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- 10 Monarchs Who Killed or Mutilated Their Own Sons
- History provides us with many examples of how absolute power can corrupt even the closest family ties: suspicion of rebellion and conspiracy; the appearance of too little aptitude for rule - or too much, making a young prince too popular; or just a moment of rage. These have been enough to cause powerful fathers to kill sons, secure in the knowledge that they could do so with impunity. If you are a monarch, you might kill your son and still be remembered by posterity as “The Great”, or even kill two sons and be remembered as “The Magnificent” …
- 1. Macedonian king Lysimachus kills his son Agathocles
- Lysimachus, king of Thrace and Macedonia, was already a grandfather at the time he decided to remarry. He chose as his new bride Arsinoe, the younger sister of his daughter-in-law Lysandra, who was herself the wife of his eldest son and heir, Agathocles. Like Lysandra, Arsinoe was the daughter of Ptolemy I - king of Egypt, in the line that would later produce the famous Cleopatra - so it is not surprising that the young woman eventually held great influence over her aging husband. The king honored her so much that he even renamed a city after her – for a while, Ephesus became “Arsinoeia”.
- But Arsinoe wanted more than honors: she wanted one of her sons to succeed him on the throne. The main obstacle was Agathocles, the heir apparent, already an adult and an experienced military commander, who was liked by the people, the army and the ruling class. So she persuaded the king that Agathocles was conspiring against him, instigating a rebellion, and the father arrested and executed his son. (It is said that earlier, and with Lysimachus’s consent, she tried to poison Agathocles, but he sensed the poison and spat it out – so they had to resort to a public execution to be rid of him.)
- The country was shocked. Afraid for her children, the widowed Lysandra fled with them into the protection of the neighboring king Seleucus, who, like Lysimachus and Lysandra’s father Ptolemy, was a former general of Alexander the Great. Seleucus used the opportunity to invade his neighbor and Lysimachus died in the ensuing battle – making him the only one from this long list of murderous parents who was punished by fate for his deed.
- 2. Constantine the Great kills his son, and then his wife … and becomes a saint
- Roman emperor Constantine ended the persecution of Christians – a decision that spared thousands of lives and resulted in his veneration as a saint - so few remember that he was also the author of one of the most shocking crimes in all Roman history: He executed his firstborn son, Crispus, heir to the throne and a promising military commander, and also killed his wife Fausta, who was suffocated in an overheated bath soon after.
- The reasons will forever remain a mystery. Both were subjected to “damnatio memoriae”, their names were erased from all inscriptions and contemporary historians kept an embarrassed silence, so the truth is lost. Only a pagan historian, Zosimus, mentioned the suspicion of Crispus “debauching” his stepmother Fausta. Modern historians have multiple hypotheses. Did Crispus and his young stepmother really have an illicit affair? Or did Fausta falsely accuse Crispus of such indecent proposals, hoping to eliminate him from succession in favor of her own sons? And did Constantine then first believe her and punish him, and only later discover the intrigue and punish her? Or did Fausta simply accuse Crispus of conspiring against his father? We’ll probably never know.
- 3. Emperor Heraclius mutilates his rebel bastard son, Atalarichos
- John Atalarichos was the illegitimate son of Byzantine Emperor Heraclius, born of a concubine. At one point the emperor gave him to the Avars as a hostage. Many monarchs on this list unjustly suspected their sons of conspiring, but this time the son was part of an actual conspiracy to kill his father and make himself emperor. And he wasn’t the only member from the imperial family: his cousin Theodore, the emperor’s nephew, was involved too - he hated Emperor Heraclius for imprisoning his father (also named Theodore). The emperor had imprisoned his own brother because he dared to criticize Heraclius’s incestuous marriage with their niece Martina.
- As you can see, the imperial family relations were really complicated.
- Many high-ranking officials in Constantinople were also involved in the conspiracy. One of them revealed the plot to Emperor Heraclius, who promptly arrested the conspirators and punished them all, including his own son Atalarichos, by cutting off their noses and their right hands. The harshest punishment befell his nephew, Theodore, who besides his hand and nose also lost one leg. This was one of the first instances of punishment by mutilation that would become a Byzantine tradition.
- 4. Empress Irene blinds her son, Emperor Constantine VI
- When the Iconoclast Byzantine emperor Leo IV died in 780, his wife Irene became regent for their 10-year-old son Constantine VI. She earned the favor of the church and the common people by reversing her husband’s religious policies and allowing the use of icons. For that, the Orthodox Church considers her a saint. As Constantine grew up, she encouraged the youth to have fun and to leave the boring administration of the empire to her. At the age of twenty Constantine had the title of emperor, but the Empire was still ruled by the regent.
- Encouraged by some courtiers, Constantine began to think about taking power and exiling his mother to Sicily. When Irene found out, she exiled his supporters and had him beaten like a disobedient little child. When she tried to have herself recognized as empress in her own right, though, the army revolted against her in favor of the young emperor. He proved to be incapable, impulsive and cruel, blinding his enemies or cutting their tongues (punishment by mutilation by then being Byzantine tradition).
