From the lavish riches to endless power, we have an idea of how it might be to live like a king. But, do we know what it’s like to die like a monarch? In the case of these 20 British kings who died gruesome, shocking deaths, it’s safe to say that we’re better off not knowing.
20. Henry VI
Henry VI ascended to the English throne twice: once in 1429 as an eight-year-old, and again in 1470 after a nine-year exile from his kingdom. The second time he returned to power, though, would end even more tragically than political banishment. His rival, Edward, Duke of York, had to make a brutal decision in order to take the reins of the country.
In 1471 Edward’s forces had a big win over Henry VI’s at Tewkesbury, after which the king ended up in the Tower of London. It seems he died on May 21; some say it was all down to his sadness at being locked away and stripped of his power. But excavators have found evidence that he died much more violently. Namely, they found blood-soaked hair near Henry VI’s damaged skull, all signs of a much more traumatic end to his royal life.
19. Edmund I
Edmund I had some pretty flattering nicknames, including “Edmund the Just” and “Edmund the Magnificent.” Indeed, he did his best to promote peace along the country’s borders, especially as the first king to have ascended to the throne of an England united. But things went south for him seven years into his reign and what happened left the entire kingdom shocked.
Edmund I died on May 26, 946, in a stabbing, which is a gruesome enough end on its own. Initially, reports stated that a thief named Leofa knifed the king after he had spotted the banished criminal in the crowd at a Gloucestershire gathering. Nowadays, though, historians think that Edmund I’s death was actually a politically charged assassination.
18. Alexander III
Alexander III reigned over Scotland from the mid-to-late 13th century, managing to build a powerful royal family and purge the country’s Western Isles of Norse influence. And yet, the most enduring story of his time in power was how it ended. The tragic story began in March 1286, when Alexander III decided to travel from his base at Edinburgh Castle to Kinghorn, where he could reunite with his queen, Yolande de Dreux.
To get there, Alexander III chose to follow a treacherous route, and, at a certain point, his guides suggested he turn back instead of making the crossing. He went anyway, which ended up being a fatal decision. It’s believed his horse lost its footing along a cliff’s edge, launching the monarch down a rock-covered embankment; his body – complete with a broken neck – was discovered the next day.
17. Charles I
Charles I ascended to the English throne fairly, but Parliament and the people didn’t like his style of rule. He tried to limit the power of the country’s legislative branch, which earned him a reputation as a tyrant; it was a characterization he showed no interest in trying to shake off. After the English Civil War, he fled the country, only to be returned by the Scottish.
Parliament decided not to execute its king – instead, its members envisioned Charles I as a figurehead of the government they’d run. Of course, he wouldn’t stand for this, partnering with the Scottish and promising them Presbyterianism throughout England should they help restore him to the throne. This alliance made Parliament realize that the king would never back down, so he was tried for treason. An executioner ended his life with a single, clean swipe that took off his head in 1649.
16. William Rufus
Things seemed to be going well for William Rufus, who took over from William the Conqueror as the King of England. At the turn of the 12th century, he had assumed control of Normandy, and his brother, Robert, used the Crusades as a chance to expand their territory. But it all came crashing down when the monarch went on an ill-fated hunting trip in the New Forest in the year 1100.
While on the hunt, William Rufus’ companion, a man named Walter Tirel, misfired at a stag. His arrow went straight through the monarch’s chest. Rufus snapped the shaft of the arrow just before he fell to the ground and died. Some have wondered whether Tirel, who was known to have been a great shot, had actually hit his intended target, but there’s no solid proof that the slain king’s companion had orders to kill him that day.
People didn’t particularly like King John. As chronicler Matthew Paris put it, “Foul as it is, Hell itself is made fouler by the presence of John.” Knowing the royal’s behavior, that take is pretty fair. John had a tendency to put his prisoners through sadistic, tragic torture: even nobles, women and children he had captured were unexempt.
Needless to say, no one was sad when King John died – and he met an end that was fitting for someone of his character. In October 1216 the loathed monarch died either on or next to a toilet at Newark Castle. The cause of death was likely dysentery, a gut parasite he may have picked up from eating rotten peaches. Some theorized that he had been poisoned, though there’s no solid proof of that.
