“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” is a quote from the Shakespeare play “King Henry the Fourth , Part Two.” And while the citation speaks to how heavy responsibilities weigh on a monarch, it also might apply to those leaders fearful of meeting a tragic end at the hands of their own people. (Here are 13 famous assassination attempts on the British royal family.)
To determine a list of rulers who were killed by their own people, 24/7 Tempo referred to sources such as Britannica, National Geographic, Time, and Biography. In compiling the list, we included those whose fate was determined by a judicial process or had been held as a prisoner at the time of their death as well as those who were unexpectedly assassinated.
Whether by coup, trial, or assassination, many of the rulers who were killed by their own people attempted to be change agents.
The most famous of these is probably Julius Caesar. By crossing into Rome from its territories with his army in defiance of custom, he made himself dictator. And a group of senators took the ultimate action against him.
Rulers such as Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, Samuel Doe of Liberia, and Maurice Bishop in Grenada seized power violently and died the same way. After years of torturing their own people, Iraq dictator Saddam Hussein and Afghan leader Mohammad Najibullah were executed. (These are the most ruthless rulers of all time.)
King Louis XVI of France and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia were both executed by their own people after leading them into financially ruinous wars and doing little to help those starving.
Yitzhak Rabin of Israel and Anwar Sadat of Egypt, who both shared the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts in pursuing peace in the Middle East, paid the ultimate price for their efforts at the hands of assassins from their own countries.
King Xerxes I
> Country: Persia
> Time in power: 486-465 BC
We remember King Xerxes I as the Persian monarch who launched the failed invasion of Greece that marked the beginning of the end of the Achaemenian Empire. Xerxes withdrew from public life and became absorbed in court intrigue. It led to his death at the hands of members of his court.
Emperor Julius Caesar
> Country: Roman Empire
> Time in power: 49-44 BC
The death of Julius Caesar is among the most famous in history. After crossing the Rubicon, a stream that separated Rome from its territories, Caesar knew civil war would ensue. He emerged victorious as Rome ceased to be a republic and became an empire. In 44 BC., Caesar declared himself dictator for life. One month later, Roman senators, including Brutus and Gaius Cassius, stabbed him to death.
> Country: Byzantine Empire
> Time in power: 582-602
The Byzantine emperor Maurice ruled in the sixth and early seventh century. He conducted various military campaigns against Persians, Slavs, Avars, and Lombards during a reign that tapped out the imperial treasury. He antagonized the military by not increasing their pay and alienated his subjects by raising taxes. The army mutinied and Maurice was forced to flee. He was captured and he and his family were beheaded.
> Country: Byzantine Empire
> Time in power: 602-610
Phocas was a military officer in the Byzantine Empire who seized power after Emperor Maurice was executed. He fared no better than his predecessor. Phocas grew more tyrannical and persecuted a sect of Christians and Jews. People in the empire were also concerned about the growing strength of Persia. The Byzantines had enough. A revolt in Carthage, part of the Byzantine Empire, led to the overthrow and execution of Phocas.
Lady Jane Grey
> Country: England, Scotland, and Ireland
> Time in power: 1553
Lady Jane Grey reigned as England’s queen for just nine days, the shortest reign in English history. She was fifth in line for the throne, but was proclaimed queen after the death of her cousin, the Protestant King Edward VI, who was his choice because she was also Protestant. The country was opposed to her ascent and preferred the monarch to have come from the true line and Mary, a Catholic, was proclaimed queen. Lady Jane was implicated in a plot against Mary. She was arrested and eventually beheaded.
King Charles I
> Country: England, Scotland, and Ireland
> Time in power: 1625-1649
King Charles I would go down in history as the only English king ever executed. Charles believed in divine right, but from the time he ascended to the throne, he crossed swords with Parliament over issues such as appointment of ministers, the future of the Church of England, and control of the army. A civil war erupted between the royalists and the parliamentarians. The royalists lost and Charles was tried for high treason and other crimes. He was beheaded on Jan. 30, 1649.
Emperor Peter III
> Country: Russia
> Time in power: 1762
Emperor Peter III of Russia was an admirer of Prussia, in particular that country’s king, Frederick II. Hewas married to Sophie Friederike Auguste, Prinzessin (princess) von Anhalt-Zerbst, also known as Catherine the Great. While Peter made it known he did not like Russia, Catherine, who was born in Prussia, made no secret of her love for Russia. Catherine, with the help of her lover Grigory Orlov, outmaneuvered the emperor and forced him to abdicate and she became sovereign. Peter, not popular with the common people or the aristocracy, was detained and then killed eight days after Catherine became empress.
King Gustav III
> Country: Sweden
> Time in power: 1771-1792
Gustav was an enlightened monarch who advocated religious tolerance and the abolishment of torture, and pushed for free trade. But he ran afoul of Sweden’s nobility when he supported forming a league of European monarchs to oppose the French Revolution. An aristocratic conspiracy to kill the king succeeded when Gustav was shot by a Swedish captain on March 16, 1792; the king died two weeks later.
