9 eccentric monarchs through history
From Nero to King George IV, historian Sean Lang rounds up nine of history's most outlandish rulers
How do you define eccentricity, especially in a monarch? ‘Eccentric’ means literally “off-centre”, behaviour that is definitely a bit odd or out of the ordinary, but not necessarily insane.
There are certainly rulers who have been famed for their mental instability, such as the murderously unstable Roman emperor Gaius Caligula, or our own George III, whose illness, probably porphyria [a rare hereditary disease in which there is abnormal metabolism of the blood pigment haemoglobin], prompted some decidedly eccentric behaviour: he once ordered his carriage to stop in Windsor Great Park while he popped out to have a chat with an oak tree, apparently under the impression it was the King of Prussia. King Henry VI's mental instability, meanwhile, led him into a catatonic state, leaving a power vacuum at the heart of English politics and ushering the period of extremely bloody conflict we call the Wars of the Roses.
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However, these are probably cases of extreme mental illness rather than of eccentricity: they were serious enough to impair the monarch's ability to rule rather than merely oddities of behaviour. It has sometimes been pointed out that the very nature of a monarch's life, often insecure and with little privacy, is itself somewhat eccentric, so it is no great surprise if it engenders eccentricities in crowned heads. Certainly the court etiquette of Versailles, which required the monarch to get up and go to bed twice each day, once in public and once for real, might have turned anyone a bit odd.
James VI and I's obsessive fear of witches and assassins looks eccentric to modern eyes, but perhaps a certain paranoia is permitted in someone who was, after all, the target of the Gunpowder Plot. And the 19th-century Queen Ranavalona I of Madagascar might have made the list for her undoubted cruelty, but reports of her as actually insane were very much the product of Europeans with an eye on her kingdom.
Meanwhile, some might think the extravagant lifestyle of Egypt's playboy King Farouk (reigned 1936–52) would qualify him for inclusion, though his behaviour was perhaps more a case of extreme insensitivity to the plight of his people than eccentricity. In any case, much can be forgiven the man who once commented that there would soon be only five monarchs left in the world: the King of England, the King of Spades, the King of Clubs, the King of Hearts and the King of Diamonds!
Here, then, are nine monarchs I would consider among history’s most eccentric…
Nero (ruled AD 54–68)
Rome's emperor Nero is often written off as mad, but this is a gross misreading of this intelligent but decidedly eccentric man. Nero came to the throne after the death of Claudius and seemed at first to offer Rome a bit of stability. There is no doubt that he was ruthless: he murdered his stepbrother and rival for the throne Britannicus; had two of his three wives murdered (he kicked one of them to death himself); and even engineered the grisly murder of his own mother. However, some of the most colourful stories about him are regarded as suspect because of the hostility towards him of many ancient writers, and that hostility can be traced to what the Romans considered his definite and rather demeaning eccentricities.
Unlike his predecessors and successors, who made their name on the battlefield, Nero's interests were cultural and artistic. A penchant for writing poetry or playing the lyre might have been tolerated in a ruler had it been kept strictly private, but Nero openly paraded his artistic side, forcing senators to sit for hours during his dramatic performances and introducing a poetry competition into the Olympic Games specifically so he could win it.
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Dancing and performing in public were generally considered ill-becoming to the dignity of Rome's chief citizen, and it was probably this disgust which led to the most celebrated story of Nero's eccentricity: that he sang and played the lyre while watching the spectacle of the city of Rome ablaze – “fiddling while Rome burns”, as the saying goes. It is almost certainly untrue: Nero may possibly have remarked on the spectacle, which did evoke memories of the destruction of Troy, but he seems in fact to have been directing the firefighting rather than rhapsodising. However, since he then built a massive Golden House for himself in the middle of the area of destruction, perhaps a bad press after the event was only to be expected.
King Charles VI of France (ruled 1380–1422)
Charles VI inherited the throne during France's long conflict with England, the Hundred Years’ War. Charles, who had come to the throne as a minor, had been kept out of power until he reached the age of 20. Far from showing signs of eccentricity, as a young man Charles seemed able and popular. In 1392, however, while on campaign in the forest of Le Mans, he had some sort of seizure that badly affected his mind and caused him to violently attack his companions, killing four of them.
From then on he was subject to periodic fits of violence, while his everyday behaviour became ever more bizarre. He took to running wildly through the corridors of his palace and sometimes seemed unaware of his own name, never mind that he was king – though he did once appear to claim to be Saint George. The king also suffered from the delusion that he was made of glass and could shatter at any time.