14. Henry I
Henry I took the throne after his brother, William Rufus, was either accidentally killed or murdered on a hunting trip. He proved to be a great leader on and off the battlefield, reforming the government and pushing England ahead of their rivals in Normandy. But, more than three decades after his predecessor died tragically, Henry I, too, succumbed to an unexpected fate.
As it turned out, Henry I had a penchant for eating lamprey, a jawless, rather creepy-looking fish. His doctor advised against the king’s favorite protein while he felt unwell in 1135, but the monarch didn’t listen. Instead, he gorged on the slimy seafood – and he got sick and died shortly thereafter.
13. James II
After his father, James I, died in 1437, six-year-old James II became the King of Scotland. By the time he was old enough to rule, the monarch had developed into a fearless, aggressive leader. He even participated in the murder of the Earl of Douglas, whose brain was axed out of his skull.
James II’s dark side may have pushed him into one of his major hobbies: weapons. He had a fascination with the artillery of his era, including cannons. Firing one of those during the Wars of Scottish Independence ended up leading to his 1460 demise. The gun backfired, instantly smashing his femur and creating a gaping injury that eventually killed him.
12. William the Conqueror
William the Conqueror ascended to the throne after rising through the ranks of French nobility and beating then-English king Harold II at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Like his predecessor, whose demise features elsewhere in this article, the one-time Duke of Normandy would meet a grisly end, albeit more than 20 years into his reign.
During 1087’s Battle of Mantes, William the Conqueror smashed into his horse saddle’s pommel, which crushed his intestines. The strange injury that killed him made for a gruesome funeral, too, when he was shoved into a too-small sarcophagus. Eventually, his body burst out – and his intestines spilled from his stomach – to make for a graphic, smelly send-off.
11. Harold II
Harold II held the English throne for a mere nine months before Norman invaders defeated him in 1066, killing him in the process. Before his demise, though, Harold II stood as the last Anglo-Saxon king of the country. He ruled with strength and had proved to be formidable on the battlefield until he died there.
During 1066’s Battle of Hastings, an arrow pierced Harold II’s eye. History has long remembered this as what killed him, but the king faced much more trauma than that. Norman invaders proceeded to slice the monarch’s limbs and head from his torso, which left his remains unrecognizable.
10. James III
James III was the son of James II and the grandson of James I, both of whom also feature on this list. One of no fewer than five consecutive Scottish kings with the same name, James III proved an unpopular leader during his reign, which lasted from 1460 until his death in 1488.
In fact, James III was so disliked that his own son and heir, James IV, joined the rebellion against him. Eventually, they took down the reigning monarch at the Battle of Sauchieburn, and he died shortly thereafter. Supposedly, a rebel slipped into a priest costume before murdering the Scottish king. No matter how it happened, James IV always felt guilt for his involvement in his father’s demise.
9. George II
King George II led England and had sound political ideas: the only problem was, he didn’t have much confidence in himself. While on the throne, he relied on others to help him make decisions. At home, though, he had no problem relying on his own brain. He followed a rigid schedule, which included drinking chocolate first thing in the morning every day until his tragic death.
On October 25, 1760 George II awoke for a breakfast of hot chocolate at 6:00 a.m., then took a seat on his convenience (toilet). Shortly thereafter, the king’s valet heard a crashing noise and went into the bathroom to find the monarch dead. This had nothing to do with his sweet breakfast, although it couldn’t have been a boon to his health. The king had actually suffered an aortic dissection, meaning the main artery had ripped away from his heart, cutting off all blood circulation and killing him.
8. Richard I
Richard I, also known as Richard the Lionheart, had a “knightly manner,” according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. That, combined with his skills on the battlefield during the Third Crusade, made him a popular leader during his decade-long reign. Ironically, though, he died doing exactly what he loved.
In 1199 Richard’s forces were laying siege to Château de Chalus-Chabrol and he took some time to survey the area. As he did, someone loosed an arrow into his shoulder. Such an injury might not have proved fatal, except that the king’s wound turned gangrenous; he could sense the end was near. So, he requested to meet the person who fired the fatal shot: it had been a child who blamed the king was responsible for his father and brothers’ deaths.
7. Richard III
Historians long knew that Richard III died in battle. The king, who reigned over England for a mere two years, lost his life in 1485’s Battle of Bosworth Field. The conflict marked the end of a 30-year civil war between two powerful English houses, York and Lancaster. Both wanted control of the throne and both fought under banners featuring a rose.
