History has generally not been kind to kings and rulers who have suffered from insanity. Today we are more genteel and call it “a mental illness” but the subjects of these insane kings and rulers would likely not be so kind in describing their behavior. One thing is for certain – history has provided us with a long list of insane royalty who, for whatever reason, are depicted as insane based on their actions. Often we only hear one side of the story, so it is difficult to accurately assess any one person’s true mental state. Sensationalized tales of people and events are common throughout history. At the same time, there are insane actions of various royalty which are both accurate and verifiable. Sensationalized or not, the reasons for their inexplicable actions will almost assuredly remain a mystery.
5. Henry VI of England (1421 – 1471)
The history of Henry VI is known in part because of the three part drama cycle created by famed English playwright William Shakespeare. When his warrior father Henry V died suddenly at the age of 36 from dysentery, Henry Vi was made king before his first birthday. Unlike his father, Henry VI was a very mild mannered and pious king. He fought mental illness for many decades in the latter part of his life. His kingdom declined and lost land to France, with the chaos resulting in The War of the Roses. In 1453 he suffered his first mental breakdown. Though never a strong leader, this breakdown left him in a virtually complete stupor, unable to communicate for more than a year. After a temporary recovery, his mental state seriously declined in 1456, where he became extremely lethargic and began to engage in a routine of religious devotions. Yorkist forces deposed him in 1461, when he was exiled to Scotland. He was temporarily restored to power a short time later, then finally imprisoned once again and murdered.
4. Charles VI of France (1368 – 1422)
Charles VI of France had his encounter with insanity in 1392 after a period of illness where he suffered from a fever and seizures. What followed were periods of insanity that lasted several months at a time. During those times he would forget his own name, the fact that he was married to Isabeau of Bavaria, has children, and the fact that he was king. At times he believed that his body was made of glass, and forbade anyone to approach him, fearing he would shatter. To ensure he would not break he had iron rods placed in his royal garments. While in his castle he would walk around howling like a wolf. The continued madness of Charles brought his wife to the point where she provided a mistress, Odette de Champdivers, to keep his bizarre actions at bay. She looked so much like Isabeau that Charles could not tell them apart even when he was sane. Not to be left alone, Isabeau had an ongoing dalliance with Charles’s brother, Louis of Orleans, and is believed to have at least one child from him. Charles would continue these long episodes of madness for the rest of his reign. It would lead to a civil war between his uncles and cousins and help pave the way for Henry V of England to conquer a good portion of France.
History seems to show that Charles VI suffered from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or encephalitis – an inflammation of the brain. The royal doctors of the 14th century tried to help cure him by drilling holes in his head. The method was to have men with blackened faces hide in his room, using the element of surprise to jump on him unexpectedly. However, this did not help Charles and he was replaced with his son-in-law who was declared regent.
3. Joanna of Spain (1479 – 1555)
The daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, Joanna was one of a number in the royal line who suffered from a mental illness. The king and queen were the ones who funded the journey of Columbus to the New World. Joanna’s grandmother, Isabella of Portugal, “was prone to depression and hysterics.” Married to the son of the Holy Roman Emperor, Philip the Handsome, Joanna was attractive and educated. Arranged marriages were common among royalty, yet this was one marriage where the betrothed, Joanna, was hopelessly in love with her husband. While Philip sired six children with her, he was not about to give up his ways of a philandering emperor. Joanna, the good wife, was resented by him because of her clinginess despite the fact that he openly flaunted his many affairs. In one recorded event, Joanna lashed out at a French mistress of Philip, cutting off her hair. Realizing that his wife’s jealousy would continue to be a problem, Philip had Joanna placed under house arrest when they were living in their Netherland’s mansion. Joanna’s insanity became evident to him when, on a trip to Spain, she stayed out in the cold for two days, barely clothed, crying outside the castle gates. When Philip died, Joanna refused to abandon him – literally. She stayed with the corpse in the coffin, opening it every day and embraced his decaying body. Three years went by before Joanna agreed to allow Philip to be buried. Afterwards, she was confined until her death in 1509.
2. Ivan IV of Russia (1530 – 1584)
It is uncertain what brought about the insanity of Ivan the Terrible, but there are a number of possible causes. Mental illness is a possibility, but also in the mix are Ivan’s way of keeping various political factions in control and his very traumatic childhood. The latter of these was a combination of events that were not under his control. His parents died at an early age, leaving him to be raised by aristocratic families who used him as a political tool. Often starved and terrorized, he was also exposed to an assortment of violent acts, including witnessing executions. This affected Ivan to the point where he began taking great joy in throwing dogs and cats over the Kremlin wall.
Ivan was never really believed to be mentally stable, but the death of his first wife Anastasia sent him over the edge. Boyars of the old aristocracy were targets of his wrath when they disagreed with him. Oprichniki, the Russian secret police, were sent to create havoc in cities that were beginning to rise up against Ivan’s control. Men were gathered into buildings that were set on fire. Women were stripped naked and used for target practice. Ivan’s methods were typically medieval, including hanging, impaling, and beheading. But he added new methods of torture and execution, including throwing his opposition into bear pits and roasting them over a spit.
Schizophrenia has been used to explain Ivan’s cruel insanity, because while his acts of cruelty are well-known, he had other extremes of behavior. He would dress like a monk and begin to preach to his administrative officials the importance of leading a moral life. Hours later, he would engage in drunken orgies with the same group. This appearance of religious extremism would also be evident when, after personally taking part in the torture of prisoners, he would afterwards go to church, banging his head on the floor and asking for forgiveness.
Perhaps Ivan’s most insane act was the killing of his son. Ivan believed his daughter-in-law was dressed too provocatively. So, though she was pregnant, he began to beat her. His son came to her defense, and Ivan killed him with a blow to the temple. This murderous act is believed to have changed the course of Russian history, as Ivan’s second son who was mentally deficient, Feodor, would become tsar. One act that is legend and found not to be the result of Ivan’s insanity was blindeding the architect of Saint Basil’s Cathedral, the famous onion-domed church located in Moscow’s Red Square.
1. Elizabeth Bathory of Hungary (1560 – 1614)
A countess from the Kingdom of Hungary, Elizabeth Bathory was not actually a ruler from the noble Bathory family of the same kingdom. Her inclusion in this group is based upon her reputation as a one of the most infamous serial killers in history. She is known as The Blood Countess, Countess Dracula, and The Tigress of Csejte. Not acting alone, her and her partners were accused of the torture and murder of hundreds of girls. While only 80 could actually be proven, historical records found between the years 1585 and 1610 have the count as high as 650. There were more than 300 witnesses who testified against her, including some survivors. Physical evidence included dead bodies, some that were horribly mutilated, and some girls were found imprisoned, dying. The motive of sadistic pleasure rises to the top, as girls were severely beaten, hands were burned and mutilated. Flesh was bitten from the faces of girls as well as other parts of their bodies. Needles were used in the torture, and there were girls who were freezing and starving to death. The trials resulted in her imprisonment in Csejte Castle in Upper Hungary, where the majority of her crimes were committed. She died four years later.
Legend has it that she was a vampire countess, who bathed in and drank the blood of her many young victims. Those who were selected to be tortured and butchered were said to be virgins from the village, presumable because their blood would keep Elizabeth Bathory young and beautiful.