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Kings, and queens, monarchs and emperors often rise to the throne by birthright alone. There’s no campaigning, no election, no popular vote, no competition whatsoever. They are simply born with the right to rule. They just happened to be the first son of a first son of a first son in a family that was once deemed “royal” for whatever reason and it stuck. Does this make them the best candidate to rule an entire country? An empire? Well, no. Many of them were crowned as mere children, babies even. But did you know, some of them were so unfit to rule, even as adults, they’ve inspired an entire literary archetype? Let’s fix that. 


Hello, I’m Shea LaFountaine and you’re listening to History Fix, where I discuss lesser known true stories from history you won’t be able to stop thinking about. This week, we’re discussing “mad kings,” or “mad monarchs” maybe I should say as one of our characters today is a queen, not a king. But, regardless of gender, these once world leaders stand out from all the rest for one reason: insanity. Yes, all of these rulers suffered from mental illness during their reigns which is, a problem, obviously, with potentially very serious consequences. 


I know quote “mad” isn’t like a PC term when referring to people who suffer from mental illness but just let me do it, okay? It has a nice ring to it. All of these people have been dead for centuries, they don’t care. 


Now I want to be clear here before we get into it. There have been quite a few rulers who were awful humans. Evil kings, I suppose. We’re not talking about them. Evil is different from mad. It’s like the difference between just a straight up cold blooded murderer and someone who successfully uses the insanity plea in court. We’re talking about the insanity plea rulers. 


Mad kings have cropped up so frequently throughout history and left such an impression on us that the character of the mad king has actually become a recurring archetype in literature, movies, and tv. I mean, there’s the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland, you know like “off with their heads!” that one. Shakespeare loved mad kings - King Lear, Macbeth, King Claudius from Hamlet, Henry VI of England who was actually a real guy, we’ll talk about him, don’t worry. And then of course King Aerys Targareyn the “Mad King” from the Game of Thrones series and then there’s Joffrey Baratheon, Lannister, whatever but he’s verging more into the evil king category I talked about earlier. 


Okay enough fiction, let’s get into the real mad kings, mad rulers, that inspired it all. We have to throw it way back to the OG mad king Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon all the way back in the 500s BC. Nebuchadnezzar II was the second king of the Chaldean dynasty of Babylonia. He is super old, like biblically old. Actually, much of what we know about him comes from the old testament of the bible. He was apparently a very skilled military commander, did a lot of conquering in his day. He’s also credited with rebuilding Babylon - he built a defense wall, paved the roads, embellished some temples, cut canals, supposedly created the hanging gardens of Babylon to make his foreign wife feel more at home. None of this matters now of course because Babylon doesn’t actually exist anymore. It was located about 50 miles south of modern day Baghdad, Iraq but the Babylon of Nebuchadnezzar’s day is no more. I mean there are a few crumbling ruins there but, not much. 


So, if you know the bible story of Daniel in the lion’s den, that’s how we know about Nebuchadnezzar. After the whole lion den incident, Nabuchadnezzar captures Daniel and he’s like “I had this crazy dream, Daniel, tell me what it means” and then Daniel interprets the dream for him and… well I’m just going to read it to you. This is from the book of Daniel, chapter 4 in the old testament: “These are the visions I saw while lying in bed: I looked, and there before me stood a tree in the middle of the land. Its height was enormous. 11 The tree grew large and strong and its top touched the sky; it was visible to the ends of the earth…. there before me was a holy one, a messenger, coming down from heaven. 14 He called in a loud voice: ‘Cut down the tree and trim off its branches; strip off its leaves and scatter its fruit. Let the animals flee from under it and the birds from its branches.’ … 


and then Daniel tells him what it means…  You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like the ox and be drenched with the dew of heaven. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes. 26 The command to leave the stump of the tree with its roots means that your kingdom will be restored to you when you acknowledge that Heaven rules. 27 Therefore, Your Majesty, be pleased to accept my advice: Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed. It may be that then your prosperity will continue.’ 


So basically, Nebuchadnezzar had a weird dream about a tree and he asked Daniel what it meant. Daniel told him it meant he would lose his mind and start acting like a wild animal and eat grass for 7 years until he acknowledged God and then everything would go back to normal and apparently, according to the bible, that’s what happened. But also, it might have actually happened? According to “All significant ancient cities and regimes kept impeccable records of their rulers, their trading partners, highways they built, the cost of all government businesses, etc. There is no Babylonian record of any government activity in Babylon in the 7 years between 582—575 BC.” So dude’s off tramping around with the oxes, oxen, and everyone’s just like “cool, cool, we’ll just chill till you get back, it’s all good, go do your thing” I don’t know but his 7 years of madness is also mentioned in several other ancient texts outside of the bible that sort of corroborate this tale. 

