Throughout history kings, queens, emperors and other rulers are seldom remembered in a positive light. They did tough jobs in often unforgiving and violent eras and had to get their hands dirty now and then.
Nevertheless, there are highborn men and women in days of old who stand out for being particularly evil or savage in how they treated the people they ruled over, or those in their inner circles. The facts are hard to verify but some are guilty of unquestionably sadistic behaviour while others caused unrestrained, widespread suffering over the subjects they were responsible for. In this list, I take a look at 10 Aristocrats who were responsible for such horrid crimes they’ll give you nightmares.
Dubbed China’s Caligula, Emperor Qianfei ruled in the 5th Century. He was a troubled child from a troubled family. His grandfather was killed by his uncle who, in turn, was murdered by his father. Father and son never got on either.
By the time he inherited the throne he had grown into a heavy drinking, paranoid man. He would butcher or force to commit suicide anyone around him who he thought might try to plot against him. He once cut open his great uncle’s stomach, pulled out his entrails and gouged his eyes out. He scandalously slept with one of his own aunts whilst others he had murdered. He forced princesses to have sex with male attendants just to humiliate them, and beheaded a female attendant because she looked like a girl in a dream who told him he was too bloodthirsty. He met his demise at his own courtiers’ hands in the end.
During an extremely violent period in history, as the Roman Empire was starting to collapse, Attila the Hun was infamous for his brutal contempt for human life. He led a massive army of mounted tribesmen which smashed through the Roman borders on a whirlwind of destruction. He gave the Roman Emperor sleepless nights and sent hundreds of thousands of poor souls to sleep, forever.
After his father died, he murdered his brother to secure control of his Huns with a simple strategy. Sweeping across the land, any town or province in his way, he gave a choice; pay me or I will destroy you all. Most couldn’t pay — and he was very bloodthirsty. Hundreds of Roman cities were wiped off the face of the earth and Attila enjoyed watching as all the townsfolk were slaughtered. even impaling his own soldiers if they deserted him.
King Leopold II of Belgium
King Leopold II ruled Belgium during the 19th Century. The British, French and Spanish Empires were all guilty of cruelly exploiting peoples they conquered but Leopold went one step further. He took personal ownership of the ironically named Congo Free State in Africa from 1885 by promising to improve its natives’ lives.
He did nothing of the sort. Instead he became one of history’s biggest mass murderers by forcing the locals to collect rubber to make him obscenely rich. His private army used rape and arson to spread fear among the natives and ruthlessly enforced rubber quotas. If these were not met, they exacted a terrible price. Leo’s soldiers were ordered to execute villagers who came up short. The soldiers had to keep the hands of their victims to prove the death sentence had been carried out however, so a grisly trade developed where villages traded amputated hands in exchange for their lives. 10 million suffering Congolese eventually died under Leo’s reign, forcing his own government to take control of the Congo from him in 1908.
Born into Roman royalty in the 1st Century AD, Caligula’s father and mother’s family was destroyed by the Emperor Tiberius. Yet Caligula eventually succeeded him as emperor and perhaps his childhood explains his cruel and crazy reign from then on.
He actually started off pretty reasonably but then fell ill, possibly poisoned. He recovered from this but his character turned to the dark side with a new found insanity and paranoia. If rumours are to be believed, he began sexual relations with his sisters and once appointed a horse of his to be a priest. He loved torture and orgies and also began murdering anyone on a whim. He had numerous family members executed and once ordered a section of the crowd to be fed to the lions at the Colosseum because he was bored. He became immensely unpopular for being incompetent and cruel, and this eventually led to him getting assassinated by his own bodyguards.
Tamerlane the Great
Tamerlane carved out a short lived empire in the 15th century in central Asia. Like many other psychopathic conquerors, he showed little mercy to any kingdom or city which stood in his way. One city, Isfahan, was captured by his army but unwisely tried to rebel by slaughtering Tamerlane’s garrison there. In revenge, he ordered the entire population to be executed, giving his soldiers quotas of heads he demanded. Outside the city walls 28 mounds, each with 1500 heads, piled up.
In the siege of the great city of Baghdad, its fall resulted in an even greater orgy of death, this time 90,000 heads were collected into 120 massive piles. But the worst of his atrocities occurred outside the walls of Delhi, where he first had no less than 100,000 Hindu prisoners executed. The menfolk inside the city, knowing their fate, chose to burn their own houses down with their families inside and then commit suicide by attacking Tamarlane’s troops rather than let the evil conqueror butcher them all.
