real life version of Game of Thrones, minus the dragons. Ferdinand had a vicious streak that allowed him to thrive in such an environment. As seen below, after he killed his enemies, Ferdinand exhibited their corpses in what came to be known as the “Museum of Mummies”.

The Biggest Jerks In Royal History
Contemporary bust of Ferdinand I of Naples. Flickr

Ferdinand I of Naples Was a Jerk to His Foes

Ferdinand I of Naples was not one to forgive and forget. As one historian put it: “his pleasures were of two kinds: he liked to have his opponents near him, either alive in well-guarded prisons, or dead and embalmed, dressed in the costume which they wore in their lifetime“. In 1465, Ferdinand defeated some rebellious barons. In the guise of forgiveness, he invited several former foes and their families to a celebration, then arrested them when they showed up. Some were imprisoned for decades, and others were killed.

One victim fell to his death after Ferdinand pushed him out of a window. One might think that nobody who had ever angered Ferdinand would accept an invitation from him again. Not so. On another occasion, some who had offended Ferdinand attended a wedding celebration at the king’s residence, the Castel Nouvou. At the height of the merriment, they were suddenly arrested, and whisked to the dungeons for torture, a death sentence after a quick trial, and execution. As seen below, he liked to put his enemies’ corpses on display.

The Biggest Jerks In Royal History
Ferdinand’s mummified enemies propped up for a banquet in ‘The Borgias’. Showtime

That Ferdinand Made a Museum of His Enemies’ Mummies Was Definitely a Jerk Move

Ferdinand I of Naples did not want to simply kill his enemies. A jerk to his foes even after their demise, Ferdinand wanted to turn their fates into cautionary lessons to deter others from even thinking about betrayal. After he had them murdered, Ferdinand ordered that his enemies’ bodies be mummified. He then put them on display in an exhibit hall in the Castel Nouvo, which he referred to as his “Black Museum”. It came to be commonly known as the “Museum of Mummies”.

As a contemporary historian described the exhibit: “these dried cadavers were displayed, pickled with herbs, a frightful sight, in the dress they wore when alive and with the same ornaments, so that by this terrible example of tyranny, those who did not wish to be similarly served might be properly afraid“. To keep things interesting, the king’s mummified enemies were sometimes propped up in mock banquets. Ferdinand liked to conduct personal tours of his macabre museum, which often served as an effective deterrent to those contemplating treason.

The Biggest Jerks In Royal History
Busts of Hadrian, left, and his lover Antinous. The British Museum

A Costly Joke

The ancient Greeks and Romans accepted, or at least tolerated, some homosexual relationships between men. However, their tolerance was within limits. Intercourse between men did not carry much of a stigma in of itself – at least not for the top, or the guy who did the penetration. Exclusive bottoms – the ones penetrated – were often reviled, though. Effeminate behavior on the part of men jeopardized their social status. Tough and manly gay warriors were respected. Those perceived as girlie were not.

Many rulers engaged in homosexual relations with other men, without loss of prestige. Take Emperor Hadrian. He was so passionate about his young lover Antinous, that he made him a god after his accidental death. However, emperors like Hadrian were tops, and avoided effeminate behavior. Emperors who broke that taboo, such as the flamboyantly effeminate Heliogabalus, ended badly. So huge was the taboo against effeminacy that to even joke about it could get one killed. One jerk who found that out the hard way was Periander, a seventh century BC Greek tyrant of Ambracia. As seen below, he paid dearly for a gay joke that he cracked at the expense of his lover.

The Biggest Jerks In Royal History
Ancient Greek pederasty, as depicted in this fifth century BC kylix, was acceptable, but joking about it could prove problematic. The Louvre Museum

Being a Jerk to His Lover Got This Tyrant Killed

Periander of Ambracia got drunk one day, and joked to his young lover: “aren’t you pregnant by me yet?” As seen above, ancient Greek attitudes towards homosexual acts were complicated. To do it was acceptable, but to talk about it, as in kiss and tell, was not. Especially when it came to other free Greek men, as there was a stigma of effeminacy attached to receptive partners, or bottoms who were penetrated. Ancient Greek culture was a macho one, in which masculinity and martial prowess were highly esteemed, and perceptions of effeminacy could greatly harm a man’s status.

