What a Way to Go – Top 10 Deaths of English Kings

In a recent episode of Scottish Rex Factor, we encountered one of the most elaborate deaths suffered by any of the monarchs we have covered. Inspired by this, we decided to have a look at the ten weirdest and not-so-wonderful ways in which the English monarchs have seen their reigns come to an unfortunate end.

10. William Rufus (d. 1100)

William Rufus, struck by an arrow in the New Forest

William Rufus, struck by an arrow in the New Forest

The successor (in England) of William the Conqueror, Rufus was both a powerful and surprisingly flamboyant monarch (not least for his pointy shoes!). In 1100, he was at the height of his powers, taking control of Normandy while his older brother, Robert, was off Crusading and making his own plans for expansion. However, it all came to an end when he went hunting in the New Forest in early August and his hunting companion, Walter Tirel, missed a stag and instead shot Rufus in the chest. Without uttering a word, Rufus broke off the arrow shaft, fell to the ground and died. Tirel went into hiding while the other nobles ran off to secure their lands, leaving poor Rufus unattended until some peasants carted him off for burial.

But was it as simple as that? Did Tirel miss or was he paid to assassinate the king? He was renowned as a good shot, in fact Rufus actually gave him the fatal arrow, noting that “It is only right that the sharpest arrows should be given to the man who knows how to shoot the deadliest shot.” Rufus’s younger brother, Henry, was also on that hunting trip and he went straight to secure the Treasury at Winchester and took the throne. However, a lack of health & safety legislation in Norman England meant that hunting accidents were common – even within the family, one of Rufus’s brothers and nephews also met a similar end (and also in the New Forest!)

Eerily, Rufus may ever have foreseen his own death, having woken that morning after a nightmare in which the sky became overcast with darkness. It spooked him enough to avoid hunting in the morning, but he had clearly calmed down after a few drinks in the afternoon as not only did he go on the hunt, but he rejected another premonition of his death, this time given to him by an abbot:

“Just when I have much real business to see to he informs me about the dreams of snoring monks…Does he think I act like the English, postponing their travels and business because of the snores and dreams of little old women?”

Ali’s Verdict: Fairly sure that this was jealousy, but not the kind that historians think. In the not too distant future I think we will find that the perpetrator rode off into the distance with such a fancy pair of shoes.

Listen to William Rufus’s podcast episode here.

9. Edmund Ironside (d. 1016)

Edmund Ironside comes to an unfortunate end sitting on the toilet

Edmund Ironside comes to an unfortunate end sitting on the toilet

Edmund Ironside’s father was the not-so-glorious Aethelraed the Unready, who had briefly lost his throne to the Viking Sweyn Forkbeard in 1013 and was about to lose it to Sweyn’s son, Cnut, until he helpfully died in 1016. Edmund Ironside was made of much sterner stuff, inspiring the Saxons to resist Viking conquest and forcing Cnut to a peace in which the country was split between them. When one died, the survivor would inherit the kingdom.

Given that he was dealing with a ruthless Viking, it probably should not have been too much of a surprise that Edmund Ironside did not last much longer after this agreement. What would have been surprising, however, was the manner of his death, wherein he was speared while sitting on the toilet by a man who was lurking underneath. An inglorious end for a potentially glorious monarch.

Naturally, the finger of suspicion points immediately towards Cnut. And with good reason, considering that he assassinated various other members of Edmund’s family. However, he was said to have admired Edmund and allegedly the assassination was actually arranged by Eadric Streona, a treacherous individual who continually changed sides and was himself executed by Cnut after a game of chess. Alternatively, of course, Edmund may simply have died from wounds received in battle…

Ali’s Verdict: This could arguably be where Edward II got his ahem, inspiration. Why does no one ask for how long the chap was sitting inside the toilet with the spike? Give that man a shower! (And a prison sentence.)

Listen to Edmund Ironside’s podcast episode here.

8. Edward the Martyr (d. 978)

The 960s-70s had been the golden age for Anglo-Saxon England under the rule of Edgar the Peaceable (and, of course, his trusty advisor, Dunstan). However, on his death the country fell into division, with his two young sons (by different mothers), the focus for rivals at court. The eldest, Edward, was visiting his younger brother (Aethelraed the Unready – seemingly a harbinger of terrible deaths!) and his step-mother, Aelfthryth, at Corfe when his unfortunate demise came about. Still on his horse after hunting, Edward accepted a glass of wine from Aelfthryth only for someone to stab him in the back. He managed to ride away but fell off, being held on and dragged by the stirrups until the horse came to a halt and his body was recovered.

