Momentary Monarchs: 10 Rulers Who Turned Their Back On The Throne
Throughout history, there have been numerous monarchs - some good, some bad, and many largely forgotten. Some monarchs, like Queen Elizabeth II, ruled for decades, but the reign of many others was much shorter. Although we tend to think of being a monarch as a job for life, the truth is, many monarchs have abdicated, essentially quitting. Sometimes they were coerced; sometimes they did it for personal reasons. Here we have a selection of ten monarchs from throughout history who decided to abdicate and give up their crowns.
Roman Emperor Diocletian abdicated in favor of his garden
As Roman emperors go, Diocletian had a pretty impressive track record. Reportedly the son of a slave, Diocletian had worked hard, and rose through the military ranks until he took control in 284 AD. Upon taking control, he realized that the empire had become too large, and was becoming increasingly likely to implode.
Knowing no one man could rule such a large empire, Emperor Diocletian split the empire in two, and claimed the eastern half for himself. He later divided it again, forming the tetrarchy. History shows that his plan worked; dividing the empire stabilized it and allowed it to survive for another two hundred years.
In 303 AD, Diocletian became seriously ill during a visit to Rome. It is thought that he likely had a stroke. This served as a wake-up call to Diocletian, and he decided to retire so that he could spend his remaining days in his hometown of Split in Croatia.
His co-ruler Maximian asked Diocletian to return to power, but Diocletian responded that he would rather spend his remaining days in his garden than return to power. Diocletian spent the rest of his days enjoying his retirement in peace.
Emperor Diocletian divided his empire, and abdicated to potter around in his garden. Bust at Diocletian's Palace, Split, Croatia (Carole Raddato / CC BY SA 2.0 )
Byzantine Emperor Justin II: Abdicating in a moment of clarity
Anyone who has studied monarchies will often come to one conclusion pretty quickly, monarchs and poor mental health often seem to go hand in hand. Maybe it's the pressures of ruling vast empires, maybe it's the often limited gene pool, but quite a few monarchs have snapped.
Justin II voluntarily abdicated in the year 574 AD. Why did he choose to hand over the throne? He’d been suffering from “derangement”. In the months leading up to his abdication, he had arbitrarily attacked his attendants, made random animal noises, and begun to self-harm.
In his increasingly rare moments of lucidity, Emperor Justin II realized his position was untenable, and that he needed to do the right thing for his empire: abdicate. He adopted one of his generals, Tiberius, as his son and heir and abdicated.
Justinian and the general Tiberius, who he adopted as his son before he abdicated. (Classical Numismatic Group / CC BY SA 2.5 )
Sultan Murad II of the Ottoman Empire abdicated (temporarily)
Sometimes an abdication doesn’t stick. Sultan Murad II tried his best to get out of the leadership business but was dragged straight back in.
Murad abdicated as head of the Ottoman Empire in 1444 AD, handing over the keys to the kingdom to his son, Mehmed II. Historians today believe he was trying to avoid the usual bloodshed that followed changes in Ottoman leadership. He hoped that peacefully handing over power to his son would stop any dynastic drama. He had been ruler for 23 years and had spent much of that time fighting off both internal and external threats.
One of his last acts as ruler was to sign a peace treaty with the Polish and Hungarian king, Ladislaw III. He believed that his son's reign would be much more peaceful than his own. Thinking his kingdom was safe, there seemed no better time to abdicate.
He was wrong. Less than a year after Murad abdicated, Ladislaw broke his word and led a multinational force into Ottoman-controlled, present-day Bulgaria. Ladislaw planned on expelling the Ottomans from Europe altogether and believed that the inexperienced Mehmed II would be unable to stop him.
It would seem King Ladislaw was very astute. Mehmed recognized his own limitations and asked his father to return to power to lead the Ottoman armies once more. Murad tried to refuse, but his son ignored him, stating, "If you are Sultan, command your armies. If I am Sultan, I order you to command my armies."
It worked, and Murad soon defeated the crusaders at the Battle of Varna. He was reinstated as Sultan in 1446 and ruled until his death in 1451. Upon his father’s passing, Mehmed II came back into power, now ready to lead. He went on to take Constantinople two years later, having learned much from his father.
Portrait of Sultan Mehmet II, 1480, by Gentile Bellini. ( Public Domain )
The Abdication of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V
Charles V had a lot going for him; as ruler of the Holy Roman Empire in the 16th century, he was the most powerful ruler in Europe, and by extension, one of the most powerful men in the world. This had earned him many enemies, and his time in power was characterized by almost constant warfare.