On one tragic occasion, on 28 January 1393, he attended a wedding with some of his attendants, all curiously disguised as wild men and covered in pitch. During the celebrations the costumes caught fire and four of the attendants burned to death. The incident became known as the ‘ball of the burning men’.
Charles was also king of France when Henry V revived England's claim to the throne of France and inflicted the disastrous defeat of Agincourt on the French nobility. Charles was in no state to resist Henry's demand to be made his heir.
Charles's death in 1422 was largely a relief for all concerned. The throne passed to Henry V's infant son, Henry VI, while Charles VI's son, Charles VII, carried on the fight that would eventually drive the English from France.
Emperor Rudolf II (ruled 1576–1612)
There are those who view Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor, Archduke of Austria and King of Hungary and Bohemia, as a much maligned figure, a true Renaissance patron of the arts. However, he was certainly regarded in his lifetime as dangerously insecure, to the point that he was overthrown and replaced by his own brother.
This was the period of religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants, and Germany had been deeply divided between the two camps. However a compromise peace was working successfully by the time of Rudolf's accession.
Rudolf was a staunch Catholic, like the rest of the Habsburg clan. However, his spiritual life was further fuelled by an increasingly absorbing interest in the occult and a strong sense of paranoia. This was not entirely ill-founded: Rudolf's reign did witness a major revolt in his Hungarian lands and an invasion by the Turks.
He proclaimed liberty of conscience but also turned against his Protestant subjects, prompting the German Protestant princes to form an Evangelical Union in self-defence. Meanwhile Rudolf, who was prone to bouts of what would today be recognised as mood swings and depression, shut himself away in his apartments in Prague Castle, refusing to see or speak to anyone for days on end.
The Habsburg family, alarmed that Rudolf's impulsiveness might tear the empire apart, engineered a palace coup that put Archduke Matthias on the imperial throne in place of his brother, which merely served to increase the violence of Rudolf's persecution complex.
It may be that Rudolf has been unfairly judged, but his behaviour did seem dangerously erratic to those around him and it certainly sowed the seeds for the disastrous Thirty Years’ War (1618–48), which engulfed Europe six years after Rudolf's death.
Sultan Mustafa I (ruled 1617–1618; 1622–1623)
The stifling nature of life and deadly power struggles in Constantinople's Topkapi Palace might have driven many a prince over the edge into mental instability. It certainly did in the case of Mustafa I, who was twice briefly Sultan of the Ottoman Empire in the early 17th century.
The Sultanate of this powerful and expanding empire was supposed to be defended ruthlessly and it was normal practice for an incoming Sultan to have all his brothers put to death to avoid any possibility of their claiming the throne. This did not happen to Mustafa when his elder brother Ahmed I came to the throne in 1603, possibly because Ahmed felt some affection for his brother, though more likely because there was no alternative direct heir. In any case, Mustafa's behaviour seemed to suggest that he was a harmless eccentric. Like many other rulers, he developed a high degree of paranoia, (perhaps understandable at the Ottoman court), and he certainly had no desire to rule.
When Ahmed died in 1617, Mustafa succeeded mainly because no-one could agree on another candidate. He is described as having enjoyed teasing the viziers, knocking off their turbans or pulling at their beards. Other rulers have behaved in a similar fashion in history but been strong enough to get away with it: in Mustafa's case, it merely underlined his unfitness to rule. After only a year as sultan he was overthrown by his nephew Osman II, but Osman was himself overthrown and murdered in a palace coup by the Janissaries, the palace guard, and Mustafa was restored to the throne.
This unexpected turn of events seems to have disturbed Mustafa's mind still further: he convinced himself that Osman II was still alive but hiding, and spent hours looking for him in cupboards and dark corners. In the end, Mustafa was removed from the throne with the agreement of his mother, on the condition that her son's life be spared and, rather remarkably for the Ottoman court, it was.
Queen Christina of Sweden (ruled 1644–54)
Christina of Sweden has proved irresistible to opera composers, dramatists, filmmakers and romantic novelists alike. She was something of a celebrity in her time and was definitely regarded as eccentric. Her father was the famous Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus, who triumphantly led the Protestant princes in battle against the Holy Roman Empire until he was shot in the head at the 1632 battle of Lützen – though his grieving widow would not allow his body to be buried and opened the coffin up from time to time to see how her late husband was decomposing.
Christina succeeded to the throne and immediately attracted comment because of her penchant for rejecting all the behaviour expected of a queen. She determined not to marry, not simply for reasons of state, as Elizabeth I had done, but because her own sexual orientation probably ran in the other direction. She certainly enjoyed dressing in men's clothes, which at the time was seen not just as eccentric but as a rejection of the laws of god.
