5 Notoriously Mad Sovereigns

“No great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness,” Aristotle wrote. Mental decay did not spare the great leaders of history. Some were prone to acute paranoia, others displayed vile cruelty, and others were simply born with a touch of madness running through their blood…

Caligula: mad by blood

He was born Gaius. The future emperor became Caligula because, even as a 3 year-old boy, he would dress as a soldier with armour and boots, known as ‘caligae’. That was his mother’s scheme to draw support from the Roman army. When he finally accessed the throne, in 37 AD, he almost immediately fell ill, at which point his life was endangered. Wild rumours spread: a Roman lady had him drink a love potion… The truth was far more mundane: born of intermarriages, Caligula inherited all his ancestors’ vices.

DAMNATIO AD BESTIAS. One of the Emperor’s favorite pastimes: condamnation to beasts… (Credit: Jamahiriya Museum, Tripoli via Wikipedia/Public domain)

From that point on, the emperor exhibited a notorious taste for cruelty and did, well, strange things. He ordered people beheaded when he felt bored. He would throw members of the amphitheater’s audience into the lions’ pit. He had his favorite horse promoted as consul (which, it turns out, was more his way of mocking the old Roman institutions than a sign of madness but, let’s face it, nobody in his right mind would have thought it). Suetonius (Life of Caligula, XXXII) tells of one of the emperor’s numerous demency fits:

At one of his more sumptuous banquets he suddenly burst into a fit of laughter, and when the consuls, who were reclining next him, politely inquired at what he was laughing, he replied; “What do you suppose, except that at a single nod of mine both of you could have your throats cut on the spot?”

The hysterical, incestuous Caligula also squandered the Empire’s money in lavish, costly constructions — he had the heads of the Gods’ statues removed and replaced with his own face — and so soon became surrounded with enemies. Despite the fact he protected himself with gladiators as bodyguards, a plot eventually ended his turbulent reign — he was stabbed to death in 41 AD.

Charles VI: King On Fire

Charles VI’s parents were cousins. Does that mean he had natural predisposition for demency? The early days of his reign contradicted it. Crowned in 1380, the French King soon earned a reputation for compassion, hence his nickname “Le Bien-Aimé” (the Beloved). However, on August 5, 1392, a curious event turned his reign around…

Heading a cavalry regiment near Le Mans, under a scorching sun, the King was suddenly addressed by a peasant dressed in rags who shouted at him: “Do stop, noble King, for you have been betrayed”. The royal guard soon got rid of the nuisance, but some time later, the King took up his sword and, out of the blue, attacked his own soldiers. “Forward! Let us chastise the traitors! They want to turn me in!” Four of his own men were killed before the guards had a chance to overpower the monarch…

KING’S EVIL. Bedridden, Charles VI was examined by royal physicians… and exorcists. (Credit: Froissart Chronicles via Gallica/BnF)

When Charles VI finally got a grip on himself, following meticulous diagnosis by royal physicians, he was not the same man anymore. Demency now had invaded part of his mind, and he fell victim to regular relapses. For instance, he thought he was made of glass and was very careful not to break himself. To soothe the hysteria crises, Queen Isabeau of Bavaria organized a ball in Paris, where the King had a terrible idea: he would disguise himself as a ‘savage’ to please his audience. His face, blackened by coal, was unrecognizable; he was wearing a costume made of linen, covered with sticky pitch, with feathers on top of it.

Eventually, Charles VI’s brother, the Duke of Orleans, approached a torch to take a closer look at the costume: but since the pitch was highly flammable, the King immediately caught on fire! The ball horribly turned into a blazing inferno… And the King would certainly have burned alive without the help of the 14-year-old Duchess of Berry, who wrapped him into her robes, stifling the fire.

WE DIDN’T START THE FIRE. The King did it, and the notorious ‘Ball of the Burning Men’ would haunt his court for years… (Credit: Froissart Chronicles via Wikipedia/Public domain)

That was the beginning of the end for Charles VI, who then earned a new (and rightfully deserved) nickname: “Le Roi Fol” (The Mad King). His courtiers and close relations took over his reign, while he did his best to fight the rampant demency that eroded his brains. He passed away in 1422, and following funeral tradition of the time, his body was boiled with a fistful of seasoning, making the burning King end up as a royal stew.

Vlad the Impaler: A Stake in Stakes

He was the inspiration behind the spooky character of Dracula, the blood-sucking vampire; safe to say he was not a nice guy. Vlad Tepes, ruler of Valachia in the 15th century, actually shared few similarities with his literary counterpart. With a certain taste for cruelty, the Eastern European prince modernized his country at full speed, trying to save it from an incoming Ottoman invasion.

So when two Turkish envoys were introduced in his palace, sent by the powerful Ottoman sultan Mehmet II, Vlad Tepes made a point in standing his ground. As the messengers refused to take off their turbans — acting according to religious custom –, the Valachian leader had their turbans nailed to their heads his response… That was also the cruel way he dealt with domestic problems. Wishing to get rid of the local boyar aristocracy, said to have plotted against his father back in the days, he invited them for supper during Easter Sunday 1459: but instead of the nice banquet they were promised, his guests — men, women and children alike — were put to death or sentenced to hard labor.

