10 Mad Royals in History


Joanna the Mad (as this Spanish queen was known) was rumored to caress the corpse of her husband Philip. See more pictures of royalty. DeAgostini/Getty Images

Our understanding and treatment of mental illness has advanced quite a bit over the centuries -- and thank goodness for that. It wasn't so long ago that people who had been deemed "mad" (among other things) were routinely locked up and basically left to rot away in deplorable conditions. It was considered shameful and embarrassing to have an insane person in the family.

But what if that person happened to be the most powerful person in the country? Dealing with a mad monarch takes more than a little finesse. He or she could choose to execute the royal physician for suggesting that he or she might not be fit to rule. Meanwhile the country is falling into ruin. And in many places, the monarch was considered to have been divinely appointed, so questioning authority is akin to questioning one's god.

This is why history is full of royals who may not have been diagnosed as mentally ill by a medical professional, but whose actions and behaviors have qualified as "crazy" to the layperson. We'll start with a possible case of mistaken identity just to complicate things.

10
Nabonidus of Babylon
Daniel interprets the dream of Nebuchadnezzar. Culture Club/Getty Images

Nabonidus was the last king of Babylon, reigning from 556 to 539 B.C.E., and though he isn't mentioned in the Bible, many experts believe he was the real Babylonian king who went mad and acted like an animal rather than Nebuchadnezzar.

According to Daniel 4:25, Nebuchadnezzar, had a disturbing dream which his interpreter Daniel told him meant, "You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like the ox and be drenched with the dew of heaven. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth."

So said, so done. One day Nebuchadnezzar was bragging about his greatness; the next, he was driven from his home, living with wild animals and eating grass. Seven years later, he recovered his sanity and praised God [source: Easton's Bible Dictionary].

But numerous Babylonian writings and other ancient texts -- including the Dead Sea Scrolls -- make it clear that Nabonidus was the king with the unsound mind. So why the change? Some scholars believe that it's due to mistakes in the translation. Others think that it was a deliberate choice on the part of the editors of Daniel to better advance their ideals. Nebuchadnezzar was a very powerful king who destroyed the first temple in Jerusalem, so if the story was about him instead of Nabonidus, it's one of punishment and redemption [source: Bledsoe].

9
King George III of England
Some experts believe that King George III suffered from porphyria rather than mental illness. National Galleries Of Scotland/Getty Images

By the time he died, King George III could neither see nor hear, and was considered completely insane. His urine was reportedly tinged blue and/or red, and stories had spread about crazy behavior such as attempting to shake hands with a tree because he thought it was the King of Prussia [source: Johnson].

King George III ruled from 1760 to 1820, and his other claim to fame apart from his madness, was that the American colonies were lost under his reign. He was also cultured and conscientious, and unlike many of the other kings on this list, devoted to his wife [source: The Royal Household].

Modern diagnoses of the cause of the king's insanity have included schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, sexual frustration or the hereditary blood disorder porphyria. Porphyria can mimic the symptoms of madness, causing confusion as well as red urine. Perhaps the arsenic in the medications given to him may have triggered or aggravated the disease [source: Johnson].

Scholars who believe that the king was truly mentally ill point to the disparate differences in his writing and behavior. In "manic" periods, for example, he had convulsions and wrote and talked excessively -- to the point that he foamed at the mouth. These scholars attribute his blue urine to the plant gentian, often used in medication [source: BBC].

In the last decade of King George's life, Britain was actually ruled by his son, the Prince of Wales, as regent [source: The Royal Household].

8
Charles VI of France
Charles VI of France was called both 'Charles the Beloved' and 'Charles the Mad.' DeAgostini/Getty Images

Charles VI has gone down in history as both "Charles the Beloved" and "Charles the Mad." So how did he get both titles?

He received the first after restoring order to France. He became king at age 11 in 1368, but his uncles ruled until he was 21, ruining the finances of the country and causing numerous revolts. Charles then took over, got rid of the uncles and reinstated his father's trusted advisers [sources: Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, France.fr].

Unfortunately, the happy period only lasted about four years before he began to earn his second title.

While pursuing the man who attempted to assassinate an adviser, Charles became convinced that he was being chased by enemies. Ultimately he killed several of his own knights and nearly murdered his brother. His periods of lucidity became briefer over the years, as he sometimes did not recognize his wife or family, or didn't even remember that he was the king. He went long periods without bathing, ran through the corridors of his palace at all hours, and claimed that he was Saint George [source: Rohl et al.].

But Charles VI's most famous delusion was that his body was made of glass. He refused to be touched and required that special protective clothing be made to keep him from shattering [sources: Fink and Tasman, Sommerville]. Today it's thought that he probably had bipolar disorder, but at the time his illness was considered God's will because he had supported the antipope Clement VII [source: Fink and Tasman].