King Louis XVI
> Country: France
> Time in power: 1774-1792
Louis XVI was the last king of France before the Bourbon monarchy fell during the French Revolution. France was groaning under debt from two wars in North America as well as conflicts in Europe. The country was torn by internal strife and people were starving. Louis XVI was arrested in 1792. The monarchy was abolished and replaced by the French Republic. Louis was tried by a tribunal and found guilty of high treason and executed by guillotine on Jan. 21, 1793.
Maximilien Robespierre (Leader of Committee of Public Safety)
> Country: France
> Time in power: 1792-1794
Lawyer Maximilien Robespierre became the leader of the Committee of Public Safety that seized power after the French monarchy was overthrown in 1789. He oversaw a reign of terror in which thousands were executed because they were either real or actual enemies of the government. Robespierre’s quest for equality at the point of the sword made enemies of former allies and more moderate elements of French society. He was eventually arrested and beheaded.
Tsar Alexander II
> Country: Russia
> Time in power: 1855-1881
The early part of Tsar Alexander II’s reign was marked by liberal policies that included freedom for Russia’s serfs in 1861. He also set Russia on a path to modernization following its humiliating defeat in the Crimean War. Then Alexander lurched toward more oppressive policies that led to the creation of Russian nihilistic groups bent on revolution. Alexander survived an assassination attempt in 1866 but was slain in 1881.
Emperor Maximilian I
> Country: Mexico
> Time in power: 1864-1867
Maximilian, younger brother of Austria’s Emperor Franz Joseph, became an unwitting pawn of conservatives in Mexico who were opposed to the reforms of President Benito Juárez and the French government that was seeking to collect a debt from Mexico. Maximilian became emperor and tried to uphold the progressive policies of Juárez. France had sent an army to Mexico to collect the debt and drove Juárez’s followers to the Texas border. Once the American Civil War was over, the U.S., invoking the Monroe Doctrine, supported Juárez and the French were eventually forced to leave Mexico. Maximilian was arrested and executed.
Tsar Nicholas II
> Country: Russia
> Time in power: 1894-1917
Tsar Nicholas II was the last tsar of Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution toppled the Romanov monarchy, which had ruled Russia for 300 years. Nicholas was a weak ruler who was staunchly opposed to liberal ideas. A defeat in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 stirred revolution in Russia, which was unprepared to fight wars in the 20th century. A series of catastrophic defeats at the hands of the German Empire during World War I and food shortages at home led to unrest that forced Nicholas to abdicate. He and his family were arrested by the Bolsheviks, who executed them on July 17, 1918.
Dictator Benito Mussolini
> Country: Italy
> Time in power: 1922-1943
Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini seized control of the Italian government in 1922 and fired Italian imaginations with visions of a new Roman Empire. The Italian military was not up to the task, suffering battlefield disasters in Africa and Europe. A popular uprising toppled Mussolini in 1943. He was arrested and escaped courtesy of his German allies. As the war wound down, he was caught by Italian communist partisans while trying to escape into Switzerland. They shot him and his mistress, hanging their bodies at a gas station in Milan.
Minister President Vidkun Quisling
> Country: Norway
> Time in power: 1942-1945
Vidkun Quisling’s name is synonymous with the word traitor. He rose up the ranks of a far-right political party in Norway and curried favor with Nazi Germany. After Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Quisling made a secret agreement with the Germans to provide them with his country’s iron and ships for the German war effort and said he would stage a coup and support Germany. When Germany invaded Norway in 1940, Quisling went on the radio declaring himself leader of the nation. After the war, Quisling was arrested in May 1945 and executed by firing squad.
President Park Chung-hee
> Country: South Korea
> Time in power: 1963-1979
Although North Korea gets the headlines for the brutal repression of its people, its neighbor to the south isn’t completely innocent either. Park Chung-hee was the president of South Korea for three terms. He put the nation on a path of spectacular growth following the Korean War but did so by ruling with an iron fist, suppressing the press, and jailing the opposition. On Oct. 26, 1979, Park was slain at a private dinner by Kim Jae-kyu, the director of the KCIA. Kim believed Park was an obstacle to democracy. It was widely believed Kim was part of a coup orchestrated by the nation’s security group.
> Country: Saudi Arabia
> Time in power: 1964-1975
Faisal led Saudi Arabia into a period of prosperity, supporting economic and educational programs, and his bureaucratic reforms made the state’s finances and operations more efficient. He also advocated pan-Islamism and backed Palestinian nationalism. On March 25, 1975, King Faisal was shot point-blank and killed by his half-brother’s son, Faisal bin Musaid, who had just returned from the United States.
