Checkmate – Which of History’s Kings Died in Battle?

King Harold of England dies at the Battle of Hastings as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry.

King Harold of England dies at the Battle of Hastings as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry.

“Prior to the age of muskets, kings and princes often personally lead their armies into battle. Predictably, a number of these fighting monarchs would be struck down in the action.”

Sweden's Charles XII.

Sweden’s Charles XII.

IT WAS 1700 when an alliance of nations including Russia, Poland, Prussia, Saxony and Denmark-Norway joined forces to chase the Swedes from territories in Northern Europe. In addition to fielding a larger army than the lone Scandinavian power, the aggressors also had one more thing going for them: Sweden’s ruler,the teenaged Charles XII, was unproven as a wartime leader. Not surprisingly, most expected Charles to be a pushover. [1] Unfortunately for the alliance, the 18-year-old monarch turned out to be a tough and resourceful strategist. Within six years, the young king and his army had defeated the coalition, save for Russia. Although his subsequent march on Moscow in 1709 would end in defeat and exile for Charles, the now veteran ruler would return to lead his troops again in a series of new campaigns against both Norway and Russia. In 1718, while besieging the city of Haldenm, Norway, Charles was struck in the head by a musket ball. The wound proved fatal. And while the leaderless Swedes abandoned Halden and eventually give up most of their empire in Europe, the death of Charles would hold perhaps an even greater significance for history – it would be the last time a European monarch would die in battle.

While having a ruler fall in combat was certainly rare, it was by no means unheard of. In fact, prior to the age of muskets, kings and princes would often lead their armies from the front, exposing themselves to many of the same risks faced by their men. Predictably, a number of these fighting monarchs would be struck down in the action. Here are a few of history’s fallen warrior kings.

Unlucky Englishmen

Harold is struck down at the Battle of Hastings.

Harold is struck down at the Battle of Hastings.

At least three kings of England died in action between the 11th and 15th centuries. The first was Harold II, the last Anglo Saxon ruler of England. After killing the Viking king Harald Sigurdsson (yes, another “Harold”) at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066, England’s Harold famously fell near Hastings just a few days later. Reports on how the ruler was perished vary – some suggest that Harold was fatally cleaved in a melee with Norman knights led by William the Conqueror. However, the famous Bayeux Tapestry suggests that the ill-fated monarch took an arrow in the eye. In any case, with their king slain, the Anglo-Saxons fled the field and eventually ceded control of England to William.

William’s great great grandson, Richard I would be best known for his exploits during the Third Crusade. Nicknamed the Lionhearted for his prowess on the battlefield, Richard would die in 1199 at the age of 42, not at the hands of the Saracens in the Holy Land, but from a crossbow bolt  in Aquitaine, France while taking on some rebellious nobles. After being shot in the neck while inspecting a siege of an enemy castle in Limosin, Richard’s wound became infected and he died.

The last king of William’s Plantagenet dynasty, Richard III would fall in 1485 during the final battle of the War of the Roses, a civil war that pitted England’s royal family against the Tudors. Badly outnumbered and with his own forces defecting to the enemy in droves, Richard tried to pull off a daring reversal by leading a hasty cavalry charge across Bosworth Field right at the enemy leader, Henry Tudor himself. In the ensuing carnage, Richard was struck in the head by a poleaxe so hard it drove his helmet into his skull. Richard’s last words, “Treason, treason, treason!”, were directed at his one of his turncoat nobles.[2]

Other Fallen Monarchs

The Battle of Clontarf.

The Battle of Clontarf.

The English weren’t the only ones to lose kings in battle.The Irish ruler, Brian Boru would fall during the Battle of Clontarf near Dublin on Good Friday in 1014. Brian’s own son and a number of his nobles would also fall that day at the hands of Viking mercenaries working for the rival King of Lienster.

Scotland’s James IV died at the Battle of Flodden in 1513 after declaring war on England to support his own French allies. It’s not clear how James, the last British king to fall in battle, was killed. However, a contemporary characterized him as reckless and foolhardy on the battlefield, often rushing off without support or without even notifying his own handlers. [3]

France would lose her share of monarchs as well. The first being Clodomer, one of the sons of the Frankish ruler Clovis I. The unlucky monarch was struck dead at the battle of Battle of Vézeronce on June 25, 524 during the Burgundian War – a conflict that pitted Clovis’ four sons and heirs against one another for control of his realm. Another Frankish ruler, Robert I would also die in battle in 923. In fact, Robert would be personally slain by the Carolingian ruler Charles the Simple as the two met in one-on-one combat. While not a Frenchman himself, the blind king John of Bohemia would die in arms as an ally of France while leading his troops against the English at the Battle of Crecy in 1346.

Bulgaria also has a tradition of losing monarchs on the field. After a long and bloody struggle against the Mongols, King Constantine Tikh would die in a civil war against his own people in 1277. Fifty-three years later, Michael III of Bulgaria was fatally crushed under his own horse while doing battle against the Serbs. Some accounts indicate he died later of wounds sustained in combat, although other sources say Michael was captured and executed by the Serbians. [4]

Old School King Killing

King Leonidas of Sparta lost more than just his pants at Thermopylae.