Periander cracked his joke in the presence of others at his court. That transformed things from what could have been handled as a private lovers’ quarrel, and into a public humiliation. Periander thought the crack was hilarious, and so did many of those present. One person who did not think it was funny was the tyrant’s young lover, the butt of the joke. Shamed that his lover had accused him of effeminacy, and enraged that he had done so publicly, he grabbed a knife took Periander’s life then and there.

The Biggest Jerks In Royal History
Bonnie Prince Charlie. UK National Galleries

Bonnie Prince Charlie Was a Major Jerk

Charles Edward Stuart (1720 – 1788), commonly known as “Bonnie Prince Charlie”, has been greatly romanticized. Grandson of Britain’s last Catholic monarch, the exiled King James II, Charles was the last serious Stuart Dynasty claimant to the British throne. Stuart supporters, known as Jacobites, frequently rebelled against Britain’s new ruling dynasty, the Hanoverians. The last such rebellion in 1745-1746, led by Charles himself as a young man in his mid-twenties, culminated in catastrophic defeat at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. His dramatic escape afterwards cemented Charlie as a romantic figure of heroic failure. However, while thousands eagerly risked and willingly gave their lives for Charles, the Bonnie Prince probably deserved neither their admiration nor sacrifice.

The real life Charles Edward Stuart, as opposed to the romanticized Bonnie Prince Charlie, was a jerk. He was often a pretty seedy and slimy man. He was known for his grace and charm as a youth, but that only masked many dark facets of his personality. Among other things, he liked to beat up women – most notoriously his wife, Princess Louise of Stolberg-Gedden. He married her when she was nineteen and he was fifty one. Obsessively controlling, he strung alarm bells around her bed at night to alert him if she tried to sneak off to see a lover. He beat her up so often, that she begged the pope for help. She was finally freed of his clutches when they separated after twelve years of marriage.

The Biggest Jerks In Royal History
Bonnie Prince Charlie’s daughter, Charlotte Stuart. Scottish National Portrait Gallery

An Alcoholic Woman Beater

Bonnie Prince Charlie was not just a woman beater, but also an alcoholic. His alcoholism got worse after his defeat at Culloden, transformed him into an even bigger jerk, and wrecked what was left of his prospects. It was right around that time that he seduced and took for his mistress a young and innocent girl, Marie Louise de la Tour d’Auvergne. He got her pregnant, then immediately broke her heart by callously ditching her for another mistress. He went out of his way to rub it in the poor girl’s face. At an opera, he showed up with his new mistress because he knew that Louise would be there. Distraught, she left in tears. She gave birth to a son, who died two years later.

Charlie’s wife was not the only woman he beat up. Before her, there was his mistress Clementina Walkinshaw, who bore him a daughter, Charlotte, in 1753. He beat her up so often that she fled with her daughter in 1760. For years, Charles’ mistress and his daughter sheltered from him in convents, while he lived in palaces and refused to support them. When Charlotte grew up, Charles refused to let her marry. So she took up a secret lover: the Archbishop of Bordeaux, whom she bore three illegitimate children. Despite his poor treatment of Charlotte, Charles expected her loyalty. When he suffered a stroke, he summoned her to Italy to take care of him. She had to leave her children behind in France, and for years, took care of her dying father. She never saw her children again, died at age thirty six, shortly after Charles.

