The Dangerous Throne: 8 English Kings That Met a Violent End

The Dangerous Throne: 8 English Kings That Met a Violent End

Patrick Lynch - September 18, 2017

They say ‘it is good to be king’ and in most cases, it certainly is. However, being the English king during the so-called ‘Dark’ Ages and Medieval times was fraught with danger. If you weren’t risking death in the midst of battle, you were constantly monitoring your court for signs of treachery. A large number of English monarchs met a violent end, and in this article, I will look at 8.

1 – Edward the Elder (924)

Edward became king after the death of his father, Alfred the Great, in 899. Like most monarchs of the era, he was interested in expanding his empire and successfully captured East Anglia and the eastern Midlands from the Danes in 917. The following year, he became the ruler of Mercia upon the death of his sister, Aethelflaed. He received the title ‘the Elder’ well after his death. It was used to distinguish him from Edward I, also known as ‘the Martyr.’

Edward was very much a warrior king and was involved in numerous battles during his reign. He also had to deal with the complex nature of internal politics in what was far from a unified kingdom. Shortly after he became King of Mercia, his niece, Aelfwynn, was recognized as the Lady of the Mercians. This turn of events worried the king to the point where he removed Aelfwynn from this position and took control of Mercia in December 918. He was worried that the kingdom might try to seek independence.

The Dangerous Throne: 8 English Kings That Met a Violent End
Edward the Elder. Wikimedia


One of Edward’s most significant achievements was forcing the Danish Vikings to submit. At the Battle of the Holme, Edward’s cousin, Ethelwold, attacked the Anglo-Saxons. While the Danes won the battle, Ethelwold was killed, so the rebellion was finished. Hostilities were renewed a few years later and, along with his sister, Edward defeated the Danish armies one by one. By the end of 917, there was resistance in just four locations across the country.

By the end of the following year, the Danes had submitted to him. The exact circumstances surrounding his death are unclear, but it is very likely that Edward died violently on the battlefield. Although he forced the Danes to give in, rebellions in the kingdom were commonplace. In 924, he led an army to Cheshire in a bid to put down a Cambro-Mercian rebellion. He died on July 17 in a fight at Farndon-upon-Dee.

The Dangerous Throne: 8 English Kings That Met a Violent End
Dramatization of the assassination of Edmund I. Steve Bartrick Antique prints and maps

2 – Edmund I – (946)

Also known as Edmund the Just or Edmund the Magnificent, he became King of the English in 939. He was the son of Edward the Elder and assumed power when his half-brother, Athelstan, died. Edmund had fought alongside Athelstan in 937 when the reigning king removed the Norse from Northern England by winning at the Battle of Brunanburgh. Therefore, when Athelstan died two years later, Edmund was the first monarch to take over a united England, but he was forced to fight hard to keep it that way.

He had to face numerous military threats throughout his reign including an attack from a Viking King, Olaf III, who conquered Northumbria and invaded the Midlands. However, when Olaf died in 941, Edmund was able to take advantage by reclaiming the Midlands from Olaf Sigtryggson and also crushed a Welsh uprising. The English king continued to press his advantage and took York while expelling his rivals in 944.

The English King was clearly keen to restore some order to his kingdom because, in 945, he conquered but then ceded Strathclyde to the Scottish King, Malcolm I. Edmund hoped to establish a peaceful relationship and safe borders with Scotland, but he didn’t get the opportunity to see things unfold. One of his last important acts was to get involved in the attempted restoration of Louis IV to the French crown in 946.

Edmund was murdered on May 26, 946 in an assassination that shocked the kingdom. The king was in Pucklechurch in Gloucestershire and bled to death after being stabbed in the stomach by a thief named Leofa; the assassin was killed before he could flee the scene. According to one report, Leofa had been exiled by the king and Edmund spotted him in the crowd. The king attacked the thief but was killed in a struggle. This detail was added by chroniclers a few centuries later. In reality, Edmund was probably the victim of a political assassination.

The Dangerous Throne: 8 English Kings That Met a Violent End
Depiction of the Death of Harold at Hastings on the Bayeaux Tapestry. AwesomeStories

3 – Harold II – (1066)

Harold Godwinson was England’s last Anglo-Saxon king. Born into royalty in the House of Godwin, Harold was always likely to reach the upper echelons of power. He became Earl of East Anglia in around 1045, and two years later, he received additional land when his cousin, Sweyn, was exiled. Harold became Earl of Wessex in 1053 which ensured he was possibly the second most powerful person in England.

He had to wait over a decade to become the most powerful, but it occurred on January 5, 1066, when King Edward the Confessor died. Edward had fallen into a coma and did not name his successor. He allegedly woke up for a brief period and handed Harold the role of protecting the kingdom and his widow. There is more than an element of doubt over what really happened. Even the Bayeux Tapestry does little to shed light on the issue; all it shows is Edward pointing at a figure that looks like Harold.

