Methods of execution have varied creatively throughout history. In ancient times, many methods were brutal and often ineffective: dull swords, torture devices, with some even employing the help of animals. Swift and comparatively painless, the invention of the guillotine brought about a slightly more humane era of executions.
Though royals are typically portrayed as above the law, many of them were sentenced to be beheaded by order of their very own relatives, heads of state, and sometimes the public. Here are 8 royals and royal acquaintances who were infamously beheaded.
Executed 19 May 1536
Henry VIII sentenced Anne Boleyn, his very own wife, her brother, and their acquaintances to be executed on the grounds of committing adultery, incest, and treason which were based on seemingly inconclusive evidence. Originally set to be burned at the stake, the King instead ordered Boleyn to be beheaded. After learning of her husband's change of heart, Boleyn reportedly told the constable, “I heard the executioner was very good, and I have a little neck.”
On the morning of May 19, Boleyn appeared before a crowd and gave a moving speech that left spectators in tears. Her ladies then proceeded to remove her ermine mantle and headdress. Witness accounts report that Boleyn’s life ended with one swift stroke.
Executed 13 February 1542
Henry VIII once again sentenced another wife to be beheaded a few years later. This time, Catherine Howard, Henry VIII's fifth wife was on the receiving end of the King’s ire. For allegedly committing adultery and high treason, Howard was stripped of her title and imprisoned in the Syon Abbey. Legend has it that on the night before her execution, Howard requested to see the very block on which she would be beheaded, so she could practice how to lay, in fear of doing the wrong thing. Like Boleyn, Howard was beheaded with a single stroke of the executioner’s ax.
Lady Jane Grey
Executed 12 February 1554
Known as the nine-day Queen, Lady Jane Grey became a victim of unfortunate circumstances after being pitted against Mary Tudor. Tudor organized a rebellion that led to the beheading of Grey, her husband Lord Guildford Dudley, and a few others, on charges of high treason. Her last words were, “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit!"
Her father, Henry Grey, 1st Duke of Suffolk also suffered the same fate and was executed just 11 days after his daughter and son-in-law on February 23, 1554.
Mary, Queen of Scots
Executed 8 February 1587
Similar to Lady Jane Grey, Mary, Queen of Scots was pitted against her cousin Elizabeth I of England. The Scottish Queen was imprisoned for 19 years until she was implicated in the Babington plot of 1586, and she was sentenced to be beheaded. Unfortunately, the first strike missed and hit the back of Mary's head. The second blow severed her neck but not without difficulty. The horror didn't stop there. Afterward, when the executioner held Mary’s head up by her famous auburn tresses... her head immediately detached, revealing her penchant for wigs.
King Charles I
Executed 30 January 1649
After fueling England’s civil war, King Charles I was found guilty of high treason with a death warrant signed by 59 commissioners (judges). The King appeared before the people in two layered shirts, worried that he would shiver due to the cold and be seen as a coward. He was swiftly decapitated with a single blow to his neck but not before uttering his last words, "I am the martyr of the people."
James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth
Executed 15 July 1685
The Duke of Monmouth was the illegitimate child of King Charles II and his mistress Lucy Walter. In his later years, he led an unsuccessful rebellion to overthrow his uncle James II. Monmouth was subsequently sent to the chopping block and beheaded in the most brutal way possible. The executioner gave multiple fruitless blows, with the victim rising up at one point, till a knife was used to finally sever his head. Sources vary on the number of blows: The official Tower of London document says five blows while some claim seven or eight.
Executed 21 January 1793
The most popular of all royals to be beheaded was also one of the first to sample the guillotine. Louis XVI's reign was doomed from the start, with famine and poverty stalking the land due to the opulence of his predecessors. His marriage to Austrian Marie Antoinette and his ascension to the throne only fueled the people's hatred toward the royals, culminating in the French Revolution. Ending the Versailles era, Louis XVI was sentenced to death via the guillotine.
Executed 16 October 1793
Months later, Louis XVI's wife suffered the same fate. Marie Antoinette became the last Queen of France after she was tried by the Revolutionary Tribunal on October 14, 1793, and found guilty of high treason, conspiracy, and depletion of the national treasury. She faced the crowd in a clean white chemise and was guillotined at exactly 12:15 p.m.