20 Historical Rulers Who Murdered Members Of Their Own Family

20 Historical Rulers Who Murdered Members Of Their Own Family

Steve - February 15, 2019

As famously and poetically decreed: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Reigning over millions of subjects, many of whom desire greater power and would gladly supplant one’s own rule, invariably results in intrigues, conspiracies, and plots. However, whilst family remains an important bond, history repeatedly demonstrates that blood is sometimes not enough to compel peaceful co-existence. Whether a product of treachery, anger, or rivalry, history is littered with rulers ruthlessly dispatching their relatives for a litany of reasons.

20 Historical Rulers Who Murdered Members Of Their Own Family
The Two Princes Edward and Richard in the Tower, by Sir John Everett Millais (c. 1878). Wikimedia Commons.

Here are 20 historical rulers who, for better or worse, murdered members of their own family.

20 Historical Rulers Who Murdered Members Of Their Own Family
“Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan on November 16th, 1581”, by Ilya Repin (c. 1885). Wikimedia Commons.

20. Ivan IV, incorrectly known colloquially as Ivan the Terrible, unintentionally killed his son when he struck him angrily on the head with a spiked staff

Ivan IV, also known as Ivan Grozny – commonly mistranslated as “Ivan the Terrible” instead of the more accurate “Ivan the Formidable” – was Grand Prince of Moscow from 1533 to 1547 and Tsar of All Rus’ from 1547 until his death in 1584. Overseeing the expansion of the Russian state, including conquering the territorial Khanates of Kazan, Astrakhan, and Sibir, the reign of Ivan also saw formal recognition of the de facto supremacy of Moscow over the regions of modern-day Russia. However, Ivan IV was also a highly troubled individual. Although predominantly an intelligent and devout person, the Russian ruler was prone to episodes of uncontrollable anger and insanity.

During one such instance in 1581, Ivan beat his pregnant daughter-in-law, Yelena Sheremeteva, for dressing immodestly. Sufficiently brutal to ultimately cause Yelena to miscarry, Ivan was confronted by his son, Ivan Ivanovich, having heard the screams of his wife. In the course of an argument, Ivan, in a fit of rage, struck his son in the skull with his scepter. Although not intentional, the younger Ivan was felled bleeding profusely from the head. According to witnesses, the elder Ivan threw himself to the floor screaming “may I be damned! I’ve killed my son! I’ve killed my son!” Awaking briefly to forgive his father, the younger Ivan died four days later.

20 Historical Rulers Who Murdered Members Of Their Own Family
A bust of Agrippina the Younger, held in the National Museum in Warsaw (c. 1st century CE). Wikimedia Commons.

19. Agrippina the Younger, a ruthless and ambitious member of the Julio-Claudian imperial dynasty, murdered her uncle and husband to secure her son the throne

Agrippina the Younger, also known as Agrippina Minor, was a Roman Empress of the Julio-Claudian dynasty: the first imperial line of Ancient Rome. The daughter of Germanicus, heir-apparent to Tiberius until the former’s sudden and suspicious death, her brother, Caligula, instead ascended to the imperial title in 37 CE. Allegedly engaging in an incestuous relationship with her brother, Agrippina was exiled in 40 CE after being implicated in a failed assassination plot. After the murder of Caligula in January 41 CE, Agrippina returned to eventually marry his successor and her paternal uncle, Claudius. Their marriage in 48 CE was controversial, provoking an outcry in Rome as immoral.

However, Agrippina, as she did throughout her life, married not for love but for power. Ruthlessly using her position as Empress to purge the imperial court of all who opposed her, she sought to leverage her son by a former marriage into a position to inherit the throne. Succeeding in this goal, her son, renamed Nero, was formally adopted by Claudius in 50 CE. Outliving his usefulness, Agrippina is recorded as having poisoned her uncle and husband on October 14, 54 CE, with deadly mushrooms during a banquet. Although Nero did indeed succeed his adopted father, his reign was turbulent and he became the first emperor to commit suicide in 68 CE.

