It’s tough at the top. History is littered with thwarted monarchs, quashed queens, and unlucky emperors. Many leaders reached power only to have it snatched from their grasp after a very short time, consigning them to just a footnote in history. Whether due to illness, rebellion, murder, or mystery, the following unfortunate people enjoyed some of the shortest reigns in history.
1. SHORTEST-REIGNING POPE
Pope Urban VII died just 13 days after being appointed as pope, the shortest-ever papacy. When Sixtus V died in 1590, the conclave elected Cardinal Castagna as Pope Urban VII. Urban had a great reputation as a man of piety, prudence, and decency, and so the people were full of hope that Urban would be a wonderful pope. Indeed, in his first few days he had a list made of all the poor in Rome so that he might help them, gave extra cash to cardinals with insufficient means, and ordered the bakers of Rome to bake larger loaves and sell them more cheaply, covering any losses out of his own pocket. But after just a few days in office—and even before his papal coronation—Urban VII became gravely ill. After just 13 (highly successful) days, he died.
2. SHORTEST-REIGNING KING
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The prize for the shortest-reigning king goes to Louis-Antoine of France, who very briefly became king in 1830 when his father Charles X abdicated. Louis-Antoine considered his position for 20 minutes before signing papers to confirm that he, too, was abdicating.
3. SHORTEST-REIGNING QUEEN
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When the sickly son of Henry VIII, Edward VI, died, many influential Protestants feared the crown would pass to his Catholic half-sister, Mary. Edward VI had come to the throne at just 9 years old, and the powerful John Dudley, Earl of Warwick and later Duke of Northumberland, soon positioned himself as Edward’s effective regent. Fearing he was to lose control of the crown, Dudley plotted to have Lady Jane Grey, a cousin of Edward VI, put onto the throne. To ensure his place at court, he forced Jane to marry his son. Grey reportedly fainted when told she was queen. She went through the motions of monarchy, but lacked public support—and after just nine days, Mary and her large army took back the crown.
Many historians believe that Mary had intended to pardon her young cousin—it was obvious she had been but a pawn in other people’s power games—but Jane's father foolishly took part in further rebellion. As a consequence, Jane became too much of a risk to live and was executed when she was just 16 years old.
RUNNER-UP: Berengaria of Castile was named Queen of Castile (in modern-day Spain) in 1217 when her brother Henry was killed in a freak accident—a tile blew off a roof and hit him in the head. Berengaria was the granddaughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine, famous for reigning as queen of both France and England in her lifetime and a force to be reckoned with, and Berengaria clearly had her grandmother’s wits. Instead of keeping the crown for herself, she abdicated after two months and 25 days in favor of her son Ferdinand, who was in line to become king of León. By sacrificing her own prospects in favor of her son’s, Berengaria ensured her son had an even greater legacy by ultimately unifying the kingdoms of León and Castile.
4. SHORTEST-REIGNING U.S. PRESIDENT
died after just a month in office in 1841. The 68-year-old was the ninth president of the United States and the oldest to become president, until Ronald Reagan took office at age 69 in 1981. Harrison insisted on making an extremely lengthy inauguration speech (the longest so far) in freezing conditions while foolishly shunning a hat or coat. He contracted pneumonia—or so historians long believed—and was dead within a month. Although the pneumonia diagnosis has long been accepted, more recent analysis has blamed enteric fever the president contracted as a result of the sewage-laced water in the White House.
RUNNER-UP: James Garfield, the 20th president of the United States, was shot by a disturbed man just over 100 days into his presidency. Garfield did not die immediately; he lingered on the edge of death for two and a half months as doctors tried, in vain, to locate the bullet lodged in his body, finally succumbing after six months and 15 days of his presidency. His death came not as a result of the bullet wound, but because of an infection caused by prolonged probing in the wound by doctors with unwashed hands.
5. SHORTEST-REIGNING EMPEROR
Although this category is made difficult in part by the number of self-proclaimed emperors in history, one reasonable candidate for the title of shortest reigning emperor is Napoleon II. He was named Emperor of France in title only when he was just 4 years old, after the defeat and abdication of his father, Napoleon, at Waterloo in 1815. The only legitimate son and heir of Napoleon, Napoleon II was never able to fulfill his promise—he reigned in absentia in exile with his mother in Austria for just 16 days before the French monarchy was (temporarily) restored with Louis XVIII. Napoleon II lived out his days in Austria, with the mollifying title of Duke of Reichstadt given to him, but sadly died from tuberculosis when he was just 21.
RUNNER-UP: Taichang was the 14th Ming Dynasty emperor, and came to power despite his father favoring a younger son for the post. Taichang was named emperor in 1620 and immediately got off to a good start, abolishing unpopular taxes and filling many posts left vacant by his father. But after just 10 days, he fell ill with diarrhea, suffering mightily for many days until a member of his court, Li Kezhou, gave him some red pills to cure his ailment. After taking one pill, Taichang declared that he felt much better, so he was encouraged to take another—but by the next morning, he was dead after serving just 29 days as emperor. The contents of the pills and the intentions of Li Kezhou have become something of a folk legend in China, known as the “Mystery of the Red Pills.”