The Biggest Jerks In Royal History
Timur liked to pile up skulls and embed them in walls. Time Ghost TV

The Scary Steppe Ruler

Genghis Khan is one of history’s scariest people, but he was not as lethal as an even deadlier medieval warrior: Timur (1336 – 1405). Byname Timur Link, which means “Timur the Lame” in Turkish, Timur was the last great Eurasian Steppe conqueror who terrified the civilized world with widespread devastation and butchery. He is chiefly remembered for his savagery, and his massive rampage from India to Russia and the Mediterranean and points in between. Timur killed about 17 million people, or about 5 percent of the world’s population at the time. That would be equivalent to almost 400 million people in 2023.

A Muslim Turko-Mongol who claimed descent from Genghis Khan, Timur was born in the Chagatai Khanate in today’s Uzbekistan. It was ruled by Genghis’ descendants at the time, and Timur’s rise began in 1360, when he led Turkic tribesmen on behalf of the Chagatai Khan. However, the Khan was murdered by rivals, and that triggered a struggle for power. When the dust settled, Timur had emerged as the power behind a throne occupied by a figurehead Chagatai puppet, through whom Timur ruled.

The Biggest Jerks In Royal History
One of Timur’s skull towers. Quora

Timur Sure Loved Massacres and Atrocities

Timur’s supposed descent from Genghis Khan was dubious. He nonetheless used it to justify his conquests as a restoration of the by then-defunct Mongol Empire. He claimed that he sought to re-impose legitimate Mongol rule over lands that had been wrongfully seized by usurpers. With those justifications, Timur spent 35 years roiling the medieval world. In that stretch, he earned a reputation for brutal savagery as he brought fire and sword to the lands between the Indus and Volga rivers, the Himalayas and the Mediterranean.

Among the cities he left depopulated and wrecked were Damascus and Aleppo in Syria; Baghdad in Iraq; Sarai, capital of the Golden Horde, and Ryazan, both in Russia; India’s Delhi, outside whose walls he massacred over 100,000 captives; and Isfahan in Iran, where he massacred 200,000. Timur also liked to pile up pyramids of severed heads. Additionally, he often cemented live prisoners into the walls of captured cities, and erected towers of his victims’ skulls as object lessons and to terrorize would-be opponents.

The Biggest Jerks In Royal History
Bayezid held captive by Timur. Wikimedia

Sultan Bayezid Was a Jerk Who Met a Bigger Jerk

Timur’s most dramatic victory came at the expense of the Ottoman Turks. A rising power in their own right, the Ottomans were as exuberantly confident in their prowess as was Timur. For years, heated letters were exchanged between Timur and Ottoman Sultan Bayezid, until Timur finally showed up with his army in 1402, crushed Bayezid, and imprisoned him. To humiliate his prisoner, Timur kept him in a cage at court, while Bayezid’s favorite wife was made to serve the victor and his courtiers, naked.

Timur’s decades-long rampage finally ended in 1405. As he prepared to invade China, he took ill, and died before he could launch the campaign. His grave was reportedly cursed. His body was exhumed by Soviet anthropologists on June 19th, 1941. Carved inside his tomb were the words “When I rise from the dead, the word shall tremble“. Two days later, the Nazis launched the largest military operation of all time against the USSR. The Soviets survived only by the skin of their teeth. Just to be on the safe side, in November, 1942, shortly before Operation Uranus which led to the first major Soviet victory at Stalingrad, Timur was reburied with full Islamic rituals.

The Biggest Jerks In Royal History
Vlad the Impaler. Wikimedia

The Real Dracula Liked to Stick Stakes Up People’s Behinds

Vlad III was a medieval ruler of Wallachia, a region of what is now southern Romania. He was born circa 1430 in Transylvania, the son of Vlad II, an exiled aristocrat. Better known to history as Vlad Dracula or Vlad the Impaler, he terrified his contemporaries, and still sends shivers down spines to the present day. His nickname, Dracula, means “son of Dracul”. It is derived from the Latin draco, or dragon, after his father was inducted into the Order of the Dragon, created by Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund to rally Christians against the Ottoman Turks. He was the real life inspiration for Bram Stoker’s fictional vampire, and was a serious jerk at times. Vlad’s other sobriquet, the Impaler, he got from his preferred punishment. The real life Dracula did not suck people’s blood. Instead, he shoved sharpened stakes up their butts.