The problem was that Charles had spent much of his life in ill health, suffering from migraines and gout. As his health worsened, it began to impinge on his ability to rule. When the French took Metz in 1552, Charles was unable to respond due to ill health and handed one of his greatest enemies a major victory.
Soon after this loss, he chose to abdicate. He handed his imperial titles over to his brother, Ferdinand I, and gave all his possessions to his son, Philip I. He left royal life and spent the rest of his days living in a monastery.
Portrait of Emperor Charles V by Titian ( Public Domain )
Tsar Ivan IV, better known as Ivan the Terrible: Another Attempted Abdication
Much like Murad II, Ivan IV is a monarch whose abdication didn’t stick. Unlike Murad however, there has been much debate as to whether Ivan’s abdication was genuine, a political ploy, or the result of mental illness.
Ivan the Terrible abdicated on December 3rd, 1594. He announced to the boyars (noble families who made up the government) that he planned to leave Moscow and make a pilgrimage to Alexandrova Sloboda. He told them he was sick and tired of their constant embezzlement, plotting, and treason, so he was leaving.
The boyars soon realized that Ivan’s abdication was a problem; they feared the citizens would rebel without their leader. The boyars sent an envoy to Ivan, asking him to return and promising they would behave if he did. Ivan agreed under the condition that he be allowed to execute any boyar he suspected of treason, without repercussion.
This was no idle threat. As soon as he returned, Ivan purged any boyar family he felt was disloyal, and there were a lot. Historians are torn on whether Ivan’s abdication was simply a plot to get more power. If it was, it was genius. However, other historians believe the abdication was a result of an undiagnosed mental illness. Rather than being a political move, it is possible Ivan’s abdication was just a temper tantrum that ended up working out for him.
Tsar Ivan IV, better known as Ivan the Terrible, temporarily abdicated, although scholars debate the cause. 1897 oil painting by Viktor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov ( Public Domain )
John II Casimir of Sweden abdicated after he’d had enough
Sometimes a monarch gets dealt a bad hand. John II’s reign was full of bad hands: major losses of territory, constant war, and many, many defeats. In 1660, he lost his claim to the Swedish throne , and in 1667, he had to hand over numerous eastern territories to Russia after major military defeats.
Unsurprisingly, all these defeats made poor John increasingly unpopular at home. By the end of 1667, he was fending off various rebellions at home, as well as constant foreign conflicts. When his wife, Marie Louise Gonzaga, died in 1667, it broke the monarch. John II Casimir Vasa decided enough was enough, and abdicated on September 16, 1668. He left Poland and returned to France, where he became abbot of Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris.
John II Casimir of Sweden already looks fed up in this portrait. He abdicated in 1668, after nearly a decade of struggle as monarch. ( Public Domain )
Tsar Nicholas II of Russia: Abdication in Revolution
It’s safe to say Tsar Nicholas II of Russia was not a popular monarch. The financial and human cost of Russia’s role in World War I had damaged Nicholas’s reputation immensely and caused major criticism of his rule.
In 1917, the Russian people were facing a major food shortage and mass strikes. The people were angry and called for a socialist revolution. As discontent turned to violence and riots broke out, Nicholas’s government lost all control. He was forced to abdicate on March 15th, 1917.
Nicholas and his family were sent to live in exile. If Nicolas thought his abdication would save his family, he was sadly mistaken. The Bolsheviks would later have Nicholas and his family executed, fearing they could one day be used as counter-revolutionary figureheads against them.
Tsar Nicholas II abdicated in an attempt to save himself and his family at the beginning of the Russian Revolution ( Public Domain )
Sweden’s Gustav IV Adolf: Forced off the Throne
Gustav IV Adolf was the king of Sweden from 1792 until he was deposed and forced to abdicate in 1809. Depending on who you ask, Gustav was either incredibly incompetent or incredibly unlucky.
The reign of Gustav IV started well, at least in comparison, as the rule of his predecessor Gustav III had been a complete disaster. Gustav III had led an incredibly costly war against Russia that had almost bankrupted Sweden. When Gustav III was assassinated and Gustav IV was crowned, the nobility and the populace were just happy to have a new leader.
