The assassination of any public figure is greeted with horror, but the murder of a monarch seems to provoke particularly strong feelings of shock and outrage. Throughout the ages, monarchs have enjoyed special status; and the death of a king or queen by violent means has often led to serious repercussions, with some even changing the course of history.
Here are the stories behind five particularly infamous royal assassinations, which still have the power to shock today.
King George I of Greece
Plans were already well underway to celebrate his upcoming Golden Jubilee when, in March 1913, King George I was assassinated whilst out on an afternoon walk in Salonika. His murderer, Alexandros Schinas, shot him in the back at close range and the monarch was killed instantly.
Born to the Danish royal family and christened Christian William Ferdinand Adolf George, George I had been just 17 years of age when, in 1863, he was elected king by the Greek National Assembly. The previous king, Otto, had been overthrown by a coup, so the pressure was on the new young monarch from the start to endear himself to the Greek people. By and large he succeeded, quickly learning the Greek language and supporting a constitutional monarchy that worked hand in hand with the elected Greek Government.
From the start, King George I made a point of appearing accessible by walking freely amongst his people without bodyguards. This policy continued, even after a foiled assassination attempt in 1898, but ultimately it cost him his life.
The motives behind the assassination on that fateful day in March 1913 have never been fully established. The assassin himself, Alexandros Schinas, was dead within a matter of weeks after falling out of a window at the police station where he was being held. Official sources claimed that Schinas was a homeless alcoholic, who bore a grudge against the unfortunate king. The truth may be more complicated, with rumors circulating that Schinas was recruited by a foreign power looking to get rid of the pro-British Greek king at a time of great political unrest in Europe.
Empress Elisabeth of Austria
The popular Empress Elisabeth of Austria was assassinated in Geneva in September 1898, and Mark Twain wrote of the event, “even the assassination of Caesar himself could not electrify the world as this murder has electrified it”. The upcoming movie Corsage, which provides an interesting modern take on the Empress Elisabeth’s life and death, is sure to revive interest in her tragic story.
Born in December 1837, “Sisi”, as she became popularly known, was just 16 years of age at the time of her marriage to Emperor Franz Joseph I. She had enjoyed a carefree childhood in the heart of the Bavarian countryside and struggled to adjust to the formality of life at the Hapsburg court, not helped by a difficult relationship with her mother-in-law, Archduchess Sophie.
However, she proved enduringly popular with the Austrian people. Loved for her charitable work and for her ability to empathize with people from all walks of life, Sisi was also renowned for her beauty and became one of the era’s most fashionable trendsetters. In time, this appears to have only increased the pressure on the fragile Empress, who may well have suffered from an eating disorder. Certainly, her unhealthy obsession with maintaining a slender 16-inch waist, even after four pregnancies, is well documented.
Gradually, Sisi started to lead an increasingly nomadic existence, spending little time at court, and instead travelling all over Europe and North Africa, often under an assumed name and without a bodyguard.
On September 10th, 1898, she was about to step on board a steamship on Lake Geneva when an Italian anarchist named Luigi Lucheni stabbed her in the chest with a pointed file. Initially, it appeared that she had only been slightly injured, but within a matter of minutes she collapsed and died of internal bleeding.
According to evidence given at her assassin’s subsequent trial, Lucheni claimed that he "came to Geneva to kill a sovereign”. His first target, the Duke of Orléans (the then-pretender to the French throne), had already left Geneva, so he turned his attention to the Empress Elisabeth. Lucheni was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. He spent some 12 years in prison before, in October 1910, he was found hanging in his cell, having committed suicide.
King Gustav III of Sweden
King Gustav III proved a divisive figure throughout his reign. Only one year after he succeeded his father to the throne as a 25 year old in 1771, he seized power from the government in a bloodless coup d’état.
The subsequent Union and Security Act removed most of parliamentary power and meant that Gustav III ruled as an absolute monarch. As this lessened the influence of the Swedish nobility, the move was popular with large sections of the population and the king was also the subject of a concerted propaganda campaign, being portrayed as a patron of the arts and science.
The Swedish aristocracy, however, never forgave him for removing many of their privileges. In early 1792, a conspiracy was formed to assassinate him.
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On March 16th, 1792, Gustav III attended a masquerade ball at the Royal Opera House in Stockholm. Despite being attired in a costume, complete with a mask, the king was easy to spot, as he was wearing the star of the Royal Order of the Seraphim. As he walked into the foyer of the theater, one of the conspirators, a Swedish army officer named Jacob Johan Anckarström, shot the king in the lower back.
Gustav did not die instantly, but instead was helped back to the Royal Palace where he survived for nearly another fortnight before eventually succumbing to sepsis. Several of the conspirators were subsequently sent to prison or into exile. The assassin, Anckarström, was the only one to pay the ultimate price, being executed in late April 1792.
William the Silent, Prince of Orange
Born in the German state of Nassau in 1533, William inherited the title Prince of Orange when he was just 11 years old. He had the dubious distinction of becoming, in 1584, the first head of state to be assassinated by handgun (Gustav III of Sweden being the second, 200 years later).
Conflict arose when Philip II of Spain attempted to impose Catholic rule on the predominantly Protestant population of the Low Countries in Northern Europe (present-day Netherlands and Belgium). William, who believed in religious tolerance, became the head of the Protestant cause, a move which inevitably placed him in great danger. In 1580, he was declared an outlaw and the Spanish king offered a reward of 25,000 crowns to anyone who was prepared to kill him.
On July 10th, 1584, William was at home in Delft when he was accosted by a French assassin named Balthasar Gérard. He was shot in the chest at close range and died almost immediately. His assassin fled the scene, but was swiftly apprehended and executed soon afterwards.
King James I of Scotland
James I was just 11 years old when, in 1406, he became king of Scotland. At least one of his older brothers had died in suspicious circumstances, so plans were made to send James to safety in France, only for his ship to be captured on the way. For much of his remaining childhood he was imprisoned in the Tower of London, until around 1420 when his standing at the English court appeared to have improved dramatically.
Following his 1424 marriage to Joan Beaufort, the cousin of the English king, he was allowed to return to rule in Scotland, albeit after agreeing to pay a hefty ransom of £40,000 (equivalent to around £25 million or $29.9 million today) in installments.
When he did finally make it home, James I proved to be an unpopular king. He was viewed as being too authoritarian and attracted much criticism for his extravagant lifestyle at court, particularly as, after the first two installments, he stopped paying the ransom. This put in grave danger the lives of some two dozen Scottish noblemen who were being held hostage by the English until the ransom was fully paid.
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During the winter of 1437, some of the hostages’ relatives, together with the king’s own uncle, the Earl of Atholl, plotted to kill the monarch.
On February 21st, 1437, James I and his wife Joan were staying in Perth, at lodgings in the Blackfriars Monastery, when the conspirators entered the building. James was warned and had time to hide in a sewer, but was discovered and murdered. Joan was wounded, but managed to escape.
Despite the king’s unpopularity, the assassination was widely condemned and most of the Scottish nobility rallied round the Queen and her young son, James. The main conspirators, including the Earl of Atholl, were subsequently arrested, tortured, and executed.