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi
> Country: India
> Time in power: 1966-1977, 1980-1984
Indira Gandhi served as India’s prime minister for four terms. After she won in a landslide in 1971, her socialist opponent claimed she violated voting rules. A high court ruled against her and said she had to stay out of politics for six years. Gandhi imposed a state of emergency that limited personal freedoms and enacted unpopular policies such as sterilization as a form of birth control. During her last term in office, several Indian states sought greater autonomy, with Sikh separatists in Punjab using violence to assert their demands. After Sikhs occupied their holiest temple, Gandhi ousted them in a bloody confrontation. Gandhi was slain in her garden by her own Sikh bodyguards in revenge for the temple massacre.
Dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu
> Country: Romania
> Time in power: 1967-1989
Romania under Nicolae Ceaușescu was one of the most repressive governments in Eastern Europe. Ceaușescu’s regime wasted $10 billion in loans from the West on projects such as the Palace of the Parliament — the world’s largest civilian administrative building. By the end of the 1980s, the state’s brutal repression, malnutrition among the populace, and falling living standards led to protests. Ceausescu and his wife Elena tried to flee the capital Bucharest, but police eventually seized them. On Christmas Day, a court tribunal found them both guilty of crimes against the state, and they were shot by a firing squad.
Head of State Muammar Qaddafi
> Country: Libya
> Time in power: 1969-2011
When 27-year-old Muammar Qaddafi seized the Libyan government in a coup in 1969, he became one of the world’s youngest leaders, and one of the most dangerous. Qaddafi tried to intervene in various wars in Africa, was implicated in coup efforts in Egypt and Sudan, and supported terror efforts in many parts of the world. As the Arab world was swept up in the reformist zeal of the Arab Spring in 2011, anti-Qaddafi protests broke out in Libya. Quaddafi’s brutal attempts at suppressing the revolt alienated figures in the government who resigned. Eventually rebel forces, aided by NATO air attacks, got the upper hand. They found Qaddafi in his stronghold of Sirte and killed him on Oct. 20, 2011.
President Anwar Sadat
> Country: Egypt
> Time in power: 1970-1981
Anwar Sadat served as president of Egypt from 1970 to 1981. Early in his tenure as president, Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel that put the Jewish state on its back foot. Though the Arab forces were driven back, they gained a measure of respect. Sadat eventually negotiated a separate peace with Israel and shared the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize with Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin for his efforts. His popularity was hurt by the treaty, as well as a declining Egyptian economy, and suppression of dissent. On Oct. 6, 1981, Sadat was killed by Muslim extremists at a military parade in Cairo commemorating the Yom Kippur War.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin
> Country: Israel
> Time in power: 1974-1977, 1992-1995
Yitzhak Rabin was one of the pillars of modern Israel, serving as chief of staff for the nation’s armed services during the Six-Day War in 1967, and then for two terms as prime minister. Rabin sought peace with Israel’s Arab neighbors, and in 1994, he, along with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, received the Nobel Prize for Peace. Later that year, Rabin forged a peace treaty with Jordan after a series of secret meetings with King Hussein. Rabin’s policies of freezing Israeli settlements in occupied territories and granting greater autonomy for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip angered Jewish settlers. He was assassinated by an Israeli extremist in 1995.
Prime Minister Maurice Bishop
> Country: Grenada
> Time in power: 1979-1983
After leading a successful coup, Maurice Bishop became leader of the small Caribbean island nation of Grenada, and curried favor with communist Cuba. Bishop, in turn, was usurped by his deputy minister who was then deposed by the military. Bishop, who had been under house arrest, escaped, was recaptured, and then shot.
President Samuel K. Doe
> Country: Liberia
> Time in power: 1980-1990
Samuel K. Doe staged a coup and took power in Liberia in 1970. Doe, a member of the country’s Krahn tribe, resented the power of the Americo-Liberians, the descendants of freed American slaves who founded the nation, and repressed them and others whom he considered were plotting against him. As Liberia’s economy deteriorated, Doe’s corrupt regime collapsed and the nation dissolved into civil war. Doe was captured, tortured on camera, and executed.
President Mohammad Najibullah
> Country: Afghanistan
> Time in power: 1986-1992
Mohammad Najibullah became president of Afghanistan with the support of the Soviet Union, which had invaded the country in 1979. He had been in charge of the Afghan secret police and developed a reputation for brutality and was widely despised. Najibullah was forced from office by the mujahideen rebels and mutinous groups within his own military in 1992. He took refuge in a UN compound, where he stayed for the next four years. When the Taliban took over Kabul in 1996, they broke into the compound, tortured and murdered Najibullah, then put his mutilated corpse on public display.
President Saddam Hussein
> Country: Iraq
> Time in power: 1979-2003
On Dec. 30, 2006, Saddam Hussein, former president and dictator of Iraq, was hanged in a gruesome execution. Hussein’s death ended decades of brutal and repressive governance by Hussein, who fought an eight-year war with Iran, was expelled from Kuwait by a coalition led by the U.S. in 1991, gassed his own people, and eventually goaded the West into invading his country in 2003. Hussein was captured by American forces and tried by the newly installed Iraqi government, who executed the reviled dictator.