It wasn’t very long ago that anyone with a noticeable mental condition was locked away in a cold, bare cell inside a so-called lunatic asylum. Yet in that same era, and for a couple of millennia before, if that same mentally ill person was of the royal family, you just kind of rolled with it.
Noble birth often meant a dramatic increase in the odds of mental illness, thanks to their special brand of elitist inbreeding. It also often meant that whatever decrees came from the mouths of those inbred rulers was law. Despite all the exaggerated tales of babbling, syphilitic kings and malicious rumors meant to weaken the influence of rivals, many stories of insane monarchs were quite true. In many cases, there are enough congruent eyewitness reports to essentially confirm the deeds and misdeeds of these eccentric sovereigns, including some of the most bizarre, depraved, and horrific vices in history.
Here are ten royals whose actions earned them a spot on the list of history’s craziest.
10 King George III of England
George III is remembered mostly for being the king who lost to America in their War of Independence. But he left behind another legacy: numerous tales of erraticism and madness. So much so that he was eventually deemed unfit to rule and his son George IV ruled as Prince regent in his stead.
George (thought now to perhaps be bipolar) reportedly oscillated between manic periods in which he would speak too quickly to comprehend and foam at the mouth, and periods of such depression that he would cry and wail for hours or days at a time. He reportedly suffered from increasing paranoia and hallucinations, at one point even trying to shake hands with an oak tree. His urine was also described as either blue, red, or purple, leading some experts to think he suffered from acute porphyria.
9 Charles VI of France
Charles the VI had a lot in common with George III. His reign is also remembered for a crushing victory with far-reaching political ramifications, in this case, the Battle of Agincourt. And also like George, Charles gradually built up more and more of a reputation for being a bit off.
There are two most notable displays of Chuck’s mental illness, and they are weirdly at odds with each other. The first is his famous ‘glass delusion.’ He held the ardent belief that his body was made of glass and therefore fragile as glass. He refused to let people touch him, even sitting still for hours on end to avoid breaking himself. The second is his violent, murderous outbursts, which he directed at anyone close to him. Charles even went so far as to kill his own knights.
Roman emperor Nero’s legacy as a ruler is complicated. Many reports claim he was beloved by the common folk, with some even refusing to believe his death and elevating him to the level of folk hero. On the other hand, many historians and nobles (the ones who tend to do the writing) saw Nero as a cruel, hedonistic tyrant who cared only for his own interests, not the Empire’s.
Though surely both are at least partially true, it is clear that he was a bit crazy, and many accounts support the hedonistic tyrant view pretty heavily. For example, when Nero’s second wife Poppaea died—which multiple sources say was Nero’s doing—he had a young commoner man who looked like Poppaea castrated and put in a dress. Nero married the young man and referred to him only as Poppaea.
7 Elagabalus aka Antoninus
Elagabalus was a Roman emperor, but unlike the (in)famous Nero, Elagabalus’s reign was short and has mostly faded into obscurity. What details have survived, however, paint the young royal as wildly depraved. Depraved enough to be assassinated and replaced by age 18.
Reportedly, Elagabalus had little to no interest in actually governing. Instead, he preferred having sex with anything and everything that moved. He had innumerable lovers, some of every age and gender, appointed whomever he was porking at the time to high-ranking government positions, and according to some, even spent his free time prostituting himself.
Even worse to his fellow Roman nobles, he was an utter heretic, and replaced traditional Roman religion with fringe cult worship in his court, and so: off with his head.
6 Mustafa I
Mustafa I was a sultan of the Ottoman Empire just after its 16th-century peak. He earned the title ‘Mustafa the Mad,’ and with the way he was raised, it’s easy to see how.
It was customary in the Empire at that time for a new sultan to execute his brothers. Easy transitions, you get it. But when Mustafa’s older brother Ahmed I took the throne, the new sultan took pity on young Mustafa and instead locked him away in a windowless room. For 14 years. He then took the throne for just a year and was sent back to his room for another four years. Then another one year of rule. This imprisonment and extreme yo-yoing of fortunes took their toll on Mustafa. His social skills were nonexistent and he often would yank any beard within reach or throw his wealth away to nearby animals.
5 Maria Eleonora of Brandenburg
As consort to the King of Sweden, Maria Eleonora of Brandenburg had a lot of pressures placed on her. None more so than producing for the king a male heir, which she never quite accomplished. She had a miscarriage, a daughter who died within a year, and a stillborn son. Though her fourth (at least) pregnancy finally yielded a healthy baby, it was another daughter, whom she named Christina. Maria could not take it.
She called Christina a monster and repeatedly tried to injure and even kill her as a baby, though luckily, she was unsuccessful. By the time her husband the king died, Maria had completely lost it. She had the king’s heart placed in a golden casket and hung above her bed. She then forced Christina to sleep with her in the bed, night after night, the two of them below the dead king’s heart.
If Maria lived in today’s world, we might have recognized her suffering and gotten her the help she needed. However, she was victim to an era’s cruel beliefs and left alone to deal with the tragic outcomes of her previous pregnancies.
4 Princess Alexandra of Bavaria
Princess Alexandra of Bavaria was extremely intelligent. Refusing to ever marry, she instead devoted herself to her studies. She became a novelist, essayist, and translator. But underneath her brilliance and accomplishments, she struggled.
She was a notorious germaphobe and for some reason refused to wear any color clothing but white. Oddest of all, she became convinced she had swallowed an entire grand piano made of glass as a child. It’s hard to make that up. This caused her to avoid touching people and objects and even walking sideways through doors to avoid the frames, lest they touch her and break her (oddly similar to Charles VI of France).
3 Vlad the Impaler
Vlad the Impaler is one of the most notorious figures in history. Though considered a Romanian national hero by some, his cruelty was almost inhuman, and his reign was marked by many large-scale acts of torture and genocide.
The mythos surrounding him even caused him to become conflated with vampire mythology (for one, Bram Stoker borrowed his name Dracul for his title character). His insanity is less eccentric than others, more driven by pure bloodlust. Vlad would invite foreign envoys to his palace in the guise of peace talks, and then impale them, still alive, on stakes to die slowly and painfully. He is also famous for nailing turbans to the heads of Ottomans who removed to remove them in his presence.
2 Nebuchadnezzar II
King Nebuchadnezzar II of the Babylonian Empire is the O.G. crazy royal. His insanity is attested to all the way back in the Book of Daniel from the Old Testament. According to the book, he went mad for seven years, choosing to live in the forest as a cow, even eating grass. The psychological term for this is boanthropy, the belief that one is actually a cow.
Though this is generally considered a work of historical fiction, some believe that said events might have actually occurred, but perhaps should be ascribed to a different Babylonian King, Nabonidus.
1 Gaius Caligula
I mean, come on. How could the number one spot not go to Caligula? The Roman emperor (another one?!) has become the very embodiment of hedonism, decadence, perversion, masochism, and sadism (although the Marquis de Sade kind of has dibs on the latter).
Caligula took Nero’s cruelty and cranked it to 11. He took Elagabalus’s perversion and cranked it up to 12. Though an accurate account of his misdeeds is impossible, just a few of his greatest hits are: sleeping with his sisters and even prostituting them out, appointing his horse as a priest, converting his palace into a working brothel, and even having his guards throw innocent audience-members into arenas during intermissions so he wouldn’t get bored.