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The Mad King: Seven of History's Barmiest Rulers

Matthew's interests include writing, gaming, movies, and pretending to be Irish despite only having one Irish Great Grandparent.

History has had its share of tyrants, but a tyrant is one thing; a mad tyrant is another. The former could still be an efficient ruler, but the latter usually leaves the realm broken and bankrupt.

The antics of the mad monarchs listed here range from mildly amusing to downright horrifying. In some cases, their quirks started off as relatively tame but escalated to the point where they were sacking their own cities. For anyone who lived during their reign, it was a relief just to get through the day without being executed because someone didn't like your face.

Vlad the Impaler (Romania), Reigned 1448 — 1477

The Voivode of Wallachia famously inspired the character of Count Dracula, although the latter would probably be shocked by the former's cruelty and lack of class.

Rarely is a ruler named not for his qualities but for his favourite method of execution. Being impaled was a horrible way to die; it could take hours, if not days, for the victim to expire; and during that time, what was inside their bodies would gradually spill out onto the ground.

Vlad inflicted this terrible fate on war prisoners, political rivals, and generally anyone who annoyed him.

He lost and regained his throne several times throughout his life. In 1456, soon after the beginning of his second reign, he invited the nobles of the land to a banquet at his palace in Târgoviște, which ended with 500 of them being impaled on stakes.

His father and brother had been killed during a coup in 1447, so he didn't think much of the boyars (Eastern European aristocrats). He also had a personal vendetta against the Ottomans for holding him hostage as a boy, even though they had treated him extremely well.

In 1459, he welcomed a delegation of Ottomans to his castle and, when they declined to remove their hats due to religious custom, ordered that their hats be nailed to their skulls (although he did commend them for their piety before doing so).

In 1476, during one of many wars with the Ottomans, he was captured and beheaded, and his head was reportedly sent to Sultan Mehmed II as a trophy.


Caligula (Ancient Rome), Reigned 37 to 41 AD

The life of Gaius Caesar Germanicus, known by his nickname Caligula ("Little Boot"), can best be summed up by the 1979 film of the same name, which basically featured two hours of orgies.

Well, that's probably unfair. His reign actually started out quite promisingly, with plenty of chariot races, gladiatorial contests, and lavish theatre productions.

But things began to degenerate rapidly after he fell ill seven months into his reign. Historians suspect him of having suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy, hyperthyroidism or Wilson’s disease.

Questionable acts included attempting to make his horse a member of the Senate, incestuous relations with not one but three of his sisters, and ordering the death penalty for anyone who mentioned the word "goat" in his presence (he believed people who did so were making fun of his appearance).

He also proclaimed himself a god and had a bridge of boats built between his palace and the Temple of Jupiter.

People got tired of all this pretty quickly, and four years into his reign, Caligula was assassinated by a member of his Praetorian guard, who reportedly stabbed him 30 times.

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Nero (Ancient Rome), Reigned 54 — 68 AD

The nephew of Caligula seemingly inherited whatever madness plagued his uncle. Nero accused his own mother of plotting his assassination and had her killed by the Praetorian guard. He later divorced his wife and ordered her execution on bogus charges of adultery.

During the great fire of Rome in 64 AD, Nero famously "fiddled while Rome burned" (implying he played a musical instrument while placidly watching the fire tear through his city). Some even suspected him of having started the fire so he could rebuild the city in his image.

Nero, on the other hand, decided to blame the Christians for the fire and had many of them executed in horrendous ways, such as by throwing them into the arena to be torn apart by wild animals.

Already reviled for having committed matricide, he grew increasingly unpopular as he imposed heavy taxes to pay for the reconstruction of the city, which included plans to build a golden palace with a statue of himself at the entrance. He even seized artefacts from Rome's temples to pay for this.

Like his uncle before him, his madness could only be tolerated for so long. Rebellions began to erupt throughout the empire. Nero, who fancied himself an artist, claimed that he could restore peace to the provinces through the power of song.

Eventually, the Praetorian guard abandoned him, and the Senate condemned him to death by crucifixion. But before they could act on this, Nero committed suicide. His last words were said to be “what an artist dies in me!”, indicating that he had bought his own hype.

Ivan the Terrible (Russia), Reigned 1547 — 1584

The first tsar of Russia actually started off as an efficient administrator; reforming tax collection, improving the lives of the peasant class, and regulating the power of the Russian aristocracy. But his deeply suspicious nature worsened as he aged, and by the latter stages of his reign, he had become a paranoid purveyor of mass executions.

Ivan's parents died when he was still a child, so the country was run by a collection of boyars (Russian noblemen) who ignored and alienated him. Hence the resentment he held toward the aristocracy.

