It's no secret that the word "medieval" evokes negative images, but in the case of these Middle Ages monarchs, those connotations are well-deserved. From callous queens to cutthroat kings and savage saints, we're taking a look at the most brutal monarchs from medieval times who played by their own bloody rules.
So what caused such murderous monarchical madness? Some slaughtered thousands in pursuit of conversion to Christianity and expulsion of beliefs they disliked; others advertently nudged tensions between sects of Christianity along, resulting in a mob mentality that took the lives of tens of thousands. Other brutal monarchs, like a number of late medieval Italian royals, enjoyed torturing their enemies in new and creative ways, like forcing furriers to eat hares whole or creating a mummy museum, a sort of proto-Madame Tussauds, by pickling their rivals. Some kings didn’t bother disguising their ambitions, just adding to their burgeoning empires by taking city after city and killing opponents and new subjects wholesale.
Whatever their reasons for taking their lovers, friends, and enemies out, read through this list and vote up the most violent medieval monarchs.
Galeazzo Maria Sforza
- Royal Title: Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan
- Most Brutal Moment: A master torturer and true evil mastermind, Galeazzo Maria once chopped off a rival's hands and killed a poacher by making him swallow an entire hare.
This fifteenth-century duke of Milan came by his brutal personality honestly: The surname of his warlord-turned-noble family, Sforza, means "force" in Italian. One contemporary writer recorded how Galeazzo Maria, upon asking a priest how long he would reign in Milan and being told only eleven years, stuck the good father in jail with just a little bit of food. As the story goes, "the man survived on these things, even getting to eat his own excrement, for twelve days. Then he died." Galeazzo Maria was also accused of organizing gang rapes and of poisoning his own mother.
- Royal Title: Temujin, Great Khan of the Mongol Empire
- Most Brutal Moment: While carving out a massive empire that stretched across millions of square miles, Genghis Khan and his nomadic Mongolian soldiers killed an estimated 1.2 million people. That's right, million. In fact, one commentator reported that the Great Khan killed so many that their bones formed mountains and the dirt became oily with human fat.
Some of his bloodier moments include using young men as human shields and organizing mass rapes. The latter crime probably resulted in many children, making Genghis Khan a direct ancestor of 16 million people today.
Ferdinand I of Naples
- Royal Title: Ferdinand I, King of Naples
- Most Brutal Moment: Killing his rivals and building a "museum of mummies" with them in his palace.
Born the illegitimate son of a Spanish monarch, Ferdinand (or "Ferrante" in Italian) enjoyed keeping his deceased enemies around. Once, he invited some French "pals" (a.k.a. agents of his rival to the throne of Naples) to dinner. After they ate, he then decided to feed some to crocodiles and imprisoning others for thirty years, even shoving one guy out a window to his death. Some were propped up in a mock banquet at Castelnuovo; the bodies were pickled and turned into mummies, then re-dressed to look lively.
John of England
- Royal Title: John, King of England
- Most Brutal Moment: Shall we count the ways? The youngest son of the famously energetic King Henry II and his Crusading, duchy-ruling, butt-kicking bride, Eleanor of Aquitaine, John lived up to neither of his parents' legacies. Although the English did get the Magna Carta from him, John wasn't a fan of his subjects: He locked 22 knights in a castle and starved them to death.
John also betrayed his older brother, King Richard the Lionheart, who was on a Crusade, by rebelling against him back home in England. "Lackland," as John was dubbed for his paltry inheritance in his youth, may also have arranged the murder of his nephew Arthur of Brittany. Finally, he made an enemy of one of his French vassals by stealing the man's bride-to-be (and making her his queen)!