So this is a weird one. Apparently the dude just went off into the wilderness for 7 years, started eating grass, and got all hairy and wild, then just went back to being the king of Babylon. Now, is this a real mad king or a literary archetype. It’s kind of a mix but according to “Nebuchadnezzar’s madness became the framework through which royal insanity was seen in the Judeo-Christian world.” It almost made future royal insanity more acceptable or expected even. Like, yeah he went crazy but then he came out of it a better man. So it’s worth a mention. Or, like, I don’t know I read you like a whole chapter of the bible, maybe that’s more than a mention but whatever, moving on. 

Let’s jump forward about 500 years and head to ancient Rome. The year is 37. Just, 37 and Caligula has just become emperor of Rome. His name was actually Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus. Caligula was just a nickname which means “little boots” in Latin because his parents used to dress him in a tiny military uniform. So, to give you an idea of where he falls in the timeline of history, his grandfather, Tiberius, was the emperor when Jesus was crucified. Caligula’s father died young so Caligula inherited the throne after Tiberius’, his grandfather’s, death. Well, actually he was supposed to share the throne with his cousin but he just killed his cousin instead. But that’s more evil than mad, I think. 

Now, I need to clarify here. At this time, Rome is not just a city like it is today, it’s a massive empire, 2 million square miles, basically the entire area surrounding the Mediterranean including southern Europe and northern Africa. So Caligula is in charge of a lot and he’s just 25 years old. It’s going okay for like a few months. Then he gets some kind of serious illness that makes him, basically lose his mind. 

So, yeah gotta know what illness that was, right? Well making medical diagnosis thousands of years after the fact is tricky. Some say syphilis but the National Library of Medicine believes he suffered from epilepsy and that, in October of the year 37, just a few months after becoming emperor, he suffered from status epilepticus. So that’s basically when someone has a continuous seizure or multiple seizures back to back without being able to recover in between and that this led to epileptic psychosis. So epileptic psychosis can cause psychopathic and paranoid changes in someone’s mental state. So he had epilepsy which caused that but it was likely worsened by excessive alcohol intake and lead poisoning. Cause that’s a whole thing right? The Roman aqueducts were lined in lead and high born Romans drank wine boiled in lead pots. Actually some believe lead poisoning among the upper class was a major contributing factor to the eventual demise of the Roman empire. So what did Caligula do post epileptic psychosis? Well he built a lot of helpful stuff like aqueducts, harbors, theaters, and temples. But he also built weird stuff. He once had a 2-mile floating bridge built so he could spend two days galloping back and forth across it on his beloved horse Incitatus. He organized a military campaign then ordered his troops to “plunder the sea” by gathering shells in their helmets. 

He was known for repeating the phrase “remember that I have the right to do anything to anybody” which, yeah that’s a huge red flag. He tormented high ranking senators by making them run for miles and had affairs with the wives of his allies just to mess with them. He was super hairy, apparently and he made it a capital offense to mention goats in his presence. So, definitely some insecurity coming through there. But he believed he was a god. He had the heads of god statues removed in temples and replaced with his own. He was known to wallow in piles of money and drink pearls dissolved in vinegar while wearing expensive silks and precious gems. He had a lot of people executed, prisoners fed to wild animals, but he built a lavish house for his horse with a marble stall and an ivory manger and he fed it oats mixed with gold flakes and promised to make it a high ranking government official, yes the horse. 

Eventually, Caligula was assassinated by his own men after ruling for just 4 years. Not because he was a cruel, insane maniac though, mostly because was spending way too much money and Rome was going broke. 

Our next mad king crops up over a thousand years later when Charles VI becomes king of France in 1380 at the age of 11. Yes, 11. Now he doesn’t actually rule on his own until he’s 21. When a child becomes king, or queen, they have a regent who basically guides them and makes the decisions for them because they’re, you know, a child. So Charles’ uncles acted as his regents until he was 21. Actually, he only had to be 14 which is not that different from 11 I feel like, but he kept the regency until he was 21. 

