British Monarchs that Met Untimely Deaths

Today (Thursday June 2nd) is the start of a four day weekend in the UK to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee, celebrating 70 years as the Queen of the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. It makes her the longest reigning British monarch, and the longest reigning female monarch in history. She is not yet, however, the longest serving monarch in history. That title is held by King Louis XIV of France, who reigned for 72 years after succeeding his father at the age of four.

Of course, a key part of her reaching that milestone is her longevity: Queen Elizabeth is currently 96 years old. Historically, many British monarchs met untimely ends, often at a young age or relatively early into their reign. Here, we collate eight stories of how former English or British monarchs met their deaths.

William the Conqueror

A descendant of Rollo, a Viking who became the first ruler of the French region of Normandy, William’s claim to the English throne came from Edward the Confessor, who had promised William he would name him his successor. Instead, when Edward died the king’s council, known as the Witan in Anglo-Saxon England, named Harold Godwinson the new king. William invaded, and Harold was defeated and famously killed with an arrow through the eye at the Battle of Hastings. Harold’s death marked the end of the line of Anglo-Saxon Kings, and William ruled for 21 years as the first Norman King of England.

While a strong, healthy man in his youth, a life of kingly excess saw him put on significant weight and suffer from ill-health. In 1087, during the capture of the northern French town of Mantes, William’s horse reared up suddenly, throwing him forcefully against the pommel of his saddle. He suffered severe internal injuries, including a ruptured intestine. he died a few weeks later, at the age of 59. During the funeral, priests attempted to force his body into a stone sarcophagus that was too small to accommodate his bulk, resulting in his corpse bursting open, resulting in foul odours that sent many mourners fleeing the church.

William the Conqueror, as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry. Image: Free Use

Richard I

Known as Richard the Lionheart, Richard I of England garnered a reputation as a great leader and warrior, and played a pivotal role in the Third Crusade. Under his command, European crusaders won a string of important victories, before agreeing a peace treaty without succeeding in their ultimate aim of capturing Jerusalem. 

As well as holding the title of King of England, Richard was also recognised as the Duke of the French territories of Normandy, Aquitaine and Gascony. At the age of 41, Richard led an army to suppress a revolt in Limousin by the Viscount Aimar V of Limoges. Besieging the tiny castle of Chalus-Chabori, he was struck in the shoulder by a crossbow bolt. The wound became infected, and turned gangrenous. When the defender that had fired the bolt turned out to be a young boy who had lost his father and two brothers in battle with Richard’s forces, the king forgave him. Richard died from his wound 11 days later, in the arms of his mother.

Richard I in his funerary effigy above his tomb. Image: Wikicommons/Giogo

King John

Almost certainly the most unpopular English monarch in history, John’s reign was marked by a number of major disasters and humiliations. With a reputation for cruelty and cowardice, John was responsible for the loss of English territories in France, including Normandy and Anjou. Following an attempt to retake Normandy in 1214, which failed miserably after John was abandoned by his Angevin allies, he returned to England to find that rebel barons in North and East England were plotting against him. Before John could properly mobilise the rebel barons marched south, capturing London, Exeter and Lincoln. A proposed peace agreement was forced upon John, diluting the king’s power and providing a range of protections for landowners. The document later became known as the Magna Carta

Neither side intended to honour the peace treaty, and the First Barons’ War quickly broke out. Despite some early successes, John quickly became ill, and died at the age of 49. Rumours circulated that he had been poisoned, or simply that he had eaten ‘a surfeit of peaches’. It is most likely that in reality, he died of dysentry, although not before the indignity of seeing his baggage train, including the English Crown Jewels, lost to quicksand in a disastrous attempt to cross the tidal bay known as The Wash in East Anglia. 

John as depicted in his tomb effigy. Image: Gutenberg

Edward II

Edward II was King of England and Lord of Ireland from 1307 until 1327, succeeding his father Edward I, the ‘Hammer of the Scots’. Despite an influential marriage to Isabella, the daughter of the King of France, Edward had a close an controversial relationship with nobleman Piers Gaveston, who was rumoured to be his lover. Edward II’s reign was marked by his disastrous defeat at the hands of Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn, which saw Scotland win independence. 

Edward’s downfall came about largely at the hands of his wife, who after being sent back to her home country to negotiate a peace treaty refused to return and instead allied with exiled English lord Roger Mortimer. After Isabella and Mortimer invaded, Edward found his allies flocking to the side of his opponent, with the city of London rising up in rebellion and forcing him to flee. After Parliament called for Edward to be deposed and replaced with his son, the soon to be Edward III, Edward agreed to abdicate. Despite this, he was imprisoned by Mortimer at Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire. In September 1327, Edward III was informed that his father had died.

His death, which simplified Mortimer’s political plans significantly, is described by historians as ‘suspiciously timely’ and the general consensus is that Mortimer had the former king murdered. Rumours sprang up that the king had been killed by having a red hot iron poker inserted into his anus, possibly a reference to earlier rumours about his sexuality. However, most historians dismiss this version of events as highly improbable.

An illustration of Edward II from around 1320. Image: Bodleian Library

Edward V

Edward V officially ascended to the throne on 9th April 1483, at the age of 12. His uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, was named by his father Henry IV as Protector during the king’s minority. Instead, Richard declared his brother’s marriage invalid and rendering Edward V illegitimate. After imprisoning Edward and his younger brother, the nine-year-old Richard, Duke of York, in the Tower of London, Richard claimed the throne for himself, becoming King Richard III.

