It is fair to say that while most members of the English and Scottish royal families have died from disease, in battle, or in childbirth, such a long history has thrown up the occasional peculiarity. Here are 10 British royals who, according to their chroniclers—who may have taken some liberties with the exact details—took a decidedly odd way out.
1. Bitten by a Dead Man // Sigurd Eysteinsson, Earl of Orkney (c875–892)
Sigurd Eysteinsson’s life is a tale of Vikings, pirates, and treachery. But he’s perhaps best remembered for having one of the oddest deaths in history.
Sigurd was the Viking ruler of the Island of Orkney whose exploits earned him the name Sigurd the Mighty. In true Viking fashion, he set about conquering the north of Scotland, which was then inhabited by a group of people called the Picts. This brought him into conflict with the Earl of Moray, Máel Brigte the Bucktoothed. As epithets were given about a person’s most distinguishing feature, we can be pretty sure that his teeth must have been particularly eye-catching.
Having challenged the Pictish earl to a battle where each side could have 40 men, Sigurd reneged on the deal and brought 80. Inevitably, Máel Brigte and his army were defeated and suffered the ignominy of having their heads cut off and tied to the Vikings’ saddles. But Máel Brigte and his enormous teeth would have their revenge: As his severed head bounced around on the horse, his teeth scraped Sigurd’s leg. Infection set in, and the Viking ruler was dead before he made it back to Orkney.
2. Stabbed on the Toilet // Edmund II of England (c993–1016)
This tale comes with a caution, both for the squeamish and for those who like solid historical facts.
After his father’s death in April 1016, Edmund was chosen as King of England by the small number of Witan council members—the small group of nobles who acted as the King's advisors—who were in London. The remaining members, who were in Southampton, elected the invading Danish leader, Cnut, instead. The two spent the next six months vying for the English crown until Edmund’s defeat at the Battle of Assaddun in October 1016 ended his ambition. He had to settle for the title of King of Wessex while Cnut took the rest of the country.
Edmund died a month later in November 1016. When retelling the story, the chronicler Henry of Huntingdon opted for a particularly sensational and rather gruesome version of events. Rather than a slow death resulting from an infection of the wounds he received at Assaddun, Huntingdon stated that Edmund was killed by an assassin who hid himself in the cesspit beneath the toilets and “struck the king twice with a sharp knife in the private parts, and leaving the weapon in his bowels, fled away.” Though Cnut benefitted from his death, both Huntingdon and William of Malmsbury claim that it was an Englishman, Eadric Streona, who hired the assassin, and that when he was subsequently executed for the crime he “breathed out his abominable spirit to hell.”
Given that Huntingdon was writing over 100 years after Edmund’s death, he probably embellished the truth. But it certainly makes for a better story.
3. Shot While Hunting Deer // William II of England (c1056–1100)
William II was the third son of William I (the Conqueror) and inherited England after his father’s death in 1087; the more important Dukedom of Normandy went to his elder brother Robert. Their middle brother Richard had died while hunting in the New Forest in around 1075—the same fate that awaited William 25 years later.
In August 1100, William was hunting with Sir Walter Tirel, who aimed at a stag but shot the king in the chest instead. Tirel promptly dropped everything, left the king where he fell, and fled to France. Unsurprisingly, he claimed it was an accident.
But it seems more likely that it was an assassination on the orders of William’s younger brother Henry I. Conveniently, he had also been on the hunt and was close by, mounted and ready to go. He made straight for Winchester, seized the treasury, and had himself crowned king.
In their panic to flee the scene, nobody bothered about William. He was left lying in the woods for two days until a peasant found him and took him to Winchester Cathedral. He was buried under the tower, which fell down a year later.
4. Eating Too Much Fish // Henry I of England (c1068-1135)
By 1106, Henry I had imprisoned his eldest brother Robert and taken Normandy for himself—after, of course, likely having William II killed.
Henry was considered a pretty wise and far-sighted king, but he could also be stubborn as his death in December 1135 shows. Despite having previously been ill after eating lampreys (a rather horrible looking fish that resembles an eel and has suckers for a mouth), Henry decided to ignore his doctor's warning and have a surfeit of them for his dinner after a good day’s hunting in Normandy. His chronicler, Henry of Huntingdon, reported that he became ill with food poisoning, suffered “an acute fever while attempting to throw off the oppressive load,” and died a week later.
There is, of course, the possibility that the fish was poisoned. Henry had built up a number of enemies in his 35-year reign, including the Norman barons he was fighting at the time of his death and his own daughter, The Empress Matilda, who was still angry at his decision not to confer her with Normandy’s castles as a mean of strengthening her position as his heir. The hunting trip was a respite from the continual fighting and it wouldn’t have been hard to have seen him off with a dish of his favorite food.
5. Fell From a Cliff // King Alexander III of Scotland (1241–1286)
Alexander became king at the age of 7 and married his first wife, Margaret of England, when he was 10 in 1251. The three children they had before her death in 1275 had died by 1284, leaving Alexander's 1-year-old Norwegian granddaughter as his heir presumptive. Desperate for a son, Alexander married Yolande of Dreux in 1285.
