Thanks to their sheltered lives and the adverse effects of inbreeding, a lot of history’s kings, queens, and other royals became known for their eccentricities. There was Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who delighted in torturing her servants and was even rumored to bathe in the blood of virgins; there was Gian Gastone of Italy, who was so lazy that he spent the latter part of his reign bedridden; and there was Anna of Russia, who so enjoyed humiliating others that she was known to ridicule her underlings by making them marry one another while dressed as clowns. But these rulers were normal compared to some of their counterparts, and in many cases the cruelty, vanity, and insanity of those in power would go on to have dire consequences for the countries they led. Here are ten of history’s strangest monarchs:
10. Zhengde of China
The Ming Dynasty’s strangest emperor, Zhu Houzhao, aka the Zhengde Emperor, took to the throne of China at the age of 14. Not long after becoming Emperor, Zhengde became drunk with power. He neglected his duties as ruler, and instead chose to spend his time drinking and visiting brothels, which he filled with women of his choosing. He built lavish palaces to store exotic animals like tigers and leopards, and he would often have them turned loose so that he could hunt them down for his own amusement. Even weirder, Zhengde would have his servants go to great lengths to dress up the inside of his palace like a city block. He would then command all the court employees to pretend to be vendors and passersby, so that he could stroll down the “street” and pretend to be an everyday person. This kind of childish behavior made Zhengde notorious within the court, and some historians have credited him with starting a trend of dissipation and indolence among emperors that would ultimately lead to the fall of the Ming Dynasty.
Zhengde died rather comically in 1521, supposedly as a result of infections he contracted from falling into a canal while drunk. But his strangest exploit took place a few years before his death in 1518, when the Emperor suddenly decided that he would like to be in the military and declared himself a General. He personally led an expedition to the Jiangxi province in order to catch a Prince who had revolted against his authority, only to find that the man had already been rounded up. Angry at having his chance to play soldier ruined, Zhengde ordered the man released, just so he could experience the thrill of hunting him down and capturing him himself.
9. Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia
Although he enjoyed a peaceful tenure as king, Prussia’s Friedrich Wilhelm I is most remembered today for his enduring affection for the military. He would frequently drill his army units himself, and enjoyed having them march before him, even when he was sick and confined to bed. An ascetic man who was known to enjoy sleeping in the soldier’s barracks, he made it his personal goal to see Prussia’s army become the most glorious in all of Europe. This obsession even extended into his own family. He wished to make his son Friedrich II into a good soldier, and had the boy awoken each morning with the firing of a cannon. He even gave Friedrich II a small arsenal and a complement of child soldiers to command, and had the boy beaten whenever he failed to perform well in his training. Not surprisingly, Friedrich II eventually tried to run away, but was captured and briefly imprisoned by his father.
The King’s strangest behavior was undoubtedly his obsession with creating the Potsdam Giants, a special army regiment comprised of only the tallest and strongest soldiers. The Giants were a pet project of Friedrich Wilhelm’s, and he went about recruiting them by any means necessary. Mercenaries were hired (one Irish soldier of fortune stood some 7 feet tall), and neighboring kingdoms were known to send the Prussians their tallest fighters as a means of encouraging friendly diplomatic relations. In his efforts to gather as many suitable recruits as possible (the cut off was 6’2—very tall for the era), Friedrich Wilhelm I even resorted to ordering that all tall young boys be conscripted into the unit, and tall men and women were encouraged to have kids together.
8. Ludwig II of Bavaria
One of Bavaria’s most beloved and eccentric monarchs was Ludwig II, who became famous for his strange personality and his obsession with building enchanting and whimsical castles. Ludwig had a troubled family life, and as a child he would lose himself in arts, music, and elaborate fantasy worlds. This behavior carried over into his reign as king, which began when he was only 18. He disliked public appearances, preferring instead to stay inside his castle alone, where he would frequently have operas and plays performed for only him. This is not to say that Ludwig was a shut-in. He was known to travel about Bavaria, and would even stop and chat with any subjects he met along the way. The King’s unassuming nature earned him the adoration of the people, but it drew the ire of his high-ranking court employees, who planned to have him removed from power. The conspirators provided a list of Ludwig’s eccentricities—among them talking to imaginary people, poor manners, shyness, and even a penchant for moonlight picnics with naked male dancers—and used them as proof that the King was insane. While the veracity of these claims is debatable, in 1886 Ludwig was declared unfit to rule and removed from power. In a mysterious twist, the king was found floating dead in a lake the very next day, prompting many to argue that he was murdered by his rivals.
Today, Ludwig II is best remembered for the many fairy tale castles that he built around Bavaria. He was obsessive about their construction, and frequently travelled abroad to consult architects and builders. One of the most elaborate is Schloss Neuschwanstein, a stunning fortress inspired by the works of Richard Wagner that Ludwig had built on the edge of a cliff. Ludwig invested considerable time and money in his castles, and at one point he nearly bankrupted the Kingdom with his architectural habits. Ironically, today the castles are some of the most famous—and lucrative—tourist attractions in all of Bavaria.
