Weird History
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Dumb Decisions By Historical Royals That Immediately Backfired

December 4, 2020 1.9k votes 265 voters 5.1k views12 items

List RulesVote up the most regrettable choices by historic rulers.

Much of history has been led by absolute monarchies, and they've taught humanity a painful but important lesson about life: Just because someone is the king or queen, it doesn't mean they're actually qualified to run a country. They may not even be qualified to run a sandwich shop, quite frankly. If there's one takeaway from Game of Thrones, it's that primogeniture is a terrible way to choose a leader. 

History is full of examples of the wrong people being put in power. Even an otherwise effective ruler isn't immune to the kind of boneheaded decisions that land you on an internet list centuries later. Watching royals completely screw up is one of life's great joys (thank you, The Crown), and in that spirit, here are some bad decisions by historical royalty that immediately backfired. 

  • Napoleon Invaded Russia And Endured A Catastrophic Defeat
    Photo: Antoine-Jean Gros / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    According to a popular expression in military history, a commander should never invade Russia in winter. Of all the commanders who might break this rule, Napoleon Bonaparte seems the most unlikely. By 1812, the emperor of France had won a string of military victories that subdued most of continental Europe, except for Russia. Attempting to weaken his British enemy, Napoleon tried to block all trade to the country with an embargo he called the Continental System. When Tsar Alexander I refused to obey the embargo, it brought France and Russia to war. 

    Napoleon invaded Russia on June 24 with an army of up to 650,000 soldiers. Such a late starting date meant that the Grande Armee wouldn't reach the capital of Moscow until the notoriously harsh Russian winter had set in. But Napoleon's objective was to crush the Russian army quickly and force Alexander to surrender. 

    Instead, the Russian army retreated. The French arrived in cities like Vilna and Smolensk to find them mostly deserted. As the Russians retreated, they torched the countryside and their crops, aiming to choke off Napoleon's forces. As autumn dragged into winter, the French marched further and further into Russia with dwindling supplies and without a decisive victory. 

    Napoleon arrived at the outskirts of Moscow in September, but had to turn back a month later. After a long and bloody retreat, Napoleon's failed Russian invasion cost around 400,000 soldiers' lives. 

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  • Robert II Invaded England During A Black Plague Epidemic And Brought It Back To Scotland
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
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    Robert II Invaded England During A Black Plague Epidemic And Brought It Back To Scotland

    Technically, Robert II wasn't king yet when he made this blunder in 1350. At the time, he was ruling Scotland as regent while his uncle, King David II, was imprisoned in the Tower of London.

    The bubonic plague arrived in England in 1348, and by 1349, it was ravaging the population. At this time the Scots and English were regularly at odds with each other. The Scots, led by Robert II, believed the plague to be divine retribution on the English, and tried to take advantage of their enemy's weakened position. The Scottish army invaded, but as the soldiers gathered at the forest of Selkirk, the plague entered their ranks, as well.

    Soon, a reported 5,000 soldiers were deceased. The army retreated and brought the plague back home with them. It's estimated that the Scottish outbreak of 1350 wiped out between one-fifth and one-quarter of the population. 

    Robert II became king of Scotland afterward, but this blunder far eclipses any during his kingship, both in terms of significance and boneheadedness. 

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  • Muhammad II Of Khwarazm Provoked Genghis Khan - And Lost His Kingdom 
    Photo: Sayf al-Vâhidî / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
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    Muhammad II Of Khwarazm Provoked Genghis Khan - And Lost His Kingdom 

    In the 13th century, Ala ad-Din Muhammad II ruled a sizable empire that stretched from Turkey to India. But the Khwarazmian dynasty didn't last long, because Shah Muhammad II also made the fateful mistake of insulting Genghis Khan. 

    By the time the Mongols arrived on Muhammad II's border, they had conquered two-thirds of China and established themselves as the most fearsome military power in the region, if not the world. The Mongols usually tried to rule their conquered territories peacefully, but only as long as their subjects complied with their laws. If those subjects resisted, the Mongols were known to wipe out entire cities. 

    Genghis Khan initially wanted to establish trade with the Khwarazmians, but Muhammad II's uncle, the territorial governor Inalchuk, instead seized the Mongolian caravan and had them executed. The Khan then sent a three-man delegation of two Mongols and a Muslim to demand that Inalchuk be punished. Instead, the shah had the Muslim executed and had the Mongols' beards shaved off - considered the ultimate humiliation. 

    The Mongols responded by invading the empire and wholesale massacring entire populations. The sack of the city of Urgench still ranks among the bloodiest events in human history. The shah lived the rest of his life in exile on an island in the Caspian Sea. As for Inalchuk, he was eventually captured, and the Khan had molten silver poured into his eyes, according to legend. 

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  • If you're a leader in any era, a huge, wasteful spending project is going to make you look bad. It's even worse if your "project" amounts to "a pleasure castle that only you can use." But Nero's "Golden Palace" was too much even by Roman emperor standards.  

    Nero always considered himself an artist with fantastic taste, and having nearly unlimited power allowed him to indulge his flights of fancy. In 64 AD, a massive fire spread through Rome, destroying most of the city. Later historians would write that instead of overseeing the response to the blaze, Nero stood on the roof of his palace and fiddled - though, at this point in history, the fiddle didn't actually exist. After the fire was eventually put out, rumors started that Nero had himself started the fire, all because of what happened next. 

    Rather than devote resources to rebuilding the city, Nero took the opportunity to construct a new palace called the Domus Aurea, or "Golden Palace." This was part of Nero's plan to transform Rome into a Greek-style city like Alexandria, which he called his "Neropolis." The Domus Aurea included an enormous golden dome and a 100-foot-tall column with a statue of Nero on top. It had around 300 rooms, all of which were apparently intended for partying only. Archaeologists have found no bedrooms, kitchens, or latrines in the entire complex. 

    The project was so expensive that Nero had to devalue Roman currency, which led to unrest. Eventually, the Senate and Praetorian Guard turned against him and declared him an enemy of the people. Rather than face execution, Nero took his own life. According to Suetonius, his last words were, “What an artist dies in me!”

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