'I fear I am not in my perfect mind': 7 mentally-ill monarchs from history

King Lear and Cordelia by Banjamin West, 1728
King Lear is one of the most famous mad monarchs. Image: Act IV, Scene 7 of William Shakespeare's King Lear by Benjamin West, 1793 | Public Domain

Back before someone had the bright idea to invent parliamentary democracy and consign royalty to opening supermarkets and hospital extensions, people had to rely on blind chance when it came to the character and capability of those who ruled them. Thanks to the joys of the hereditary principle, nobody knew if they were going to end up with a benevolent ruler who was loved by all or a stark raving lunatic on the throne. Unfortunately for the people who found themselves being ruled by these seven mad monarchs, they found themselves drawing the shortest of short straws.

Caligula

Nobody quite knows what particular mental illness caused Caligula to become the mad ruler of legend, but whatever it was really did a number on him. Just months into his reign, he changed from a personable young man who everybody approved of to a deranged tyrant, seemingly at the flick of a switch.

Whatever tipped him over the edge, the rest of his brief rule was one of madness, sadism and cruelty on a scale not witnessed before or since. Incidents of his insanity include throwing a whole section of the audience at a games over which he presided into the arena to be torn apart by lions because he was bored, having people killed on a whim for his own amusement, sleeping with his sisters and hiring them out as prostitutes and even planning to make his horse Incitatus a consul of the Roman Senate. It came as no particular surprise to anyone but Caligula himself when he was assassinated in January AD 41 at the grand old age of 28.

Charles VI

After the coffers of France had been stuffed to bursting by the frugal Charles V, the late king’s financial legacy was squandered by the regents that controlled the country while his son Charles VI was in his minority. By the time Charles declared the regency over, the country was on its knees, high taxes had been reintroduced and civil unrest was in the air. Charles was able to restore order to his kingdom and reinstate the careful advisors his father had relied on to get the country’s finances back on track. For that, his people called him ‘Charles the Beloved’. So far so good.

Unfortunately, shortly after these events, Charles went mad. Struck by mental illness in his mid-twenties, Charles became increasingly erratic and unpredictable. Sometimes, he would not remember his name nor that he was king; at other times he would lapse into a coma, go chasing around his palace in the nude or not wash or dress for months.

Most famously, he believed he was made of glass and went to great lengths to stop himself from shattering by wearing specially-reinforced clothing. By the end of his reign, he was known as ‘Charles the Mad’. He never recovered from his affliction and died on the 21st of October 1422 at the age of 53.

Henry VI

The legendary Henry V was a hell of a figure to live up to. Unfortunately, his son fell far short of the mark. Unlike his all-conquering warrior father, Henry VI was a shy, retiring, deeply religious man who didn’t have what it took to govern the kingdom effectively. As a result, England descended into bloody civil war. Henry suffered his first mental breakdown in 1453 and his life thereafter was one of constant conflict and strife. He managed to recover his senses in 1456, but soon lapsed back into remission and remained that way for the rest of his life - a feeble-minded pawn in the battle between the houses of York and Lancaster in the Wars of the Roses.

Deposed by the much more popular Edward of York, Henry and his supporters fled to Scotland in 1461 where he remained in exile for ten years until he was briefly restored to the throne after Edward fell out with his former ally, the infamous ‘Warwick the Kingmaker’. Edward regained his crown shortly afterwards and Henry, a dishevelled, mindless creature by this stage, was imprisoned and, according to some, murdered in 1471.

Joanna of Castile

The daughter of Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon, Joanna of Castile should have ruled the kingdom of Castile when her mother died in 1504. Unfortunately, her husband Philip of Burgundy and her father had other ideas.

Following Isabella’s death, both Philip and Ferdinand coveted her throne, and conspired to deny Joanna her claim by declaring her unfit to rule, citing her ‘infirmities and sufferings’. Following Philip’s death in 1506, her father, who had no legal right to rule over Castile, continued to keep his daughter under lock and key, keeping up the story that she was insane for the next ten years while he ruled as regent. When Ferdinand died in 1516, Joanna and her teenage son Charles were declared joint rulers.

Unfortunately, Charles wanted to keep the throne all to himself too and locked his mother up for the rest of her life in the Royal Palace in Tordesillas, Castile, again on the grounds that she was insane. It was there that Joanna - who was probably suffering from no mental illness at all for most of her confinement - finally succumbed to years of imprisonment and gaslighting and descended into paranoia and depression, eventually becoming too ill to eat, sleep, dress or clothe herself. She died on the 12th of April 1555, still a prisoner of her family at the age of 75.

Eric XIV

Sweden’s King Eric XIV managed three years on the throne before losing his mind. From the start of his reign in 1560, Eric had had a fractious relationship with the country’s nobility, in particular with his half brother John. After three years rubbing his nobles up the wrong way, Eric tipped into full-blown insanity, becoming ever more violent and paranoid. He became convinced that a prominent noble family called the Stures were plotting against him and had several members of the family imprisoned in 1567. However, he quickly came to the conclusion that incarceration wasn’t enough and decided to have them murdered instead.

The head of the family, Svante Stensson Sture, a prominent statesman, was killed by prison guards on the orders of Eric, as were four other members of his family including his son Nils, who was brutally stabbed to death by Eric himself. This led to open conflict between Sweden’s nobility and Eric, who was eventually dethroned and imprisoned by his brother John in 1569. The former king languished in prison for the next seven years before being put out of his misery in 1577. His body was exhumed in the 20th Century and forensic scientists determined that Eric had died of a lethal dose of arsenic. The legend has it that his last meal was a poisoned bowl of pea soup.

George III

George had already been on the throne for 28 years when he was struck down by his first prolonged bout of mental illness in 1788. Gibbering for hours on end and foaming at the mouth, the king’s illness was deemed serious enough for a bill to be drawn up in Parliament for his son, George IV, to become regent. Before the bill could pass, George recovered his senses and all was well with the king for the next eleven years. Then, in 1810, his mental illness came roaring back, and this time it was here to stay.

Already blind thanks to cataracts, George deteriorated rapidly. He would babble on for hours, lost the ability to walk and eventually succumbed to dementia. Towards the end of his life, he was incapable of understanding anything, such as the death of his beloved wife Charlotte in 1818 and lived as a deluded, long-haired recluse in Windsor Castle until his death from pneumonia in 1820. For the last nine years of his life, his son George ruled as regent in his stead.

Ranavalona I

During her reign, Queen Ranavalona I of Madagascar was seen as a dreadful tyrant who ruled her island nation with a cruelty that astonished visitors. Famously, she subjected her people to something called ‘trial by ordeal’. This involved the forced ingestion of three pieces of chicken skin alongside a poison taken from the native tangena shrub. If all three pieces of skin were regurgitated, the person was proclaimed innocent. If they were not, the person was declared guilty and put to death (or died horribly from the poison anyway). The trial was used extensively during Ranavalona’s persecution of Christians, along with cruel and unusual punishments such as hanging Christians upside down from her palace walls over a rocky quarry and then cutting their ropes so their heads would be smashed to pieces.

The use of trial by ordeal, as well as Ranavalona’s fondness for harsh slave labour, summary executions, religious persecution and war, meant that the queen managed to reduce her country’s population from 5 million in 1833 to 2.5 million in 1839. In her lifetime and for decades after her death in 1861, she was painted as a mad tyrant, though some have sought to rescue her reputation over the last fifty years, arguing that her actions were simply those of a ruler trying to keep her country together and independent in a world full of hungry colonial powers eager to add her realm to their empires.

Written by:

BP Perry