The discovery of Richard III’s remains in 2012 painted a much clearer picture of how he had actually perished in battle. He died after a forceful blow to the skull from a halberd, a kind of battle axe. But his remains featured a slew of other horrific injuries, some of which came after he had already passed. Perhaps most notably, he had a dagger or sword driven straight through his right buttock, which damaged his pelvis, too.
6. James I
Clearly, rulers in Scotland called James didn’t have a great deal of luck. This one survived a kidnapping by pirates when he was 12 years old. He returned to Scotland in 1424 and received his rightful crown, but it wouldn’t stay on his head for long. Instead, he met an horrific demise at a monastery in Perth.
In 1437 conspirators working against James I admitted a gang of 30 people into the Perth monastery where he was staying. The king snuck down into a sewer, which would have been an effective escape route had he not ordered the other end sealed just days prior. So, once the angry mob located the royal, it was over for him. They cornered and stabbed him multiple times, and he perished in a puddle of his own blood.
5. King George V
King George V’s health took a serious decline after he fell off of his horse in 1915. First, the tumble caused him breathing issues, but he exacerbated the problem by smoking heavily. A decade later, he had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which led on to life-threatening issues with inflammation. By 1936, he knew the end was near – and his family did, too.
But King George V didn’t technically die of lung disease. Instead, his royal physician administered a lethal dose of morphine and cocaine to hasten his death – the monarch wanted the news in the morning papers, rather than the evening editions. Still, euthanasia is not permitted in English law, so technically this amounted to murder. Moreover, the king’s son, soon to become Edward VIII, did not get along with his father, and he okayed his father’s overdose.
4. Edward the Martyr
In the 10th century, English king Edgar the Peaceable ushered the Anglo-Saxon country through its golden age. When he died, though, his two sons – brought into the world by two different mothers – vied for the throne. Edward the Martyr was the oldest and became king, while his brother Ethelred was second in line.
Edward went to visit Ethelred and his mother, Elfryda, at Corfe Castle in March 978. Rumor has it that immediately after a hunt, the then-teenaged Edward accepted a glass of wine from Elfryda, his stepmother. Straight after, someone stabbed him in the back. He then fell off of his horse but remained latched into his stirrups, meaning his steed dragged his body until it could be recovered. With his death, Ethelred became king; if the story’s true, then Edward’s stepmother may quite possibly have planned her son’s ascension to the throne.
3. William III
William III – also known as William of Orange – hailed from the Netherlands, a fact never forgotten by his high-ranking English constituents. Meanwhile, the lower classes loved their king, who reigned from 1689 until 1702. He did bring a renewed sense of stability to Great Britain, one that has become a hallmark of the nation ever since.
These contributions make William III’s death all the more tragic. The king had always suffered from less-than-stellar health, but few could have predicted a molehill would spark his demise; the ruler fell from his horse after the animal tripped over the mound. He hit the ground, cracked his collarbone and survived – at least at first. From wound-related complications the king developed pneumonia, which is what ultimately killed him.
2. Edward II
Edward II, who ascended to the English throne in 1307, did not make a good impression on his in-laws. He married Isabella, the daughter of King Philip IV of France, a year after he became king. But she wielded little power in court compared to the king’s friend, Piers Gaveston. Some people believed that the two men had a secret romantic relationship.
Regardless of the nature of his relationship with Gaveston, things went south for Edward II. Eventually, Isabella turned on him, invading England with the French and eventually forcing the king to hand over his crown. But it didn’t end there: some say that the disgraced former monarch was tortured to death in 1327 with hot pokers shoved into his backside, although some historians brush this off as a smear campaign regarding the king’s sexuality.
1. Edmund Ironside
Edmund Ironside earned his name after he led the resistance against a Danish invasion, but his reginald name was Edmund II. He sat on the throne for a short time: from April 23 until November 30, 1016. He met a terrible fate at the end, but not on the battlefield, as his story might suggest.
Edmund Ironside’s murder was grisly for both him and the person responsible for his slaying. The killer hid inside of the monarch’s toilet – yes, among the royal waste piled inside – awaiting the moment to strike. Then, when Edmund took a seat overhead, the assailant shoved a spear or dagger straight through him, killing him while on the porcelain throne.