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The 12 Most Influential Royal Slayings In World History

Updated October 20, 2020 17.5k views12 items

History is chock-full of bloody moments. Of those bloody moments, assassinations are some of the most grimly fascinating, since they are usually the result of complicated plots, schemes, and conspiracies. Often, these events are historically important, as well, since assassinations that changed the world brought about chaos, fear, and change - sometimes on a global scale. Executions have also played a significant role in altering the course of history.

Royals have been the victims of more than a few bloody ends. True: part of ruling is dying. After all, death is part of the royal life cycle. But many royals throughout history were ushered into death a little faster and less naturally than others. Since royals are living and breathing symbols of power and authority, one of the most significant - and cold-blooded - ways to challenge that power and authority is to straight-up kill them. Royal assassinations are always political; to assume power, it's sometimes necessary to get one's hands dirty and murder a royal.

Since royals hold positions of massive importance locally and globally, their slayings are often political bombshells that have a multitude of repercussions. Some changed the course of history ushered in periods of war, new regimes, and resistance movements. Others had no effect but to keep vulnerable societies on edge. Either way, they're as fascinating to discover as they are historically significant.

  • Photo: Achille Beltrame / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Perhaps the most consequential royal assassination in modern history was the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By 1914, the Empire was a fraying quilt of various ethnic and national groups stitched together. Bosnia - with the city of Sarajevo - had been annexed by the Empire in 1908, much to the fury of neighboring Serbia. So, when Franz Ferdinand visited Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, the air was rife with tension.

    While traveling in an open-air motorcar with his wife Sophie, the Archduke's car was approached by a Slav nationalist who pulled out a pistol and shot the royal couple to death. The murder of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie at the hands of 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip was the spark that ignited World War I. In retaliation for the death of its heir, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. This declaration of war ultimately pulled Germany, Russia, France, and Great Britain into war as well, thanks to their complicated networks of alliances. And the rest, as they say, is history.

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  • Photo: Nikolay Lavrov / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Alexander II of Russia was known as a reformer. In 1861 - the same year America fell into civil war over the question of slavery - Alexander emancipated the serfs, Russia's medieval form of unfree labor. He also worked to reform the Russian judicial system.  

    But the reforms of "Alexander the Liberator" weren't enough for a divided Russia. He could also be repressive and suspicious of political movements. On March 13, 1881, the 62-year-old Emperor was traveling in his carriage in St. Petersburg when anarchists threw bombs at him. Alexander died an hour later.

    Alexander II's successors learned a lesson from the assassination: be firm, be conservative, and don't trust the people. This lesson would shape the final decades of the Romanov imperial dynasty, ultimately alienating the Russian people and leading to revolution.

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  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Before the guillotine infamously lopped off the heads of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette during the French Revolution, the most famous act of political regicide in Europe was the execution of King Charles I during the English Civil Wars. 

    Throughout the course of his nearly 24-year reign, Charles routinely butted heads with an increasingly restless and powerful Parliament. Tensions broke out into open rebellion; King and Cavalier fought against Parliamentarian and Roundhead throughout the 1640s. 

    After Parliament's victories on the battlefield, it became clear that Charles was not going to be good at sharing power. So, the English Parliament went out of its way to legally and politically justify killing a King. And they were successful in their endeavor - Charles was beheaded on January 30, 1649. 

    The democratic repercussions of Charles's murder cannot be exaggerated: it was a significant step in a representational Parliament checking the power of a European monarch. 

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  • Photo: From Richard Carnac Temple's "The Thirty-Seven Nats" / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    One of the most significant rulers in Southeast Asian history is Tabinshwehti, King of Burma during the 16th century. Though he orchestrated the expansion of the Burmese kingdom and founded the Toungoo Empire, he also loved wine. A lot. He soon became an alcoholic, and rivals sensed an opportunity. In their opinion, Tabinshwehti was not so great, after all, and was a weak man. So in 1550, the 34-year-old warrior king was slain in his sleep.

    Historian Victor Lieberman characterized Tabinshwehti's death as "one of the great turning points of mainland history," since it resulted in increased warfare and ethnic tensions in Southeast Asia.