Over the course of history, nations have had many great and powerful rulers. Most of them died either gloriously in battle, or peacefully at home. In any case, their mighty legacy was left intact. However, there are a few cases when even the most powerful and seemingly intangible rulers went through total humiliation, be it in their lifetime or after their death.
10. Bayezid I
The Ottoman Empire has had its fair share of great rulers over time, especially in its early stages. Beside Mehmed the Conqueror or Suleiman the Magnificent, one truly remarkable sultan was Bayezid I, whose might and fervor earned him the nickname of “Thunderbolt” among his soldiers.
During his reign, he managed to unite much of the petty lordships of Anatolia under his grasp, extend Ottoman influence in the Balkans, defeat a Crusade and become painfully close to conquer Constantinople 50 years earlier than his descendant, Mehmed II, actually did. However, as his influence and power in Anatolia grew, he made more enemies, and at the turn of the 15th century, the Mongolian warlord Tamerlane spurred the Turkish lords of Anatolia to join him in his fight against the Ottoman Sultan. This new unfolding of events forced Bayezid to turn his attention away from Constantinople and fight Tamerlane in the East. Eventually, he got defeated in the Battle of Ankara and became a prisoner, just as Byzantine officials were on their way to hand him the keys of the city, as a symbol of Constantinople’s surrender.
Tamerlane then locked Bayezid up in a cage and had him paraded as a sign of his victory. Bayezid was held there until his death, a few months later. The invincible Thunderbolt, in a dark-humored twist of fate, went from becoming the greatest conqueror of his time to be Tamerlane’s “pet” and die a most inglorious death.
9. Henry IV (Holy Roman Emperor)
During the 11th Century, Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV was the most powerful ruler in whole of Europe and would impose respect to all. However, due to conflicts regarding the appointment of clerics, he had several clashes with Pope Gregory VII. Henry disregarded the Pope’s demands and warnings and ended up getting excommunicated. While this in itself may at most have hurt Henry’s pious feelings, getting excommunicated was a big deal for a politician in the Middle Ages and got his vassals on the verge of actually electing a new Emperor. Henry saw the risk and swiftly made a plea for forgiveness to Gregory. It was not that simple. During the winter of 1076/1077, one of the harshest of the last decades, Henry had to make a trek of penitence, by covering over 450 miles to Canossa, where the Pope was stationed. He had to do it barefoot and dressed in a sackcloth, like the poorest monks. After all this effort, one would think that Gregory would offer him penitence. Nothing more wrong! Once Henry reached Canossa, he wasn’t even allowed access in the castle, he rather had to wait for 3 days and 3 nights in the inner courtyard, out in the cold. And he had to fast all this time.
Finally, after all these hardships, the Pope took him in and along with the cancellation of his excommunication, he was allowed the most great honor of kissing the Pope’s toe. The ruler of the most powerful Empire of the time in the known world, commander of hundreds of thousand of soldiers, was literally brought to his knees by a church man and made to kiss his toes.
8. Richard III
Richard of Gloucester – known as Richard III – was, despite his Shakespearean portrayal, an ambitious and able person, proving valor in combat during a war against Scotland, ascending as Protector of the Kingdom and finally taking the English crown for himself, after imprisoning and probably murdering the former king’s sons. However, he didn’t have time to enjoy his achievements, as he was soon facing a war which has been ongoing for some time, known as the War of the Roses.
Although it was a close conflict, he finally lost his crown and life in the deciding Battle of Bosworth Field. He probably did die in combat, likely from a blow inflicted on his head, but his body faced one of the worst humiliations of an English monarch in history: the victorious Tudor soldiers mutilated his head and body with swords and daggers, including the completely inglorious insertion of a sword into his private parts, cutting part of his pelvis. Afterwards, the former monarch was thrown on a horse like a sack of grain, brought to public witnessing and dismay in the town of Leicester, and finally buried unceremoniously, without even a tombstone. Richard’s ending was one of mockery, one which even the most despicable lowborn criminal would not face.
Even during the Late Roman Empire in the 2nd century A.D, the title of Emperor would define you as a person of great power and you would kneel to no one. However, the persona of the Emperor suffered a great blow during the reign of Valerian as he became the first and only Emperor to be captured in battle.
This happened following the Battle of Edessa, during a conflict with the Persians led by their king, Shapur I. Valerian – already 5 years into his reign, much longer than the average rule during the Crisis of the Third Century – had a stroke of bad luck, having his army decimated by the plague just before the battle. Subsequently, they had to surrender to the Persians. Valerian made a successful attempt to parlay with Shapur in order to obtain an honorable retreat, but in a most unexpected act of defiance and backstabbing, Shapur went back on his word and seized Valerian during their meeting, taking him prisoner and putting the roman soldiers into slavery.
Shapur systematically humiliated Valerian, made use of the Emperor as a footstool when mounting on his horse and pretty much used him as a living trophy, amounting to his bragging rights. Valerian spent the rest of his days in the hands of the Persian king, but death did not end his abashment, as after he died, Valerian was skinned and stuffed in order to be displayed in a Persian temple, so all could see the greatest humiliation that a Caesar Augustus had ever suffered.
6. Muammar Gaddafi
When you are a dictator who has ruled his country for 42 years with an iron fist, constantly abusing human rights, causing poverty and death to your citizens (including the massacre of over 1200 people on one occasion, it should come as little surprise that your people aren’t exactly fond of you and that they may uprise against you. And that if they get their hands on you, mercy would be the last thing they would consider.
