Upon a Bloody Throne: 7 Royal Medieval Murders

Upon a Bloody Throne: 7 Royal Medieval Murders

Stephanie Schoppert - May 1, 2017

The Middle Ages were a time of Kings and political intrigue. While divided loyalties were often deadly to a political leader, other times it was a simple matter of a jealous husband or a jilted lover. Royalty of the middle ages proved to be just a vulnerable as the rest of the population when it came to murder and often time they were even more at risk because there was much to gain from bringing down a king. However, as many found out, there was also much to lose.

Upon a Bloody Throne: 7 Royal Medieval Murders
Prince Edward V and his brother Richard. Wikipedia

The Two Princes in the Tower

The two princes are some of the most well-known victims of the medieval era. In 1483 King Edward IV died of illness. Edward V was only 12 at the time and his younger brother Richard was 9. As such, King Edward IV’s brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester was named Lord Protector. Plans were made for Edward V’s coronation but the coronation was continuously delayed.

Finally, Richard put off the coronation indefinitely and declared himself to be the true King. Edward V and his younger brother Richard were both declared to be illegitimate heirs. The claim of illegitimacy came due to the fact that the marriage between Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville was declared invalid due to the marriage contract that had existed between Edward IV and Lady Eleanor Butler. With the marriage invalid, the boys were deemed unworthy to inherit the throne.

Once Richard took the throne and became Richard III, both former princes were kept in the Tower of London. Prior to their uncle taking the throne there had been some who claimed to see the boys playing but following the summer of 1483, all sightings of the young princes ceased. There was an attempt to free the boys from the tower in July of 1483 but it failed.

The princes were never seen or heard from again and their fate is an enduring mystery. Over the years some stepped forward claiming to be one of the missing princes but these claims were never confirmed. Two sets of two unidentified children’s bodies have been discovered. One set was found under the staircase leading to the chapel of the White Tower in the Tower of London. The other set was found in the burial vault of Edward IV and Queen Elizabeth Woodville. None of the bodies have been tested to determine if they belong to the princes. The common theory is that the princes were murdered by their uncle and it was the belief of many people of the time as well.

Upon a Bloody Throne: 7 Royal Medieval Murders
King James I of Scotland. thefreelancehistorywriter.com

James I of Scotland

James I of Scotland had a path to the throne that was far from simple. He was the third son of King Robert III and was named heir after the unfortunate deaths of his two older brothers. As one of the deaths was suspicious, James I was set by boat to France for his own protection. In a twist of fate, James’ ship was captured by the English and James was taken as a hostage. Robert III was already quite ill at the time and upon news of his son’s capture died soon after.

The throne was then taken by James’ uncle Robert Stewart the 1st Duke of Albany. The Duke liked being King and refused to pay the ransom requested by the British for the return of the young monarch. So James I spent 18 years as the prisoner of King Henry IV. It was not all bad for James as he was given an education and a lifestyle that was befitting a royal.

In 1424, Robert Stewart died and the ransom for James was paid, finally allowing him to return home to Scotland. Once home, James I sought to get revenge on the Albany Stewarts, executing the leading members of the family. He sought to reform the greed and corruption that had flourished under his uncle while also modernizing Scottish procedure. His efforts were not always popular and it led to some looking for a way to unseat the King.

James I was attacked by a group of Scottish nobles who believed him to be illegitimate. The King broke through the floorboards of his apartment in order to escape into the sewers. He made it deep into the sewers but in yet another twist of fate, the sewers had been sealed on James I’s orders after he had lost too many tennis balls. Trapped in the sewers the nobles caught up to him and stabbed him to death.

Upon a Bloody Throne: 7 Royal Medieval Murders
Nicephorus II Phocas Byzantine Emperor. amightydirge.tumblr.com

Nicephorus II Phocas

Nicephorus II Phocas started his career as a military commander following in the footsteps of his father in 953. His victories against the Arabs made him a popular figure in Constantinople and he caught the attention of the Byzantine Emperor Romanus II and his wife, Empress Theophano. Nicephorus II Phocas was known to be a pious and unattractive man with little interest in women but he proved himself time and again as a military commander.

When Emperor Romanus II died, his wife was left to rule as regent for her sons who were only six and three at the time that they were crowned co-emperors. Knowing that there were plots against her and her sons she sought someone that could protect them and their interests. To that end she summoned Nicephorus to Constantinople and seduced him. He promised to take the crown and rule until such time that her sons were old enough to rule.

In August 963, Nicephorus was crowned and soon after he and Theophano were married. Nicephorus II was not a popular Emperor. He reduced spending on the court, the clergy and the monasteries while also increasing taxation to unheard of levels. When he refused to help the poor through multiple famines he lost all favor with the people. Theophano also turned against Nicephorus because she feared his brothers sought to take the line of succession from her sons.

Theophano took a lover, John Tzimisces, after Nicephorus II removed him from his military command. Together they plotted to kill Nicephorus. John Tzimisces and several plotters dressed as women hid in Theophano’s room until the Emperor had fallen asleep. Then she urged them into the Emperor’s room where they beat him and stabbed him to death. John Tzimisces was immediately accepted as Emperor but the ecclesiastical authorities insisted that he send Theophano into exile. Despite her exile, her sons did eventually become Emperors.

Upon a Bloody Throne: 7 Royal Medieval Murders
“The conspirators ride from Finderup after the murder of Eric Klipping St. Cecilia Night 1286”. Painted by Otto Bache, 1882. readtiger.com

King Eric V of Denmark

King Eric V never had a strong hold on his throne. He was just ten years old when he took the throne after the murder of his father. Until he was old enough to rule on his own, he ruled under the auspices of his mother Queen Dowager Margaret Sambiria. She had to fight powerful enemies in order to ensure that her son would remain in power.