Duke William II of Normandy claimed that Harold had promised the crown to him. Once he heard that Godwinson was the new king, he built 700 warships and transports as he prepared for a massive invasion. Harold brought an army to the Isle of Wight, but when the invaders hadn’t arrived after seven months, the king was forced to disband the army and return to London. William’s fleet finally set sail on September 12, and the timing was extremely fortunate as another invading force arrived just before William. Harold defeated the first invasion at Stamford Bridge but lost a large portion of his army.

As a result, he was unable to defeat William and was killed at the Battle of Hastings on October 14, 1066. While there is doubt over the exact nature of Harold’s death, we know it was brutal. He was probably hit in the eye or the head with an arrow. Historians now believed that once Harold was on the ground, a group of at least four Norman soldiers hacked off his limbs and then his head.

The Dangerous Throne: 8 English Kings That Met a Violent End
Edward II. Military History Monthly

4 – Edward II – (1327)

If accounts from the age are accurate, Edward II died one of the most painful deaths of any English monarch. He became king in 1307 upon the death of his father, Edward I. In 1308; he married Isabella of France, daughter of the French King Philip IV, who was one of the most powerful men in Europe at the time.

Edward had a close relationship with Piers Gaveston who had been part of the royal household since 1300. There are suggestions that the two men were involved in a homosexual affair. It is difficult to ascertain whether or not the affair was real but we do know that Gaveston was one of Edward’s favorites. His arrogance and power irritated the French royal family and English nobles to the extent that Edward had to exile him to keep the peace. Gaveston returned, but when he did, the nobles forced the king to agree to the Ordinances of 1311, a series of important reforms.

The barons used their power to banish Gaveston. The outraged king canceled the reforms and welcomed his favorite back to court. However, Gaveston was murdered in 1312 which led to several years of conflict. England was also in the midst of a war against Scotland and suffered a heavy defeat at Bannockburn in 1314. The result was famine and severe criticism of the king. The early part of the 1320s was marked by a war between the Earl of Lancaster and the Despenser Family; the latter emerged victorious after receiving royal backing. Lancaster was executed.

After Edward was forced to sign a truce with Robert the Bruce of Scotland, opposition to him grew. His queen went to France to sign a peace treaty in 1325, but instead of returning, she turned against him. With the help of a former favorite of the king, Roger Mortimer, Isabella, and her army invaded England in 1326. Edward’s army fell apart, and he fled to Wales. He was forced to relinquish his crown and was murdered at Berkeley Castle on 21 September 1327. It is here that the line between fact and fiction becomes blurry.

According to legend, Edward was held down and had a scorching hot poker shoved up his anus. His screams could be heard for miles around according to one chronicler. The tale of the poker was only written between 1330 and 1350. If he died in Berkeley Castle, it was unquestionably in a brutal fashion, but it probably had little to do with a red hot poker. A historian named Paul Doherty believed that Edward was kept alive by Isabella to control his son Edward III.

The Dangerous Throne: 8 English Kings That Met a Violent End
Richard II. Wikimedia

5 – Richard II – (1400)

Also known as Richard of Bordeaux, Richard II became King of England in 1377 when he was just 10 years old. Due to his tender age, the kingdom was ruled by regency with John of Gaunt as one of the most powerful figures. The first crisis of his reign occurred with the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381. Richard apparently met the rebel leader, Wat Tyler, and tried to negotiate a settlement. When Tyler was killed during an altercation, Richard managed to calm down the mob by saying: “I am your captain, follow me!”

The next problem occurred in 1387 when a group of influential men, known as the Lords Appellant, took control of the government. The king eventually regained control in 1389 and, by all accounts, reigned in harmony with the lords for eight years. Richard seemingly bided his time because, in January 1397, he ordered the arrest of numerous important Lords; several of them were executed during the year.

When John of Gaunt died in 1399, the king decided to disinherit Gaunt’s son, Henry of Bolingbroke. This proved to be a fatal mistake as Henry, who was in France at the time, gathered a small army and landed at Ravenspur in Yorkshire in June 1399. Fed up the apparent tyranny of Richard, thousands of men around the country flocked to Henry’s banner, and soon, he had a formidable army.

Richard knew his time was up so on August 19, 1399; he surrendered to Henry at Flint Castle with the proviso that his life was spared. Richard was sent to the Tower of London on September 1 and was formally deposed on October 1. The rest of his short life was a miserable affair. He was taken to Pontefract Castle by the end of 1399, but when Henry uncovered a plot to restore Richard, it was clear that allowing the ex-monarch to live was too dangerous. He died sometime in February 1400; most sources suggest he was starved to death.

The Dangerous Throne: 8 English Kings That Met a Violent End
Henry VI. Wikimedia

6 – Henry VI – (1471)

Henry VI has the unusual distinction of being the King of England on two separate occasions. He became king upon the death of his father, Henry V, in 1421, but was only nine months old at the time. Henry was officially crowned in 1429 and also became King of France two years later. He had to flee into exile in 1461 but was returned to the throne in 1470. However, his second reign was fleeting, and the king suffered a violent death the following year.