Vlad III’s father took Wallachia’s throne in 1436, but was kicked out a few years later by rivals. So he switched sides, and allied with the Ottoman Sultan, who restored him to power. To demonstrate his loyalty, he sent two sons, Vlad III and his brother Radu, to the Sultan’s court as hostages. Radu eventually converted to Islam, but not Vlad. He disliked the Ottomans and resented his father for his betrayal of the Order of the Dragon, into which Vlad himself had been inducted when he was five-years-old. Vlad the Impaler’s father was again overthrown in 1447, and this time his enemies killed him. The Ottomans marched in and installed Vlad on Wallachia’s throne, but his rule lasted only a few months before he, too, was overthrown.

The Biggest Jerks In Royal History
Vlad the Impaler, as his sobriquet states, liked to impale people, as depicted in this contemporary colorized woodcut. National Geographic

Vlad III Was a Jerk to His Guests

Vlad III regained the throne in 1456, this time with help from the Ottomans’ enemies, the Hungarians. To celebrate, he invited two hundred aristocrats and their families to an Easter Sunday feast in 1457. At some point, he asked his guests how old they were. He wanted to know who had been old enough to have participated in his father’s overthrow back in 1447. He then dragged those who fit the bill outside, and had them promptly impaled – a horrific way to die.

Victims had large, sharpened, wooden stakes driven through their bodies, often through their rear end. The stake was then planted vertically into the ground, so that the victim was left to dangle in the air. Vlad impaled people in a manner that avoided damage to vital organs, and thus averted immediate death. Instead, the victims suffered hours or days of agony before they expired. To add an artistic touch to the horror, Vlad impaled aristocrats arranged in rows that came to be known as “The Forrest of the Impaled”.

The Biggest Jerks In Royal History
Mehmed the Conqueror, who invaded Wallachia during Vlad the Impaler’s reign. Wikimedia

The Real Dracula Scared an Army Into Turning Away and Going Back Home

The mass impalements did not halt Vlad the Impaler’s Easter Sunday feast, and the party went on. Afterwards, the impaled aristocrats’ wives and children, still dressed in their Easter finery, were taken to the mountains to rebuild a fortress. Vlad worked them hard, until most died of exhaustion. Months later, when the job was finally done, the few survivors, now skeletal figures clad in tattered rags, were impaled. That was just the start of The Impaler’s passion for impalement. To solidify his rule, Vlad systematically exterminated the aristocratic class that had given his family so much trouble. Impalement was his preferred method to deal with them and anybody else who angered him.

Vlad also fought the Ottomans. Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror, who had seized Constantinople and extinguished the Byzantine Empire a few years earlier, sent a force of 10,000 cavalrymen to deal with him. Vlad ambushed and defeated them, then impaled the survivors, with their leader mounted on the highest stake. In 1462, Mehmed led an army of 90,000 against The Impaler. As they approached Vlad’s capital, the Ottomans met no resistance. Instead, the road was lined with 20,000 impaled Turks and Muslim Bulgarians. The horrific sight spooked the Sultan so badly, that he promptly turned around and went back home.

The Biggest Jerks In Royal History
Russia Beyond.

If You’re Known as “The Terrible”, Odds Are You’re a Jerk

Of Russia’s many brutal rulers, few – with the possible exception of Stalin – were more brutal than Tsar Ivan IV. Better known as Ivan the Terrible (1530 – 1584), he was the Grand Prince of Moscow from 1533 to 1547. That year, he declared himself “Tsar of all the Russias”, which became Russia’s monarchs’ title from then on. He created a centralized government, and was a grand conqueror who finally overthrew the last remnants of Mongol subjugation beneath which Russia had groaned for centuries. Ivan then subjugated neighboring nomadic Khanates, and greatly expanded Russia’s borders. All of that was laudable from a Russian perspective. However, Ivan was also an insanely cruel despot, who subjected his people to a decades-long reign of terror. He massacred entire cities, and implemented a state policy of mass repression. In a fit of rage, he even personally murdered his own son.