7. Charles VI of France
Also known as “Charles the Mad,” Charles VI was the ruler of France during the Hundred Years’ War. Charles exhibited signs of psychosis and paranoia early in life, and modern historians have postulated that he may have been schizophrenic. His mental illness first manifested itself in 1392, when he had a “fit” while travelling through the forest on horseback. According to accounts from those present, the King became disoriented and frantic, and attacked several of his own men, even killing one knight before his servants were able to subdue him. From then on, Charles’s behavior only worsened. He would frequently forget who he was, and have to be reminded that he was king. During another episode, he refused to bathe or change his clothes for several months. Charles VI was also known to run wildly through the halls of his palace for no reason, and for his own safety the doors eventually had to be boarded up.
Charles’s strangest bout of madness was noted by Pope Pius II, who wrote that the King once became convinced that he was made out of glass and could break into pieces. Fearful of shattering, Charles took to wearing padded clothing and commanded that he not be touched. The middle ages saw several different cases of this disorder, which has since become known as the “Glass Delusion.”
6. Qin Shi Huang of China
Reign: 246 BC-221 BC (King of Qin), 221 BC-210 BC (Emperor of China)
While he was a capable (albeit brutal) administrator, in his personal life China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huang had some serious issues. Chief among them was a crippling fear of death that led him to spend the majority of his life searching for the key to immortality. Qin Shi Huang was forever wary of the possibility of his enemies making an attempt on his life, to the point that he never slept in the same place twice, and regularly carried a massive crossbow at his side when travelling. Revealing the Emperor’s whereabouts was deemed a capital crime, and after a while underground passageways were constructed that allowed him to travel unseen between his different palaces. Later in life, Qin Shi Huang began construction on a massive tomb that, in the event of his death, would protect him from his enemies. The monument contained over 8,000 life-sized terra cotta “soldiers,” along with a miniature city for the king to rule over in the afterlife. Of course, for Qin Shi Huang all of this was only precaution, and in the meantime the Emperor consulted soothsayers, apothecaries, and other spiritualists in the hope of finding some kind of elixir that would extend his life or make him immortal.
Qin Shi Huang’s paranoia wasn’t completely unwarranted—during his reign there were three attempts on his life—but his suspicions were often directed in completely nonsensical directions. For example, one of the Emperor’s most enduring fears was the threat of being killed by a sea monster. He claimed to have dreamed that the creatures were on the prowl for him, so he never left his palace without a posse of guards. This paranoia eventually led to his death in the most ironic way possible: after going on the hunt for one of these sea beasts and “slaying” a beached whale, Qin Shi Huang developed an illness and died only a few days later.
5. Emperor Norton I
Reign: 1859-1880 (unofficially)
In the 19th century, the United States was unofficially “ruled” by Emperor Norton I, a San Francisco native who declared himself “Emperor of the United States” and “Protector of Mexico.” Emperor Norton’s real name was Joshua Abraham Norton. A British national, he came to the U.S. in 1849 as a wealthy man, but a string of poor investments soon left him nearly broke. His financial troubles supposedly lead to him developing a number of eccentricities and delusions of grandeur, and in 1859 he officially declared himself the ruler of America. Local newspapers originally published Norton’s claim as a joke, but he became beloved by San Francisco’s locals, who gave him a regal uniform and addressed him in public as “your highness.” Norton spent much of his early reign issuing edicts to dissolve the “corrupt” U.S. congress and officially declare himself Emperor. But when his efforts were ignored, he turned to local matters. He was known to stroll through the city streets inspecting roads and buildings, and he even issued his own money, which was widely accepted by local merchants. Norton was a poor man, but he was allowed to eat in San Francisco’s finest restaurants and was given seats to any new play that opened. In exchange, he would place an imperial seal of approval by the establishment’s front door. Norton I died in 1880 after collapsing in the street. Grand obituaries were written in all the local papers, and his funeral was supposedly attended by as many as 30,000 people.
Despite his obvious mental problems, Norton I often demonstrated remarkable foresight. He proposed that a “League of Nations” be formed years before the U.S. government considered it, and he decreed that a bridge be built linking Oakland and San Francisco, which also eventually became a reality. But this doesn’t mean that all of his edicts were completely rational. In 1872, he declared that anyone who referred to his fair city by “the abominable word ‘Frisco’” would be fined the sum of $25.
