We’ve searched through the annals of history to track down the weirdest royalty of all time. And we’ve got to say there are some gold-plated eccentric humdingers here. How about a princess who thought she’d swallowed a glass piano? Or a pickpocketing sultan? Then there’s the pickle-addicted czar. Read on for a rundown of history’s strangest monarchs.
Caligula really was a piece of work — so much so that we’ll draw a veil over some of his more unsavory activities during his reign from 37 to 41 A.D. Instead we’ll concentrate on his obsessive relationship with one Incitatus. Who was a horse. According to the historian Suetonius, Caligula lavished his favorite steed with extravagances such as an ivory feedbox, a marbled stable and a collar studded with diamonds.
Another Roman historian, Cassius Dio, wrote that Caligula had flakes of gold mixed in with Incitatus’ daily bran. Things went so far that Caligula apparently planned to promote the horse to high political office, the position of consul. In fact, the only thing that stopped him was that his disgruntled underlings assassinated him before he could put his proposal into action.
King Maximilian II of Bavaria died in 1864. Just as you’d expect, his 18-year-old son Ludwig II succeeded him to the throne. So far, so normal. But as Ludwig settled into his new role as ruler of all he surveyed things began to veer off the rails. So much so in fact that history has given the monarch the title of “Mad King Ludwig.”
Ludwig attracted this uncomplimentary epithet because of his castle habit. He just couldn’t stop building them, the grander and more elaborate the better. Unfortunately, this plunged him into enormous debt. This triggered a palace coup and Bavarian officials deposed Ludwig on the grounds of insanity in 1886. A contemporary German psychologist, Professor Heinz Häfner, has even given a name to Ludwig’s condition; “compulsive palace-building syndrome.”
Lucky James, eh? He got to be king of two separate countries, Scotland, where he was the sixth James to be king and England, where he was the first. He succeeded to the Scottish crown in 1567 at the age of 13 months after his mom, Mary, Queen of Scots, was forced off the throne. In 1603, Elizabeth I died and James was first in line for the English throne. So the two kingdoms were united under one monarch, an arrangement that persists to this day.
But does any of James’ history explain why he was apparently so averse to personal hygiene? It’s a puzzle. But according to the BBC’s History Extra website, “the king bore a great aversion to water and reportedly never bathed.” Sir Anthony Weldon, a 17th-century courtier and politician elaborated on James’ unsavory habits, “He never washed his hands, only rubbed his finger ends slightly with the wet end of a napkin.” Charming.
Frederick William became King of Prussia in 1713 and his martial qualities earned him the title of Soldatenkönig which translates as “soldier king.” But he had one peculiar foible — tall men. He wanted them as soldiers and formed a special battalion, the Potsdam Giants. All of the men serving in this unit had to be over six feet tall — well above average in the 18th century.
Frederick William went to great lengths and spent large sums to recruit men of the requisite height from across Europe. Recruits were sometimes paid handsomely to join up. In other cases, tall specimens were gifted by other monarchs. On occasion, the height-obsessed ruler even had men kidnapped. The King even went so far as to marry off his soldiers to exceptionally tall brides. Whether they liked it or not.
Nicolas I, or Nikolai Pavlovich to give him his Russian name, became czar in 1825. By all accounts, Nicolas was an abstemious type. According to the Russia Beyond website the ruler shunned tobacco, disinterested in alcohol and preferred a simple diet with no sugar. Yet he did have one strange weakness. Pickles.
When breakfast time came round at the czar’s residence, it was time for a plate of pickles. Nicolas would wash down five pickled cucumbers and some bread with a cup of tea. His Spartan diet saw him go without dinner. But he would treat himself of an evening with a drink of the salt water in which his beloved cucumbers were pickled.
Napoleon Bonaparte was Emperor of France and all of her conquered territories from 1804. In his position of absolute ruler, he could presumably have eaten any luxurious tidbit from around the world. But what he chose as his favorite snack was licorice. Louis Constant Wairy was Napoleon’s personal valet for 14 years and he dished the dirt on the Emperor’s licorice habit in his memoirs.
Monsieur Wairy recalled that Napoleon always carried three things with him. They were “his handkerchief, his snuffbox, and a little shell box filled with licorice flavored with aniseed and cut very fine.” The Emperor’s licorice consumption had one unfortunate side-effect — blackened teeth. But he pursued his obsession even on his deathbed in 1821 when he’s said to have asked for licorice-flavored water.
