Here in Britain, we have a long history of assassinated kings and are still debating many of them. Here’s a countdown of the murkiest and most mysterious kingly deaths in the last thousand years or so…
5. Edmund I (died 946)
Grandson of Alfred the Great, Edmund I was a Saxon king of England whose reign was marked by near-constant warfare. On May 26th 946, he was attending a mass for St Augustine’s Day in Pucklechurch, near Bath. The official story goes that he recognised Leofa, a thief he’d exiled years earlier. He called for Leofa’s arrest but a fight broke out. Edmund intervened and was stabbed and killed.
It’s been suggested that the medieval accounts of Edmund’s death are contradictory and unconvincing. Kevin Halloran argues that Leofa never existed, that he was fabricated by later chroniclers to counter rumours that Edmund was assassinated by a political conspiracy.
4. Richard II (died 1400)
Richard II royally pissed off Henry of Bolingbroke, John of Gaunt’s son, twice. First, he exiled him. Then, after Gaunt’s death, he deprived him of his inheritance. This caused Henry to decide to invade England in July 1399. He gained enough power and support that Richard II was forced to surrender and give up the throne. Henry tossed Richard into the Tower of London and had himself crowned King Henry IV.
Henry’s first big problem after coming to the throne was what to do with the deposed king. He initially decided to let Richard live. Then a group of earls plotted to murder Henry and restore Richard. The plot, known as the Epiphany Rising, was averted, but it highlighted the danger of keeping Richard alive.
The official story is that in 1400, Richard, despondent, starved himself to death. Certainly, his skeleton, which was examined after his tomb was opened in 1871, showed no signs of a violent murder. However, some scholars believe that Henry deliberately starved his predecessor to remove the risk of further attempts to restore him to the throne.
3. Henry VI (died 1471)
What happened to Lancastrian king Henry VI is a bit similar to what happened to Richard II. Henry, too, was deposed, but in this case it was because Henry lost his mind, causing other influential figures to scrabble for control. At the height of the Wars of the Roses, Henry was kicked off the throne twice, both times by Edward of York, who succeeded him as Edward IV.
Henry VI was imprisoned in the Tower and soon after reported dead. Although one chronicle said Henry died of ‘melancholy’, it’s widely suspected that Edward IV had him assassinated. Like Richard II, Henry was a threat to the new king. Here, the fact that Henry was mentally unstable made him even more dangerous. The common fear was some other noble coming along and using the old, weak king to further their own agenda.
But this time, the murder theory isn’t just conjecture. In 1910, George V gave permission to exhume the body of Henry VI to shed light on his cause of death. The skeleton had remnants of light brown hair matted with blood, along with damage to the skull, strongly suggesting that the king had died violently.
2. Edward II (died 1427—or did he?)
This is one of my favourite stories of the downfall of a king. Edward II’s wife, the domineering Queen Isabella, decided that Edward’s kingship had run its course. She was embarrassed by his unsuccessful military campaigns in Scotland and deeply disliked Edward’s friendship with the Despenser family. When Edward decided to confiscate Isabella’s lands, she snapped. She went to France, shacked up with another man, the exiled Roger Mortimer, and gathered an invasion force to kick Edward off the throne.
In 1326, Isabella and Mortimer invaded and Edward II fled London. Eventually he was captured and imprisoned at Berkeley Castle. In 1427 he suffered a ‘fatal accident’, the details of which were never revealed publicly. Rumours circulated quickly that he’d been murdered on the orders of Isabella and Mortimer.
Although the cause of death has never been verified, the most popular story is that Edward’s killers shoved a red-hot poker up his bum and burned out all his innards, as this would leave no visible external marks. Most historians dismiss this as medieval propaganda inspired by rumours of Edward II’s homosexuality, but no one actually knows what happened to this day.
Most people accept that Isabella and Mortimer had Edward murdered somehow. However, there are a few who believe that Edward didn’t die in 1327 at all. There’s a letter, the Fieschi Letter, which explains in detail how Edward escaped Berkeley Castle and went into hiding in Italy.
1. William II (died 1100)
Here we have my favourite unsolved monarch murder. I actually think what happened to William II, which I learned about in secondary school, is what first sparked my interest in conspiracy theories.
The official story, with all its gaping holes, is that the second Norman king of England was killed accidentally on a hunt in the New Forest. This version of events is recounted on the Rufus Stone, the monument supposedly marking the spot where he died. But the Rufus Stone says that one of the king’s men, Walter Tyrrell, shot an arrow at a deer, which missed and glanced off a tree, hitting William in the chest and killing him.
I call BS. If the arrow struck a tree, there’s no way it would still have enough force to pierce someone’s chest. Plus, Tyrrell was a trained bowman. It’s highly dubious that he would’ve fired such a terrible shot.
And what happened next makes the circumstances of William II’s death even more suspicious. Henry, William’s brother, wasted no time in hightailing it to Winchester, seizing the treasury and declaring himself king the next day. John Gillingham points out that Henry I’s swift actions “seem to be premeditated” and that seizing the treasury is “always the first act of a usurping king”.
Some historians believe that the French royal family were involved. William II was just about to invade France at the time of the shooting, and it’s said that the French royal family conspired to have him assassinated and replaced by the less-threatening Henry. The fact that Walter Tyrrell, after fleeing England to France, had known links to the French heir, Prince Louis, lends credence to this. So does the fact that Henry immediately suspended all invasion plans the moment he took the throne.
I have my own theory, of course. Time travel! William II’s death was nothing to do with the French royal family or Henry I. Walter Tyrrell was actually working for a clandestine organisation of time travellers with motives far bigger than usurping a king.
Enter Million Eyes. Published by speculative fiction connoisseurs, Elsewhen Press, Million Eyes is my time travel conspiracy thriller novel that ties together historical events that have long been laden with conspiracy theory. It’s the first book in a trilogy and is available to buy as an ebook—tomorrow! 😊 (The paperback comes out March 9th.)
So if you’d like to find out how Million Eyes explains what ‘really’ happened to William II, plus other important famous figures in history, visit this link from tomorrow onwards and grab a digital copy!
Next month: did Richard III really kill the Princes in the Tower?