- Despite this cruel streak, he was lenient towards his mother. He gave Irene all the honors befitting her rank, though without real power. To gain leverage, she used her beautiful lady-in-waiting Theodote as bait. Young Constantine fell so much in love that he divorced his wife Maria, forcing her to enter a convent, so that he could marry the temptress. This was a violation of canon law, the ensuing controversy cost Constantine the support of the church. When the emperor’s popularity was further eroded by military defeat, Irene’s supporters reinstated her. Constantine attempted to flee to Asia Minor, but his shrewd mother blackmailed his last supporters to into surrendering him to her. Constantine was then blinded and exiled to an island. Some sources say that he died soon after from the wounds, others say he lived blind for years. And Irene ruled in her own name – the only woman ever to do so in the Byzantine Empire.
- 5. Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent kills two sons and four grandsons
- By the time Sultan Suleiman was old and ill with gout, he preferred to rest in his palace in Istanbul and keep the peace with his neighbors. Mustafa, his firstborn son and a promising young man, was by then beloved by the Turkish people. And Mustafa was also popular with the army, which was eager for a young and energetic prince to take the throne and restart the age of conquests.
- There was one person who didn’t love Mustafa, however: his beautiful and powerful stepmother, known in Europe as Roxelana and in Turkey as Hürrem. A simple Ukrainian girl at the time she was captured by the Tatars and sold to the sultan’s harem as a slave, her beauty and charm captured Suleiman’s heart so much that he freed and married her, and together they produced four sons and a daughter. Now she wanted one of these sons to succeed to the throne, and to kill his rival brothers once the law was in his favor.
- She made a powerful ally in the shrewd Rüstem Pasha, the grand vizier, who had married her daughter. When Pasha commanded an army attack against the Safavid (Persian) Empire, he witnessed his soldiers, against his own orders, make a detour to pay homage to Mustafa - an act he later described to the sultan as an almost open rebellion. To make this point more convincing, he also shared a letter apparently from Mustafa to their enemies the Safavids, that was in fact a forgery. Suleiman - who remembered how his father Selim had deposed his grandfather Bayezid with the help of the army - took command of the expedition himself and sent an order to Mustafa to join him in the camp.
- Mustafa had been warned that his father might kill him, but he faced an insoluble dilemma: he was falsely accused, but if he didn’t do as his father ordered, that would constitute a real act of rebellion. So, placing his trust in his own innocence, he went to the sultan’s tent, surrendered his sword to the guards, and entered to greet his father.
- At Suleiman’s sign, three mutes (the sultan’s most trusted servants) then strangled Mustafa with a silk cord.
- Suleiman was then down to two sons - Selim and Bayezid, both Roxelana’s – and the rivalry between the brothers was fierce. Fearing rebellion, the aging sultan did not want his sons too close by. But as an impartial father, he was willing to allow them to govern provinces at equal distance from Istanbul. Distance was of importance because succession in the Ottoman Empire was not based on primogeniture - the new sultan would instead be the first son of the old to arrive in the capital. The solution was to transfer them to equally-distanced but farther away provinces. Selim, the older, obeyed immediately, but Bayezid, the younger, hesitated and moved reluctantly – which Suleiman took as a sign of rebellion.
- So the sultan then sent Selim to lead an army against his brother. Bayezid, defeated, took refuge with his family the neighboring Safavid Persia. The shah, Tahmasp I, received him with great honors and magnificent banquets – until Suleiman offered him a great sum of money. The shah then agreed to stand aside, and the sultan sent a great delegation, with both the money and an executioner, who strangled not only Bayezid but also his four sons, Suleiman’s grandsons.
- 6. Spanish King Philip II kills his son Don Carlos
- Don Carlos’s tragic fate inspired a theater play and an opera, in which he is portrayed as a noble and generous prince who took the side of his people against the tyrannical father who had married his own son’s beloved fiancée. The historical truth is quite different. Born with a shorter leg and unequal shoulders, and suffering from a speech defect and a high, childish voice, Don Carlos was a victim of his royal ancestors’ repeated inbreeding: both physically deformed and also, reportedly, mentally deficient. He had a violent temper, and was considered unfit for rule and perhaps even for marriage - his boyish voice lead some to suspect that he was impotent. That’s probably why the French princess Elisabeth married the king after having been engaged to the prince. Indeed, when Philip II hoped to arrange a marriage for Don Carlos with Emperor Maximilian’s daughter Anna, he arranged for physicians to test the prince’s potency. The son apparently passed the test and became engaged to the princess, but the marriage never occurred, and later, after both his and Elisabeth’s deaths, Anna also married the prince’s father.
- Unfit as he was, Don Carlos was the only son of King Philip II and therefore his heir, and he grew more and more irritated that his father and his courtiers didn’t offer him enough power and respect. Once, in a temper tantrum, he even hit the powerful duke of Alba. Some rebels took advantage of his discontent and his naïveté and convinced him to join their rebellion in Netherlands. The king discovered the plot, and along with his guards, entered Carlos' room late in the night to search for evidence of treason. He kept his son prisoner, first in his room in the palace and later in the prison fortress where he died the following year under mysterious circumstances. There were rumors about Don Carlos being poisoned at the king’s orders, but it is also possible that his father simply kept him in under conditions that - when combined with his already frail health - lead to his death.
