History's worst rulers

Mad, bad and dangerous to know

They took mistresses, indulged in every luxury, and sucked their lovers’ toes. Mike Dash dishes the dirt on history’s worst royals and rulers — and, no, none of them are British.

1. Elagabalus (218–222)

Bust of Elagabalus

Despite stiff competition from the likes of Caligula, Elagabalus was without doubt the kinkiest Roman emperor of all. Coming to power aged only 14, the young Syrian profoundly shocked Roman opinion with his bizarre sexual antics. A confirmed phallus worshipper and active bisexual — who at one point ‘married’ a male slave who was encouraged to beat the emperor ‘as if he were his wife’ — Elagabalus was also a practising transvestite who regularly depilated his entire body and donned wigs to visit taverns and brothels by night, ‘driving out prostitutes and playing the prostitute himself.’

In his spare time, the emperor was also a notorious size queen, haunting Rome’s steam baths in search of men with abnormally large penises who were then coerced into sleeping with him. Elagabalus eventually fell victim to his own bodyguards, who in March 222 cornered their ruler in a latrine, decapitated him, and dragged his body naked through the streets of Rome.

2. John XXIII (1410-1415)

Arguably the worst Pope ever, John XXIII — a brutal retired pirate — bought his cardinal’s hat with money raised by the sale of holy offices, and was elected pontiff in the hope that his military talents would save Rome from the clutches of rival Naples. Notoriously keen on women (his enemies charged that he had slept his way through 200 girls while Papal legate in Bologna, simultaneously running the city’s gambling and prostitution rackets), John XXIII was eventually deposed after five scandalous years on the throne of St Peter. The indictment brought against him ran to 72 articles and detailed every known vice and sin from simony to sodomy. Surely the most remarkable accusation levelled against the Holy Father, though, was the one charging him with atheism.

3. Mustafa I (1617–1618, 1622–1623)

Imprisoned for 14 years in the heavily–guarded suite within the walls of the Topkapi palace to which all the unwanted offspring of successive Turkish sultans were despatched, Mustafa was freed upon the death of his brother, Ahmed I, and made ruler of the Ottoman empire. It soon became apparent that the new sultan’s long confinement had driven him completely mad, and when he decided to replace a senior government official with an illiterate farmer who had offered him refreshment when he was out hunting, Mustafa was hurriedly deposed. He would have remained forever in obscurity had not his successor, Osman, been strangled by the Istanbul mob a few years later, an event that led to his second, and only marginally longer reign.

Within a matter of months, the once–mighty empire descended into chaos, and towards the end of 1623 Mustafa was deposed again, this time after appointing a donkey herdsman as muezzin of Istanbul’s principal mosque. A rabid misogynist, the sultan’s punishment on this occasion was to be locked in a windowless room with only two naked female slaves for company.

4. Juana the Mad (1505–1510)

Portrait of Juana the Mad

Although this queen of the Spanish heartland of Castile had the good fortune to be married to the ravishing Philip the Handsome, and remained infatuated with her husband until his death in 1506, she thereafter succumbed to such incurable melancholy that by 1510 she had been declared unfit to govern. Alternating between prolonged bouts of depression and fits of frenzied lamentation, Juana spent the next 45 years imprisoned with her youngest daughter in the fortress of Tordesillas. The principal symptom of her madness was a stubborn refusal to be parted from her deceased husband, and for so long as she reigned she carried Philip’s rapidly decaying cadaver around with her, occasionally opening his coffin to caress and kiss the corpse’s rotting feet.

5. Phocas (602–10)

This disastrous Byzantine emperor was not only physically unprepossessing — his face was deformed by a livid scar that turned crimson during his frequent paroxysms of anger — but also an enthusiastic connoisseur of torture and mutilation who loved nothing so much as the sight of blood. The obsessive cruelty that drove Phocas to wipe out family after family of potential rivals left his empire largely bereft of competent leaders, and when the rival Persians attacked he promptly had his one surviving able general burned alive.

After five years of military disaster had brought the invaders within striking distance of Constantinople, Phocas unveiled his masterstroke: an all–out campaign for the forcible conversion of Byzantium’s Jews, who by now formed almost the sole remaining bulwark against the Persian hordes. Towards the end of the resultant civil war, Phocas was hauled from his palace and chopped into pieces to make ‘a carcass fit for hounds’.

6. Charles VI the Foolish (1380–1422)

Painting of Charles the Foolish

Maybe there is a good moment to be ruled by a monarch so mad he thinks he’s made of glass. But the middle of a hundred–year–long war against your country’s bitterest enemy is assuredly not it.