Christina was a great patron of the arts, commissioning paintings and welcoming writers, so that Sweden became, for a time, a major centre of European learning. She was unconventional in her approach to politics, too, undermining her own chancellor, Oxenstierna, in the peace negotiations at the end of the Thirty Years’ War. Her father had been a hero to Protestant Europe, but Christina developed an interest in Catholicism and converted.
In 1654 Christina suddenly abdicated: it is possible that she had suffered some sort of breakdown. She retired to Rome, though her arrival was anything but low-key, as she arrived in full state, dressed as an Amazon.
Nevertheless, she was a welcome figure at the Vatican – prominent royal Protestant converts were something of a rarity – and she was eventually buried there. It may well be that Christina would have been happier in our time than her own, but in 17th-century terms she certainly counts as an eccentric monarch.
Tsar Peter I (ruled 1682–1725)
Peter the Great of Russia was a man of enormous dynamism and energy. He was also a very dangerous man to cross and his behaviour can certainly be described as unpredictable and eccentric.
He came to the throne having only narrowly escaped with his life from the deadly intrigues at the Romanov court, and it may be that this awareness of the fragility of his royal existence affected his behaviour. He certainly conducted himself with a minimum of thought for anyone else. Early in his reign he left Russia to undertake an extensive tour abroad – itself a highly unusual and potentially dangerous thing to do. During his stay in England he lodged in the Thameside house of the diarist John Evelyn. Peter and his friends trashed the place, using pictures for pistol practice and covering the floors in vomit and urine.
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Peter showed a similar lack of concern for the sensitivities of his subjects. To encourage the boyars (nobles) to abandon their traditional dress and adopt western styles he lined them up and cut off their beards himself, and he punished revolt and defiance with mass executions, which he was happy to start with his own hands.
Like many other such worryingly headstrong rulers, Peter was a great builder: he ordered the construction of the city of St Petersburg as a window on the west, and he didn't worry too much that building it on a marsh would inevitably cause the deaths of thousands of labourers. He brooked no opposition or criticism, even from his son, the unfortunate tsarevitch Alexei, whom he condemned to death and enticed home from his refuge in Vienna. The tsarevitch died in prison from ill-treatment and torture.
It may be that Peter's reign pushes the definition of eccentric rather too close for comfort to ‘homicidal autocrat’, but as an unpredictable and dangerously impulsive monarch, Peter I merits inclusion here.
Tsar Paul I (ruled 1796–1801)
Paul I was the product of a line of Romanovs who might almost have been considered to have invented the concept of royal eccentricity. His mother, Catherine II, was a very able ruler but with a ravenous appetite for lovers and favourites. Paul seems to have determined to be as different from his mother as he could, even to the point of having the body of her minister and lover, Grigory Potemkin, dug up so his bones could be scattered.
More worrying, perhaps, was Paul’s attitude towards his guards, since palace guards had been instrumental in the bloody coups and palace revolutions that marked 18th-century Russia. Paul developed an obsession with the fine details of their ever-more elaborate uniforms and insisted that they be kept in pristine condition. Anyone who fell short of his ideal was liable to be flogged, sometimes by the tsar himself. He insisted on full parades outside his palace even in the depths of the Russian winter, and once sent a regiment off to march all the way to Siberia before changing his mind and sending word for them to turn back. It was erratic changes of mind that particularly alarmed his nobles and the rest of Europe.
Paul demanded absolute loyalty from his nobles and would dismiss anyone he suspected of the least departure from his wishes, but at the same time he happily set free nationalist rebels and anti-royalist critics. His hatred of Britain made him a firm ally of the French revolutionaries and a great admirer of the young Napoleon Bonaparte, until Napoleon seized the island of Malta on his way to conquer Egypt. Paul was Grand Master of the Knights of St John of Malta and he took a very dim view of the French action, changing sides and joining the war against France that followed the failure of Napoleon's Egyptian campaign.
Paul was convinced that his enemies at court were plotting to kill him, and so they were. In 1801 he was murdered in a gruesome scene in which he was apparently garrotted with a silk scarf supplemented at one point in the struggle by a paperweight. His son, who then became Tsar Alexander I, was downstairs at the time and knew all about the plot, though he hoped his father would abdicate peacefully and be locked away in comfort. Perhaps not surprisingly, he proved almost as mercurial and unpredictable as his father.