- 7. Tsar Ivan the Terrible kills his son
- Tsar Ivan the Terrible was a very religious man, but that did not stop him from taking many wives. When one upset him, especially by failing to produce a son, he would send her to a monastery and marry another. He did the same to his son’s wives: two were sent to a monastery, one after the other, for not getting pregnant soon enough.
- His third daughter-in-law got pregnant, but that still wasn’t enough to earn her the tsar’s favor. Once, despite her long-awaited pregnancy, the tsar beat her because he thought she was dressed too “immodestly”. Tsarevich Ivan, his son and heir, intervened to save his wife and unborn child (she miscarried afterwards) and confronted his father. Furious, Ivan the Terrible struk him in the head with his scepter. The young Ivan died after some days of agony, during which the remorseful father prayed to God for a miracle to save his son’s life.
- 8. Sultan Mehmet III kills his son Mahmud
- Prince Mahmud was a youth eager for military deeds. He insistently asked his father, the sultan, to give him an army and send him to fight against the rebellion that was happening in Anatolia. For Mehmet III, this was already suspicious: why did his son want an army if not to rebel?
- But the blow that felled the young prince came not from his father but from his mother Halime, one of the sultan’s concubines. Ambitious, and worried that the law allowed a new sultan to kill his rival brothers, she was anxious to know if her son will be the next sultan. (Mehmet III had had 19 brothers and killed them all, so Halime had reason to be worried.) So, she sent a message to a Sufi sheikh, who was considered clairvoyant, asking how much longer the sultan would live and whether her son would succeed him.
- The supposed clairvoyant expressed confidence that Mahmud would be the next sultan, but his answer never reached Halime. It was intercepted by the harem’s chief eunuch and given to Mehmet, who interpreted it as a clear sign of conspiracy. So the sultan ordered his deaf-mute servants to strangle his son with a silk cord, as he had done with his 19 brothers before.
- 9. Tsar Peter the Great kills his son Alexei
- Peter the Great is now remembered as a great ruler with modern, enlightened views – but his views on family were less so. Hoping to model his son in his own image, he sent his first wife away to a monastery and was cold, authoritarian and demanding towards the now motherless boy. But the son was not like the father; he was weak, quiet and pious and not at all interested in the military. When Peter had a second son by his new wife, he threatened Alexei with disinheritance if he didn’t "man up", but Alexei gladly renounced his right of succession, hoping his father would let him live a quiet private life. But Peter insisted that Alexei could only renounce the throne if he himself also entered a monastery.
- This was too much for Alexei. He was pious, but not *that* pious – and besides, he had a Finnish mistress, Afrosinia, who was a former serf. So for the first time in his life, he did something audacious: he fled to the Habsburg Empire and put himself under the protection of Emperor Charles VI. For a time he lived in peace there with his beloved Afrosinia, but later his father sent a very shrewd emissary, Count Pyotr Tolstoy (ancestor of the writer), to convince him to return, with the promise that the tsar would pardon him.
- He did return, and he officially renounced the throne in the hope that his troubles were over. In fact, they were just beginning: his father started to interrogate him about the accomplices to his escape – for Peter, the escape itself was conspiracy and treason. Pressured by his father, Alexei gave the names of several of his closest friends and supporters. Most of them were promptly executed, with the luckiest receiving only whippings. But the tsar was not yet content, and he arrested the pregnant Afrosinia. When she saw the instruments of torture, she “confessed” to everything her zealous interrogators wanted.
- Her confession was fatal to her lover. Alexei was sent to prison and, under torture, confessed to all accusations. Afrosinia’s betrayal had broken his heart. He was sentenced to death by the tsar’s council, but he died from his tortures before the ruling could be carried out.
- 10. Korean king Yeongjo kills his son Sado
- As heir to the throne, prince Sado was raised by eunuchs in an isolated pavilion, only rarely seeing his father. He eventually grew so afraid of the king that he was barely able to speak in his presence. Soon, signs of madness appeared. The prince was so afraid of thunder that he could not even bear to read the word “thunder”. Each day he demanded a dozen new outfits to choose from, and would burn the ones he didn’t like. His madness eventually descended into violence: he cut off a eunuch’s head and showed it to his wife and her ladies-in-waiting, he beat his favorite concubine to death, he raped his wife’s ladies-in-waiting and, if they resisted, he beat them as well. Even just the process of dressing, or of choosing his clothes, could make casualties or corpses of his servants. His wife, Lady Hyegyeong, describes all of this carnage in her memoirs.
- Finally, the king decided to be rid of this dangerous son. But how? If he executed Sado as a criminal, according to the Korean laws, he would have to also execute the criminal’s son, Jeongjo, a child and the only remaining heir. So instead he chose an unusual punishment: he ordered his son into a big rice chest and locked him inside. The prince survived inside for 8 days, begging for his life. Only when the begging and all other signs of life had ceased did they open the chest, where they found Sado dead.
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