Nothing quite captures the public imagination like the murder of a royal. Whether beheaded in front of a baying crowd or stabbed in the back by political allies, the motivations and machinations of royal killings have long been the source of the most pivotal and world-changing events in history.
From the murder of Julius Caesar in 44 BC to the execution of the Romanovs in 1918, royal killings have ushered in political turmoil, scandal and even war for millennia. Indeed, regicide – the act of killing a sovereign – has existed for just about as long as kings, queens and royal families have.
Here’s our selection of 10 of the most shocking royal murders in history.
Julius Caesar (44 BC)
Though not officially a king, Julius Caesar was the closest thing to royalty in Rome in the first century BC. A brilliant military tactician and politician, his crusade for absolute power meant that many Roman elites became resentful of him, particularly when he became Dictator of Rome.
On 15 March 44 BC, the infamous ‘ides of March’ – a group of senators led by Gaius Cassius Longinus, Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus and Marcus Junius Brutus – stabbed Caesar 23 times in the Senate, ending both his reign and life. Caesar was martyred, and his assassination incited a number of civil wars which eventually led to his adopted son Octavian, known as Caesar Augustus, becoming Rome’s first Emperor.
Blanche II of Navarre (1464)
Born in 1424, Blanche II of Navarre was the heir to the throne of Navarre, a small kingdom between modern France and Spain. To her father and sister’s chagrin, Blanche became Queen of Navarre in 1464. After an unconsummated marriage that ended in divorce, Blanche was practically imprisoned by her father and sister.
In 1464, she died, having probably been poisoned by her relatives. Blanche’s death allowed her sister Eleanor to become Queen of Navarre, which in turn granted her father more power and influence over the kingdom.
The Princes in the Tower (c. 1483)
Born during the intense turmoil of the Wars of the Roses, the sons of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville were thrown into further political uncertainty upon the death of their father. Edward IV’s death in 1483 led to his brother the Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III) becoming Lord Protector of his son and heir, 12-year-old Edward V.
The same year, the Duke immediately placed his nephews in the Tower of London, purportedly for their protection. The two were never seen again. Speculation quickly abounded that they had been murdered, with playwrights such as Shakespeare later immortalising Richard III as a murderous villain. In 1674, a group of workmen discovered the skeletons of two boys of around the same age in a wooden trunk beneath the staircase in the White Tower.
As the King of Burma during the 16th century, Tabinshwehti orchestrated the expansion of the Burmese kingdom and founded the Toungoo Empire. However, he was overly fond of wine, which led to his rivals perceiving him as weak and sensing an opportunity. On the morning of 30 April 1550, the king’s 34th birthday, two swordsmen entered the royal tent and beheaded the king.
After his death, the empire Tabinshwehti had built up over 15 years fell apart. Each major governor declared himself independent, with the result being warfare and increased ethnic tensions. Tabinshwehti’s death has been described as ‘one of the great turning points of mainland history’.
Mary Queen of Scots (1587)
As the great-granddaughter of King Henry VII, Mary Queen of Scots had a strong claim to the English throne. Queen Elizabeth I of England initially welcomed Mary but was soon forced to put her friend under house arrest after Mary became the focus of various English Catholic and Spanish plots to overthrow Elizabeth. In 1586, after 19 years of imprisonment, a major plot to murder Elizabeth was reported and Mary was brought to trial. She was convicted for complicity and sentenced to death.
On 8 February 1587, Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle for treason. Her son King James VI of Scotland accepted his mother’s execution and later became King of England, Scotland and Ireland.
Charles I (1649)
One of the most famous acts of political regicide in Europe was the execution of King Charles I during the English Civil Wars. Throughout the course of his 24-year reign, Charles frequently argued with Parliament. This escalated into open rebellion, with the King and Cavaliers battling Parliamentarian and Roundhead forces throughout the 1640s.
After Parliamentary forces scored a number of battlefield victories, the English Parliament sought a way to justify killing a king. The House of Commons of the Rump Parliament passed a bill setting up a High Court of Justice to try Charles I for high treason “in the name of the people of England”.
On 30 January 1649, Charles was beheaded. His execution represented a significant step in a representational Parliament monitoring the power of the monarch from then on.
Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette (1793)
An indecisive and immature king, Louis XVI contributed to rising tensions in France by taking out international loans (including to fund the American Revolution), which spiralled the country into further debt and set the French Revolution in motion. By the mid-1780s the country was near bankruptcy which led the king to support radical and unpopular fiscal reforms.
In the meantime, Louis and his wife Queen Marie Antoinette were perceived as living a lavish and expensive lifestyle and posing no solutions to France’s mounting problems. In August 1792, the monarchy was overthrown, and in 1793, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were executed by guillotine for treason in front of a baying crowd.
Empress Elisabeth of Austria (1898)
Empress Elisabeth of Austria was famous for her beauty and desire to stay out of the spotlight. Disliking pomp and circumstance, upon a stay in Geneva, Switzerland, she travelled under a pseudonym. However, word of her visit quickly travelled after someone from their hotel revealed her true identity.
On 10 September 1898, Elisabeth took a walk without an entourage to catch a steamship for Montreux. It was there that 25-year-old Italian anarchist Luigi Lucheni approached Elisabeth and her lady-in-waiting and stabbed Elisabeth with a 4-inch-long needle file. Though Elisabeth’s tight corset stopped some of the bleeding, she quickly died. Seemingly a blameless target – Elisabeth was charitable and well-liked – unrest, shock and mourning swept Vienna and reprisals were threatened against Italy.
Archduke Franz Ferdinand Of Austria (1914)
Probably the most impactful royal assassination in history was the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By 1914, the Empire was a melting pot of various ethnic and national groups mixed together. To the fury of neighbouring Serbia, Bosnia had been annexed by the Empire in 1908. Tensions were therefore high when Franz Ferdinand visited the Bosnian city of Sarajevo on 28 June 1914.
Travelling in an open-air motorcar with his wife Sophie, the Archduke was approached by 19-year-old Slav nationalist Gavrilo Princip who shot and killed the couple. Their murders ignited World War One: Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, which pulled Germany, Russia, France and Britain into the conflict due to their network of alliances. The rest is history.
The Romanovs (1918)
Widespread inflation and food shortages as well as military failures during World War One contributed to the factors which incited the Russian Revolution of 1917-1923. The Romanov family of five children and two parents, headed by Tsar Nicholas II, were removed from power and banished to Yekaterinburg in Russia.
However, fearing that the White Army would attempt to restore the monarchy, the Bolsheviks decided that the family should be killed. In the early hours of 17 July 1918, the Romanov family were taken to a basement in the house and shot. The parents died quickly, while the children, owing to having sewed jewels into their clothes which protected them from the bullets, were bayonetted.
As one of the bloodiest political acts of the 20th century, the Romanov murders heralded the end of imperial Russia and the beginning of the Soviet regime.