KILL THE MESSENGER. The sultan’s envoys at the Palace of Vlad Dracula. (Painting by Theodor Aman via Wikipedia/Public domain)

Without much surprise, tension between Valachian and Ottoman leaders escalated into full-scale war, raging for years. An opportunity for Vlad Dracula to display his irrepressible cruelty. The night after a battle, in 1462, 20,000 Turkish prisoners of war were impaled right on the battlefield — covering, it is rumored, about three hectares of ground. The Valachian prince was said to have had dinner among the tortured Turks, and his fearsome strategy worked: upon this terrible sight, sultan Mehmet II apparently said that “he [could] not take the country from a man capable of such extraordinary things”.

His favorite punishment method earned him the nickname ‘The Impaler’. Sure, he would not drink blood from his enemies’ neck — or would he? — but he certainly had more blood on his hands than Bram Stoker’s vampire. Why else would the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauscecu later glorify him as a national hero?

Ivan the Terrible: Russian Roulette

Orphan at a very young age, Ivan Vasilyevich had a rough childhood. Bustling around him at the Moscow Palace where he wandered aimlessly, were mere shadows dealing with conspiracies, murders, hatred and politics. The only person he felt close to, his nanny Agrafena Obolenski, was exiled and sent to a covent. Ivan was eight years old. This promised nothing good…

TSAR ACADEMY. Very early into his reign, Ivan IV showed signs of mental deficiencies… (Portrait by Viktor Vasnetsov, 1897 via Wikipedia/Public domain)

On January 16, 1547, Ivan became Ivan IV, and soon to be nicknamed Grozny, ‘the Fearsome’. However the tsar was prone to a severe case of paranoia, and would often have terrible fits of anger. When his spouse Anastasia died in 1560, probably from poisoning, was what left of sanity deserted him forever. He inspired a reign of terror known as oprichnina, suspecting everyone to plot against him behind his back, and quite a lot of those suspects were hanged, impaled or decapitated. Everything was a reason for eradication.

During the winter of 1570, the Novgorod Massacre marked the peak of Ivan the Terrible’s bloody diplomacy. Three thousand citizens were thrown into the freezing waters of the Volkhov river or tortured. The mad tsar also killed his own son with his pointed staff during a fit of rage in 1581. This started what Russia would later call ‘the Time of Troubles’. It sure was.

FILICIDE. Ivan the Terrible holds his son into his arms, moments after killing him. (Painting by Ilya Repin, 1885 via Wikipedia/Public domain)

Joanna of Castile: Mad Love?

She is best remembered as “Juana La Loca” (Joanna the Mad), however the subject of her apparent madness is still debated among historians. As the third child of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, the princess was meant to inherit neither of her parents’ kingdoms. Until fate stepped in.

Indeed, Joanna was married to Philip the Handsome, of the House of Habsburg, in 1496 to secure yet another alliance. Here was her parents’ plan: their eldest son John was to unite the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon (making up Spain as we know it today), and their daughters would be wed to foreign sovereigns (Portugal, Scotland, England) so as to obtain powerful allies in Europe. It all worked perfectly well until John died of tuberculosis and Joanna’s eldest sister died in childbirth, so that as soon as 1502, Joanna of Castile was first in the line of succession…

BLACK WIDOW. Juana la Loca at her husband’s funeral. (Painting by Francisco Pradilla exhibited at Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid via Wikipedia/Public domain)

But the young woman had another situation to cope with. Desperately in love with Philip, she could not stand his multiple infidelities. So she consulted apothecaries, ordered love potions to be mixed with her husband’s wine, to no avail. One day after the other, Joanna got closer to nervous breakdown: she was rumored to sob, alone in her bedroom, every night… Plus, to get rid of her, Philip would make her pregnant as regularly as possible (she gave birth to six children in ten years) and have her locked up without her ladies-in-waiting.

Joanna still wept openly when her husband fell sick, and turned inconsolable when he passed away in 1506. She then watched over his corpse for an abnormal number of days, like a guard dog, and joined the funeral procession leading up to his resting place, 700 kilometers (440 miles) away. This is when people started to consider her as sick. A good opportunity to oust her from the royal throne, which she rightfully deserved. Her own son Charles had her locked up in a Santa Clara covent, forbidding her any visit. This is where she died in 1555, as a 75-years-old lady. Half a century of legitimate rights over the Aragon and Castile crowns had been taken away from her. So the mystery remains: was she really mad, or considered so because it was a good excuse for a coup?


  • Georges Bordonove, Charles VI : Le roi fol et bien-aimé, Pygmalion, 2006.
  • Anne Bernet, Histoire des gladiateurs, Tallandier, 2014.
  • Matei Cazacu, Dracula, Tallandier, 2017.
  • Constantin Rezachevici, “Punishment with Vlad Tepes – Punishments in Europe Common and Differentiating Traits and Differentiating Traits”, Journal of Dracula Studies, vol. 8, 2006.
  • Raymond T. McNally, Radu Florescu, In search of Dracula: The history of Dracula and vampires, Houghton Mifflin, 1994.
  • Nicolas Brémaud, « Ivan le Terrible (1530-1584) : psychose, crimes, et destruction », L’information psychiatrique, 2013/2 (Volume 89), p. 185-192.
  • María A. Gómez, Santiago Juan-Navarro, Phyllis Zatlin, Juana of Castile: History and Myth of the Mad Queen, Bucknell University Press, 2008.
  • Michèle Escamilla, « Jeanne la Folle, une princesse presque parfaite », Historia spécial n°40, mars/avril 2018.

Author: Nicolas

Ingrédients : 33% d'anecdotes insolites, 19% de livres poussiéreux, le reste de curiosité névrosée. Auteur du Petit dictionnaire des sales boulots (Vendémiaire, 2022). Chroniqueur chez Slate et RetroNews.

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