The set-up has all the hallmarks of an evil Disney stepmother. She was one of the chief antagonists of the court rivalries and the result of Edward’s murder was the accession of her son. Alternatively, the deed may have been arranged by the ealdorman Aelfhere, who was at odds with Edward’s supporters at court. Tellingly, the perpetrators were never caught.

Strangely, Edward’s death at just 16 years old was the making of him. It was the most shocking murder in Anglo-Saxon royal history, with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle stating that “No worse deed than this was ever done by the English nation since they first sought the land of Britain.” Something of a cult started to develop around Edward, miracles were attributed to his apparently preserved body. During the Reformation, his bones were hidden from harm and after being rediscovered in the twentieth century were given to the Russian Orthodox Church in Exile for reburial in 1984. Ironically, contemporary sources suggest that he was an intemperate and licentious king!

Ali’s Verdict: What is it with evil step mothers? To be honest he should have been more careful. Silly Edward!

Edward the Martyr, receiving his wine before being stabbed in the back

Edward the Martyr, receiving his wine before being stabbed in the back

Listen to Edward the Martyr’s podcast episode here.

7. Harold Godwinson (d. 1066)

Perhaps the most famous royal death in English history! Harold Godwinson became king after the death of Edward the Confessor in 1066, much to the ire of William the Conqueror (or William Duke of Normandy, as he was at the time) who claimed Edward had promised him the throne. When the Viking ruler of Norway also threw his hat into the ring (with dubious legitimacy but a lot of military might, nevertheless), 1066 was a bumper year for warfare in England. Harold Godwinson defeated Hardrada at Stamford Bridge in York, only to have to rush down to Battle (Hastings) to fight William. The battle lasted all day until, with the Normans starting to get on top, Harold himself was struck in the eye by an arrow, his death making William’s victory certain.

Harold II takes an arrow in the eye at Hastings - or does he?

Harold II takes an arrow in the eye at Hastings

However, the exact manner of this most famous of deaths is hotly contested. The key source is the Bayeux Tapestry, which depicts a man with an arrow in his eye under the text “Harold Rex interfectus est” (King Harold is killed). However, to the right of this image (and also beneath this text) is a man being struck down by a Norman knight – so could this be Harold instead? The arrow itself is dubious, as this was a restored section of the tapestry and it may originally have been a spear that ‘Harold’ was holding. Perhaps he was struck first by an arrow and then, vulnerable, hacked down by a knight.

The much-debated death scene of Harold II - is he on the left or the right? Or both!

The much-debated death scene of Harold II – is he on the left or the right? Or both!

Ali’s Verdict: Another arrow shocker! Or was he slain by the sword? Doesn’t really matter in the end, but it’s that question mark in the Bayeux embroidery (thank you Gman) that is just sooo tempting to explore. Doesn’t explain the dodgy stockings though.

Listen to Harold Godwinson’s podcast episode here.

6. Richard the Lionheart (d. 1199)

Richard was one of the most impressive military leaders of all England’s kings, winning impressive campaigns in France and one half of a mighty rivalry with Saladin in the Third Crusade. His was a life that demanded a death either in old age with a huge empire at his feet or in one last battle, fighting to the end before being overwhelmed by his enemies. Unfortunately, his downfall was not quite as dramatic as he might imagined. He was besieging a French castle and liked to watch, with amusement, a crossbowman who would take potshots at him. Richard applauded (literally) his efforts but was actually struck in the shoulder by a crossbow (apparently not bothering to duck). Having failed to pull it out himself, he called upon a surgeon who did an even worse job, resulting in Richard the Lionheart dying in the arms of his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, when the wound turned gangrenous. As chroniclers noted, “The Lion that by the Ant was slain”.

Unfortunately, things didn’t go very well for the ant either. Richard had the crossbowman brought to him on his deathbed and very generously ordered that he be set free and given some money. After Richard died, his last orders were ignored and the bowman was flayed and hanged.

Ali’s Verdict: How he would have loved to go, in battle. But, just like his reign, not quite as impressive as people think. There was no big showdown, just a pot shot. still, he took it like an Englishman.

Richard the Lionheart, not so dramatically meeting his end.

Richard the Lionheart, not so dramatically meeting his end.

Listen to Richard the Lionheart’s podcast episode here.