20 Historical Rulers Who Murdered Members Of Their Own Family
“Attila and his Hordes Overrun Italy and the Arts”, by Eugene Delacroix (c. 1843-1847). Wikimedia Commons.

18. Attila, the ruler of the Huns, is believed to have murdered his brother and co-ruler to obtain sole control over the nomadic warrior nation

Attila, commonly known as Attila the Hun, was the ruler of a tribal empire spanning the Huns, Ostrogoths, and Alans from 434 CE until his death in 453. A nomadic people inhabiting Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Eastern Europe, the Huns were highly militaristic people. Responsible for conquering the Goths and large parts of Germania, under Attila’s leadership the Huns posed a persistent threat to the Eastern Roman Empire, although his efforts proved insufficient to conquer Constantinople. Attila, along with his elder brother Bleda, succeeded to the Hunnic throne after the childless death of their uncle, Rugila, electing to rule, at least to begin with, collaboratively.

This partnership proved initially unsuccessful, with the Huns withdrawing from Roman territories under a consolidated peace and suffering defeat in Armenia. Rewarded by the distraction of Constantinople by the Vandal capture of Carthage, the duo seized modern-day Belgrade and Sofia before besieging Constantinople itself. Soon after their withdrawal from Byzantium, Bleda suddenly died in 445. Whilst the cause of death is unclear, classical accounts indicate that Attila slew his brother and claimed absolute authority. According to some records, Bleda struck first, attempting to murder Attila on a hunting trip; the superior warrior, Attila responded by killing Bleda instead.

Read More: Nine Things You Did Not Know About the Huns.

20 Historical Rulers Who Murdered Members Of Their Own Family
The coronation of John Tzimiskes, as depicted in the Madrid Skylitzes (c. 12th century). Wikimedia Commons.

17. Convincing his uncle to claim to the Byzantine imperial throne, John I Tzimiskes subsequently murdered his uncle to seize the crown for himself

John I Tzimiskes, loosely translated as John the Short, reigned as Emperor of Byzantium from 969 until his death in 976. Born in 925 to the sister of the future emperor Nikephoros II Phokas, John entered into military service at a young age under the command of his uncle. Rising quickly through the ranks as an effective and intelligent general, before the age of twenty-five John had earned the military governorship of the important territory of Armenia. Successfully defending his province from external attack, John desired greater political power. Upon the death of Emperor Romanos II in 963, John urged his uncle to claim the throne.

However, soon after Nikephoros ascended to the imperial condition, as a result of political machinations and court intrigues John was stripped of his command. Feeling betrayed, John conspired with Nikephoros’ wife, Theophano, and other disgruntled military officials to assassinate his uncle. Secretly returning from an imposed exile, John personally broke into the imperial apartments and murdered his uncle on December 11, 969. Subduing a subsequent rebellion against his coronation, John reigned over a period of expansion and strength for Byzantium. Dying himself of poison in 976, the ill-fated emperor left his vast personal wealth to the poor of his kingdom.

20 Historical Rulers Who Murdered Members Of Their Own Family
The “Darnley Portrait” of Elizabeth I of England; author unknown (c. 1575). Wikimedia Commons.

16. Elizabeth I – the so-called “Virgin Queen” – ordered the murders of at least three of her relatives, including her cousin, Mary, to hold onto her crown

Elizabeth I, known colloquially as the “Virgin Queen“, was the last of the Tudor monarchs, reigning as Queen of England and Ireland from 1558 until her death in 1603. The daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth’s claim to the throne was declared illegitimate as a result of their marital annulment. Consequently, upon the death of the young Edward VI in 1553, the crown was bequeathed to Lady Jane Grey. Failing to defend her claim, Grey was executed and Elizabeth’s half-sister, Mary, was crowned instead. Mary, suffering from cancer, died without producing an heir in 1558, in turn passing the throne to the twenty-five-year-old Elizabeth.

