Committing murder to obtain power is nothing new. Throughout history, the crown has typically been passed down in the more traditional way—through family inheritance—although it sometimes takes place on the battlefield, after a trial, or as the result of a military coup. More rarely, some would-be regents have taken it upon themselves to ensure their place on the throne, even if it costs the lives of their own kin. Here are five bloodthirsty monarchs who were willing to commit regicide—and even kill members of their own family—in order to seize power.
Richard III and the Princes in the Tower
In 1483, King Edward IV of England died, leaving behind two young heirs. Aged 12 and nine, the two brothers were placed in the care of their uncle Richard, the Duke of Gloucester, who was named Lord Protector of the siblings. While publicly proclaiming his “loyalty to the new king,” Richard had the boys placed in the Tower of London while awaiting the coronation of the eldest of the two princes.
The coronation would never come. At first, Richard delayed it for one reason or another, and then the two young princes were declared illegitimate. Richard took the throne the same year that his brother and predecessor passed away. As for the two boys, many historians believe they never left the tower alive.
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In 1674, almost two centuries after the princes disappeared, workmen in the tower discovered a wooden box beneath a staircase. Within the box were two small skeletons. Though it was uncertain whether the bones belonged to the two royal heirs, the remains were interred in Westminster Abbey, the traditional burial site for monarchs.
To this day, many people believe that Richard III had his young nephews murdered in order to ascend to power—a position he held for only two years before he was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field. There, Richard III succumbed to the forces of Henry VII, who would succeed him on the throne.
Boleslaus I and “Good King Wenceslaus”
Perhaps you're familiar with “Good King Wenceslaus,” a Christmas carol about a king who gives alms to a peasant on the Feast of Saint Stephen or the Second Day of Christmas. But did you know that Wenceslaus was a real person? He wasn’t actually a king—although because of his popularity, he was declared one posthumously. In reality, Wenceslaus was the Duke of Bohemia in what is today the Czech Republic.
In 935 C.E., Wenceslaus’s younger brother, Boleslaus, invited him to a feast. There, several conspirators were waiting. Three of Boleslaus's companions stabbed Wenceslaus to death before Boleslaus ran through his own brother with a lance.
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After his death, Wenceslaus was canonized as a saint, and immortalized in the “Good King Wenceslaus” carol. Meanwhile, his murderer earned the epithet Boleslaus the Cruel. Boleslaus also had a son born on the day of Wenceslaus's death, and the newborn was named Strachkvas—meaning “a dreadful feast”—after the ominous circumstances of his birth.
Attila the Hun and His Less Famous Brother
For such a notorious ruler, we know surprisingly little about Attila the Hun. This is partly because most of what we do know about this legendary warrior-king comes from the writings of his enemies.
The Huns were a Nomadic people who traversed Central Asia, the Caucasus region, and Eastern Europe between the 4th and 6th century C.E. Even before Attila’s time on the throne, the Huns had carved out a mobile empire from Roman lands, and were the scourge of Rome north of the Danube River.
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When the ruler Ruga perished in 434 C.E., his nephews, Attila and Bleda, ascended to rule the Huns. According to Socrates of Constantinople, Ruga was killed by lightning after Roman Emperor Theodosius II had prayed to God for his death. Theodoret of Cyrus also agreed that God had killed Ruga, noting that Theodosius had passed a law calling for the destruction of all pagan temples and that Ruga’s death was “the abundant harvest that followed these good seeds.”
For a time, Attila and Bleda ruled in unison, brokering successful treaties with the Romans and even setting their sights on taking Constantinople. Sometime around 445 C.E., however, Bleda vanished from the historical record, and Attila became the sole ruler of the Huns. One of the few firsthand accounts of this era comes from Priscus, a Roman diplomat who spent time among the Huns. Priscus wrote that Bleda “was assassinated as a result of the plots of his brother.”
The Man Who Became Sultan – Twice
Mahmud Shah put his own spin on the act of regicide. In 1488, a young Mahmud Shah became the Sultan of Malacca in modern-day Malaysia. He ruled until 1511, when he stepped aside in order for his son, Ahmad Shah, to take over.
The reason behind Mahmud Shah’s abdication varies depending on the source, though many scholars link it to the capture of Malacca by the Portuguese that same year. In any event, it didn’t take long for him to reverse his original stance.
Within just two years, Mahmud Shah stabbed his own son to death after a failed attempt to retake Malacca, thus reinstating himself as sultan—if only of a state that no longer officially existed.
Wu Zetian’s Rise to Power
From today’s perspective, it is tempting to see Wu Zetian, China's sole female monarch, as an aspirational figure. But she seized the throne through some pretty nefarious means—like orchestrating the deaths of her own children. Originally a concubine of the court, Wu Zetian began paving her road to power by deposing her predecessor, Empress Wang. To do this, she accused the empress of murder. The victim? Wu Zetian’s own infant daughter, who was found dead, apparently from strangulation.
While there’s no way to know for certain what happened to the infant, some modern scholars believe that Wu Zetian killed her own daughter in order to frame Empress Wang and remove a rival from her path. Other historians theorize that Empress Wang actually did strangle the baby, or that the infant died from accidental asphyxiation. Regardless, Empress Wang was deposed and later executed, and Wu Zetian married Emperor Gaozong.
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When the emperor suffered a stroke in 660 C.E., Wu Zetian began running the country behind the scenes, and would continue to do so through proxies until 690 C.E. She then became the first—and thus far only—woman to rule China outright. Along the way, however, several of her children had to be removed from her path, including her eldest son. Li Hong died suddenly after opposing his mother’s will, leading many historians to conclude that Wu Zetian poisoned him. Another of her sons, Li Xian, was accused of treason and assassination. He was exiled and forced to commit suicide.
For the next 15 years, Wu Zetian exercised overt imperial power over China, at the bloody expense of her own kin. It wasn’t until 705 C.E. that an ailing Wu Zetian was deposed from power and later died under house arrest.
Featured image of Attila the Hun by Eugène Delacroix: Wikipedia