Married at 16 to Isabeau of Bavaria, a gorgeous young princess notorious for her insatiable sexual appetite, Charles VI ignored France’s precarious military position in the war against England and gave himself up to a life of debauch that culminated in the disastrous ‘Ball of the Burned’, so called because a blazing torch set light to one reveller’s costume and numerous knights and ladies were roasted to death in the ensuing conflagration. The king himself was saved by the Duchess of Berry, who threw her heavy skirts over him to extinguish the flames, but he went violently mad in 1392 — a condition generally attributed to extensive inbreeding among the French royal family — and was intermittently insane for the remainder of his long reign. Despite being vigorously trepanned by the royal surgeon in the hope of relieving pressure on his brain, Charles took to lashing out with his sword at anyone who came near him, killing at least four courtiers. After that his doctors revised their treatments, prescribing huge surfeits of pomegranates instead.

The king’s symptoms were startling. As well as his belief that he was made of glass — which led him to have thick iron rods inserted into all his clothes to reduce the risk of ‘shattering’ — Charles let himself grow so filthy that he became entirely infested with lice, at which point the despairing Isabeau embarked upon a lengthy series of affairs.

In the course of his reign, Charles oversaw a period of military disaster culminating in the Treaty of Troyes (1420), which acknowledged England’s Henry V as heir to the throne and is widely regarded as the lowest point in the distinguished history of France.

7. Mansur (754–775)

Although an able ruler whose reign began a golden age for the caliphate of Baghdad, Mansur was nonetheless spectacularly ruthless even by the elevated standards of his day. Beginning with the murder of an uncle who had helped him to the throne but proved too popular with his soldiers, the caliph spent much of his reign carving a bloody swathe through the ‘Alids’ — direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammed who had an arguably superior claim to his job. Upon Mansur’s death, his heir opened a mysterious door in the royal palace which had always been kept firmly locked and found behind it a dusty room completely filled with neatly laid out corpses, each scrupulously tagged like bodies in a morgue. These proved to be the remains of the dozens of Alids who had vanished without trace in the course of the caliph’s two decades in power.

8. Ivan IV the Terrible (1533–1584)

Picture of Ivan the Terrible

This most notorious of Russian tsars earned his infamous nickname the hard way. Although in some respects able ruler who hugely expanded Russian territory, Ivan lived in almost constant terror of deposition by his nobles, a fear that eventually led him to divide the entire country into two parts, one of which was subject to absolute royal control and ruled by black–hooded secret police who terrorized the inhabitants with impunity, murdering whole families. Those perceived as Ivan’s enemies were executed by a variety of bizarre methods, including alternate dousing in vats of boiling and freezing water, tearing a victim’s chest open with red–hot pliers, and locking condemned men in pens with packs of starving wolfhounds. Women whom the tsar and his cronies had raped were occasionally disposed of by being thrown to bears.

The roots of Ivan’s trauma lay in a terrifying childhood that had seen the young Grand Prince repeatedly menaced by rival bands of over–mighty subjects. The boy responded by developing a penchant for torturing birds — which he plucked alive — and throwing cats and dogs over the Kremlin walls.

In adulthood, the tsar’s rule was marked by periods of repentence and reform. On one occasion, he issued an ordinance banning the eating of black pudding. But throughout his half century on the throne, Ivan was hamstrung by an ungovernable temper which exhibited itself most notoriously when — unexpectedly disturbed by his eldest son in the course of violently assaulting the young man’s pregnant wife — he murdered his own heir by stoving in the lad’s skull with an iron–tipped staff.

9. The Twenty–Seven–Day Emperor (74BC)

Though the extreme brevity of his reign ensured that this Chinese emperor was merely a minor blot on the otherwise glorious history of the Han Dynasty, the Twenty–Seven–Day Emperor deserves some sort of recognition for the sheer speed with which he sullied his throne. A mere 19 years old when he came to power, young Liu He immediately began to misuse the state seals to divert government funds to his relatives, organised drunken parties and staged a series of ‘wanton musicals’.

It took the Twenty–Seven–Day Emperor less than four weeks to alienate the entire imperial court with antics that included usurping the dowager empress’s carriage for pleasure jaunts, engaging in orgies with his predecessor’s harem girls before the dead emperor was buried, and handing out valuable gifts from the palace stores to friends who attended his riotous parties. After his inevitable deposition, an amazing total of more than 1,000 charges of gross impropriety were levelled against him — an average of more than 35 for each day of his short reign.

10. John XII (955-964)

Pope at 18, thanks to a brutal father who had seized control of Rome, John was described as a ‘monster of vice’ by his own monks. The charges against him include murder, drunkenness and incest. He is alleged to have turned the Papal palace into a brothel, castrated several rebellious cardinals, and gouged out the eyes of priests who protested at his excesses. His Holiness was eventually killed by the husband of a woman he had raped.

First published in The Independent, June 2004