Our fascination with the unconventional lives of aristocrats was once again demonstrated the other week, when Game of Thrones received twelve Emmy awards. But stories of royal eccentricity are not confined to the realm of fiction. European history offers several examples of real-life monarchs allegedly prone to mental instability, such as King Eric XIV of Sweden, who was deposed on September 29th, 1568. However, it remains debatable as to whether these retrospective diagnoses of a psychological disorder are justified.
Historians paint King Eric (1533-1577) as a man of contradictions. While he was a well-educated Renaissance prince with diverse cultural interests, he also enjoyed an excessive lifestyle and pursued an aggressive foreign policy – for instance, the cruel Nordic Seven Years’ War against Denmark and Poland falls into his reign. Eric’s eventual descent into madness began with streaks of paranoia – untimely coughing could lead to execution – and culminated in his brutal stabbing of a political enemy, Nils Sture. On September 29th, 1568, Eric was deposed and imprisoned by his half-brother John. After a relapse into mental illness he was most likely killed with poison in his pea soup on February 26th, 1577.
History books are rife with accounts of eccentric monarchs, and in some cases an assumed mental disorder not only dominates their legacy, but also manifests itself in unflattering nicknames. Queen Joan I of Castile (1479-1555), widely known as Joan the Mad, was declared psychologically unstable and imprisoned in a nunnery. Modern historians, however, cast doubt on the mental illness hypothesis and assume she was deposed for political reasons. A well-known British example is “Mad” King George III of the United Kingdom. His erratic behaviour was for a long time attributed to the genetic blood disease porphyria, but recent research indicates psychiatric causes. Evidently, the explanation of former rulers’ bizarre actions represents a complex task. A number of royals may indeed have suffered from genuine mental disorders, but in other instances, the mental illness could have been a fabrication by adversaries who ensured that the affected monarch did not get a voice in the narrative.
As tales of mentally unstable aristocrats often coincide with political power games, it is no surprise that this historical material lends itself to fictionalisation. The fate of Eric of Sweden was dramatised by Swedish playwright August Strindberg in 1899. In Erik XIV, the protagonist expresses a rather pragmatic perspective. He states that his actions are only perceived as eccentric “because you who consider yourself sane are convinced that you wouldn’t act as I if you were in my place”.
Image: Karin Månsdotter, Eric XIV and Jöran Persson by Georg von Rosen, Wikipedia Public Domain