What is it that fascinates us so much about royal behaviour? Apart from a flashy title, unimaginable wealth and access to a world only a select few will ever experience, they’re just people. Or, is it that when your life is so different from that of 99.99% of the planet, you are just… different. Though the political landscape has changed a great deal since the days of the all-powerful ruler, today’s monarchs still wield a great deal more power than most of us realise. Queen Elizabeth II, for instance, is still legally within her rights to fire any prime minister in any of her dominions (including Australia, New Zealand and Canada) – and rule in their stead – if she disagrees with their style of governance. She won’t, of course. The repercussions could spell the end of the House of Windsor, but it’s an interesting thought. Over the ages, however, our human chronicle has undoubtedly been shaped by the behaviour of kings and queens who abused their power, or who were simply unfit to rule. It can be fascinating to imagine living in a world ruled by people who, for better or worse, ruled by birth right rather than competence. These are some of the unruliest.
NEBUCHADNEZZAR II OF BABYLON
Often hailed (or reviled) as the original “mad king”, Nebuchadnezzar’s journey into madness is as strange as it is fascinating. Cast down for his arrogance in not believing in the Hebrew God (perhaps a result of his slew of formidable military victories over Babylon’s enemies going to his head), he was exiled to the wild to live out the rest of his days. Gradually – and by his own account – he unravelled, becoming less and less “human” with every passing day, until eventually he ended up a wild man.
To add a touch of dramatic irony, Nebuchadnezzar had a dream 12 months prior to his expulsion from the kingdom, in which an interpreter told him he would eat grass like an ox and drink dew water, his hair would grow long like eagle feathers and his nails would grow to resemble a bird’s talons. It all came to pass, of course, and lasted a biblical seven years, after which his insanity simply vanished. So, every cloud…
THE ZHENGDE EMPEROR OF CHINA
Often depicted as frivolous, foolish and cruel, this particular emperor entertained the presence of an imaginary double he called General Zhu Shou whom he would give orders to which he expected outcomes. It is unclear how those orders were ever fulfilled, but so caught up in his imaginary world did he become that he put the senior eunuch, Liu Jin, in charge of his affairs of state five years into his reign. It would only take another five years for their complicated dynamic to unravel, which resulted in Liu Jin’s execution.
Had the execution only involved a simple beheading or hanging it would have been so-far-so-nasty-ruler, but Liu Jin was executed by way of slow slicing over a period of three days. He didn’t make day three. Meanwhile, the emperor continued to enjoy bowlfuls of rice gruel he believed to be made of cooked pearls. Fancy.
JUANA OF CASTILE
Juana’s story is a tragic one. It’s not clear what she did as a child to deserve being labelled “insane”, but she was nevertheless kept locked up by her father for 12 years while he ruled as regent in her stead. Oh, but wait, she was the heir presumptive to the thrones of Castile and Aragon, so it’s entirely possible that by keeping her behind lock and key citing a spell of kookiness, he would have full control of her realm.
At the age of 16, however, her fortunes turned when she was married off to Philip the Handsome, Archduke of the House of Habsburg (that title must have worked nicely in his favour). But their loving union only lasted 10 years. After his death in 1506, she is said to have travelled everywhere with his coffin, kissing and caressing his corpse daily for eight months. This, of course, did nothing to negate the reputation that already followed her everywhere. When her father passed in 1516, her own son (they were co-monarchs at the time) locked her up in the Royal Palace in Tordesillas in Castile, where she eventually died at the age of 75.
CHARLES VI OF FRANCE
There’s a certain decorum associated with monarchy – something like keeping a stiff upper lip and all that. Perhaps that’s more of a British thing, but Charlie Six of France was, for lack of a better word, excitable. At one point, a clumsy page dropped a lance on the floor, which gave the skittish king such a fright that he slaughtered four of his men in cold blood.
But his jumpy nature wasn’t the only hiccup regarding this roi fou. He believed his bones to be made of glass, which is why his garments had metal rods sewed into them to prevent his apparently fragile frame from shattering.
EMPRESS ANNA OF RUSSIA
Her reign of 10 years might have been short lived, but they were memorable. When she ascended the throne, she picked up on a certain elation amongst the aristocracy that their new queen was a pushover, and therefore easily manipulated in the advancement of their agendas. Well, she would show them…
One particular story that came to characterise the eccentricity of her reign was when she arranged a marriage between an elderly prince of Russia and one of her maids. For the occasion, she had a wedding dress fashioned to resemble a clown costume, and had an entire palace constructed out of ice in which to host the spectacle. She even spent the night in the glacial structure to the horror of all the ice queen’s warm-blooded subjects.