King Leonidas of Sparta lost more than just his pants at Thermopylae.

The ancient world saw a number of its rulers fall in combat too.

Anyone who reads comic books knows the story of how the Spartan ruler Leonidas died in 480 BCE with a puny force of 300 hoplites at Thermopylae while facing tens of thousands of Persians. What many might not know is that between 740 BCE and 265 BCE, Sparta would lose no fewer than five other rulers in battle: Telacus, Cleombrotus I, Archidamus III, Agis III and Areus I.

Even Roman emperors weren’t immune from the dangers of combat. After being ruler for only a month in 238 CE, the emperor Gordian II died near Carthage in the thick of a civil war that saw various factions fight for control of the throne. Amazingly, the year Gordian died, Rome would see a total of six different emperors come and go (although not in action). Eleven years later, the Syrian-born emperor Philip the Arab died putting down a rebellion started by the next Roman emperor Decius. After only two years in power, Decius himself, along with his co-ruling son Herennius Etruscus, fell to a combined force of Scythians and Goths at the Battle of Abritus. Over the next 120 years even more Roman emperors die on the battlefield.

The 58th Roman emperor, Maxentius drowned in 312 after falling into the Tiber River following his army’s route at the hands of the Christian usurper Constantine the Great. Twenty-eight years later, Constantine’s own son, Constantine II, was struck down when battling his own brothers for control of the empire following the death of their illustrious father. In 363, Julian the Apostate of the Eastern Empire died an agonizing death when he was skewered through the intestines by a Persian spearman at the Battle of Sammara. And Valens I was killed 15 years later in a battle against the Goths. Some accounts say the emperor was shot in face with an arrow, while others record that he was carried wounded from the field to a nearby hut that was then surrounded and burned by enemy cavalry. [5]

The Queen is Dead

Boudica, queen of the Iceni, was last seen at the Battle of Watling Street.

Boudica, queen of the Iceni, was last seen on Watling Street.

While fewer women rulers would take up the sword throughout history, some of those who did met grizzly ends. Consider Boudicca, queen of the Icceni tribe of Great Britain. In the year 61, the legendary monarch led an abortive uprising against Roman conquerors that would lead to her death at the Battle of Watling Street, but not before she and her followers torched Londinium, killing an estimated 70,000 Romans (a figure many have since disputed). [6]

Sometimes it’s not so good to be king (or in Boudicca’s case queen).

(originally published in MilitaryHistoryNow.com on Aug. 3, 2012)

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SOURCES
1. http://www.pierre-marteau.com/resources/charles-xii-sweden.html
2. http://www.bardweb.net/content/ac/richard3.html
3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_IV_of_Scotland
4.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Shishman_of_Bulgaria
5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valens
6. http://www.listal.com/boudica

8 comments for “Checkmate – Which of History’s Kings Died in Battle?

  1. 3 August, 2012 at 5:55 am

    In a way I think the danger to kings especially in medival times hailed from the way armies ere formed. Since there were no standing armies they could rely upon (except for those few knights and men at arms), their troops were simply formed from mostly pesants when need be. But all these forces had no real reason to fight except for the noble or king who riased them (or for fear of their punishment if they did not follow him). So they had to lead by example. And the enemy had much more reason to kill them. If they did strike the serpents head off, the rest would most likely run or lay down their arms.

  2. Adam
    3 August, 2012 at 2:55 pm

    Really like your blog, so apologies for this, but I think Flodden was 1513, not 1488…

    • 3 August, 2012 at 3:04 pm

      You are correct! My apologies. I have corrected it. Thanks for putting things right.

      • Adam
        3 August, 2012 at 5:23 pm

        No worries. Please keep up the good work!

  3. 16 May, 2013 at 4:35 pm

    I stumbled on your site on http://militaryhistorynow.com/2012/08/03/checkmate-kings-who-died-in-battle/ and I’m very thankful I did. I feel as though you’re reading my mind right now.
    You come across as knowing a great deal about this,
    as if you authored the book on it or something like that.
    I think that you can do with a few pics to drive the
    message home a bit, but other than that, this is great blog.

    I will most definitely return.

    • 16 May, 2013 at 4:55 pm

      Thanks for your feedback. I am glad you like it. As for authoring the book… not yet. But I have read many many many books on this stuff.

  4. 7 June, 2014 at 5:02 pm

    Recently had a discussion via twitter about the Kings of England that died in battle, there was contention over Richard I, as he received his mortal wound from a battlement while riding around the castle, but irrespective of meagre twitter debates, nice post.

  5. BOSKO MISTRELOVIC
    28 September, 2015 at 6:35 pm

    I think you missed Ottoman Sultan Amurat who died in the battle of Kosovo 1389 : https://www.google.com/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=Batle+of+kosovo+1389

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