Chief Jarimar II raised an army and invaded Zealand as a challenge to the Queen in 1259, the year of her husband’s death. She was defeated and Chief Jarimar II would also pillage Copenhagen later that same year. He meant to continue his campaign but instead met his end after incurring the wrath of a farmer’s wife, which caused his army to flee towards home. Other rebellions and attacks on the throne led to the Queen having to cede other territories and holdings, but despite this her son still remained on the throne as he entered adulthood.

The death of King Eric V remains a bit of a mystery. There are rumors of a group of nobles willing to do whatever it took to make the King pay for slights against them or policy decisions they disagreed with. Marshal Stig Anderson Hvide and Jacob Nielsen were among the chief conspirators and they paid one of the King’s closest companions to keep them informed of his whereabouts so that they might seek their revenge.

After a long hunt on November 22, 1286, King Eric V and his men took shelter in a church barn in Finderup. A group of assassins dressed up at Franciscan monks and attacked the King as he slept. They hacked him to pieces and the bloody corpse was found the following morning. It is still not clear who was responsible but the court blamed Marshal Stig Anderson Hvide and Count Jacob Nielsen. Both men were outlawed, forcing Stig to turn to piracy.

Upon a Bloody Throne: 7 Royal Medieval Murders
Assassination of Alboin, King of the Lombards by Charles Landseer. leicestergalleries.com


Alboin was a trial warlord during the 6th century who let his arrogance and cruelty be his undoing. He came to power as King of the Lombards in 560. The Lombards were known for having conflicts with the Gepids and it was during his reign that Alboin wanted to squash the Gepids once and for all. He allied himself with the Avars and the Byzantine Empire in order to accomplish his goal.

In 567, the Gepids under the rule of King Cunimund attacked the Lombards. King Alboin’s alliance was able to crush the Gepids. In the battle, King Cunimund was killed (either by King Alboin or the Avar King Bayan I). King Cunimund was beheaded and from his skull was made a wine cup which King Alboin wore on his belt and drank from often.

Due to the alliance agreement with the Avars in which they would get control of Gepid lands, King Alboin now found himself threatened by the more powerful Avars. To try and get the Gepids to ally with him he married Rosamund, the daughter the King Cunimund. However, the Gepids were far to wear to offer much help and King Alboin had no choice but to move his people to Italy.

Between 569 and 572 he conquered most of Italy and set about creating a Kingdom to rule with his wife. It would be his cruelty to his wife that would be his end. He was known to abuse her and treat her poorly but the final straw came when he asked his wife to “drink happily with her father” offering her wine from the cup made from her father’s skull. From that moment she plotted his death. Working with Alboin’s foster brother Helmechis, they blackmailed the King’s bodyguard into helping them. Then one night as the King slept, Helmechis and the guard attacked King Alboin and beat him to death.

Upon a Bloody Throne: 7 Royal Medieval Murders
Murder of Canute the Holy by Christian Albrecht von Benzon, 1843. Wikipedia

Canute IV of Denmark

Canute IV of Denmark was King during the 11th century. He was the son of King Sweyn II Erstrithson and he succeeded his older brother Harold Hen. He became King in 1080 and he sought to strength the Danish monarchy while also being a devout member of the Roman Catholic Church. It was during his reign that the authority of the church was increased and it was required that church holidays be observed.

Supporting the church was not only a matter of religion for King Canute IV, it was also a way to get a very powerful ally. He believed that a close association with the church would create a powerful and centralized monarchy that would allow him to stand against the aristocracy. He sought reform that garnered the wrath of different members of the aristocracy.

However, his sights were not just set on Denmark. In 1085, he asserted that he had a claim to the throne of England. He raised a large invasion fleet with the intention of taking the English throne by force. But by the time he was about to set off for England, his domestic polices had caught up with him. The aristocrats, angry over his tax policies, rebelled against him.

King Canute IV fled from the rebels and hid at St. Alban’s Church, Odense. It was here that the rebels, led by his own brother Prince Olaf caught up with him and murdered him and the entire royal party. He was buried at St. Alban’s and numerous miracles were reported at his tomb. In 1101 he was canonized and made the patron saint of Denmark.

Upon a Bloody Throne: 7 Royal Medieval Murders
Murder of Queen Galswintha by Philastre Fils in the 19th century. Wikimedia

Queen Galswintha and King Chilperic

Queen Galswintha was a lady with connections. She was the daughter of Athanagild, the Visigothic King of Hispania and the sister of Brunhilda Queen of Austrasia. In her own right, she was the wife of Chilperic I, the King of Neustria. The two were married in 567.

Queen Galswintha incurred the wrath of Fredegund, the mistress of Chilperic. Fredegund wanted to be much more than just a mistress and therefore plotted a way to take Queen Galswintha’s place. Fredegund was born to a low-ranking family and became the servant to Chilperic’s first wife Audovera. It was then that she caught the eye of Chilperic and he made her his consort. It was under his advice that he divorced his first wife. Unfortunately for Fredegund, Chilperic did not marry her but instead married Galswintha.

In 568, Fredegund strangled her which likely put to rest any idea Chilperic had of taking a third wife that was not Fredegund. Therefore, Fredegund became the third wife of Chilperic and the new Queen. Fredegund used her position to bring about the deaths of many others and she kept Chilperic under her thumb. Brunhilda would not forgive her sister’s death and a feud between the two kingdoms raged for 40 years.

Chilperic I would not escape unscathed either. He was returning from a hunting expedition in 584 when an unknown assailant stabbed him to death. There are some who believe that this death was brought about by Fredegund as well but this conclusion is uncertain since Chilperic I was a very unpopular King and there were many who would have liked to see him dead.