Last Rulers Of Historical Kingdoms And Empires
Photo: Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

Last Rulers Of Historical Kingdoms And Empires

Identifying the last rulers of historical kingdoms and empires can be messy. Attaching names and dates to these events isn't always easy, especially as governments transition from one form to the next - often in the midst of chaos and uncertainty.

Naming the last ruler in France is full of complexities, as is getting a full understanding of what happened to the last ruler of the Aztec empire or the final monarch of Hawaii. Here are the "whos" and "whens" of some of the biggest, most powerful, and best-known kingdoms and empires in history. 

  • Last French Monarch: Napoleon III
    Photo: Carl Frederik Kiörboe / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Arguably, the last king of France was Louis XVI, the monarch who ruled when the French Revolution broke out during the late 18th century. After his unsuccessful attempts to flee from revolutionaries, Louis XVI (1754-1792) was put on trial for treason in 1792. The monarchy was abolished and, the following year, both the king and his wife, Marie Antoinette, were executed by guillotine

    During the first stage of the French Revolution, France functioned as a constitutional monarchy, although Louis XVI was little more than a figurehead. With the dissolution of the monarchy, the country transitioned into a republic, albeit one that became increasingly radicalized until 1794. During what is known as the Reign of Terror, controlling factions in France adopted a new calendar, banned Christianity, and put thousands of suspected enemies to death. Headed by Maximilien Robespierre, the Committee of Public Safety oversaw as many as 17,000 executions - with Robespierre himself falling to the guillotine in July 1794.

    From 1795 to 1799, the Directory - five individuals appointed by the French parliament - made executive decisions for France. As the country fought in numerous international conflicts, saw continued political misconduct, and suffered economic crises, the door opened for Napoleon Bonaparte to stage a coup and seize control of the government.

    The prominent general took dictatorial control of France, first becoming First Consul, then Consul for Life (1802), and emperor (1804). He fought in numerous territorial conflicts, ultimately prompting an alliance of European powers to unite and unseat him. In 1814, Bonaparte was forced to abdicate and exiled to the small island of Elba in the Mediterranean.

    Bonaparte managed to escape from exile and returned to Paris in 1815. For 100 days, he attempted to reassert his dominance, but failed. After his defeat at Waterloo and another exile (this time to St. Helena in the South Atlantic), the monarchy in France was reestablished, with Louis XVIII placed on the throne in July 1815. 

    The monarchy in France continued, plagued by continued political and economic strife. In 1852, Napoleon Bonaparte's nephew, Charles-Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, became Emperor Napoleon III after serving as president of the Second Republic from 1848. He, too, became a dictator, and after being captured during the Franco-Prussian conflict, was deposed. France then established the Third Republic. 

  • Last Ottoman Sultan: Mehmed VI

    The Ottoman Empire was established by Osman Bey during the final years of the 13th century. With Turkish roots that trace back centuries further, Osman consolidated power throughout the eastern Mediterranean, into Europe, and across North Africa. As the sultan (a word that reflects rule in Muslim areas where religious and political sovereignty are inextricably linked), Osman set the foundation for more than 600 years of Ottoman power. 

    During the late Middle Ages and through the early modern period, the Ottoman Empire ebbed and flowed in its territorial expanse, with great gains made in Yemen, Cyprus, and Ukraine through the late 17th century. One of the most important successes for the Ottomans was Mehmed II's conquest of Constantinople in 1453. This ended the Byzantine Empire and gave the Ottomans control of the important strategic location, which they renamed Istanbul.

    The decline of the Ottoman Empire was the result of internal instability brought on by revolutions and assassinations, foreign interference, and an inability to keep up with their rivals' technological advancements. By the early 20th century, the Ottoman Empire was considerably smaller and weaker than it had been at its apex, but its end was sealed during WWI. The Ottomans joined the side of the Central Powers, and with their defeat in 1918, saw most of their territory distributed to foreign powers. 

    Nominally, the Ottoman Empire continued, with Mehmed VI functioning as sultan after the demise of his brother, Mehmed V, in 1918. Mehmed VI was overthrown in 1922 when the sultanate was officially abolished. Turkey declared itself a republic under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.   

  • Last Holy Roman Emperor: Francis II
    Photo: Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    To many scholars and observers of history, Charlemagne's crowning by Pope Leo III in 800 AD marks the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire. Others emphasize the development of the role of Holy Roman Emperor during the 10th-century reign of Otto I, or even the 13th or 16th centuries with the adoption of the title "Holy Roman Empire." Regardless of when the Holy Roman Emperor came to be, Francis II was the last in a long line of leaders - with the official end to the office in 1806.