From 1509, Henry ruled England for 38 years, and you could argue that he is the best known English king. Although he’s not always remembered for the best of reasons. His six wives immediately spring to mind — two of whom lost their heads in truly unpleasant circumstances. Then there was his notorious gluttony which brought with it entirely predictable consequences.
While Henry was famously an athletic and handsome youth, he became morbidly obese in his later years. To be fair, it’s been said that he only put on the pounds after a jousting mishap in 1536 left him unable to exercise. But probably his oddest habit was insisting that the attendants who daily made his bed must kiss his sheets and pillows. Why? It was to foil anyone who might smear poison onto his bedding.
As monarch, it comes as no surprise that Elizabeth I took some trouble to appear at her best before her subjects. During the 45 years of her reign — from 1588 onwards — she went to great pains to preserve her looks. A bout of smallpox when she was just 29 made things all the more difficult. The unpleasant disease spared her life but left her with a pockmarked face.
But some of the measures she took to disguise her scars were ill-advised to say the least. Every day she plastered evil concoctions onto her face and neck. A first layer included white lead ore and sometimes actual arsenic. Another mixture containing mercury was applied as a second layer. That gave Elizabeth the ghostly white complexion seen in many portraits of her. To put it mildly, this beauty regimen can hardly have been good for her.
Louis XIV was just four years old when he ascended to the French throne in 1643. Presumably, he would have been fully toilet trained by that age — but his bathroom habits as an adult certainly left a lot to be desired. When nature called, the King saw no reason to be shy about his bodily functions, even in the presence of his courtiers.
Most of us expect a bit of privacy when we visit the bathroom, but not Louis it seems. In fact, the throne he sat on actually had a commode built into it. That meant he could exercise his bowels in full view of those in attendance at his court. In 2013 British newspaper The Daily Mirror reported that a replica of the King’s unusual throne-commode was displayed at the Sublabh International Museum of Toilets in New Delhi, India.
Something very strange happened to Princess Alexandra Amelie of Bavaria 23 years after her birth in 1826. The Princess became convinced that she’d suffered a terrible misfortune during her childhood. To be precise, she came to believe that she’d swallowed an entire grand piano made of glass. This strange delusion was to blight the poor woman’s life.
Believing she had a glass piano lodged in her innards meant that Alexandra had to be very careful in her daily life, very careful indeed. Her family couldn’t help but notice her increasingly weird behavior. She would creep around the palace, taking great care when passing through doorways. After all, with that amount of glass inside her the slightest collision could have been catastrophic.
Princess Mary of Teck became Queen Mary of Great Britain when the Prince of Wales, whom she’d married in 1893, became King George V in 1910. During her reign, Mary managed to earn a rather undesirable reputation among the British aristocracy. Gossip had it that if she paid a visit to your stately home, it was best to count the silver spoons after she’d left.
In fact, there’s some controversy over the question of whether the Queen actually stole stuff. But it does seem that the idea that she might arose from her own behavior. Apparently if she spotted some valuable and desirable object, she would comment on it. And when she did, she’d expect it to be offered as a gift. So British bluebloods began to hide their valuables ahead of a visit by Mary.
Emperor Justin II became the ruler of the Byzantine lands — the eastern section of the Roman Empire — in the year 565. Sadly Justin began to show signs of mental instability around 574. This might have been connected to the fact that his Empire was besieged by enemies and his attempts to repel them in battle were catastrophically unsuccessful.
The manifestations of his illness were disturbing and bizarre to say the least. It’s said that he would tear around his palace howling like a wild animal. At other times, he would crawl under his bed and conceal himself behind a wall of pillows. He would even try to hurl himself out of the palace windows. But perhaps his most disturbing behavior was his habit of biting anyone he could catch.
Christian VII succeeded to the Danish crown in 1766 after the death of his father Frederick V. Christian and is said to have been a lecherous fellow. According to Encyclopedia Britannica “he gave himself up to debauchery.” This may have been the result of an unhappy childhood and the baleful influence of certain courtiers of low morals.
Whatever caused Christian’s woes, his mental instability was not in doubt. We turn again to the verdict of Encyclopedia Britannica which starkly labels the King as “mentally incompetent.” His eccentricities included leapfrogging over distinguished visitors to his court when they bowed before him. Also, he was also fond of giving the hapless officials a firm slap.
King Farouk I succeeded to the throne of Egypt in 1936. For a king, Farouk had some decidedly outré habits. It’s said that he would disguise himself in commoner’s clothing and frequent markets to pick the pockets of his own subjects. Reportedly he even took lessons from a professional pickpocket.