One of Henry’s main problems was that he could not pick competent advisors. From when he eventually old enough to rule the kingdom in 1437, he showed little interest in the matters of governing two kingdoms. He married Margaret of Anjou, the niece of Charles VII, a man who contested his claim to the French throne. The purpose of the union was to promote peace, but it was a failure. The French defeated the English at the Battle of Castillon in 1453, so the only English possession left in France was Calais.

The aftermath of the loss of Bordeaux to the French resulted in the first of Henry’s mental breakdowns. The War of the Roses began in 1455 with his queen, Margaret, taking charge of the Lancastrian side against the Duke of York and the Yorkists. While York died at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460, his son, Edward, became the new leader. The Yorkists inflicted a crushing defeat on the Lancastrians at Towton in 1461. Henry fled into exile as his enemy became Edward IV. The new king captured Henry in 1465, and he remained in the Tower of London for five years.

When the Earl of Warwick switched sides and joined the Lancastrian cause, Henry VI was restored to the throne in 1470. However, Edward returned from exile and won a significant victory at Tewkesbury in 1471. Henry was imprisoned in the Tower once again, and most sources say he died on May 21, 1471. While some historians suggest that he died of melancholy, the king’s body suggests a violent end. Excavators found light hair covered in blood with damage to the skull.

The Dangerous Throne: 8 English Kings That Met a Violent End
Facial reconstruction of Richard III. University of Leicester

7 – Richard III – (1485)

Richard III is among the most controversial monarchs in British history. For centuries, he was derided as a tyrant, but recent evidence places the former king in a more positive light. It is important to remember that the history of Richard, up until recently, was based on accounts written by the Tudors. William Shakespeare’s depiction of the fallen king as a hunchbacked monster did him no favors either.

Richard’s reign was a short yet controversial one. After Edward IV, his brother, died in 1483, Richard was named Lord Protector of the kingdom and Edward V, the king’s 12-year old son, who was supposed to be his successor when he came of age. However, Richard had other ideas and ultimately imprisoned Edward and his younger brother, Richard of Shrewsbury, in the Tower of London. He also ensured that the marriage between Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, Edward V’s parents, was declared invalid which meant the youth had no rightful claim to the throne.

It is likely that both princes were murdered between 1483 and 1485. While the bodies of two children were found in the Tower of London, the remains were never identified. Most historians believe Richard III had them executed but there are other suspects such as the Second Duke of Buckingham. In any case, Richard’s short reign was marked by rebellion. The first revolt was led by Buckingham but was defeated in October 1483.

The second, decisive rebellion took place in August 1485 when Jasper Tudor, and his nephew, Henry, led a new uprising. The two armies met at the Battle of Bosworth in Leicestershire on August 22, 1485, in a fight that changed the course of British history. The tide of the battle changed when Thomas and Richard Stanley joined the fight on the side of Henry. Richard died fighting, and his body was unceremoniously buried somewhere in the county.

His remains were missing for over 500 years until an archaeological excavation found his body buried beneath a car park in 2012. It had once been the site of the Greyfriars Priory Church. With the aid of modern technology, we now know that Richard suffered 11 wounds, nine of them to the skull. There was also a fatal blow to the pelvis. However, since his armor would have prevented the wound, it is likely that this particular indignity occurred after death.

The Dangerous Throne: 8 English Kings That Met a Violent End
Charles I in family portrait by Anthony Van Dyck in 1633. Wikimedia

8 – Charles I – (1649)

Charles was the second son of James I and became the heir apparent to the English, Scottish and Irish thrones when his oldest brother, Henry Frederick, died in 1612. He fulfilled his destiny in 1625 when his father died, but his reign began with a quarrel with the English Parliament. While Charles believed in the divine right of kings, Parliament was keen to restrict his power. Due to his attitude, Charles was perceived as a tyrant from the outset, and he never tried to change public opinion.

After over a decade of strife and disagreement, matters came to a head with the beginning of the English Civil War in 1642. It pitted the Cavaliers of Charles against the Parliamentary forces, also known as the Roundheads. The Parliament’s New Model Army won a decisive victory at the Battle of Naseby on June 14, 1645. The king’s army lost almost 80% of its number, and the war was over within a year.

Charles fled but was eventually delivered to the Parliament by the Scots in 1647. Instead of executing him, Parliament wanted him to remain as a figurehead with significantly limited powers. The arrogant king wanted his full power back and began making clandestine arrangements. One of these meetings ended in a secret treaty with the Scots in December 1647. The agreement was known as the ‘Engagement’ and outlined that the Scots would invade England and restore the king to the throne as long as he established Presbyterianism in England within three years.

The Second Civil War began in May 1648 as the Royalists rose in rebellion and the Scots invaded England as per their agreement. However, all of the uprisings were quelled, and the Scots suffered a major defeat at the Battle of Preston in August 1648. Initially, the Parliament voted to continue negotiating with the king but ultimately, they realized that he remained a threat as long as he lived. In January 1649, he was put on trial for treason, found guilty, and executed at Whitehall on January 30. The head of Charles was severed from his body by one clean stroke from a professional executioner.