Monarchists love heavy-handed displays of grandeur and power, and following the tales of their favorite royals is a sport they hold dear. The gilded lives of kings and queens provide tons of drama and wonderful costumes. And, in what can be seen as a rather dehumanizing streak, their deaths have traditionally been fodder for historians and enthusiasts of the absurd – or downright gruesome.
The following are some of the oddest – and in some cases truly awful – deaths of history’s most notable royal figures.
1. Martin I of Aragon
King Martin of Aragon is also commonly referred to as the Count of Barcelona, and his strange death in 1410 is a story for the ages. His career as a monarch is rather respectable, albeit mundane. He is remembered primarily for being one of the few documented cases of death by laughter.
Just how did this happen? Well, this apparent real-life Monty Python sketch was instigated by a royal banquet, wherein the king ate perhaps a bit too much – a whole goose, as a matter of fact.
As he retired to his bedchambers, he called for his favorite court jester, Borra, to come and cheer him up. So, what was the joke so hilarious that it proved to be the king’s undoing? Apparently Borra showed up rather late, and the impatient royal asked him what he was up to. According to popular conjecture, Borra apparently replied:
“In the next vineyard, where I saw a young deer hanging by his tail from a tree,
as if someone had so punished him for stealing figs.”
This apparently threw the king into a fit, laughing and laughing – but the goose he had just eaten reared its ugly head, and the wheezing Martin fell upon himself in a sudden heart attack.
Surely, severe indigestion, uncontrollable laughter, and greasy goose are a horrid combination. What is less certain is how exactly this off-the-cuff remark turned into a joke that literally had him dying of laughter – royals are truly an odd group.
2. Frederick, Prince of Wales
Frederick, who lived during the mid-1700s is remembered for being a kindly soul, but also one who rebelled against his father, King George III.
Despite the considerable trouble between them – which even included juicy bits of gossip such as Fred’s refusal to allow his father the traditional right of being present at his grandchild’s birth, going so far as to put his pregnant wife into a carriage at night in a rush to give birth elsewhere – the prince is remembered for another bizarre tale. Apparently, his death is one of the weirdest to ever befall a monarch.
As the popular story would have it, in 1751 the prince indulged in a game of cricket with his friends. In what appears to be an attempt to “spice” things up with the dreadfully dull game, they twisted it into their own macabre version by playing with elephant bones as bats, and slaves’ heads for balls. Unfortunately, one of the heads hit Frederick in, well, the head, and he died shortly thereafter.
However, a lesser known version of the tale indicates that the erstwhile prince died of a cold, which then spread to his chest, leading to a pulmonary embolism – a blood clot in the lungs. This, of course, is perhaps the more credible story, but where’s the ghastly fun in that?
3. William the Conqueror
William the Conqueror – colloquially known by a slightly less title, as “William the Bastard” – died in what seems to be rather normal circumstances, by falling off his horse. But the details of the fall, what happened afterwards is one of the most gruesome occurrences recorded in medieval history.
William was terribly gluttonous, and in 1087, while campaigning against – of all people – his own son, the horse we was riding reared suddenly. Since he was a rather large man, his weight was unevenly distributed, and the saddle pushed into William’s abdomen, puncturing his intestines. For six weeks, medical professionals were unable to perform the necessary surgery to save his intestines, due to his size. Eventually, he passed away.
However, the long journey entailed in carrying his corpse to his grave site was a laborious one, especially given the balmy weather. He was not beloved by his people, and most of those who served him did not even attend the funeral. The few who did attend, however, were in for a disgusting surprise when the bloated body could not fit into the coffin properly, and as the bishops pushed and pushed to ease the corpse in….well, William’s abdomen ruptured, causing one of two heretical stories:
- His ruptured intestines exploded onto the bishops in a bloody and horrifying surprise; the other being,
- The ruptured abdomen caved under all the pushing and caused a fart explosion so epic that it threw much of the already problematic affair into complete disarray.
It’s not always clear which version of his death is the correct one, but the fact that so many scholars thought of writing either story throughout the centuries means that one of them could very well be true.
And it also reflects the extent to which William the Conqueror was detested by his people, with history denying him a dignified death.
4. Herod the Great
In 4BC, Herod the Great was known for many of his accomplishments, but his death is a simultaneously sad and a stomach-churning one.
According to many historians, the king might already have been suffering from chronic kidney disease when an awful parasite called the guinea worm further ravaged his body. Imagining your body being consumed by worms is a terrifying thought, but compound that with the effects of kidney disease, gangrene, and scabies, and you’re in for an awful mix.
The pain is excruciating, and Herod’s last days were marked by intense itching, intestinal problems, breathlessness, constant convulsing, and – wait for it – worms in genitalia.
Poor King Herod; that’s a truly dastardly way to go.
5. Edward II of England
Edward II’s fate in 1327 is sadly a rather difficult one, in that he was killed with an hot iron poker driven through his bottom. At least, allegedly.
It is not entirely clear whether or not this truly happened. The method of murder was never stated officially and the men involved in it never spoke about it publicly. Fourteenth-century chroniclers then rushed in to fill the gap with their own ideas.
Some say merely that Edward II died at Berkeley without saying how, others that he died of natural causes, one that he was alive in the morning and dead in the evening. One account said that he died of illness, another that he died of sorrow and yet another that he was murdered ‘by a trick’. Suffocation, strangulation and ‘either a natural death or by the violence of others’ are also given.
However, a few chronicles give the infamous red-hot poker story, which – for anyone rather familiar with au courant punishments of the day – was the punishment commonly afforded to sodomy. In any case, the lurid tale is repeated often as though it were fact. But perhaps that is because the painful punishment captures the darker recesses of people’s imagination.
While some of these stories can and should be taken with a grain of salt, they do illuminate some of the more horrible realities of being in power. A royal’s memory is not terribly sacred, especially after the passing of a few centuries, and even more so if they were not beloved in the first place – such is the trouble with being a public figure. And death is a frightening thing, no matter who you are. Unless it’s a slightly comical way of departing.
In that case, tears of sorrow mingle freely with stifled giggles and gasps of horror.