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Portrait of Richard III

6 British rulers who were killed in battle

It's unlikely that King Charles III would ever lead his country into battle, but in centuries gone by, it was a very common thing for monarchs to do. And some did it with more success than others.

Image: Richard III | Public Domain

For much of British history, being a king or queen was a perilous job. When they weren’t fighting abroad, they were dealing with homegrown threats and the army expected their sovereign to personally lead them into battle. Many of these monarchs ended up dying in their feather beds from natural causes, or even from hunting accidents or food poisoning – but some were heroically killed on the field of the battle.

From the king who famously took an arrow in the eye to the princess consort who lost her head, the six rulers below are the most famous British crown wearers who were killed in action.

1. Constantine I - Died 877

Constantine I, properly known as Causantín mac Cináeda, reigned as King of the Picts in Scotland from 862 until his gory demise in 877. Constantine was the son of Kenneth MacAlpin, King of Scots, and he was born on the island of Iona in about 836.

Constantine spent much of his reign successfully battling Viking forces, who around this time were at the peak of their power in the north of Britain. In 875, the king’s forces suffered a heavy defeat at the hands of the Norseman, in a battle which, according to a contemporary chronicle, saw a ‘great slaughter of the Picts’.

Constantine suffered a further setback in 877 when Vikings from Ireland and Yorkshire set up a base in the southeast of Scotland. This was the beginning of the end for the king, who was defeated in battle by the Vikings in the same year. Some sources say he was captured and beheaded on a beach near Fife Ness, while others claim the king was cut down in the midst of battle.

2. Harold II - Died 1066

The last Anglo-Saxon king of England, Harold II was king for approximately nine months before he was killed at the Battle of Hastings on 14th October 1066. The victor was William, Duke of Normandy, who became William I of England.

The Bayeux Tapestry, a 70-metre-long piece of cloth featuring a pictorial history of the events of 1066, famously depicts King Harold clutching an arrow that is sticking out of his head. This is how many believed that he died – a Norman archer firing an arrow into his eye.

Some historians have offered alternative explanations, however, citing 11th and 12th-century accounts that say Harold was hacked to pieces by a group of Normans which included William himself.

3. Princess Gwenllian - Died 1136

Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd (which means Gwenllian, daughter of Gruffydd) was a Welsh princess consort who ruled the lands of Deheubarth in South Wales alongside her husband. Gwenllian is celebrated in Wales as a national heroine, a warrior princess who took part in the Great Revolt of 1136 against English hegemony.

Taking advantage of the English civil war known as The Anarchy, rulers across different parts of Wales rose up and united in a revolt against the English.

The English met Gwenllian and her army in battle near Kidwelly Castle, in southwest Wales. Gwenllian led the troops into battle herself and historians believe she was either slain on the battlefield or captured and ceremonially beheaded by the English at Kidwelly Castle. Either way, her army was crushed, although her death inspired further resistance in the area that dogged the English for decades.

4. Richard I of England - Died 1199

Richard I died over 800 years ago but he remains one of the most famous kings in English history, featuring in countless paintings, books, and films, including as a background figure in the Robin Hood story.

Richard, known as Richard the Lionheart, was King of England from 1189 to 1199, yet spent just six months of this time in England. For most of his reign he was abroad waging war, either campaigning in the Crusades or fighting in Europe.

Richard lived by the sword and died by the sword (or more accurately, a crossbow). On 25th March 1199, Richard was leading an attack against the castle at Châlus in central France when one of the defenders shot the king with a crossbow from the ramparts. The shooter was Pierre Basile, who, owing to a lack of armour, was using a frying pan as a shield (giving rise to a rumour that it was a chef who’d killed the king).

As the king lay dying from the bolt wound, he gave orders that the man who’d shot him be paid 100 shillings. After Richard died the king’s brutal right-hand man, Mercadier, instead had Basile flayed alive and hanged.

5. Richard III of England - Died 1485

The final moments of King Richard III of England were immortalised by Shakespeare in his play Richard III, when the doomed king, the battle lost and facing death, cries, ‘A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!’.

Richard was born in 1452 and was King of England from 1483 to 1485. He’s notorious in English history as a villain, alleged to have had his young nephews Edward and Richard murdered. Richard’s guilt is still hotly contested today.

At the Battle of Bosworth on 22nd August 1485, Richard and his forces were defeated by the rebel Henry Tudor, who took the throne and became Henry VII.

It is believed that near the end of the battle, Richard found himself surrounded by a group of Henry Tudor’s soldiers. They inflicted several bashes to his head with halberds (a weapon that was a combination of a spear and a battleaxe). Tests conducted on his remains over 500 years later showed that one of the blows took the back half of his skull off. To make matters worse, his head may also have had a sword thrust through it.

Richard’s body was carried on a horse and taken to Leicester where it was hastily buried. In 2012, Richard’s remains were unearthed under a car park and reburied three years later in Leicester Cathedral.

6. James IV of Scotland - Died 1513

James was born in 1473 and reigned as King of Scotland from 1488 until his death in 1513.

James was a popular king in Scotland and he didn’t take too kindly to the increasing level of hostility coming from England in the form of raids and sabre-rattling from Henry VIII. It was this and James’s alliance with England’s enemy France, which caused James to invade England in 1513.

At the epic Battle of Flodden in September 1513, around 60,000 men took to a Northumberland field to slog it out in a melee of blood and guts.

The battle was a heavy defeat for James’s forces, and 12 earls were among the Scottish dead – which may have been as high as 14,000. In contrast, the English only suffered 1,500 fatalities.

According to contemporary accounts, James was fighting right in the thick of the battle when he was struck by an arrow. He was then given a fatal whack on the head with a billhook (a common medieval weapon that consisted of a long pole with a spike and a hook at the end). After the battle, James’s body was pulled out from under a pile of other dead soldiers, and, after being positively identified, his bloodstained shirt was removed and sent to Henry VIII as a battle trophy.

King James IV of Scotland holds the distinction of being the last British monarch to be killed in battle.