Ivan the Terrible ascended the throne of the Grand Duchy of Moscow when he was three-years-old. His mother governed as regent in his name, but she died when Ivan was seven. A power struggle then erupted between rival boyars, or Russian nobles, in which the child Ivan was left defenseless. He was exploited and tormented by boyars who mistreated and abused him in his own palace. That made him bitter, and bitterness gave way to insanity. Eventually, he began to torture small animals to vent his frustrations. By the time he took personal control of the government, Ivan was a paranoid, resentful, and angry young man. He distrusted people in general, and detested the boyar class in particular. So he instituted a widespread reign of terror known as the oprichnina.

The Biggest Jerks In Royal History
Ivan the Terrible mocks a boyar by dressing him in royal regalia, before executing him. Imgur

Ivan the Terrible Was Also a Jerk to His Family

Ivan the Terrible’s oprichnina augured the absolute monarchy that marked Russia for centuries to come. With a special police force, the Oprichniki, Ivan kicked off a wave of brutal persecutions that targeted the boyars, and spread from there in ever greater ripples that soon covered all his lands. His most infamous atrocity occurred in Novgorod. In 1570, when that city defied him, he marched on it in the dead of winter, seized it, then indulged in 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 afterwards, he ordered the survivors executed. The population fared no better: he ordered the torture of leading citizens along with their families.

The Biggest Jerks In Royal History
Ivan the Terrible and the son whom he slew in a fit of anger. Wikimedia

Men were executed, and women and children were bound and thrown into a river. There, they were trapped under the ice as soldiers patrolled the area on foot, with hooks and spears to push down any who surfaced. By the time Ivan was finally sated, over 60,000 had perished. Ivan was a violent jerk even to his own family. In 1581, he assaulted his pregnant daughter-in-law because he thought her clothes were too skimpy, and caused her to miscarry. When his son and heir angrily berated him for the brutal attack on his wife, Ivan the Terrible smashed his head in with his scepter. The result was a fatal wound from which the Tsar’s son died a few days later. He followed him three years later, and died from a stroke while playing chess.

The Biggest Jerks In Royal History
It has long been considered rude to ask a woman her age. Pinterest

It’s a Jerk Move to Make Fun of a Woman’s Age, Like This Emperor Did

It is rude in police society to ask a woman her age. A man who jokes about a woman’s age is deemed not only ungentlemanly, but a jerk. To be sure, when examined logically, it is ridiculous to consider one’s age an embarrassment. However, in a society that exalts youth and degrades age, and often (illegally) values youth over experience at the workplace, such hangups are understandable. As The Washington Post’s Miss Manners put it: “that question should not be asked of anyone except children“.

Women have often been judged based on their looks, and the notion that a woman’s beauty, fertility, and desirability, diminish with age was and remains widespread. Such perceptions made many women feel insecure. Those same perceptions were also often seen by some jerk guys as an opportunity to make fun of and crack cruel age-based jokes at women’s expense. Sometimes those jokes backfired. As seen below, an emperor died at the hands of a woman whose age he made fun of, when she failed to see the humor.

The Biggest Jerks In Royal History
Jin court ladies. Direct Media

Look Who Got the Last Laugh

Emperor Xiaowu (362 – 396) ascended Jin Dynasty China’s throne when he was ten-years-old. For the first few years of his reign, the realm was governed by a council of regents. When he was thirteen, he wed a sixteen-year-old, who was either a lush or became one after she was married to Xiaowu, and drank heavily until her death five years later. Xiaowu himself was no stranger to the bottle. He liked to party and drink, and left the affairs of state to his advisers. Xiaowu did not remarry after he became a widower, and instead made do with numerous concubines. Of those, his favorite was the Honored Lady Zhang. One time while drunk at a party in 396, Xiaowu cracked a joke about the then-thirty-year-old Zhang’s years: “Based on your age, you should yield your position. I want someone younger“.