Although more moderate in governing than her father and siblings, Elizabeth was ruthless in protecting her crown from rivals. Fearing a French presence in Scotland, she defeated, imprisoned, and later executed her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, who had married Henry Stuart and enjoyed a claim to the English throne. Elizabeth also executed one of Mary’s key supporters, Thomas, Duke of Norfolk. Involved in multiple insurrections, Thomas was Elizabeth’s cousin. Even her favorite relatives were not safe should they threaten her position, with Robert Devereux, Elizabeth’s first-cousin-twice-removed executed in 1601.

20 Historical Rulers Who Murdered Members Of Their Own Family
Augustus of Prima Porta (c. 1st century). Wikimedia Commons.

15. Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, ordered the imprisonment of both his daughter and granddaughter, leading to their deaths, as well as believed responsible for the murder of his grandson

Augustus, born Gaius Octavius Thurinus, reigned as the first Emperor of the Roman Empire from 27 BCE until his death in 14 CE. Named in his great-uncle’s, Julius Caesar, will as his adopted heir, Augustus leveraged his newly found power to institute the Second Triumvirate to avenge the assassination of Caesar in 44 BCE. Ruling collectively as a military dictatorship, Augustus turned on his allies after crushing the “Liberatores” to seize absolute power. Granting himself supreme military authority for life, Augustus instituted the framework of the Roman Empire and ruled over an era of peace known as Pax Romana.

However, Augustus was nevertheless a ruthless political operator and unafraid to punish those closest to him. His only biological child, Julia the Elder, was exiled by her father to Pandateria – an island off the coast of Italy measuring less than 1.75 square kilometers – after being found guilty of strict moral laws governing extramarital affairs. Forbidden to drink wine or to see another man, Julia would die of malnourishment and ill health induced by her decades-long imprisonment. Augustus likewise exiled his granddaughter, Julia the Younger, in similar circumstances, and is suggested to have ordered the murder of his banished grandson, Postumus Agrippa.

20 Historical Rulers Who Murdered Members Of Their Own Family
Portrait of King Yeongjo, by Chae Yong-sin & Jo Seok-jin (c. 1900). Wikimedia Commons.

14. King Yeongjo of Korea, celebrated as a moral and extremely caring ruler, imprisoned his mentally ill son and heir in a wooden box until he died

Yeongjo of Joseon, reigning from 1724 until his death in 1776, was the 21st king of the Korean Joseon Dynasty. The second son of King Sukjong, he succeeded his older brother, Gyeongjong, four years after the death of their father in controversial circumstances. Although speculation abounded at the time concerning Gyeongjong’s ill health and death, with many suspecting Yeongjo, historical opinion today concurs that the elder brother most likely died from the consumption of tainted seafood. A profoundly spiritual individual committed to Confucian ethics, Yeongjo concerned himself deeply with the conditions of his people.

Reforming the tax system and seeking to minimize conflict, Yeongjo even ordered his courtiers to reduce the sizes of their meals to decrease the burden upon commoners during times of famine. Despite this immense concern for others, Yeongjo’s own son and crown prince, Sado, did not inherit these positive traits. Believed to have suffered from a debilitating mental illness, Prince Sado would routinely rape the palace maids and murder people at random. Due to a prescription upon the king from murdering his own family, Yeongjo ordered his son to be entombed in a wooden rice chest. Trapped within his eventual coffin, Sado would die after eight days.

20 Historical Rulers Who Murdered Members Of Their Own Family
Emperor Suleiman, in a portrait attributed to Titian (c. 1530). Wikimedia Commons.

13. Suleiman the Magnificent, in seeking to avoid a succession crisis, murdered two of his three living sons to ensure a clear path for the survivor to his crown

Suleiman I, also known as Suleiman the Magnificent, was the tenth and longest-reigning Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Ruling from 1520 until his death in 1566, Suleiman presided over the climax of Ottoman military, political, and economic might. Personally leading his armies in the conquest of Hungary, before being finally rebuffed in the Siege of Vienna in 1529, Suleiman’s reign saw the annexation of large portions of the Middle East. The years of Suleiman’s rule also experienced a cultural golden age, with architectural and artistic wonders representing the greatest works of the Islamic world abundant during this period.

