London: A new study by a Cambridge University criminologist reveals just how dangerous it was to be a monarch in Europe before the modern era.
On 30 January 1649 Charles I was executed on a balcony
overlooking Whitehall in central London.
A huge crowd, restrained by ranks of militia, gathered
to witness his beheading.
An eye witness reported that his severed head was
thrown down and his hair cut off while soldiers dipped their
swords in his blood.
As a royal meeting a ghastly fate, Charles I was far
The astonishing number of European kings who met a
violent end has been documented for the first time by a
Cambridge University criminologist.
Professor Manuel Eisner`s study reveals just how risky
it was to be a monarch in an era when murdering those who
stood in your way was a fast lane to power.
Killing Kings, a paper in the British Journal of
Criminology, is a statistical study of the demise of 1,513
monarchs in 45 European monarchies over the period 600 to
It reveals that almost a quarter (22 percent) of all
royal deaths were bloody - accidents, battle deaths and
killings - and that 15 percent of all deaths were outright
"The toll of 15 percent corresponds to an average
rate of 10 murders for every 1000 years of life as a monarch -
far higher than the homicide rate for even the most troubled
areas of the world today.
"This rate is higher than the threshold for `major
combat` among soldiers engaged in a contemporary war. It
demonstrates the intense violent rivalry for domination among
historical European political elites," said Eisner.
As a criminologist, Eisner divides his gruesome
statistics for kingly killings into four broad scenarios.
Top of the list is murder as a means of succession: at
a stroke the reigning monarch is removed from power and a
In 969, for example, the Byzantine Emperor Nikephoros
II was slain in his bedroom by his wife Theophano and his
chief general, John Tzimiskes.
John was crowned as emperor after agreeing to do
penance for murder and to separate from his lover.
Next up is murder by a neighbouring ruler and
competitor, attempting to gain territory or seal a military
In 1362, the Sultan of Granada, Muhammed VI, was
invited to attend peace talks with the King of Castile and
murdered treacherously near Seville on the orders of Peter I
Personal grievance and revenge, fuelled by rape,
murder or insult committed by the ruler, rank third as
Albert I of Germany was assassinated in 1308 by his
nephew Johann of Swabia and others while riding home from a
banquet at which he had publicly insulted Johann.
Bringing up the rear is the outsider killing.
In 1172 the Venetian Doge Vitale Michel II was stabbed
to death by a member of an angry mob.
In 1354 Yusuf I of Granada was killed by a maniac
while praying in the mosque.
Young monarchs, whose grip on the reins of power was
tenuous, were especially liable to having their lives cut
Most poignant are the presumed murders of young Prince
Edward V and his younger brother Richard in the Tower of
In some cases, murder begot murder in relentless waves
Murder hot spots cropped up in some unlikely cold
climates - among them Norway and Northumbria.
Eisner suggests that the murder of monarchs provides a
window into the dynamics of elite violence across more than a
thousand years of European history.
If removing a monarch promised important benefits, and
opportunities arose, assassination was seen by political
elites as a swift route to regime change.
European regicides were most frequent in the Early
Middle Ages and became gradually less common over the
Eisner suggests that, as legislative systems
strengthened their hold on the division and transfer of power,
murder lost its appeal as a strategic tool.
On top of this, the doctrine of the divine right of
kings, which gathered credence from James I onwards, meant
that kings enjoyed almost godly status and an act of
deposition was sacrilegious.
"After the 16th century it became very uncommon to
organise power transfer through the murder of a monarch.
"If it did occur, it required extensive legal
justification such as in the criminal trial of Charles I in
1649 which eventually led to his execution," says Eisner.
"As for regicides motivated by ideology and
radicalism, they have continued right into the early 20th