The Shortest Reigns of the Middle Ages

Reaching the throne was one thing, staying on it another! Here is our list of ten medieval rulers who had very short reigns (as little as one day) and who often came to end by bloody means.

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1. Emperor Modi of Jin

This Chinese Emperor ruled for less than a day – February 9, 1234. When the Mongols under Ögedei Khan had pursed Emperor Aizong to the town of Caizhou, and at that point Aizong decided to abdicate and flee, and asked his general Wanyan Chenglin to become emperor. Wanyan accepted, and as he was being crowned Emperor Modi, the Mongols broke through the city’s walls and in the battle for the city Modi was killed.

2. John I ‘the Posthumous’ of France

The shortest reign of any medieval French king – John I was born on November 16, 1316, and because his father had died a few months earlier, he automatically became king upon his birth. However, the infant died just five days later, and there have been rumours that he was poisoned by his uncle, Philip the Tall. However, about 40 years later a man in Italy came forward claiming to be the real King John, explaining that he was switched with another child shortly after he was born.

3. Sweyn Forkbeard

The short-reign from Anglo-Saxon England goes to the Viking leader Sweyn Forkbeard, who led an invasion of England in 1013. Within months the Anglo-Saxon King Æthelred the Unready had fled the country and on Christmas Day 1013 Sweyn was crowned king. However, his reign only lasted 40 days before he died – one legend that emerged was that he was killed by the ghost of the ninth-century King Edmund the Martyr. It was said that Sweyn had come to Bury St Edmunds, demanding the abbey’s treasure, when suddenly the saint appeared to the king, brandishing a spear. Sweyn cried out, “Edmund is coming to kill me!” and then fell to the ground and died.

4. Emperor Alexios IV Angelos

This individual was one of the main characters involved in the Fourth Crusade, convincing Western Europeans to sail to Constantinople in 1203 to remove the current Byzantine emperor. Once that was accomplished, on August 1st Alexios IV Angelos became co-emperor with his blind and elderly father Isaac II. However his reign would last less than six months. As the people of Constantinople turned against him, and his relations with the Crusaders souring, he and his father were usurped and imprisoned on January 27, 1204. Less than two weeks later he was strangled to death.

5. Pope-elect Stephen II

On March 23, 752, a Roman priest was elected to be the new pontiff as Stephen II. However, three days later he suffered a stroke and died. Since he had not yet been placed on the Papal throne, it has been debated ever since whether or not he was a real Pope. Meanwhile, throughout the history of the Papacy there have been eight Popes who reigned less than a month.

6. Duncan II of Scotland

For about half-a-year Duncan II was King of Scotland – he was the son of Malcolm III but in 1072 was sent to England to be hostage to William the Conqueror. Apparently he enjoyed life in the Anglo-Norman kingdom so much that he decided to stay, at least until 1094 when he went to war with his uncle, the newly enthroned Donald III. Using a large Norman army, Duncan was able to conquer much of Scotland and get crowned king at Scone, but once the Normans returned home, Donald and his other enemies rebelled and Duncan was killed, perhaps murdered, on November 12, 1094.

7. Sigeric, King of the Visigoths

His reign only lasted 7 days in the year 415, and like his predecessor he was assassinated. According to Edward Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, “The first act of his reign was the inhuman murder of the six children of Ataulf, the issue of a former marriage, whom he tore, without pity, from the feeble arms of a venerable bishop.”

8. Sultan Turanshah

shortest reigns of the Middle ages - assassination of Turanshah - Guillaume de Saint-Pathus, Vie de Saint Louis

The Ayyubid Dynasty that ruled Egypt and Syria during the 12th and 13th centuries came to an end with the short reign of the Sultan Al-Muazzam Turanshah. In the year 1249 his father As-Salih Ayyub died in the midst of an invasion of Egypt by the Crusaders, the next in line to throne was his son Turanshah. At the time, the son had been sent to furthest corner of the Ayyubid empire (his father did not trust him), so it took months for him to return to Egypt. He finally arrived at the Egyptian city of Mansura in late February 1250, and although the crusaders were defeated soon after, tensions between the new Sultan and his father’s followers grew hostile. On May 2nd, Turanshah was holding a banquet when his enemies attacked – after a sword blow cut open his hand, the Ayyubid ruler fled into a tower, which was promptly set afire. Turanshah escaped by jumping into a river, but he was soon surrounded. As he begged for his life and offered to abdicate, a Mamluk named Baybars waded into the river and hacked the Sultan to death.

9. Berengaria of Castile

Berengaria was an influential figure in 13th century Castilian politics. When her younger brother King Henry I was killed (a tile fell off a roof and hit his head) on June 6, 1217, the most likely candidate to replace was her ex-husband, King Alfonso IX of León. Not wanting him to take over, Berengaria kept Henry’s death a secret and claimed the throne for herself as Queen of Castile. Her reign would last less than three months – she convinced Alfonso to send their son Ferdinand to visit her, and once he arrived, she abdicated and set made him king. Berengaria would remain very influential, some said the real power behind the throne, for the next thirty years.

10. Queen Jane of England

Although just outside the Middle Ages, we also wanted to include Lady Jane Grey who reigned for 9 days. When the 15-year-old Edward VI lay dying in the early summer of 1553, he decided that neither of his two sisters, Mary or Elizabeth, should get the throne, and instead he named his Protestant cousin Jane Grey as his successor. Jane, who was only 16 or 17 years old at time, reluctantly accepted the crown. Meanwhile, Mary raised her own army and got her supporters to depose and imprison Jane. After Mary became Queen, she had Lady Jane tried for treason and executed.

 

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