The tyrannical Greek Phalaris is notorious for having an execution device designed which was so horrific, his victims’ suffering is hard to imagine. This was the Bronze Bull, a hollow, life sized bull with a side hatch. It worked by lighting a fire beneath it, and a victim would then be forced inside where a system of pipes and whistles converted the screams of a person being roasted alive inside into the snorts and growls of a bull. It’s designer, Perillus, calculated it would amuse his master and he would be richly rewarded. Indeed it did, it amused Phalaris even more to reward Perillus by making him the Bull’s first test subject.
Phalaris is rumoured to have had many criminals and enemies roasted alive in the Bull. Indeed Phalaris himself was its final victim when he was overthrown by Telemachus in 554 BC.
Ivan the Terrible
16th Century Russian Tsar Ivan the Terrible grew up in a time when there was much murderous infighting among the Boyars (nobles) of Russia. Both his parents were murdered by Boyars when he was a young child and he grew up imprisoned and beaten by them.
This explains Ivan’s hatred of these nobles that came to the surface soon after becoming the Russian Tsar at the age of 16. To keep them in check and, perhaps, to settle old scores Ivan created a sinister army of secret police which he used to terrorise and sadistically eliminate anyone he thought for a minute might challenge his power. These police, dressed all in black to intimidate anyone suspected of treason, tortured, raped then executed Ivan’s enemies in the worst ways possible. Once, when the City of Novgorod rebelled, he had his men slay 6000 of its city folk. He even had his only son and heir killed in a psychotic rage.
It is hard to separate fact from fiction in the case of Elizabeth Bathory, Hungarian Countess in the 16th Century, but if the accusations against her are to be believed she was an extremely twisted woman. As a young girl some sources claim she was forced to witness executions and practice satanic rituals. She married a Count Ferenc Nadasdy and he became an army commander, spending much time away as a result.
With the hubby away, it was her time to play… By 1603, rumours were spreading that Elizabeth had a taste for torturing and murdering young women. Many were servant girls who worked in her castle and disappeared without trace. Some were young, highborn girls learning the noble etiquette at her gynaeceum. Witnesses described severe beatings; burning or mutilation of hands; biting the flesh off faces, arms and other body parts; freezing or starving to death. The use of needles was also mentioned by collaborators in court. There were many suspected forms of torture carried out by Báthory. Girls were burned with hot tongs and then placed in freezing cold water. They were covered in honey and live ants. Báthory was also suspected of cannibalism. She killed 300 to 600 victims. Three of her servants paid for these heinous crimes with their lives yet Bathory got away with life imprisonment.
Gilles de Rais
A very disturbing case indeed. Breton nobleman Gilles was a hotheaded warrior and had an illustrious military career, serving as protector of the great Joan of Arc in the Hundred Years War. He eventually rose to become Marshal of France, the highest military position in the land. He also amassed a huge fortune
In his later years however, rumours spread that showed him up to be the truly fiendish monster he was. In 1440 his crimes caught up with him and he was arrested for kidnapping a priest over a dispute, wherein the truth of his crimes surfaced - he was found guilty of murdering over 100 young boys in his castle. I won’t go into too much detail, suffice to say young boys were bribed, bought or kidnapped by Gilles’ servants and brought to him whereby Gilles would then ritualistically rape and murder them. He was hung and burned at the stake for his terrible crimes.
Vlad the Impaler
Surely no one can top the man so notorious for his lust for blood he inspired the character Count Dracula — King Vlad the III, ruler of an area around modern Romania in the 16th Century. Like so many wicked people Vlad had a traumatic childhood. He and his brother were sent to the Ottoman royal court to live as hostages in exchange for their father Vlad the II’s good behaviour. There, historians guess Vlad was regularly sodomised and this might explain his cruel habit of punishment he is so famous for
Like Ivan the Terrible, above, Vlad also had trouble with Boyar nobles and he chose to punish anyone who displeased him by impaling them on long stakes. These would be placed in the ground, inserted up a victim’s rectum who would then left to die after days in agony. Vlad tricked 300 Boyars to a banquet. On arrival he had them stabbed and then impaled their dying bodies. Another story is that he once dined among a forest of writhing, impaled bodies. In another instance, an Ottoman army, themselves notorious for their cruelty, retreated in horror after being confronted with two thousand of their own impaled, captured soldiers around one of Vlad’s castles. It’s estimated he slaughtered 80,000 innocent men and women during his three reigns, 20,000 by impalement.