Seeking to avoid the classic Ottoman succession crisis following his own death, whereupon all remaining sons would divide into factions and wage civil war, Suleiman sought to prepare a clear path to the throne for his chosen heir. In 1553, upon the orders of the Sultan, his eldest son, Mustafa, was strangled to death with a bowstring. Following up on this filicide, in 1661 Suleiman ordered the death of another son, Bayezid, along with his four sons. In so doing, Suleiman was left with just one living son, Selim, who successfully succeeded his father as Sultan and ended the anarchic practice of enthronement that had plagued the nation.

20 Historical Rulers Who Murdered Members Of Their Own Family
Portrait of Henry VIII, by Hans Holbein the Younger (c. 1537-1547). Wikimedia Commons.

12. Henry VIII, immortalized for his many wives, was ruthless in ordering the deaths of any threat to the stability of his authority or claim to the throne

Henry VIII reigned from 1509 until his death in 1547 as the second Tudor monarch of England and, following the Crown of Ireland Act in 1542, the first English King of Ireland. Regarded as “the father of the Royal Navy“, Henry invested considerably to enlarge its size from only a few ships to more than fifty. Concurrently, Henry was responsible for initiating the English Reformation, resulting in a schism with the Roman Catholic Church and the creation of the Church of England. Most famously, however, Henry is known for his six marriages and his harsh treatment of those who displeased him.

Two of these wives, the second, Anne Boleyn, and fifth, Catherine Howard – both eighth cousins of Henry, were executed on the orders of their husband after having been charged and convicted of adultery. In addition to his wives, however, Henry was responsible for several other familial deaths. Among these include, but are not limited to, Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, who was executed in 1521 after being suspected of treasonous activities, as well as Edmund de la Pole, who, in 1513, was executed to eliminate a potential challenge to Henry’s own claim; both were the king’s cousins.

You May Interested: 5 Fascinating Facts about Henry VIII.

20 Historical Rulers Who Murdered Members Of Their Own Family
A gold solidus, depicting Empress Irene alongside her son Constantine VI. Wikimedia Commons.

11. Irene, Empress of the Byzantine Empire, had her own son’s eyes gouged out in an attempt to solidify her position as the sole ruler of the Eastern Romans

Irene of Athens, also known as Irene Sarantapechaina, was Empress Consort to the Byzantine Emperor Leo IV, before serving as Regent during the early reign of her son Constantine VI, and final ruling in her own right as Empress Regent from 797 until 802. After the death of her husband in 780, Irene was appointed to serve as regent for her nine-year-old son, Constantine. Successfully combating a conspiracy to supplant her son in favor of Caesar Nikephoros, a half-brother of Leo IV, she also quelled rebellions in Sicily and maintained the territorial integrity of the empire under attack from external rivals.

However, Irene’s position as ruler was not without challenge and as soon as Constantine reached adulthood, efforts were made to sideline his mother. After several efforts to proclaim him sole ruler in the 790s, Irene responded with her own conspiracy. In 797, Irene arranged for the capture of her son as he attempted to escape her custody, whereupon she ordered his eyes to be gouged out. Constantine would die of his injuries stemming from this event seventeen days later. Opposing sole female rule, Pope Leo III proclaimed Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor in her place, whilst Irene was herself overthrown in 802 to die in exile on the island of Lesbos.

20 Historical Rulers Who Murdered Members Of Their Own Family
An engraved seal depicting Herod the Great; author and date unknown. Wikimedia Commons.

10. Herod the Great, King of Judea, ordered the executions of two of his sons after he feared they were conspiring to murder and seize his throne

Herod I, also known as Herod the Great, reigned as the King of Judea from 37 BCE until his death in 4 BCE. A client king under Roman authority rather than a sovereign in his own right, Herod backed Antony against Augustus before successfully appeasing the triumphant emperor and demonstrating his loyalty. Overseeing a significant architectural expansion of his domain, including the construction of the port at Caesarea Maritima, fortresses at Masada and Herodium, and the Second Temple in Jerusalem, Herod’s reign was equally marked by an immensely authoritarian and repressive tone.