5. George V (d. 1936)

The name of George V would perhaps be one of the less predictable names in this list, and on the surface there is little of note about his death. George V became king the midst of a political crisis in 1910 and changed the royal family name to Windsor during the First World War, as well as successfully ushering in the first ever Labour government in 1924. His old-fashioned, no-nonsense, public-serving approach to the monarchy proved very apt for the difficult inter-war years and he was much mourned when he died from bronchitis in January 1936, his health having been deteriorating for some time.

So what’s the problem? Initially, the only interesting thing of note were his supposed last words, responding “Bugger Bognor” to the news that the seaside resort, Bognor (where he had convalesced in 1929) was to be named “Bognor Regis” in his honour. However, the diaries of his doctor, Lord Dawson of Penn (great-grandfather of Damian Lewis, incidentally!), revealed something rather more interesting. For one, George’s last words were actually “God damn you!”, grumpily directed towards his nurse when being given a sedative, but more importantly, George V was, technically, murdered!

George V was definitely close to death on 20 January 1936, but he wasn’t yet dead. Apparently concerned that George would linger on a little too long for his death to be reported in the more respectable morning papers and so be announced in the “Less appropriate evening journals”, Penn decided to hurry things along and administered a lethal injection of morphine and cocaine. He even had his wife phone The Times to let them know an announcement was imminent!

Ali’s Verdict: SCANDAL! Why haven’t the papers picked up on this? Graham has unearthed the biggest scandal of the 20th Century! Come on!

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Listen to George V’s podcast episode here.

4. Edward II (d. 1327)

Edward II suffered perhaps the most notorious and ignominious ends of any monarch on this list. His reign had been unsuccessful, suffering a terrible defeat to Scotland’s Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn, riven by division (largely thanks to his promotion of lowly court favourites), he was eventually overthrown by his own wife, Isabella of France, and her lover, Roger Mortimer. He agreed to abdicate in order to ensure that his son, Edward III, would succeed him as king.

Edward was imprisoned at Berkley Castle in Gloucestershire, and following a succession of failed plots to rescue him, Mortimer decided enough was enough. However, knowing that to murder a (ex) king would be extremely controversial, he wanted to make it appear like natural causes. So, ordering that no mark be visible on his body, a red-hot poker was inserted up Edward’s anus.

Understandably, this account is not accepted by all historians. The rather graphic method of murder is perhaps an allusion to rumours of Edward’s homosexuality and so this account of his death is seen as a slur on his character rather than the most likely manner of execution. However, some historians (most notably Ian Mortimer – no relation) have suggested that Edward was not murdered at all but escaped both his captors and the red-hot poker.

Ali’s Verdict: One Poker. Red Hot. One bottom. Come on!

A red hot poker...(ouch)

A red hot poker…(ouch)

Listen to Edward II’s podcast episode here.

3. William III (d. 1702)

William III (the ‘William’ half of ‘William and Mary’) was England’s one and only Dutch ruler, celebrated for his role in usurping James II and ushering in the ‘Glorious Revolution’, he was actually more concerned with his European campaign against Louis XIV of France. William’s health had never been robust (his asthma meant he tended to live at Hampton Court rather than central London) and after an extended period of illness he was eventually brought down, quite literally, by a molehill – he was knocked from his horse when it hit the molehill, breaking his collarbone and ultimately dying from pneumonia following complications to the wound.

Supporters of William’s predecessor and rival, James II (and his heirs), were known as the Jacobites. When they heard the news of William’s death, they reportedly toasted “the little gentleman in the black velvet waistcoat” (i.e. the mole) who had seen off their enemy.

Ali’s Verdict: Brilliant stuff on the death front from one of my favourite Monarchs. Entertaining in death as in life. He must have landed flat on his little beak poor chap, and those little penguiny feet couldn’t face the uphill challenge of a mole hill.

The little gentleman in the black velvet waistcoat who saw off William III

The little gentleman in the black velvet waistcoat who saw off William III

Listen to William III’s podcast episode here.

2. Henry I (d. 1135)

Henry I bore witness to the first of our notable royal deaths (his older brother, William Rufus) and 35 years later would himself come to an unlikely end. His reign was very successful, re-establishing dominance over Normandy, defeating his rivals and introducing various reforms in government. Unfortunately, this was largely undermined by the death of his only son in the White Ship disaster, resulting him in naming his one legitimate daughter, Matilda, as heir. This itself was undermined when he fell out Matilda (and, in particular, her husband, Geoffrey Plantagenet) meaning that when he fell ill and died in 1135, they were not with him and not in a position to act.