It was ungentlemanly, and Lady Zhang was not amused. Her power and status depended on her relationship to the emperor, and if he ditched her, she would lose it all. She was also mad because of the public humiliation, but kept her cool. Later that night, she got her revenge. When the emperor passed out drunk as he often did, Lady Zhang escorted him to his chambers. She bribed his guards to look the other way, then had her maids strangle and suffocate Xiaowu to death. Lady Zhang claimed that the emperor had died in his sleep, but the truth eventually came out. Luckily for her, nobody who mattered cared. Xiaowu had been a dissolute jerk who caused his courtiers more trouble than he was worth. They swiftly appointed a child emperor in his place, and ruled as regents.

The Biggest Jerks In Royal History
Chin Shi Huang Di. Pinterest

China’s First Emperor Was a Real Jerk to His Subjects

Chin Shi Huang Di (259 – 210 BC), whose name means “First Emperor of Chin”, started off as king of the Chinese state of Chin – one of several rival kingdoms in China’s Warring States Period (475 – 221 BC). He ascended the throne as a child, and in his teens, wrested power from the regents and courtiers who had governed during his minority. To consolidate his power, the young monarch massacred palace plotters who sought to usurp his prerogatives, then went on the warpath. He pushed back the northern barbarians, defeated and conquered all other Chinese states by 221 BC, and consolidated them under his rule. He then declared himself the First Emperor of China. Chin Shi Huang ended the chaotic feudalism that had prevailed in China for over five centuries. In its place was now a unified, peaceful, and efficiently governed centralized state.

Unification, pacification, and efficiency, came at a high price: tyranny and great oppression. Because he was a major jerk to his people, Chin Shi Huang was greatly abhorred by most Chinese despite his key role in China’s foundation. His most trusted and influential official was justice minister Li Ssu. He was not just a bureaucrat, but also a philosopher who followed a school of thought known as “Legalism”. It advocated strict laws and draconian punishments for even petty crimes. As Li Ssu put it: “If light offenses carry heavy punishments, one can imagine what will be done against a serious offense. Thus the people will not dare to break the laws“. That was music to the First Emperor’s ears. Criticism of the law became a capital offense, and cowed citizens were expected to inform on their neighbors.

The Biggest Jerks In Royal History
Chin Shi Huang and his terracotta warriors. Ancient Pages

Burning Books, and Burying Scholars Alive

With unchecked power and the resources of an entire empire to draw upon, Chin Shi Huang grew megalomaniacal, and launched huge projects with massive amounts of forced labor. One such project had 700,000 laborers toil on the First Emperor’s tomb for thirty years. The famous Terracotta Warriors site, discovered in the 1970s and now open to tourism with its thousands of life size statues, is but a fraction of his gigantic tomb complex. The bulk of it is yet to be unearthed. Millions more labored to dig canals, level hills, make roads, and build over 700 palaces. The biggest project of all was the Great Wall of China, which did double duty: keep out the northern barbarians, and keep in the Chinese seeking to flee the emperor’s heavy taxation and heavy-handed rule.

The Biggest Jerks In Royal History
Chin Shi Huang ordered books burned, and scholars buried alive. Wikimedia

The Warring States period had been chaotic. However, it had also been a golden age of Chinese philosophy. The centuries before China’s unification in 221 BC came to be known as the “Hundred Schools of Thought”. It was an era in which various philosophies, such as Confucianism and Taoism, emerged and were freely debated. Chin Shi Huang ended that by banning all schools of thoughts, except Legalism. He saw his new state as a radical break from the past, so he ordered all history books burned. He also burned books on philosophy, and every other subject except for agriculture, science, and magic. When scholars protested, they discovered just how big a jerk the First Emperor could be. Until then, intellectuals and scholars had been revered figures, highly respected by China’s rulers. Chin Shi Huang was different: he ordered 460 scholars buried alive.