In 9 BCE, Herod once again became a figure of questionable standing with Augustus as a result of his poor fortunes in the war against the Nabateans. As a result, Herod, growing increasingly paranoid in his old age, feared the Roman Emperor might seek to replace him with one of his sons. Accusing two of his sons, Alexander and Aristobulus, of high treason in 8 BCE, Herod won permission to prosecute the pair. Tried and found guilty in Beirut, Alexander and Aristobulus were executed in 7 BCE. Herod’s replacement successor, Antipater, was later executed in 4 BCE, leading Augustus to remark: “It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son”.

20 Historical Rulers Who Murdered Members Of Their Own Family
An 18th-century depiction of Wu Zetian, from an album of 86 portraits of emperors of China. Wikimedia Commons.

9. Wu Zetian, the only ever female solo ruler of China, is believed to have ordered the deaths of at least three of her own children in an attempt to elevate and secure her position

Wu Zetian, also known as Wu Zhao, reigned as Empress Consort, Empress Dowager, and finally as Empress Regent of Imperial China from 655 CE until her removal just months before her death in 705. The concubine of Emperor Taizong, in a breach of convention, married his successor and son, Emperor Gaozong, in 655 to become the imperial consort. It has been suggested Wu orchestrated the death of her infant child, by violent strangulation, in 654. This was to discredit Gaozong’s then-wife, Empress Wang, who was consequently deposed and eventually executed on Wu’s orders in 656. Ascending to the position of court administrator after her husband suffered a stroke in 660, Wu aggressively defended her unchecked power.

In 675, Wu’s eldest son, the crown prince Li Hong, suddenly died. Once again, it has been strongly suggested he was poisoned on the orders of his mother after disobeying her. This incident was followed in 683 with the exile of her second son, Li Xian, on accusations of fermenting rebellion; Li was forced to commit suicide a year later after the death of Gaozong. Following her husband’s death, Wu elevated herself to Empress Regent under her son, Emperor Zhongzong. However, proving too independent, Wu deposed him and replaced him with another son. Eventually, in 690, Ruizong was also removed and Wu ruled as the only female solo ruler in Chinese history.

20 Historical Rulers Who Murdered Members Of Their Own Family
“John, Duke of Burgundy”, by Rogier van der Weyden (c. 1400-1500). Wikimedia Commons.

8. John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, ordered the assassination of his cousin, Louis, Duke of Orléans, before himself being assassinated by his own political enemies

John I, also known as John the Fearless, was Duke of Burgundy and the cousin of Charles VI of France during the late-14th and early-15th centuries. Inheriting the dukedom after the death of his father in 1404, John almost immediately entered into a protracted conflict with the mentally ill king’s younger brother, Louis, Duke of Orléans (also John’s cousin), as both royal relatives sought to fill the power vacuum left by the sovereign’s absence. Both men engaged in wild political dealings, including complicated webs of marriages and alliances, all of which obscured and detracted attention from the ongoing Hundred Years’ War with England.

Descending into open violence by 1407, on November 23 Louis was assassinated on the streets of Paris. John, proud of his accomplishment, openly admitted to his crime, declaring it to be a justifiable act of “tyrannicide”. Although peace was finally declared between the Burgundy and Orléans factions in 1410, John was himself assassinated in 1419. In retribution, his son, Philip the Good, allied with Henry V of England in the Hundred Years’ War between 1423 and 1435 to exact his vengeance against Charles VII, whom Philip blamed for his father’s death. Although eventually returning to the fold, the schism risked the French victory in the conflict.

20 Historical Rulers Who Murdered Members Of Their Own Family
Portrait of James II of England, by the School of Peter Lely (c. 1650-1675). Wikimedia Commons.

7. James II saw off a challenge to his crown in 1685 from his nephew and responded by refusing to show his relative any mercy at trial

James II of England and Ireland, also reigning as James VII of Scotland, ruled these respective territories between 1685 and his removal during the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The last Roman Catholic monarch of Great Britain, James inherited the thrones upon the death of his brother, Charles II, and was initially popular among his subjects. However, driven by an archaic belief in the divine right of kings and political absolutism, James quickly fell out of favor with Parliament. In attempting to govern by royal decree, James set into motion his demise and solidified the supremacy of Parliament in British politics.