During the Libyan Civil War of 2011, Muammar Gaddafi – Libya’s long time ruler – got ousted and tried to flee along with his cronies. His convoy got bombed and he took refuge in a drainage pipe. Shortly afterwards, he was found by anti-regime rebels. Captured and fearing for his life, the once untouchable colonel knelt before his capturers and cried for his life and safety. It was to no avail, as the fighters humiliated and abused him, which included: spitting him, hitting him, dragging him around by his hair or even sodomizing him with a gun. Some tried to take him out of the angry mob in order to have him convicted, but somewhere along the way he died. Apparently, he succumbed to his wounds, one of which was possibly inflicted by someone shooting him with his very own golden 9mm pistol.
5. Benito Mussolini
Benito Mussolini’s name is synonymous with the fascist movement in Italy. He ruled the country with an iron fist for over 20 years, leading it into a war it didn’t need, draining the economy and bringing poverty and death to its citizens.
As history shows, his plans proved ill-devised. His downfall consisted of him stripped of power, retreating more and more North until he had no choice but to flee towards the northern border, together with a German convoy. Although disguised as a German soldier, he was recognized and caught when Italian partisans stopped the convoy and made a thorough search. One day later, on the 28th of April 1945 he was summarily executed near Lake Como, along with his lover and other fascist leaders.
His body was moved to Milan, where it was hung upside down in the Piazza Loreto, along with his mistress and 5 other of his cronies. It was a symbolic display for his adversaries, as only one year earlier, in the same Piazza Loreto, a group of anti-fascist partisans were publicly executed. This time, the people flocked to see the gruesome display, while trying to spit on the body, urinate on it or in any other way show their disgust towards the former dictator. Reportedly, Mussolini’s body became so disfigured that he was hardly recognizable when it was finally put down.
4. Al-Musta’sim (Last Abbasid Caliph)
The Mongols had many superstitions, one of which was that it was bad luck to shed royal blood. This didn’t mean that they would not kill their highly ranked enemies, just that they would need to become more creative in doing so. Although this terrible perspective should have been enough of a warning, the Caliph of Baghdad, Al-Musta’sim, disregarded the Mongol threat or their leader, Hulag Khan. (grandson of Genghis Khan)
It is true that the Caliph of Baghdad was the supreme ruler of all of Islam, however it was a time when none could withstand the Mongol threat. Baghdad, the jewel of the Islam Caliphate, was invaded and sacked by the Mongols in 1258, who killed most of its residents. As for Al-Musta’sim, the Mongols respected their tradition: the great Caliph was rolled in a carpet, clubbed and trampled to death. An awkward end to the Caliph and an awkward end to the Caliphate as a whole.
3. Romanos IV Diogenes
The Byzantine Empire, led by Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes, took part in the decisive Battle of Manzikert in 1071, a defining moment for the ongoing conflict between the Byzantines and the Seljuk Turks, led by the legendary Alp Arslan.
Although the Byzantines army was strong, due to several betrayals, it lost the battle and in the end Romanos found himself surrounded by the enemy. Nonetheless, he fought valiantly until he was finally captured.
Romanos was brought to the Sultan, being all covered in dust, sweat and blood. Alp Arslan put his foot on his prisoner’s neck and forced him to kiss the floor, as a sign of total humiliation and submission. However, after this, he treated his prisoner decently and following a short negotiation he let him go.
Yet, Romanos’ anguish would not end just here. Returned home, he found himself deposed and forced into a brief civil war. Once defeated, he was promised a peaceful exile, only to be cheated on, as his adversaries had him tortured and blinded. Finally he was sent into exile on an island, where he died shortly afterwards due to his infected wounds from his blinding. A sad end for a man who could have restored the glory of the Eastern Roman Empire.
2. Charles VII (King of France)
Charles VII of France was known to the French as Charles the Victorious after he succeeded in defeating the English and ending the 100 Years’ War, with the aid of legendary Joan of Arc. During his 38 year reign, he also reformed administration, distanced France from papal intervention, established the University of Poitiers and overall gave the French a sense of state unity they almost never had.
His last years were marked by some rebelling vassals, including his son and heir, although nothing strong enough to destabilize the state. He fell ill in 1458 and what was expected to be a short suffering turned out as on of the longest death scenes in history. It started with a mild sore on his leg which shortly became an infection, slowly spreading through his whole body. Charles remained bedridden, coping with pain, fever and episodes of delirium. In the summer of 1461, the infection spread to his mouth, leading to an abscess so large that the king couldn’t even swallow food or water anymore. He succumbed in suffering on July the 22nd 1461, starved and thirsty to death. After a long reign, highlighted by overcoming one of France’s greatest challenges in history, he went out miserably, in pain and humiliated by his son, who wouldn’t even care to see him in his last years.
1. Maximilien Robespierre
After the French Revolution, Maximilien de Robespierre came to power as leader of the Jacobin Movement, which had a great influence in the French politics of the time. Under his careful watch, the Reign of Terror was established, meaning that thousand of presumed counter-revolutionaries would be guillotined. In time, Robespierre acquired the power over one’s life and could decide who could live and who would die. His position soon led others to consider him an effective dictator who had close to absolute power.
Shortly, opposition began to develop among his political peers and in the summer of 1794 his arrest was ordered by the National Convention. Desperate over his imminent defeat he tried to exit the scene on his own terms and attempted suicide. Robespierre tried to shoot himself but only succeeded in shattering his jaw. Badly injured and covered in blood, he spent his last day in a waiting room at the Convention, where many of his adversaries humiliated him and mocked his condition. Only after several hours a doctor attended his wound and bandaged his jaw.
Robespierre last scene alive is a gruesome one. When his turn came to be guillotined, the executioner tore off his bandage and his broken jaw fell on his chest, with blood splattering all around him. There he lied, mutilated, in front of thousand of people that he thought he ruled, who instead flocked in great numbers to mock him and laugh at his agony. When the guillotine fell, the exalted crowd roared for several minutes, finally free from their tyrant.