If anything, the recent presidential elections have reminded us that not everyone agrees on what makes an effective ruler. The amount of confusion, chaos, and general upset surrounding our recent presidential results speak to our varying perspectives as well as our forgetfulness of the past—a tyrannical and childish ruler is a wildly dangerous thing. The whole messy election process is almost enough to have us longing for the days when rulers were just chosen by their blood lines and abdicated by God. Monarchs were not like you and me; they were special, innately born to carry the torch of leadership. It was in their very DNA. And while we know this is an archaic way of viewing a person’s suitability for office, it did alleviate the pressure of searching for the right person. Plus, kings and queens are just cooler.
Conjuring up images of intrigue and romanticized violence, emperors and sultans were more like demigods than decision-makers, shrouded in the majesty and opulence of their nation. They were awe-inspiring and regal. Nowadays, the president is more transparent, flawed by his humanity and openly scorned by those who don’t support him. Decidedly, the office is not nearly as attractive as it used to be—especially when it’s held by someone who seems undeserving. Strangely, it feels a bit like a child king who has been given the keys to the kingdom without a clue how to even dress himself. Never forget, monarchs were often petulant, acute narcissists who had no intention of helping anyone but themselves—bringing up the question, what’s changed?
Certainly one of the most famous of all the despicable monarchs, Henry VIII is described by history as having been a self-indulgent tyrant and a “gross man-child.” Ruling England at the height of royal outlandishness in the 16th century, Henry was the king of the famous Tudor dynasty. While on the throne, he managed to create a constant ruckus by divorcing his wife (which was never done), beheading two of his other wives (Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard), breaking with the Catholic Church, banishing his own daughter, and essentially executing anyone who bothered him. Although constantly at war during his reign, he was militarily incompetent and mostly just a petulant bully. Hmmm, sounds familiar.
Pope John XII
Most people don’t equate a pope with a notorious sex fiend, and yet, there is the famous Pope John XII who ruled in the 10th century. Along with shagging both women and men in the papal palace, he was known to simply rape those who refused him, including the nuns. It is thought he held massive orgies and took particular pleasure in defiling holy sites with sinful acts. In addition to being vile, he was also dishonest and proceeded to steal the papal treasury in 963 when he fled Rome. When he was summoned to explain his actions, he threatened to excommunicate anyone who dared depose him. When it happened anyway, he proceeded to chase the new pope out of Rome, mutilating and destroying all of his enemies in the process. He later died while enjoying an adulterous encounter, either from a heart attack or the murderous grasp of an outraged husband.
Ivan IV ‘the Terrible’
Growing up in the dangerous Russian court of the 16th century, Ivan quickly became a ruthless and violent youth who despised the nobles, even ordering his royal hound to eat his enemy alive when he was just 13 years old. When he became Tsar (and the first man to rule all of Russia), he crushed his noble enemies into a permanent state of serfdom and essentially made the area his own personal police state. He employed mounted warriors to rove the lands, attacking and massacring those he disliked and constantly waging war on his neighbors. In a fit of rage, it is said Ivan beat his own daughter-in-law while pregnant and killed his very own son. Unlike some others, he was a capable ruler, but his shocking cruelty and taste for blood earned him the chilling title “Ivan the Terrible.”
Queen Ranavalona I of Madagascar
For women, being a despicable ruler required a different set of rules. Ranavalona was born a commoner in Madagascar but soon rose to royalty when her father saved the king’s life. As thanks, the monarch adopted young Ranavalona and married her off to his son, Radama. When the boy became king, Ranavalona was the first of his 12 wives which made her children heir to the throne. But despite her best efforts, she had no children. So, when Radama died, she knew her place in the monarchy was tedious at best.
Did she cower or plead for her position? Hell no, she gathered a military force around her and held down the palace by refuting anyone’s right to the throne through sheer force. Accept her as the queen or die. When she became queen, she killed her mother-in-law and some of his relatives who she suspected didn’t like her. Once ruling, she was known to be brutal, spearing her own lover in the neck when she caught him in bed with another woman.