However, despite being the heir apparent, James’ ascension was not assured. Instead, in 1685 his claim to the throne was challenged by his nephew, James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, who was the illegitimate son of Charles II. Returning to England from exile in June 1685, a few months after James’ coronation, Monmouth rallied supporters and proclaimed himself the true monarch. Defeating his nephew at the Battle of Sedgemoor, Monmouth was captured by James. Despite petitions to the contrary, James demanded his nephew be condemned to death. In a last act of cruelty towards Monmouth, the executioner ensured it took several painful blows of the ax.

20 Historical Rulers Who Murdered Members Of Their Own Family
Aurangzeb holds court, as painted by Bichtir (date unknown). Wikimedia Commons.

6. Aurangzeb, the ruler of the Mughal Empire, deposed his ill father and ordered the deaths of two of his brothers in the pursuit of power

Muhi-ud-Din Muhammad, more commonly known as Aurangzeb, reigned as the sixth Mughal Emperor from 1658 until his death in 1707. Often regarded as the last successful emperor of his kingdom, Aurangzeb successfully expanded the Mughal Empire to encompass nearly all of the Indian subcontinent and ruled over an estimated 158 million subjects. During his tenure, the Mughals enjoyed an annual revenue more than ten times that of the French monarchs, whilst the empire surpassed China as the world’s largest economy, representing almost one-quarter of the world’s GDP as of 1700. However, despite these accomplishments, the reign of Aurangzeb was marred by a distinctly authoritarian streak.

Determined to succeed his father, Shah Jahan, Aurangzeb entered into a deadly feud with his brothers. His eldest brother, Dara Shikoh, remained the favored heir, and Aurangzeb preemptively marched on his brother in 1658 as their father fell ill. Defeating him at the Battle of Samugarh, after which Aurangzeb formally deposed his ailing father, Dara was captured and executed by his brother. Similarly, another brother, Murad, who originally allied himself with Aurangzeb, fell foul of his brother’s ambition. Intoxicated, Murad was kidnapped on his brother’s orders in the same year, imprisoned for three years, before finally being executed.

20 Historical Rulers Who Murdered Members Of Their Own Family
Peter I the Great, by Paul Delaroche (c. 1838). Wikimedia Commons.

5. Peter the Great, Emperor of Russia, enticed his fleeing son back to Russia whereupon he was tortured, charged with treason, and left to die in prison

Peter I, also known as Peter the Great, reigned as Tsar, and later Emperor, of Russia between 1682 until his death in 1725. An immensely proficient military leader, Peter successfully expanded his territory, capturing ports on the Baltic Sea that would prove strategically important in subsequent centuries, and under his rule ensured Russia emerged as a major European power. Imparting a legacy beyond militarism, Peter also oversaw the modernization of Russia. Ushering in a cultural revolution, the Russian state embraced the Enlightenment, scientific theory, and, if only for a time, Western values and traditions.

However, as with all rulers, even great ones, Peter was plagued with palace intrigues and threats to his authority. After having fled to Vienna in 1716, seeking sanctuary under the protection of his brother-in-law, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI, Peter’s son, Alexei, was eventually persuaded to return to Russia in 1718 with a promise of safety. Suspected by his father of conspiring against the throne, Alexei was instead tortured whereupon he allegedly confessed his guilt. Charged with treason, Alexei was convicted at trial and sentenced to death. Requiring his father’s assent to his execution, whilst Peter deliberated Alexei died in prison from the injuries he had sustained under torture.

20 Historical Rulers Who Murdered Members Of Their Own Family
The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra, 41 B.C. Painting by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1885. Wikipedia.

