Crowned and Crazy: Six Rulers Who Figuratively Lost Their Heads

From the king who thought he was his brother, to the empress who made cross-dressing mandatory at court, history has had its share of mad monarchs

Denise Shelton


Illustration of the King and Queen of Hearts by John Tenniel (public domain)

Please note: The following is based, in most cases, on hearsay. People in power are often the subject of gossip, some of it quite malicious. These anecdotes may have been exaggerated over time or be completely false. In the past, mental illness was attributed to moral weakness, God’s judgment on the wicked, or some other such nonsense. Incidents in the lives of these monarchs were recorded by those who viewed them through the lens of antiquated beliefs and prejudice. The accounts below are presented in the spirit of sharing stories that are part of the past. The author in no way intends to condemn or make light of those who struggle with mental illness either yesterday or today.

1. — Portugal’s Peter I (1320–1367)

“The Coronation of Inês de Castro in 1361“ by Pierre-Charles Comte (public domain)

Grief has inspired people to do strange things. Losing the person you love most, especially when that love was passionate and all-encompassing, is enough to drive even the sanest person crazy. Such was the case of Peter I of Portugal.

When Peter was the crown prince, his father, Afonso IV, arranged for him to marry Constanza Manuel of Vilena. The marriage went ahead as scheduled, but Peter soon fell in love with his wife’s lady-in-waiting, the beautiful Inês de Castro. Their affair lasted until Constanza died in 1345. King Afonzo refused to allow Peter to marry his beloved Inês and banned her from his court. So Peter married Inês in secret, set up housekeeping with her in Coimbra, and proceeded to father their four children.

King Afonzo believed Peter’s relationship with Inês and her Castilian noble family was a threat to his kingdom. He feared that Portugal would be taken over by Castile, so in 1355, he had Inês detained and sent three men to murder her. They decapitated her in front of one of her children. Peter revolted against his father, but the rebellion failed.