Modern heads of state don’t lead troops into battle, but there have been long periods in human history when kings, emperors, tsars, or sultans would be at or very near the battlefront, often risking their lives in bloody-face-to-bloody-face battle alongside the troops they command. And some of them have died on the battlefield.
Take Richard III for instance. After his skeleton was discovered and excavated from under a parking lot in Leicester in 2012, we learned much more about the final moments of his brutal death during the Battle of Bosworth, the last major skirmish in the 15th-century War of the Roses. This witness from the grave showed that he had been attacked on all sides by enraged soldiers loyal to Henry Tudor, who would subsequently become King Henry VII. Richard’s body was then likely desecrated with an “insult injury” – a stab to the buttocks – while being unceremoniously hauled away naked on the back of a horse.
To paraphrase a Mel Brooks line from “History of the World”: Sometimes it’s not so good to be the king.
To assemble a list of kings who died in battle, 24/7 Tempo used resources such as MilitaryHistoryNow, HistoricUK, WorldHistory, the University of Leicester’s website, and Britannica, among others. Some of these royals died during the battle itself, while others succumbed to disease or the infirmities of old age while leading their forces into the fight.
At least 34 kings, emperors, tsars, sultans, and one 6-year-old Japanese ruler were killed in or very near fields of battle, dating back to six Spartan kings in Ancient Greece who fell in battle between 740 and 265 B.C., according to historical records. Seven Roman emperors also died in battle, all but one at the hands of other Romans. (These are the deadliest battles in world history.)
Twenty-eight rulers in the so-called modern era – history after 1 B.C. – died during skirmishes, too. This list is mostly populated by European kings, but also includes three Ottoman sultans and Constantine XI, whose death during the fall of Constantinople in 1453 ended the Byzantine Empire. (These are 30 of the most legendary warriors in history.)
It’s important to recognize that these are high-profile leaders. Other kings or chieftains may have died in battle, but their stories are lost to history.
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