4. Cleopatra VII, consort of Julius Caesar and the last true Pharaoh of Egypt, was responsible for the murders of her sister and at least one brother

Cleopatra VII Philopator, of the Ptolemaic dynasty, reigned as the last active ruler of the Kingdom of Egypt from 51 BCE until her death in 30 BCE. Fleeing into exile with her father, Ptolemy XII, in 58 BCE, the pair returned with Roman military support three years later to reclaim the throne. Succeeding her father and co-ruling with her younger brother, Ptolemy XIII, the siblings rapidly descended into open conflict against one another. Receiving the backing of Julius Caesar, Cleopatra naturally triumphed. Exiling her covetous sister, Arsinoe IV, who had sided with her brother, to Greece. On Cleopatra’s order, Arsinoe was executed on the steps of the Temple of Artemis in 41 BCE.

Selecting another younger brother, Ptolemy XIV, to serve as her co-ruler, Cleopatra continued her reign over Egypt as it increasingly fell under Roman influence. Although, as traditional, marrying her brother, Cleopatra served as the consort of Caesar and granted her brother little genuine authority. After producing a son via her relationship with the Roman dictator: Ptolemy XV, more commonly known as Caesarion, in 47 BCE, Cleopatra began planning to remove her brother. After the assassination of Caesar in 44 BCE, fearing her own removal, Cleopatra attempted to ensure the survival of her son by murdering Ptolemy XIV with poison and proclaiming Caesarion as her co-ruler.

20 Historical Rulers Who Murdered Members Of Their Own Family
Portrait of Edward IV; author and date unknown. Wikimedia Commons.

3. Edward IV of England ordered the execution of his brother, George, who decided to die by being drowned in a vat of wine

Edward IV enjoyed two periods as King of England, initially reigning between March 1461 and October 1470 before being briefly overthrown and subsequently restored in April 1471; thereafter, Edward ruled uninterrupted until his death in 1483. The first Yorkist King of England, Edward’s father, Richard, Duke of York, had engaged in a protracted conflict to seize the throne whilst the incumbent monarch, Henry VI, was incapacitated by mental illness. Although Richard died in battle, Edward, then only aged nineteen, was sufficiently positioned to proclaim himself king and march against the Lancastrians to victory.

Due to the nature of his ascension, Edward’s reign was marked by insurrection and political intrigue. After betraying the Yorkists, Edward’s younger brother, George, Duke of Clarence, fled to the continent with the Earl of Warwick in the hope he might be elevated in Edward’s place in the future. However, realizing he was not the favored successor among the exiles, George returned in the hope of reconciliation. Instead, in 1478 George was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. Imprisoned in the Tower of London, it is believed, having chosen his own method of execution, George elected to die by being “drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine“.

20 Historical Rulers Who Murdered Members Of Their Own Family
Colossal head of Constantine (c. 4th century). Wikimedia Commons.

2. The Roman Emperor Constantine the Great ordered the executions of both his wife and eldest son after rumors spread of an illicit affair

Constantine I, also known as Constantine the Great, reigned as Emperor of the Western Roman Empire from 306 CE, and Eastern Emperor after 324, until his death in 337. Proclaimed as Emperor after the death of his father, Flavius Valerius Constantius, Constantine would embark upon a protracted campaign to unite the divided imperial territories under a singular ruler. Overseeing a host of reforms, including monetary policy and military structure, Constantine is perhaps most remembered for being the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity. Although living his life as a pagan, Constantine converted to the new faith upon his deathbed.

In 326, rumors began spreading that his Empress, Fausta, was engaged in an illicit relationship with her step-son and Constantine’s eldest, Crispus. Whether true or not, with some historians suggesting Fausta spread falsehood in an attempt to discredit the heir-apparent, Constantine responded ruthlessly by having his son arrested in May, whereafter he was executed by poison. Fausta, equally, did not escape punishment, and was killed in an overheated bath in July. Not content to take just their lives, both of the condemned were erased from inscriptions and their lives scrubbed from official imperial records.

20 Historical Rulers Who Murdered Members Of Their Own Family
Portrait of James I of Scotland; author unknown (c. late 16th century). Wikimedia Commons.