Just like with Caligula, it starts out well. He improves the economy of France and, politically, everything is pretty good. He was actually called Charles the Beloved, at first. He was handsome and charismatic, people were digging him, he was great. Then he suffered a psychotic break when he was 24 which most believe to be the start of schizophrenia and it all went downhill from there. 

He suffered from violent episodes. During the first of these he killed 4 of his own knights and then attacked his brother. He didn’t recognize his wife and child anymore. He was known to run wild through the palace and, at one point, refused to bathe or change his clothes for 5 months. 

What he is most known for, though, is being one of the first confirmed cases of “glass delusion.” So glass delusion is when someone believes their body, or part of their body is made of glass. Charles had iron rods sewn into his clothing to keep his glass body from shattering. But Charles wasn’t the only royal to suffer from this delusion. It was weirdly common among the ruling class starting in the middle ages and then just sort of died out in the late 1800’s. These people often believed they had glass hearts, feet, or heads. Several believed they were glass vases or flasks. Like not just a glass human, a glass container. Glass butts were common, sorry I can’t say that without laughing, I wasn’t gonna laugh. Princess Alexandra Amelie of Bavaria believed she had swallowed a glass piano, like a full sized grand piano made of glass, and that if she moved too suddenly it would shatter. Most who suffered from glass delusion, like Alexandra and Charles, were very intelligent and well liked, successful people. It’s a weird one. And it’s weird to me that it just sort of stopped. I don’t know, I’m intrigued. 

So Charles goes from Charles the Beloved to Charles the Mad, and yet he rules France for 42 years until his death. They just let this madman run the country. And it does not go well. By the time he dies in 1422 France is basically in a state of civil war. It’s a mess. And everyone is like “phew, okay good he’s gone.” Like, I don’t know, maybe don’t let a clinically insane person run a whole country for 42 years? Thats, just, France y’all, it never ceases to amaze me. 

Okay let’s go to England, 1420’s right around the time Charles VI died in France. Actually, our next mad king is the grandson of Charles VI, sooo yeah this mess is likely hereditary. And you know the inbreeding is top notch at this point so that’s not helping. Henry VI is our next mad king. Charles dies in France and Henry V, Henry VI’s dad dies in England within months of each other. So Henry VI becomes king of England before his first birthday, just a baby king. Henry was never a great king. He was shy, passive, not a fighter. He’s sensitive. Which is fine, but, maybe not for a king in 15th century England. It’s not ideal. 

In 1453, Henry gets word that England had been defeated in a battle in France, a crushing defeat and he loses it. He has a complete mental breakdown and he’s in a catatonic state for more than a year. He just sits in a chair in his room, slumped over, unresponsive for over a year. It’s all very hush hush, the government just sort of carries on without him like “gah, I hope he snaps out of it soon we can’t keep this up forever.” 

And then he does snap out of it, sort of, for a few years and then he’s right back at it. His madness is described as quote “lethargy punctuated by a routine of religious devotions,” which is, I don’t know, kind of lackluster. Kind of boring. He’s just like, praying excessively and sleeping a lot, not running wild with a body made of glass or anything. 

Modern experts point to schizophrenia, again, just like his grandfather Charles. Political instability during Henry’s reign,  leads to an actual Civil War, which came to be called the war of the roses. This changed the whole line of succession of the English royal family cause England’s not down to just let a crazy guy run the country for the rest of his life like France. They’re like “get him out of here, actually get his kid out of here too.” Henry is exiled, and then temporarily reinstated as king, then imprisoned in the Tower of London and murdered. But he does get a 3 part Shakespeare play, a Shakespearian trilogy. So that’s spec. 

Okay, time for a mad queen. Juana de Castilla, or Joanna of Castile as she’s called in English but, you know what, I’m gonna call her Juana, cause that’s her name. So Juana was the daughter of Ferdinand, King of Aragon and Isabella, Queen of Castile. Together, they unified and ruled Spain in the late 1400’s and early 1500’s. They were like the OG power couple. Ferdinand and Isabella are the monarchs who sent Christopher Columbus to explore the Americas. Spain was absolutely booming under their rule, it was a world power. It was like the world power at that time. They did some awful stuff though so don’t get too excited. Under the rule of the “reyes catolicos” or Catholic Monarchs as they were called, Spain conquered most of Central and South America, killing most of the indigenous people there and forcing all survivors to convert to catholicism. They also forced all the Muslim and Jewish people out of Spain. So, yeah, they weren’t super accepting folks.