In fairness to them, and to Henry I, they could not have expected Henry to depart in the way that he did. According to the medieval chronicler Henry of Huntingdon, an unwell Henry was advised by his doctor to avoid eating any more lamprey (a rather ugly jawless fish) but, this being apparently something of a favourite for Henry, he ignored the doctor’s advice and went on a bit of a lamprey gorge-fest (later described as a “surfeit of lampreys”), after which he fell fatally ill and died.

Ali’s Verdict: I would say one Lamprey is a surfeit. I mean look at them. NO THANK YOU.

Lampreys - Henry I died by eating them (rather than the other way round!)

Lampreys – Henry I died by eating them (rather than the other way round!)

Listen to Henry I’s podcast episode here.

1. Sweyn Forkbeard (d. 1014)

Sweyn Forkbeard is a largely forgotten figure in English history, a king of Denmark who beset Aethelraed the Unready and England with Viking raids before eventually realising that it would be a lot easier just to become king rather than having to go away and come back again whenever he needed some more cash. Sweyn succeeded in his conquest, becoming king on Christmas Day in 1013. Sweyn used Gainsborough in Lincolnshire as his capital but just a couple of months later, on 3 February 1014, he died, killed by Saint Edmund the Martyr.

This becomes more interesting when you realise that Edmund the Martyr had been killed by the Vikings in the year 869 some 130 years earlier! Edmund was the last independent King of East Anglia, killed by the Great Heathen Army by being tied to a tree by Ivar the Boneless and his body riddled with arrows. His remains were buried at Bury St Edmunds (hence the name!), and Sweyn would later threaten to attack the town and destroy his church if he did not receive taxation. Apparently, Edmund’s ghost did not approve:

“At last, when the evening was approaching of the day on which, at the general assembly which he held at Gainsborough, he repeated the same threats, at a time when he was surrounded by Danish troops crowded together, he alone saw St Edmund, armed, coming towards him. When he had seen him, he was terrified and began to shout very noisily, saying “Help, fellow-warriors, help! St Edmund is coming to kill me!” And while he was saying this he was run through fiercely by the saint with a spear, and fell from the stallion on which he sat, and, tormented with great pain until twilight, he ended his life with a wretched death on 3 February.” (John of Worcester)

So, just to clarify, Sweyn Forkbeard was killed by the ghost of St Edmund the Martyr! Not surprisingly, there are some alternative theories. The Danes claimed that Sweyn (54 years old and presumably worn down by constant warfare) died after falling from his horse, while Snorri Sturlson said that he had “suddenly died in his bed at night” (perhaps scared to death by a dream haunted by the ghost?) Perhaps Sweyn’s son, Cnut, was fearful of a similar haunting, as in 1020 he rebuilt the abbey at Bury and left his crown at the saint’s shrine to atone for the sin of his forefathers.

Ali’s Verdict: All I can say is that the ghost of Edmund must have been a hell of a lot scarier than he was in real life, to scare to death a man who carved his own teeth.

Sweyn Forkbeard being speared by St Edmund the Martyr

Sweyn Forkbeard being speared by St Edmund the Martyr

Listen to Sweyn Forkbeard’s podcast episode here.

6 thoughts on “What a Way to Go – Top 10 Deaths of English Kings

  1. Pingback: 1016 And All That: The Battle of Assandun and the Road to Hastings | Rex Factor

  2. I don’t know how much truth there is to the story of Sigurd Eysteinsson’s demise. I know he wasn’t an English King but dying from an infection caused by a scratch from the tooth of a skull tied to your saddle should qualify for an honorable mention in a list of not so wonderful ways to go.

  3. Excellent read. I’m still rather tempted by having a go at the lamprey (pics to be provided as and when that happens) I will try to not consume a surfeit of them…

    I think Edward V and his brother need an honourable mention here too. Mostly because we don’t REALLY know what happened (but we can take a jolly good guess!)

    • We considered Edward V – he made the long list but not the final cut! Ultimately it was precisely because we just don’t know exactly how he died that he didn’t get included – probably worthy of a blog in and of itself!

      • You probably covered it well enough in the Edward V podcast anyway.

        One thing I wonder though – if Edward got the chop and then his brother does that make the killer a double regicide? Not many can make that kind of claim to fame!

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