The situation began to go south for the new Gustav in 1798, with two years of widespread crop failures that exacerbated his kingdom's financial woes. Circumstances got worse in 1805, when he joined the Third Coalition against Napoleon. This was a war that Sweden was unprepared for, and could not afford. The campaign did not go well, and the French soon took Swedish Pomerania. This was followed by Russia betraying the coalition and making peace with France in 1807.
Things then went from bad to worse in 1808, when Russia invaded present-day Finland, ruled by Sweden at the time. As if Gustav did not have enough on his plate, Denmark then joined the party and declared war on Sweden as well. In almost no time at all, Finland was completely lost to Russia. On September 17, 1809, Sweden surrendered its eastern third to Russia. Obviously, this was quite unpopular in Sweden.
Gustav IV’s handling of the war led to the Coup of 1809, in which army officers deposed him. He agreed to voluntarily abdicate, so that his son could take the throne in his stead. His son would never see the throne, however. The revolutionaries feared Gustav’s son could be a threat in the future, so they put Gustav’s uncle, Charles, on the throne.
Gustav spent the rest of his days in Switzerland living in a small hotel. He remained lonely and bitter until he eventually died of a stroke. He wasn’t really given much of a choice, but he always regretted abdicating.
Portrait of Gustav IV Adolf of Sweden by Per Krafft the Younger, shortly before his forced abdication in the Coup of 1809 ( Public Domain )
King Edward VIII of the United Kingdom: Marriage over Monarchy
Perhaps the most famous abdication in history is that of King Edward VIII, who abdicated for love. When King George V passed away in 1936, his son King Edward VIII was poised to take the throne. There was just one little wrinkle.
The English monarch was also the head of the Church of England. This came with a lot of rules and traditions in regard to how a monarch was expected to live their life. One of those rules was that a monarch couldn’t marry someone who had been divorced.
This was a problem for Edward, who was in a long-term relationship with the American actress Wallis Simpson, a divorcee. Initially, Edward approached parliament with a workaround that would allow him to marry Simpson and still become king. The English Parliament refused outright.
Edward chose Simpson over the crown and announced his abdication. And thus, the crown went to his brother Albert, who became George VI. In a speech to the nation, Edward announced he was choosing the woman he loved over the crown.
Edward’s abdication had huge repercussions for the royal family. It changed the line of succession so that George VI’s daughter, Elizabeth, became queen upon his death. Elizabeth went on to become the United Kingdom’s longest reigning monarch until her death in 2022.
Although King Edward VIII abdicated for his American actress love Wallis Simpson, they remained active. The then-Duke and Duchess of Windsor are pictured here with US president Richard Nixon, 1970 ( Public Domain )
Analytical Abdication: Emperor Akihito of Japan
At the time of writing, the most recent abdication was that of Emperor Akihito of Japan. It became clear in 2016 that Akihito intended to abdicate so that his son, then-Prince Naruhito could take the throne . His reasoning was that he was elderly and had had several health scares, and so he felt it was time for someone younger to take the reins.
There was only one problem; by Japanese law, Akihito could not abdicate. Abdication would require an amendment to be made to the Imperial Household Law. In May 2017, the bill allowing Akihito to abdicate was issued by the Cabinet of Japan. It was passed and entered into law on the June 8, 2017. Akihito abdicated on April 30, 2019, becoming the first Japanese emperor to do so since 1817.
Japanese Emperor Akihito in 2016, shortly before his abdication for a younger generation ( Public Domain )
These ten rulers left power under a wide variety of circumstances. Even those who chose to abdicate did so for different reasons. The question of abdication has come up more in recent years. Many of the world's remaining monarchies have an age problem. More figureheads than dictators, the survival of these monarchies relies more than ever on their popularity.
Many royalists fear these aging royals are bad for publicity, and that new younger generations would respond better to younger royals. King Charles III of the United Kingdom was already facing calls to abdicate long before the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II for instance. As Akihito knew, sometimes young blood is needed to inject life into an aging institution.
Top image: Why would monarchs abdicate their thrones? These ten stories will give some ideas. Source: Elles Rijsdijk / Adobe Stock
By Robbie Mitchell
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Sherrin, H. May 27, 2022. When a Monarch Quits: The History of Abdication . History Hits. Available at: https://www.historyhit.com/when-a-monarch-quits-the-history-of-abdication/
Westcott, B. December 1, 2019. Akihito to become the first Japanese Emperor to abdicate in 200 years . CNN. Available at: http://edition.cnn.com/2017/11/30/asia/japan-emperor-akihito-abdication-intl/index.html