The Biggest Jerks In Royal History
Expedition sent by Chin Shi Huang in search of the Elixir of Life. Wikimedia

You Can’t Live Forever

What Chin Shi Huang was most interested in was immortality through a “Life Elixir”. However, his quest to live forever backfired. His efforts to find a Life Elixir not only failed, but also did the opposite of what China’s First Emperor wanted, and shortened his life. In pursuit of immortality, Chin Shi Huang solicited advice from numerous philosophers, alchemists, opportunists, sketchy characters, and outright charlatans. One adviser gave him mercury pills, which he claimed were a life-prolonging intermediate step in his research for immortality drugs. Using them every day should tidy Chin Shi Huang over until the Life Elixir was ready.

The First Emperor swallowed mercury every day, gradually poisoned himself, and grew insane. He became a recluse, concealed himself from all but his closest courtiers, and spent much of his time listening to songs about “Pure Beings”. Many of Chin Shi Huang’s nuttier decisions, such as the burial of scholars and burning of books, were probably caused by the mercury pills. Rather than prolong his life, the pills gave him a nasty dose of mercury poisoning. It made the emperor literally crazy, and finished him off at the relatively young age of 49.

The Biggest Jerks In Royal History
Queen Ranavalona I. Flickr

The Queen Who Killed Half Her People

Queen Ranavalona I (1778 – 1861), birth name Rabodoandrianampoinimerina, ruled Madagascar from 1828 until her death in 1861. Nicknamed “Ranavalona the Cruel”, she was a tyrant at best, a certifiably insane madwoman at worst, and a major jerk to her subjects either way. Her 33-year-reign was a complete and utter disaster for Madagascar’s people. Between murder, massacre, mass enslavement, repression, and resultant famines, millions of her subjects perished. During the craziest stretches of her reign, about of Madagascar’s population died, either directly per her orders, or as a result of her disastrous policies.

Ranavlona’s rise began when her father informed Madagascar’s King Andrianampoinimerinandriantsimitoviaminandriampanjaka (they went for ludicrously long names in Madagascar) of a plot against his life. To show his appreciation, the king selected the informant’s daughter to marry his son and heir. The marriage proved loveless and produced no issue. When Ranavalona’s husband died childless in 1828, she engineered a coup and seized power. She massacred all potential rival claimants to the throne, then proclaimed herself Queen Ranavalona I. It was a bloody start to a bloody reign.

The Biggest Jerks In Royal History
Victims of Queen Ranavalona being dropped to their deaths. Historic Mysteries

Ranavalona Was a Jerk to Her Family

Ranavalona inaugurated her reign by killing every member of the royal family she could get her hands on. It was taboo to spill royal blood, so she ordered them strangled, or locked in a cell until they starved to death. In lieu of a legal system, she introduced trial by ordeal: the accused were fed poison and three pieces of chicken skin. If they vomited all three pieces of skin, they were innocent. If they did not, they were not, and were accordingly executed. Having secured her throne against domestic challengers, she turned her attention to European encroachments, and killed or expelled nearly all foreigners. She nullified all treaties with Britain and France, banned Christianity, isolated Madagascar from the outside world, and turned it into a hermit kingdom.

Ranavalona introduced widespread forced labor, whereby Madagascar’s poor – the majority of the population – had to perform labor in lieu of high taxes they could not pay. Such de facto slaves built houses and palaces, cleared lands and maintained roads, carried nobles and royal dependents in litters, served in Ranavalona’s army, and performed any other tasks set them by the queen. They were unpaid, poorly fed, if at all, and died in droves. In the meantime, the British and French were unhappy with being shut out of Madagascar, where they had been welcomed by previous rulers. So they mounted joint punitive expeditions, but the attempts ended in failure. When the Europeans retreated, Ranavalona beheaded the corpses of their dead, put the heads on stakes, and lined them up on Madagascar’s beaches, facing the ocean.