    Francis II became the Holy Roman Emperor in 1792, but was forced to abdicate after Napoleon Bonaparte wreaked havoc on Europe. Bonaparte's Confederation of the Rhine, set up in 1806, unified all German states (with the exception of Austria and Prussia), shifting Francis's place in European politics. Bonaparte gave Francis an ultimatum to dissolve the Holy Roman Empire in August 1806, which he did.

    Francis didn't disappear from European events, however. His daughter, Marie-Louise, married Napoleon Bonaparte in 1810 and joined in the military action against the self-proclaimed emperor of the French in 1813. Still the ruler of Austria, he was influential in the negotiations about what to do with Bonaparte's former empire at the Congress of Vienna from 1814-1815. 

  • Last Western Roman Emperor: Romulus Augustulus
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    When Diocletian (r. 284-305 AD) took control of the Roman Empire, he split it into two parts. With the establishment of the tetrarchy, four officials ruled the empire, two in the West and two in the East. In each area, there was an Augustus (senior emperor) and a Caesar (junior emperor). Diocletian was the first Augustus in the East, while Maximian held the title in the West.

    As the struggle for power over the Roman Empire continued, the East increasingly became the political, cultural, and economic powerhouse. Constantine (r. 306-337 AD) declared Byzantium the capital of the Roman Empire, while Rome was plagued by strikes from so-called barbarian tribes. Internal conflict and external pressure perpetuated a lack of stability, with the tetrarchy going in and out of use through the fourth century. By the start of the fifth century, Rome was essentially a symbolic capital, with the Western Roman emperors situated in Milan before shifting to Ravenna in 402 AD

    When Romulus Augustulus took control of the Western Roman Empire in 475 AD, he was just 15 years old. His father, Orestes, was more likely the individual in charge, but neither was able to resist the incursion of Flavius Odoacer into Italy. Odoacer, a former Roman mercenary, seized Ravenna in 476 AD, sealing the fate of the Western Roman Empire. Odoacer became king of Rome, with the emperor in the East, Zeno (r. 476-491 AD), passively accepting the declaration. The imperial title in the West, however, was no more. 

  • Last German Kaiser: Wilhelm II
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Kaiser Wilhelm II ruled Germany from 1888 to 1918, the son of Kaiser Frederick III and Victoria (the daughter of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom). When he took office at the age of 29, he tasked himself with strengthening the German military, dismissed Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, and pushed an aggressive expansionist agenda. Wilhelm II's policies and positions were, according to a German diplomat, "the most contradictory... at high and all-highest level," something one foreign minister also noted: "Today one thing and tomorrow the next and after a few days something completely different."

    After the slaying of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, Wilhelm II reportedly hoped diplomacy and familial ties would be enough to prevent war. Despite this, he acquiesced to pressure from the military and declared war on Russia and France in August 2014. During WWI, Wilhelm II nominally held command of the German military, with generals like Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff actually wielding power. Wilhelm II's ineffectiveness and the resulting discontent throughout Germany led to calls for him to abdicate in 1918. He agreed to do so in November and, the following day, left Germany for the Netherlands. He spent the rest of his life there as a political refugee.

    Decades after his passing in 1941, Wilhelm II was brought up on charges of war crimes at a mock trial, where historians and lawyers assessed accusations made against him in the Treaty of Versailles of 1919. In the end, the body found him guilty of sending German troops into Belgium, a neutral country. 

  • Last King Of Italy: Umberto II
    Photo: Tanner (Capt), War Office / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Last King Of Italy: Umberto II

    As the only son of King Victor Emmanuel III (r. 1900-1946), Umberto II was king of Italy for just over a month in 1946. Born in 1904, he watched as his father ruled through two world wars, appointed and then dismissed Benito Mussolini (1883-1945), and ultimately abdicated as a way to try to revitalize the strength of the monarchy.

    When Umberto II took the throne, he was faced with an existing referendum in Italy to abolish the monarchy his father hoped to save. Umberto II was well-versed in Italian politics and, as the vote about whether or not to transition to a republic approached, had the support of centrist factions in the country.

    The referendum passed by a narrow margin in June 1946. When the Republic of Italy was proclaimed, Umberto II's 34-day kingship officially came to an end, as did the Kingdom of Italy, which had been established in 1861. Rather than contest the results, Umberto II left Italy for Portugal, reportedly never returning to his homeland.