4. Ibrahim I of the Ottoman Empire
Also known as “Ibrahim the Mad,” Ibrahim I was the most mentally unstable of a series of insane and cruel Turkish sultans that ruled the Ottoman Empire during the 16th and 17th century. Ibrahim is believed to have suffered from a host of mental illnesses, all of which were no doubt encouraged by “the Cage,” a windowless building where he was kept for most of his youth. When his brother died in 1640, 23-year old Ibrahim was released and declared sultan. Ecstatic and more than a bit unhinged, he immediately made up for lost time by building up a harem of virgins to satisfy his voracious sexual appetite. Ibrahim supposedly enjoyed having his concubine gather in a palace courtyard so that he could gallop around them while “neighing like a stallion.” He also had a fetish for fat women, and at one point sent his servants on a quest to find the heftiest lady in all the land. They returned with a 350-pound woman nicknamed “sugar cube,” who became a favorite member of his harem. Ibrahim’s excesses didn’t end with sex. The Sultan was also greedy, and his agents frequently looted houses to provide him with perfumes, clothes, and anything else he desired. He was also notoriously violent. In addition to ordering executions and torture at will, Ibrahim once threw his baby son in a pool of water, and later stabbed the boy in the face out of anger. This kind of debauchery and wanton cruelty won Ibrahim his fair share of enemies, and in 1648 a coup was staged. After being captured, the Sultan was briefly put back into “the Cage” before being strangled to death by a gang of assassins.
Ibrahim was known for his impulsive, terrifically violent behavior. For example, when the Sultan received information that a member of his harem had been “compromised,” he proceeded to have a number of the women tortured. When he couldn’t get any of them to give a name, Ibrahim had 280 members of the harem thrown into a lake and drowned.|
3. Juana I of Spain
Also known as “Juana the Mad,” Juana de Castile became the first Queen of the Hapsburg dynasty when she married Philip of Burgundy in 1496. The couple started out madly in love—unusual for an arranged royal marriage—but things soon became complicated. Juana was as jealous as Philip was promiscuous, and his infidelities soon drove her into a state of extreme paranoia. Because her husband would chase after any attractive lady of the court, Juana took to only including old and ugly women in her retinue, and in one case she even have attacked a woman she believed to be her husband’s mistress. Desperate to for Philip to be true to her, Juana started consulting sorcerers and using love potions, and when her husband ignored her she even briefly went on a hunger strike. Whether or not Juana was actually “crazy,” is debatable, but this kind of erratic behavior—along with the desire of the men around her to usurp her power—eventually led to her being locked away in a castle for the latter part of her life.
Queen Juana’s eccentricities ramped up considerably in 1506, when Philip died after a brief illness. Utterly distraught, Juana constantly wore black and wept uncontrollably, and she even had the coffin opened on several different occasions so that she could kiss the feet of her husband’s corpse. Worried that her husband would cheat even in death, Juana forbid any women from coming near his coffin, even nuns.
2. George III of England
Perhaps the most famous case of royal madness involved England’s George III, who suffered from recurring bouts of mental illness throughout the latter part of his life. Modern historians have theorized that the King probably suffered from porphyria, a blood disease, but George’s doctors were forever at a loss to diagnose his condition. The King would rant, rave and insult and curse at his servants to the point that his caretakers were often forced to gag him and confine him with a straight jacket. A team of doctors was enlisted to help King George, but their primitive treatments, which included everything from purging and blistering to bloodletting, only seemed to make his condition worse. Soon, the King began to become delusional. He developed the belief that London was flooding, gave orders to imaginary or long-dead court officials, and once even tried to sexually assault one of his servants. In a bizarre episode on Christmas Day, the King named his pillow “Prince Octavius” and celebrated that it “was to be new born this day.” The King did have moments of clarity, and for a time his illness abated. But with age the delusions returned, and after losing a good deal of his sight and hearing, George III was kept in seclusion until his death.
One of King George’s more bizarre delusions occurred during his first outbreak of illness, when he met and developed an obsession with a woman named Elizabeth Spencer. In the heat of his infatuation, George began to believe that he and Elizabeth were married, and he even claimed that his own wife, Queen Charlotte, was an impostor intent on killing him.
Reign: AD 37-AD 41
Caligula only served as Rome’s emperor for four years, but in that short span he managed to establish himself as one of the cruelest and weirdest rulers in history. He was only 25 when he rose to power, and while for the first two years of his reign he was well liked and seemed a capable leader, those in the know rarely doubted that the emperor was stark raving mad. These psychotic tendencies would eventually come out in some of Caligula’s laws. For one, he made it illegal for anyone to look him in the face, an offence that was punishable by being thrown into a lions’ den. He also delighted in torture and executions, and took great pains to think up new ways to dispatch his enemies (one of his personal favorites was said to involve covering the condemned in honey and setting loose an army of wasps). Of course, today Caligula is best known for his deviant sexual behavior. This involved everything from bisexuality and bestiality to even incest (he was rumored to have slept with all three of his sisters). He was fond of great excesses, and along with declaring himself a demigod and frequently holding gluttonous feasts and parties, Caligula turned the Imperial palace into a veritable whorehouse, complete with days-long orgies. Not surprisingly, Caligula’s insanity and cruelty eventually drew the ire of his political rivals, who successfully murdered the emperor and his family in AD 41.
Some of Caligula’s weirdest exploits involved his favorite horse, Incitatus. The emperor dressed the animal in lavish blankets, and had it housed in a marble stable and tended to by a small army of handlers. Caligula even let the horse eat from the table during dinner parties, and guests were frequently invited to the palace at Incitatus’s behest. Still, the most ridiculous extravagance came when Caligula announced his intention to make Incitatus an official citizen of Rome, and later a Consul and even a priest.