One story, possibly apocryphal, is too good to leave out. Apparently Farouk invited Sir Winston Churchill to dinner during World War II. Churchill was carrying his pocket watch, a highly valued family heirloom dating back to the time of Queen Anne. Sure enough, Farouk managed to snatch the timepiece. When Churchill noticed its absence, there was uproar. Eventually Farouk produced the watch claiming he’d “found it.”
Emperor Nero ruled the Roman Empire from 54 to 68 A.D. He’s perhaps best remembered for the legend of him playing his lyre while the great city of Rome was engulfed in flames. It’s a tale that’s possibly not true — it’s believed that he was actually at his villa on the coast at the time. Another musical story that’s entertaining but more likely true is the tale of Nero’s aspiration to perform as a professional singer.
The story goes that Nero sang in public whenever the opportunity presented itself. The problem was that his singing was terrible. At one lengthy performance a woman in the audience actually went into labor in reaction to his tuneless caterwauling. Other members of the audience attempting to escape from the amphitheater were thwarted by guards posted at the exits.
Peter III became Czar of all the Russias in January 1762. It was short-lived reign since he was overthrown six months after his investiture. His dethroning illustrated just how brutal Russian imperial politics could be in the mid-18th century. For it was his own wife, Catherine, who deposed him so that she became Russia’s ruler. He died shortly afterwards, slain by one of Catherine’s men.
On a rather less somber note, in life Peter had an endearing if eccentric hobby. The Russia Beyond website quotes the words of one of Peter’s contemporaries, Prussian diplomat Karl-Wilhelm Finck von Finckenstein. He wrote, “For several hours every day [Peter] plays with dolls and puppets.” Catherine was none too impressed by her husband’s pastime, complaining that he hid his dolls under her bed.
In 2018 the literary magazine Lapham’s Quarterly carried an intriguing article about the Chinese emperor Qin Shihuang who ruled from 221 B.C. Qin firmly believed that he would find a way to achieve immortality and so rule his lands forever. This delusion led him in a lifelong search for foolproof methods of avoiding death.
One tale that especially appealed to Qin was the legend of the Three Spirit Mountains. It was said that these magical features could be found beneath the waters of the Bohai Sea off China’s north coast. These mythical mountains fascinated him because fairies living there had an elixir that guaranteed eternal life. Sadly the year 210 B.C. came round and Qin Shihuang died, badly let down by those pesky fairies.
Charles VI had a good run as the French monarch, reigning for 42 years until his death in 1422. Since he was born in 1368, he was just a lad of 11 when he came to the throne. Perhaps being thrust into the royal limelight so young suggests a reason for his bouts of mental illness. But Charles’ belief that he was made of glass is difficult to explain.
In order to live with this strange disorder, the King wore specially made clothing strengthened with iron ribs. As a precaution he ordered his attendants to keep their distance lest they shatter him. People were also forbidden from touching him. Bizarrely this glass delusion was apparently quite common from the 1400s onwards. But inexplicably this particular form of mental disturbance all but disappeared in the 19th century.
Sultan Mustafa I had two spells as ruler of the Ottoman Empire, one in 1617 and another in 1622. Each of his periods on the throne lasted only a year. The BBC’s History Extra website points out that when Mustafa became sultan in 1617 it was by default. The simple fact was that no one could agree on an alternative candidate.
In any case he was deposed in 1618 by a nephew who was in turn assassinated, leaving the door open for Mustafa to have a second bite at the cherry. He’d displayed a certain eccentricity in the past, but this second reign seemed to unbalance him further. He took to tweaking the beards of his courtiers and bashing off their turbans. Eventually the exasperated Ottomans deposed Mustafa for a second time.
Queen Christina succeeded to the Swedish throne after her father, Gustavus Adolphus, was killed in battle while fighting the Holy Roman Empire in 1632. After her coronation, Christina’s reign was notable for her refusal to accept the norms of behavior expected of a queen. An instance of her eccentricity came at the end of her reign in 1654 when she abruptly abdicated.
During her reign she converted from Protestantism to Catholicism. This was especially strange since her father had dedicated much of his life to fighting the Roman church. Christina had another habit that was highly unusual and even regarded as sacrilegious in 17th century Sweden. She enjoyed dressing as a man. But she took a somewhat different tack after her abdication, arriving in Rome tricked out as an Amazonian warrior.