7
Maria I of Portugal
This portrait of Maria I of Portugal was done by an unknown 18th century artist. DeAgostini/Getty Images

Maria I also had two different titles: "Maria the Pious" and "Maria the Mad." She was the first queen in Portugal to rule in her own right (rather than as a regent for a minor or consort). Her reign began in 1777 and lasted for 39 years. Maria I was considered to be a good and competent ruler until becoming delirious in 1786. Her husband Peter III (who was also her uncle) died that year, and her son passed away in 1791 [source: Livermore].

Deeply religious to the point of mania, Maria I was also devastated by the death of her confessor in 1791. She considered herself damned, in turns ranting, raging, screaming and wailing [source: Roberts]. Treatments included bloodletting and enemas -- "purgatives" that were commonly used to treat insanity. The queen did not willingly submit to these, and who can blame her?

Dr. Francis Willis, who had treated George III, came to the court in Portugal and diagnosed her as insane. His treatments were even worse -- straitjacketing, blistering and ice baths. Willis wanted to take her to England, away from the court and priests that he accurately considered to be negative influences on her mental health -- but not surprisingly, the court objected. Her son Prince João took over as regent in 1799. Unfortunately the prince wasn't suited to the job, and the court fled to Brazil after France invaded Portugal. Queen Maria I died there in 1816 [source: Roberts].

6
Justin II
Towards the end of his life, servants tried to soothe Emperor Justin II's insane outbursts by wheeling him around on a wagon for hours on end. Kean Collection/Getty Images

Let's head back to antiquity with a mad emperor, Justin II. He ruled from 565 to 578 and became emperor under somewhat suspect circumstances. His uncle Justinian I passed away and his chamberlain Callinicus claimed that Justinian designated Justin II as his successor on his deathbed. Callinicus wanted to be political allies with Justin, so he may have fabricated the story.

At first, Justin II seemed to have the empire's best interests in mind -- he took care of the financial end and was tolerant of a minority group of Christians (although he later persecuted them). Then he decided to stop paying other countries around the empire to keep the peace, and his decision led to the loss of part of Italy as well as war with Persia [sources: Encyclopedia Britannica, Evans].

Perhaps these failures triggered his mental illness? Regardless, by 574 his wife was acting on his behalf. She convinced him to make a general in his army, Tiberius, his adopted son and heir. Justin II remained emperor in name only until his death, with Empress Sophia and Tiberius ruling as co-regents. Those last few years of his life were terrible. He tried to throw himself out of the windows of his palace, screamed, howled, babbled and bit his chamberlains. Stories circulated that Justin had actually eaten two of them. To soothe him, servants wheeled him around on a wagon for hours while organ music played [sources: Evans, John of Ephesus].

5
Joanna of Castile
Joanna the Mad was obsessed with her husband Phillip the Handsome (do you think the sobriquet fits?) Universal History Archive/Getty Images

History has given this queen the sobriquet of Juana la Loca or "Joanna the Mad." But many question today whether she was really insane. Joanna married Phillip the Handsome (he fared better with the titles, obviously) in 1496. She was deeply in love with him, but he had numerous mistresses, and Joanna was jealous [source: Encyclopedia Britannica]. Her succession to the throne was murky. She became regent (temporary ruler) of Castile after the death of her mother Isabella I in 1504, but her father, Ferdinand II of Aragon, didn't accept this and convinced the courts that she was too ill to reign. Civil war in Castile made him change his tune, and although his son-in-law Phillip initially agreed that Joanna was mad and unable to rule, Phillip reneged as soon as Ferdinand left for Aragon [source: Andrean].

The courts recognized the couple as rulers, but after Phillip died, Ferdinand II returned and became regent, although not with Joanna's consent. She traveled through Granada for eight months with her husband's coffin and was rumored to kiss and caress the corpse. Her father confined her to a convent, where she stayed through his death and the reign of her son Charles I over both Castile and Aragon -- a period of 50 years [sources: Gomez et al., Andrean]. She may have had melancholia, schizophrenia or depression. But it's also possible that she wasn't insane at all. Instead, her father and son successfully perpetuated the idea to keep her from ruling [source: Gomez et al.].

4
Erik XIV of Sweden
King Erik XIV of Sweden personally stabbed one of his enemies. DEA/A. DAGLI ORTI/Getty Images

Legend has it that King Erik XIV's last meal was a bowl of poisoned pea soup [source: Öhrström]. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. He ascended to the throne in 1560 but only ruled for eight years. The king was known to be intelligent and well-read. Erik proposed marriage to several royal women over the years (including Queen Elizabeth I) before finally marrying his mistress, a peasant woman named Karin Månsdotter in 1567 [sources: Mäkelä-Alitalo, Encyclopedia Britannica ].

Erik XIV was very ambitious and sought to expand his kingdom, an unpopular view. His half-brother Duke John also wanted to expand his territory and Erik had him imprisoned for high treason in 1563 [source: Glete]. Apparently the king began showing signs of madness and violence around this time. He ordered the murders of five nobles of the Sture family, already imprisoned for conspiracy against him. He personally stabbed Nils Svantesson Sture [sources: Cronholm, Encyclopedia Britannica].