King George IV (Regent 1811–20; king 1820–30)
The Prince Regent was not a murderous character but he showed distinct signs of eccentricity, especially as his health declined towards the end of his reign. He was the product of the famously dysfunctional Hanoverian dynasty, where mutual hatred of father and son, passed down through each succeeding generation, became virtually enshrined as a constant factor of British political life.
In his youth George had rebelled against the stiff morality of his father's court by devoting himself to the usual rebel son's repertoire of gambling, drinking and fornication – though George took it a worrying stage further by going through with a clandestine marriage to a Catholic widow, Mrs Maria Fitzherbert.
His ‘official’ marriage to the German princess Caroline of Brunswick was a celebrated disaster: they detested each other at first sight, George taking immediate comfort in a stiff brandy. After the wedding night, when they conceived their daughter, Princess Charlotte, the pair lived apart, though Caroline was determined to be crowned queen when the time should come and George was equally determined to stop her.
When George III finally died in 1820, George forced the government to institute legal proceedings in parliament to prove his wife guilty of adultery so he could divorce her and stop her coronation. The attempt failed but on coronation day Queen Caroline was turned away from the door of Westminster Abbey because she did not have a ticket, which worked just as well.
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George had spent a long period of his life waiting for his father to die; his wait was rendered all the more frustrating by the fact that for the last 10 years of his life George III was mad, blind and incapable of ruling. At this point, George was named Prince Regent, and launched into the lavish patronage of the arts with which the Regency is still associated. However, his tastes were unquestionably eccentric: the most memorable monument to his reign is the magnificent but decidedly odd Brighton Pavilion, built on a huge scale in a combination of Indian and Chinese style that reflects both the fashion for things oriental and George's love of the garish.
With little else of importance to do, George avidly consumed news of the war against Napoleon and was so thrilled by the news of Wellington's victory at Waterloo that he studied every detail of the battle, gradually becoming convinced that he had actually been there. He would embarrass dinner parties by reminiscing about his part in the battle, leading the King's German Legion under the name ‘General Bock’. On one occasion he reminisced to the Duke of Wellington about how he had led his men in a charge down a steep slope. “Very steep, sir”, the Iron Duke replied, drily.
As George's health declined towards the end of his life he became ever fatter and nearly blind; he was heavily drugged to reduce the pain of his gout, which further affected his grip on reality.
King Ludwig II of Bavaria (reigned 1864–1886)
No list of royal eccentrics is complete with Ludwig, possibly the most eccentric of them all. Even before he succeeded to the throne, his mother was concerned that her son was not mentally stable enough for the task of ruling Bavaria and he very soon proved her right.
Ludwig had no interest in politics or the military or any of the other usual concerns of a monarch. Instead his interests were artistic and he had an all-consuming passion for the music of Richard Wagner. He invited Wagner to Bavaria, where the town of Bayreuth became a shrine to Wagner's operas; Ludwig gradually withdrew almost completely form public life to devote himself to art.
A visit to France had shown him the way the French were restoring their medieval and renaissance monuments, and he decided that Bavaria needed a similar architectural revival, or else, if there were no old chateaux to restore, he would build them. He spent extravagantly on his beloved fairytale castles, like the famous Schloss Neuschwanstein on which Walt Disney later modelled the castle in Sleeping Beauty (1959).
Ludwig was shaken back into reality by the rise of Prussia and its successful wars with Austria (1866) and France (1870). A strong Catholic, Ludwig supported Austria at first but then swung behind Bismarck in the Franco-Prussian War. The proclamation of the German Empire in 1871 effectively ended the independent status of Germany's various smaller states, but Ludwig continued as king of partly-autonomous Bavaria.
His behaviour, however, was giving his ministers increasing cause for concern. He called off his marriage plans, almost certainly because of his own hidden homosexuality, and spent ever more lavishly on his beloved castles until his ministers felt forced to act. They obtained the services of a number of doctors who were prepared to declare Ludwig insane and therefore incapable of ruling, even though most of them had never met him, still less examined him. When they turned up at the palace Ludwig deployed Bavarian police to hold them off, and they were dispersed by a feisty lady of his court who set about them with her umbrella.
However, the doctors and ministers came back and managed to get Ludwig removed from power and confined in a nearby manor house, where he was shortly afterwards found dead in circumstances that have never been satisfactorily explained.
Sean Lang is a senior lecturer in history at Anglia Ruskin University, specialising in the history of the British Empire. He is also a professional playwright and a regular broadcaster on radio and television. You can follow him on Twitter @sf_lang
This article was first published on HistoryExtra in August 2016