After his wife died in 1560, he fell into a deep depression and was on the verge of abdicating the throne. The Muscovites requested that he return, which he agreed to do on the condition that he be granted absolute control of the region surrounding Moscow, along with his own private army.

Thus the oprichnina was born, a private bodyguard dressed in black that answered only to the tsar. They functioned as secret police, seeking out and ruthlessly suppressing dissidents, whilst Ivan ruled from his state within a state.

One of the most brutal acts of his reign came in 1570 when he marched his army on Novgorod with the intent of punishing the local orthodox church for suspected treason. He pillaged the surrounding monasteries, sacked the city and put thousands of its inhabitants to the sword, crippling what was until then one of Russia's major population centres.

His anger knew no bounds. In 1581, he assaulted his own daughter-in-law in a fit of rage, then accidentally killed his son when he rose to her defence.

It's also said that he had the eyes of the architects who built St. Basil's gauged out so that a cathedral of such beauty could never again be created.

As he felt death approach, Ivan the Terrible employed soothsayers and witches to prolong his life, but they couldn't prevent him from dying of a stroke during a game of chess. It took Russia a century to recover from his rule.

Charles VI (France), Reigned 1380 — 1422

In 1392, King Charles VI killed four of his own knights in a fit of madness. It all went downhill from there.

Although diagnosing historical figures is problematic, it's likely that Charles VI suffered from some variation of bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.

Of course, mental health wasn't something people knew much about in the Middle Ages, so Charles' condition was allowed to fester, and eventually became so severe that he began to suffer from debilitating delusions, including the firm conviction that he was made of glass.

Being 100% certain that he would shatter at the slightest touch, he wore special clothing to reinforce his body and forbade people from approaching him.

He had the misfortune of being in power during a particularly tumultuous period of the Hundred Years War between England and France. The stress of seeing so much territory fall to English forces under the command of King Henry V would not have helped his condition. Eventually, he was forced to surrender and name Henry V his heir, disinheriting his own son in the process.

Henry V married Charles' daughter and they produced a son, who would ascend the throne as Henry VI in 1422. It's likely that Henry VI inherited whatever condition his grandfather had suffered from, as he was also susceptible to bouts of paranoia and irrational behaviour, and at one point sunk into a severe depression that rendered him incapacitated for 18 months.

Emperor Zhu Houzhao (China), Reigned 1505 — 1521

During the same period in which King Henry VIII of England was making a mockery of the institution of marriage, a similarly erratic ruler with an equally insatiable appetite was running amok on the other side of the world.

Zhu Houzhau ascended the throne of China at the tender age of 14, ironically adopting the title of the Zhengde ("right virtue") Emperor. From an early age, he showed little interest in governing the realm, preferring instead to spend his time in various brothels (he even converted a zoo into a harem).

He appeared to have high regard for the leadership qualities of eunuchs, favouring their counsel over that of his advisors and promoting them to high offices. He left the governance of the realm to his chief eunuch, only to have him executed a few years later when things didn't pan out.

Aside from neglecting the realm in favour of a hedonistic lifestyle, he was known for engaging in childish antics, such as when he had the palace converted into a market with his ministers playing the role of merchants while he pretended to be a commoner.

But things really got interesting when he started conversing with an imaginary duplicate of himself, who he then put in charge of the army. Thus he could claim to be leading the war effort while governing the realm at the same time.

But all good things must come to an end, as did Emperor Zhu Houzhao's reign when he got drunk, fell off a boat, and died of the resultant illness a few days later.

Countess Elizabeth Bathory (Hungary)

Vlad the Impaler may have been the inspiration for Count Dracula, but Countess Elizabeth Bathory was the one with a thirst for blood. Though not a monarch, she was the niece of the King of Poland and the aunt of the Prince of Transylvania. Her husband died in 1604, leaving her in control of a sizeable estate.

In the period following her husband's death, she became history's most prolific female serial killer by luring hundreds of young women to her castle where she tortured and murdered them.

The locals knew something was up, but the authorities only started paying attention when women of noble birth went missing (it had only been peasant girls up to a point).

The countess was put on trial along with the servants who aided her. Three of the servants were executed, while Elizabeth Bathory was confined to her chambers at Castle C̆achtice (where she eventually died).

During the trial it emerged that she had tortured her prisoners in a variety of brutal ways, including burning them with hot irons, beating them with clubs, and covering them in honey so that bugs would swarm over them and eat their skin.

There were rumours that she bathed in the blood of her victims to preserve her youth, though this may have just been one of many legends inspired by her horrific deeds.

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