1. James I of Scotland, as part of a brutal campaign to assert authority over his domain, executed most of his cousin’s family to augment his own power

James I, King of the Scots from 1406 until his death in 1437, endured the first eighteen years of his reign as a captive of Henry IV of England. Eventually ransomed to the tune of £40,000 in 1424, his return to Scotland was largely unpopular among the nobility, who had grown accustomed to his absence and unhappy with tax rises to pay for his release. In an effort to bolster his position, James began preemptive military strikes against disloyal nobles starting in 1425. Remaining persistently unpopular, after suffering a humiliating defeat at Roxburgh Castle against the English, James was assassinated in February 1437 as part of an unsuccessful coup by his uncle, Walter Stewart.

In the course of his crackdowns upon dissenting members of the Scottish nobility, James punished both family and strangers alike and en masse. Of particular note, Murdoch Stewart, the king’s cousin, had exploited James’ captivity to enhance his own authority and power. Unhappy with the degree of power wielded by such a close relative, in 1425 he became the victim of James’ first internal campaign. Captured, along with his sons, Walter and Alexander, all three were tried for treason and sentenced to death. Executed publicly in front of Stirling Castle, his estates were seized and the family legacy left in tatters.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

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“Ivan the Terrible”, Henri Troyat, Buccaneer Books (1984)

“Whatever Happened to Lady Agrippina”, Alexis Dawson, The Classical Quarterly (1969)

“From the Gracchi to Nero: A History of Rome from 133 B.C. to A.D. 68”, H.H. Scullard, Routledge (1982)

“The World of the Huns: Studies in their History and Culture”, Otto J. Maenchen-Helfen, University of California Press (1973)

“Attila, King of the Huns: The Man and the Myth”, Patrick Howarth, Barnes and Noble Books (1994)

“Byzantium Triumphant”, Julian Romane, Pen and Sword Books (2015)

“Byzantium: The Apogee”, John Julius Norwich, Alfred A. Knopf Publishing (1992)

“Elizabeth I”, Patrick Collinson, Oxford University Press (2007)

“The Age of Elizabeth: England Under the Later Tudors, 1547-1603”, D.M. Palliser, Routledge (1983)

“The Age of Augustus”, Werner Eck and Sarolta A. Takcs, Blackwell Publishing (2005)

“The First Emperor: Caesar Augustus and the Triumph of Rome”, Antony Everitt, Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2007 (2007)

“The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong: The Autobiographical Writings of a Crown Princess of Eighteenth-Century Korea”, JaHyun Kim Haboush, University of California Press (2013)

“The History of Korea”, Homer B. Hulbert, Book on Demand (1901)

“Constantinople: City of the World’s Desire, 1453-1924” Phillip Mansel, St. Martin’s Griffin Publishing (1996)

“Henry VIII: Man and Monarch”, David Starkey and Susan Doran, British Library Publishing (2009)

“Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium, AD 527-1204”, Lynda Garland, Routledge (1999)

“The Many Faces of Herod the Great”, Adam Kolman Marshak, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing (2015)

“Wu Zhao: China’s Only Woman Emperor”, N. Harry Rothschild, Pearson Education (2008)

“Daughter of Heaven: The True Story of the Only Woman to Become Emperor of China”, Nigel Cawthorne, One World Publications (2007)

“John the Fearless: The Duke of Burgundy”, Richard Vaughan, Boydell Press (2012)

“The History of England from the Accession of James II, Volume I”, Thomas Babington Macaulay, J.B. Lippincott & Company (2017)

“The Life and Times of James II”, Peter Earle, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (1972)

“History of Aurangzib”, Jadunath Sarkar, Orient Longman (2009)

“Russia in the Age of Peter the Great”, Lindsey Hughes, Yale University Press (2000)

“Peter the Great and the Emergence of Russia”, B.H. Sumner, Collier Books (1970)

“Cleopatra: Portrait of a Killer, BBC One (2008)

“Cleopatra: The Life and Death of a Pharaoh”, Edith Flamarion, Harry Abrams Publishing (1997)

“The Execution of Crispus”, Patrick Guthrie, Phoenix (1966)

“On the Dead of the Empress Fausta”, David Woods, Greece and Rome (1988)

“A History of Scotland”, J.D. Mackie”, Penguin Books (1964)

“James I”, Michael Brown, Tuckwell Press (2000)