Juana was one of 5 children. Her older sister Isabella was married off to become Queen of Portugal. Her younger sister Maria later became Queen of Portugal when Isabella died. She married her sister’s widower. The youngest sister Catherine was married off to become Queen of England - she was Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Juana was married off to Philip the Handsome, Archduke of the House of Hapsburg. He ruled an area that is today the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, and Germany. So you can see how Ferdinand and Isabella used their 4 daughters very strategically to create political alliances. At this point, they have a hand in almost all of eastern Europe. They had one son, Juan, who was the heir to the throne of Spain, of course.  

The two oldest children, Isabella and Juan both die young and then the mother Queen Isabella also dies. At this point, Juana becomes Queen of Castile. Her father is still King of Aragon but she inherits her mother’s title Queen of Castile. Her father, Ferdinand, is not pleased. He has her declared insane and imprisoned and he rules Castile in her place. Now Juana was always a little unstable mentally, but insane and unfit to rule, probably not. A couple years later her husband Philip dies and she loses it. She’s kept confined for decades. When Ferdinand dies she and her son Charles become co-monarchs of Spain but then Charles keeps her imprisoned so that he can rule on his own, her own son.

In 1520, a group of rebels frees Juana and declares her sane and fit to rule but then just changes their minds when she refuses to support them instead of her son. So, this one’s really sad. I mean, some people believe Juana was actually quite sane, just the victim of power struggles with her father and then her son. They wanted her out of the way so they claimed insanity and had her locked away for most of her life. So, I don’t know. I don’t know if Juana was actually a mad queen or just another victim of the patriarchy. 

Our next mad king was undeniably insane. George III became king of England at the age of 22 when his grandfather, George II died. George was king during the American Revolution. Actually, the Declaration of Independence is addressed to him. So George is the one behind all the taxation without representation business. 

At around age 50, he suffered his first mental break and was apparently so violently insane that he was restrained with a straitjacket for months. He actually recovered from this and ruled as a beloved monarch just fine for 12 years. Then, another bout of insanity. He recovers again, but then in 1810 he slips into madness for good. At that point his son, George IV, who is the heir to the throne, becomes prince regent and rules in his father’s place. This is known as the regency period in England because they didn’t really have a king, they had a regent. If you’ve ever watched the show Bridgerton, that takes place during the regency period and actually George III is a character in that show and he is insane. So, it’s a fun show. It takes a lot of creative liberty with history but it’s fun and they do make George insane so I guess that’s pretty accurate. 

So what’s up with George? Well there are a few theories. Some suggest bipolar disorder, others point to arsenic poisoning based on analysis of hair samples done in 2005. Arsenic was commonly used in medicine and cosmetic products, like makeup. Probably the most supported theory is that George had porphyria which is an inherited blood disorder that causes hallucinations, paranoia, abdominal pain, seizures (which he had), and blue urine which he apparently also had. Although some argue he had blue urine because of medicine he took made with blue flowers. So, who knows, you know?  

Our last mad king, like Juana of Castile, was questionably mad. Ludwig II of Bavaria (which is like Germany before it was Germany), became king in 1864 when he was 18 years old. Ludwig was fun. He was an eccentric guy. He loved the opera and was an avid fan and supporter of the composer Richard Wagner almost to the point of obsession. He liked fancy things. He built a lot of palaces. One of them, called, I’m going to say this wrong, Neuschwanstein, actually inspired Cinderella’s castle which became like the Disney logo. They don’t actually look that much alike but Neuschwanstein is very fairytale-esque. 

But, Ludwig’s excessive castle building and love of fine things left him in a lot of debt. In 1886, a group of conspirators declared Ludwig unfit to rule. This statement was backed by the medical report of a doctor who had never actually examined Ludwig. The next morning, Ludwig was found floating dead in a lake under mysterious circumstances, presumably murdered. So was Ludwig mad? No, it doesn’t seem like it. Actually, it seems like Ludwig was gay. He never married, never had any mistresses even, wrote a series of love letters to Richard Wagner, and spoke pretty openly about his homosexuality in his diary. So, not crazy, but also not accepted at that time and place. So, insanity was a convenient excuse to remove him from power 

So 7 mad monarchs, but there are more, there are so many more. So what’s with all this royal madness? Well in a few cases, like with Juana and Ludwig, the claims of madness are pretty questionable. Here we have a woman and a gay man in power. A queen and a king. Both are denounced as insane and unfit to rule with really very little evidence to back it up. Juana is kept confined, locked away for decades by her own father and then by her own son. Ludwig is murdered and left floating in a river. With these two, it seems like insanity may have just been an excuse, a way to conveniently remove them from power because they weren’t the stereotypically ruler, weren’t masculine enough? Oh, I’m just gonna say it, they weren’t straight men. So they were basically just in some straight man’s way. The other 5 kings were straight men though so they were likely just straight up crazy, no pun intended. 