The following year, the queen was at Kinghorne Castle in Fife and, in a rush to get to her in time for her birthday, Alexander set out from Edinburgh and traveled through the night. Contemporaries reported that it was not unusual for the king to take such a risk, but on this occasion his stubbornness in refusing to listen to his advisers proved fatal. He became separated from his guides and was found the next day at the base of a steep precipice with a broken neck. It was assumed his horse stumbled in the dark and threw him over the edge to his death.
Although chronicles don’t suggest foul play, the death of Alexander plunged Scotland into a succession crisis conveniently exacerbated by England’s Edward I.
6. Starved to Death // Richard II of England (1367–1400)
There have been quite a few kings in British history who have been known for their gluttony, so finding one that starved to death is pretty unusual.
Richard II has a mixed reputation. He is seen by some as a progressive-thinking king who despised war and loved art, but his contemporaries saw him as a tyrant, prone to stealing their inheritance. In 1399 he targeted his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, who returned from exile and not only took back his inheritance, but also claimed Richard’s throne.
The new Henry IV was initially lenient and seems to have intended to let Richard live out the rest of his days as a prisoner at Pontefract Castle in Yorkshire. But a plot by Richard’s loyal supporters put an end to that. It’s believed that to avoid the stigma of spilling the blood of an anointed king, Henry IV had Richard starved to death. Alternatively, it's possible Richard died by suicide through self-starvation. Either way, he was dead by February 1400.
7. Blown Up by His Own Cannon // James II of Scotland (1430–1460)
Unlike his father, who had cultivated a love of books, James II’s passion lay in warfare, hunting, and artillery—which ultimately proved fatal.
Taking advantage of the chaos raging in England during the Wars of the Roses, in 1460 James turned his attention to recapturing Roxburgh Castle, which was still held by the English. Preparing for a long siege, James brought a “numerous army well furnished with artillery,” including his most prized gun, a large bombard cannon called The Lion. Wanting to show it off to the Earl of Huntly, the chronicler Robert Lindsay recorded that James went down and stood next to it when it suddenly exploded and “his Thigh-Bone was dung in two with a Piece of misframed Gun, that brake in shooting; by the which he was stricken to the Ground, and died hastily.”
8. Drowned in Wine // George, Duke of Clarence (1449–1478)
George was the troublesome younger brother of Edward IV. Throughout the Wars of the Roses, he was never quite sure which side he was on: First, he supported his brother when he seized the throne, but then he planned with Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick to usurp him. When that didn’t work out, he switched back again. Even then, however, his allegiance wasn't solid.
By 1476, Edward had had enough, and George was found guilty of treason. Though his execution was private, tradition has it that George was drowned in a vat of very expensive malmsey wine. No definite evidence exists, but bones believed to be George’s showed no signs of a beheading (although some doubt it is him) plus a portrait of his daughter shows her wearing a bracelet with a vat charm (although some doubt it is her). Some even say George himself chose this unusual exit, perhaps as a way to avoid the well-known and messy inaccuracies of the medieval executioner.
9. Euthanized by His Doctor // George V (1865–1936)
In 1986, the historian Francis Watson finally published the secret he had kept hidden since reading the diary of George V’s physician, Lord Bertrand Dawson, 36 years before.
George was the grandson of Queen Victoria and was responsible for the royal family adopting the name of Windsor in 1917. He had been repeatedly ill since a fall in 1915—and it didn’t help that he was a heavy smoker and suffered from bronchitis. By January 1936 it was evident that he was ill for the last time and his royal physician was summoned. Rather than waiting for the end to come naturally, Dawson decided the king needed to die before midnight so the news would break in the morning edition of The Times rather than the “less appropriate evening journals.” Without the royal family’s knowledge or the king’s approval, he bumped him off with a lethal injection of morphine and cocaine.
What's worse is that he may have struck again two years later. George’s sister, Queen Maud of Norway, was visiting England when she suddenly became ill. She survived the abdominal surgery Dawson performed, but subsequently died of heart failure. Ominously, Lord Dawson reported to her Norwegian doctors that her death was a release “which saved her from these last painful stages of the disease [cancer].”
10. Crashed His Plane // Prince William of Gloucester (1941–1972)
William was the grandson of George V and the present queen’s first cousin; he was once as high as fourth in line to the British throne. It is possible that the Prince of Wales named his first son, William Duke of Cambridge, after him.
William suffered from porphyria (the same disease believed to have made George III mad), but he was an excellent sportsman and enjoyed an adventurous life. He owned several aircraft, skied, drove sports cars, went ballooning, and trekked across the Sahara Desert despite the skin condition brought on by the illness. His most dangerous hobby, however, was his love of racing aircraft. In August 1972, he was competing at the Goodyear International Air Trophy when, shortly after take-off, his plane banked left, clipped a tree, and crashed. He and his co-pilot died instantly.