The Biggest Jerks In Royal History
Queen Ranavalona I devastated Madagascar. Amazon

History’s Worst Female Ruler?

Ranavalona sent her army on numerous punitive expeditions into those parts of Madagascar that she deemed defiant. The queen’s men engaged in scorched earth policies, and devastated regions resistant to her rule. As object lessons, Ranavalona’s soldiers routinely massacred the inhabitants of towns and settlements viewed as disloyal. Those spared from mass executions were enslaved and brought back to the queen’s domain, to toil the rest of their lives away on her projects. Between 1820 to 1853, over a million slaves were seized, and the percentage of slaves rose to one third of the population of Madagascar’s central highlands, and two thirds of the population of Antananarivo, Ranavalona’s capital.

Between massacres, mistreatment, forced labor, and widespread famines caused by Ranavalona’s scorched earth policies and repression, Madagascar’s population crashed. In just a six year stretch from 1833 to 1839, the island’s population declined from 5 million to 2.5 million inhabitants. In Ranavalona’s own home district, the population plummeted from about 750,000 in 1829, to a mere 130,000 by 1842. Such genocide-level figures are comparable to those inflicted by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge on the people of Cambodia a century later. Unlike Pol Pot, however, Ranavalona was not chased out of power. After a 33 year reign, she died in her sleep of natural causes, at age 83.

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Badass of the Week – Ranavalona the Cruel

Bobrick, Benson – Ivan the Terrible (1990)

Burkhardt, Jacob – The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1878)

Clements, Jonathan – The First Emperor of China (2006)

CNBC – Today is National Forest Martyrs Day: Here’s the History, Significance and All You Need to Know

Cortauldian – Masculinity in Ancient Greece

Cracked – 5 Kings and Queens Who Were Major Jerks Even by Royal Standards

Dover, K. J. – Greek Homosexuality (1978)

Drees, Clayton J. – The Late Medieval Age of Crisis and Renewal, 1300-1500: A Biographical Dictionary (2001)

DW – British Museum Confirms Talks Over Parthenon Marbles

Encyclopedia Britannica – Ivan the Terrible

Encyclopedia Britannica – Ranavalona I

Fang Xuanling – The Book of Jin

Gonick, Larry – The Cartoon History of the Universe, Part II (1994)

Hildinger, Erik – Warriors of the Steppe: Military History of Central Asia, 500 BC to 1700 AD (1997)

History Collection – 20 Times Royals Have Met Their Demise

Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, Vol. 50, No. 204 (Winter 1972) – Looty, a Small Chinese Dog Belonging to Her Majesty

Laidler, Keith – Female Caligula: Ranavalona, the Mad Queen of Madagascar (2005)

Lamb, Harold – Tamerlane: The Earth Shaker (1929)

Lewis, Mark – The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han (2009)

Manz, Beatrice Forbes – The Rise and Rule of Tamerlane (1999)

Marozzi, Justin – Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World (2006)

Military Heritage – Count Dracula’s War on Islam: A True Story of Power, Cruelty, and Betrayal

Museum of Unnatural Mystery – The Real Dracula: Vlad the Impaler

Ranker – The Most Brutal Medieval Monarchs

Ranker – The Real Life Bonnie Prince Charlie Was Far More Vile and Disgusting Than ‘Outlander’ Portrays Him

Royle, Trevor – Culloden: Scotland’s Last Battle and the Forging of the British Empire (2016)

Taylor, Benjamin – Naples Declared: A Walk Around the Bay (2012)

Treptow, Kurt W. – Vlad III Dracula: The Life and Times of the Historic Dracula (2000)

Washington Post, January 25th, 2022 – Miss Manners: Why Is It Taboo to Ask a Woman Her Age?

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