This act proved to be too much for the other nobles, and Erik was dethroned in 1568. Duke John became ruler of Sweden, as John III. John was concerned about Erik getting out of prison, and ordered that guards should kill Erik if there was any attempt at freeing him [source: Mäkelä-Alitalo]. The pea soup, laced with arsenic, took care of that.

3
Christian VII of Denmark
This 19th century painting by Kristian Zahrtmann shows Queen Caroline Matilda and Johann Friedrich Struensee playing chess while King Christian VII plays with a parrot, the traditional symbol of frivolity. The dowager queen looks on attentively. Wikimedia Commons

Officially, Danish king Christian VII ruled from 1767 until his death in 1808, but for a large part of it, he was king in name only. Christian was considered incompetent not only due to his wild night life (he caroused with prostitutes in brothels) but also because of his mood swings, paranoia, hallucinations and self-mutilation. Some modern researchers have suggested that he had schizophrenia. Others that he had porphyria [sources: Rohl, Langen, Danish Royal Collection]. Ultimately he was mostly good for rubber stamping various decrees set forth by members of his court. He married the sister of King George III (yes, Mad King George), Princess Caroline Matilda, around the time he was crowned.

Christian's physician Johann Friedrich Struensee gained the confidence of the king and a lot of power. Christian gave him the title of State Councilor in 1768, and Struensee made numerous progressive reforms to modernize the country. That goodwill went away once Struensee began an affair with Caroline Matilda, and her divorce was finalized in 1772. Later that year, Struensee was executed [source: Toyne].

Both moves were orchestrated by Christian's power-hungry stepmother, dowager Queen Juliane Marie. She essentially ruled from 1772 until 1784, when Christian's son Prince Frederick VI took over as regent. Christian is rumored to have died of a heart attack or stroke after being frightened by the arrival of Spanish ships he thought were hostile. But there's not much proof to substantiate that [source: Schioldann].

2
Farouk of Egypt
Egypt's deposed King Farouk posed with his family on the Isle of Capri where he was in exile, in 1953. © Bettmann/CORBIS

Royals in Europe don't hold a monopoly on crazy behavior. Case in point: King Farouk of Egypt, who ascended to the throne in 1936. He was said to have mysophobia, an intense fear of contamination that caused him to search for imaginary bits of dirt. He only drove red cars and banned anyone else from owning a red one. He supposedly shot out the tires of vehicles that tried to pass him on the road. Farouk was also reportedly a packrat and a kleptomaniac, and legend has it that he stole Winston Churchill's watch [sources: Crompton, Scriba].

Though celebrated by nobility in his early years, Farouk's subjects didn't care for his shopping sprees, food indulgences, wild expenditures and corrupt governing. They also were unhappy with the loss of most of Palestine after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and its occupation by British forces [source: Cavendish].

The king was overthrown during the Egyptian Revolution in 1952, and his infant son was declared ruler -- although in truth the country was governed by a nationalistic group of officers within Egypt's army. The monarchy was dissolved in 1953, and Farouk died of a heart attack in Italy in 1965 after consuming a huge dinner of a dozen oysters, lobster thermidor, a double portion of roast lamb with fried potatoes and a large helping of trifle for dessert [sources: Cavendish, Scriba].

1
Zhu Houzhao, Emperor Zhengde
China's Emperor Zhengde liked hunting wild animals almost as much as hunting people. Wikimedia Commons

We'll end our look at just a few of the crazy rulers in history (you can find long lists of many more, trust us) by going to China. Zhu Houzhao is the personal name of the 10th emperor of the Ming Dynasty, who took the name of Zhengde when he ascended the throne in 1505.

Zhengde had no interest in affairs of the state, preferring affairs of the heart. His vast harem wasn't enough, so he picked up women on the street and had prostitutes in the royal palace. He enjoyed drinking, learning languages, pretending to be a commoner, and traveling incognito as much as possible. He also liked hunting wild animals almost as much as hunting people (both women for his harem and enemies, real and imagined) Once Zhengde was nearly killed by a tiger he was attempting to tame [source: Theobald, Encyclopedia Britannica, Huang].

The actual governing of the country was left to high-ranking eunuchs and friends, who heavily taxed the people and essentially sold public offices to the highest bidders. Anybody questioning Zhengde's strange behavior might be exiled or even killed. Eleven officials were flogged so much they later died of their beatings [sources: Theobald, Encyclopedia Britannica].

But this recklessness couldn't last for long. He had a boating accident at age 31 and passed away a year later [source: Huang]. Truly mad or merely eccentric? It's hard to say, but it's obvious that Zhengde wasn't cut out for the throne.

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Author's Note: 10 Mad Royals in History

I enjoy history and I'm particularly fascinated by the historical diagnosis and treatment of mental illness, but I still didn't know much about several of these so-called mad royals until researching them. Choosing just 10 was difficult, and I have several royal biographies on my reading list now (as if it wasn't long enough already).

Related Articles

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