Now, it’s very difficult to diagnose mental illnesses retroactively so it’s hard to say with any certainty what was up with these guys. We see schizophrenia suggested pretty often. The genetics behind schizophrenia aren’t super well understood but it does seem to run in families, there is a genetic link. And when we’re talking about royals, we’re talking about very limited gene pools. For most of time, these royal families married their cousins, even their brothers and sisters as was the case in Egypt, to keep the bloodline pure. So when you’ve limited the gene pool to that small of a selection, any hereditary issues are going to be magnified. I think we see good evidence of hereditary schizophrenia or some hereditary mental disorder when we look at Charles VI of France and his grandson Henry VI of England. 

But then we also have to consider the situation these people were in, the stress, the pressure. Almost all of these monarchs became rulers of entire countries, entire empires at very young ages. Nebuchadnezzar was 29, Caligula 24, Charles VI 11, Henry VI wasn’t even a year old yet, George was 22, Ludwig 18, Juana was older when she became queen but she was married off and sent away to a foreign land at 16. And these were tumultuous times. All of these reigns are marked with war and violence and turmoil for which these leaders are in some way responsible. Schizophrenia is a legit mental disorder but so are anxiety and depression and PTSD. We’re talking about high stakes, a lot of pressure and responsibility, impossible situations, death, destruction at very young ages. 

It almost reminds me of the whole child star thing. You see all these child actors and child celebrities just really start to lose it later in life. They get into drugs and alcohol, they’re depressed, they’re not coping well. All that fame, that pressure, that exposure at such a young age, it messes with them. It messes them up. I feel like that plays into the mad king thing. 

And then of course we have to factor in environmental causes they just weren’t aware of at the time - lead poisoning and arsenic poisoning which affect the brain and central nervous system. Toxic metals like this mostly affected the nobility who cooked in lead pots and used medicines and cosmetics made with arsenic. Poor people didn’t have access to this stuff so it makes sense that we’d see it among the upper crust of society, the 1%. 

And my final observation, of course, is that these people were born into these positions. It didn’t really matter what their mental state was, what their personality was like, how kind or just or fair they were, how good they were at ruling, whether or not they actually wanted to rule, they were just born in a particular order in a particular family and that’s all it took. Now we look at democracy, which has its faults, I’m not saying it’s perfect. But, for the most part, it’s “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” We get to decide if we want to rule the country or not. Anyone. Anyone that’s old enough and born in the United States has that choice, that right. We decide who becomes our president, we get to go out and vote and pick one. There is no birth right here, you have to earn it, and that’s very special. 

It brings me back to the Revolutionary War days when the US was just colonies, colonies ruled, controlled by King George III, a man who became king before his first birthday just because his father died and it was his turn. A man who wasn’t mentally fit to rule his own country, let alone the American colonies, who did whatever he wanted, imposed unfair taxes, ignored complaints from Americans that they should have a say in the government they were paying for. The Declaration of Independence states “In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.” Unfit, is the key word there. 

And yet the system carries on. Just this month Charles III was crowned king of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth of England. And, while I know his actual political power at this point is limited it’s still an important and powerful title. Is he the the best man for the job? Probably not. These mad monarchs we talked about were the products of a flawed system, a system that ignores ability, morality, intentions, and just hands the crown over to the next in line, no matter how unfit they are. I find it very interesting that this system carries on to this day all the way to the coronation of King Charles III and beyond. 

Thank you all so very much for listening to History Fix. I hope you found these stories interesting and maybe you even learned something new. Be sure to follow my instagram @historyfixpodcast to see some images that go along with this episode and to stay on top of new episodes as they drop. I’d also really appreciate it if you’d rate and follow this podcast on whatever app you’re using to listen, that’ll make it much easier to get your next fix. 


Information used in the episode was sourced from,, Encyclopedia Britannica Online,, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, National Library of Medicine,,, and Links to these sources can be found in the show notes.

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