Edward and his brother Richard remained imprisoned in the Tower of London, increasingly isolated until they were never again seen after around the middle of summer 1483. While never definitely proven, it is widely accepted that they were both murdered on the orders of their uncle. During renovations at the castle in 1674, bones belonging to two children were found by workers beneath a staircase. On the order of the King at the time, Charles II, the bones were interred as Westminster Abbey, in urns bearing the names Edward and Richard. 

In 1490, a young man named Perkin Warbeck presented himself at the court of Burgundy, claiming to be Richard, Duke of York, having survived his imprisonment in the tower and escaped to France. He launched two attempts to seize the English throne, initially with the support of Scotland and later at the head of the Second Cornish Uprising. He was ultimately captured, and hanged at Tyburn in 1499.

Edward V and his brother painted in 1878 by Sir John Everett Millais. Image: Royal Holloway

Richard III

After seizing the throne from his nephew, and likely having the child murdered, Richard III’s own reign came to a bloody end just two years later. Richard’s death would mark the end of the lengthy civil war for the English throne that came to be known as the Wars of the Roses. Fought between two branches of the Royal House of Plantagenet, the Houses of Lancaster and York, the War of the Roses divided England for over 32 years. The conflict takes its name from the symbols of the two houses: a red rose for Lancaster, and a white rose for York.

The House of York won the first phase of the war at the Battle of Tewkesbury, which saw Edward IV re-instated as the King of England and the Lancastrian claim seemingly defeated. Edward IV would pass away from fever at the age of just 40, and his young son Edward V was quickly deposed by Richard III. At the same time, a new claimant to the throne through decent from the House of Lancaster emerged: Henry Tudor. Henry’s claim to the throne by blood was tenuous at best, but he returned from exile in France with an army of English, French and Breton troops backing him. Henry Tudor defeated Richard III at the decisive Battle of Bosworth Field, claiming the throne as Henry VII, the first monarch of the House of Tudor, and ending the Wars of the Roses for good. 

Both claimants to the throne fought personally in the battle. Richard reportedly unhorsing Henry’s best jouster and killing his personal standard bearer, even fighting through the melee to within a sword’s length of Henry himself. He was then surrounded by Henry’s soldiers and hacked to death, with one report stating that the blows were so fierce that his buckled helmet was driven into his skull. His naked body was slung over a horse and taken to Leicester, where it was put on public display. In 2012, his remains were unearthed beneath a car park in Leicester, before being reburied at Leicester Cathedral.

A portrait of Richard III painted in c. 1520. Image: Richard III Society

Lady Jane Grey

When Edward VI passed away at the age of 15, leaving no heir, an attempt was made to prevent his Catholic sister Mary from assuming the throne. Instead, his first cousin Lady Jane Grey was named queen, barely older than Edward at either 16 or 17. Proclaimed queen on the 10th July 1553, Jane awaited her coronation at the Tower of London. However, support for Mary grew rapidly, and most of Edward’s former supporters abandoned the young queen. The Privy Council similarly deserted her cause, and named Mary as the Queen on 19th July. This resulted in Lady Jane’s famous moniker of ‘the nine days queen’. 

Jane was subsequently charged with high treason, along with her husband, two of her brothers  and the former archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer. All were found guilty and sentenced to death. It appears that Mary initially intended to spare her life, with an envoy reporting as such to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. However, after her father joined the rebellion of Thomas the Younger against Mary’s plan to marry the King of Spain, the decision was made to proceed with her execution. After refusing attempts to convert her to Catholicism, Jane was beheaded in a public execution on 12th February 1554. Mary I’s reign saw a violent attempt to reverse the English Reformation and resort England to a Catholic nation, with over 280 religious dissenters burned at the stake. Her violent campaign to restore Catholicism saw her earn the famous epithet ‘Bloody Mary’.

A portrait believed to depict Lady Jane Grey. Image: National Portrait Gallery

Charles I

The House of Tudor was succeeded by the House of Stuart, which saw King James VI of Scotland assume the English throne as James I after Queen Elizabeth I died without an heir. As the great-great-grandson of Henry VII, James was the closest living male relative and his coronation unified England and Scotland under a single crown. After the death of his eldest son from typhoid fever, he was succeeded by his younger son Charles.

Charles I’s reign was marked by ongoing disputes with Parliament, which sought to curb the powers granted by the royal prerogative. In return, Charles insisted on his divine right to rule according to his own conscience. His marriage to a Roman Catholic further isolated many of his subjects. This came to a head in 1942, when the English Civil War broke out between royalist supporters of Charles I and Parliamentarian forces. After a decisive defeat at the Battle of Naseby, Charles I surrendered to Scottish troops and was ransomed over to Parliament. After repeatedly refusing to agree to demands to establish a constitutional monarchy, he was ultimately found guilty of high treason and beheaded in 1649.

The Commonwealth of England, which established England as a republic, was founded under Parliamentary commander Oliver Cromwell, given the title of Lord Protector. Charles’ son, Charles II, became king after the Restoration of the Stuart Monarchy in 1660.

Charles I painted in 1636. Image: Royal Collection

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