Of course, there has to be one ancient Roman Emperor in here. Although Caligula engaged in rampant sexual debauchery with his own sisters, he did begin his reign 37 as a relatively moderate and noble ruler. Eventually, his behavior grew more erratic, and he became known for his intense cruelty, extravagance, and sadistic nature, so intense that many consider him insane.
He was an ugly man, with a bald head and a hairy body, and was so sensitive about his appearance, he made it a crime to mention a goat in his presence. He poisoned many of his family members, including his cousin and grandmother, and became so enthralled with his own power that he declared himself a living God. His repulsive appearance and sanctimonious attitude set him at odds with Rome, and he was eventually stabbed more than 30 times by his own people at just 29 years-old.
King Leopold II of Belgium
Possibly one of the most heinous imperialists of all time, King Leopold succeeded his father to the Belgian throne in 1865 where he reigned for 44 years. During that time, he did a whole lot of damage. He began a private endeavor known as the Congo Free State which was sanctioned by Europe with the purpose of improving the lives of the natives.
Leopold had no such plans, however, and ran the Congo using mercenaries to exploit construction, collect ivory, force slave labor for rubber harvesting, and extract whatever resources he could with no concern for the welfare of the Congolese people. During his appalling reign, an estimated 10 million natives died, ultimately leading to an international scandal, where he was finally forced to relinquish control of the colony.
Empress Wu Zetian
Born in 624, Wu Zetian began her royal life as a concubine, not a ruler. When the king died, she married his son who conveniently died shortly thereafter, making her the only female emperor in Chinese history. She was known to be a vile monster who protected her position fiercely and with utter cruelty, (falsely accusing those who opposed her with treason) exiled or executed her enemies, and forced haters to commit suicide. She ordered several tortures and murders throughout her reign and is said to have strangled her infant daughter with her own hands in order to push her career forward.
Her signature torture method was called “The human pig,” where she made an example of her enemies by blinding them, cutting out their tongues, amputating their arms and legs while keeping them alive, and then letting them struggle like a pig. The fact that her politics brought China military success and development in some areas such as religion doesn’t seem able to make up for her atrocious behavior.
Although not technically a monarch, she just had to make the list given the extent of her overall treachery. Elizabeth Báthory was a countess from a noble family in the kingdom of Hungary. She is generally believed to be a vicious serial killer who tortured and murdered hundreds of girls, with over 300 witnesses and survivors testifying to her brutal behavior during her trials. Known as the Countess Dracula, she mutilated, imprisoned, burned, starved, and allegedly ate her victims in her Hungarian castle.
In the 12th century, the reign of King John of England stands as a salutary reminder of how a ruler’s murder and treachery may be forgiven, but never his incompetence. As the youngest son of Henry II, he lived in the shadow of his oldest brother Richard I who was in line for the throne. In those days, grasping the ring of power was the number one most important thing, governing was just a side-effect of being supreme.
So, while Richard was away fighting in the Crusades, King John tried to steal his brother’s title, (killing his nephew in the process) an act that would earn him widespread humiliation when he failed. Although he did later become king, he never kept his word to any of the European nobles and watched the collapse of his empire in France. He was subsequently excommunicated from the church and faced widespread rebellion for being spiteful, cruel, and petty.
King Richard II
Thanks to Shakespeare’s portrayal of him as a startlingly incompetent and tragic figure, you may recognize the title of King Richard II from literature class. Ruling England in the 14th century, Richard was a vain, self-regarding ruler who alienated the nobility and only surrounded himself with those who agreed with his ideas and pandered to his position. Although many kings were selfish jerks, most of them at least possessed prowess in some other area such as war, romance, or generation of wealth. Richard had nothing of the kind and quite honestly, did very little that was notable except drive his court crazy with his absurd political maneuvering and his shallow sense of importance.
And the rest is history.