The Biggest Jerks In Royal History
The Biggest Jerks In Royal History

The Biggest Jerks In Royal History

Khalid Elhassan - May 15, 2023

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.


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?