What is a Regicide?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The term “regicide” is used in two senses. In the first, it refers to killing or murdering a crowned monarch such as a king. In the second sense, the word is used to describe someone who kills a monarch or participates in a regicide. History has seen a large number of regicides as part of the complex struggle for power in nations all over the world, and the practice is hardly extinct; in 2001, for example, the King of Nepal was killed by his own son.

Charles I was executed during the English Civil War.
Charles I was executed during the English Civil War.

In England, most people use the term regicide to refer specifically to monarchs who have been killed after legal proceedings. The two most famous regicides are probably those of Mary, Queen of Scots, who was executed on the orders of Elizabeth I, and Charles I, who was executed by a team of conspirators during the English Civil War. Numerous other English monarchs have been killed in the course of battle or while imprisoned, but English historians generally do not term these deaths regicides.

Regicide took place in Nepal in 2001.
Regicide took place in Nepal in 2001.

As one can imagine, the punishments for regicide vary depending on the circumstances of the regicide. In many cases, a regicide marks the beginning of a new government and era, in which case the regicides may actually become celebrated leaders. In other instances, the rebellion and unrest which led to the regicide is put down, and the participants are severely punished. In the English Civil War, the regicides of Charles I were punished retroactively, after the monarchy was restored.

Some other famous cases of regicide include Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, who was killed along with his family in the Bolshevik Revolution, Shaka, King of the Zulus, and Henri IV of France. Other monarchs have died in suspicious circumstances which might be considered regicide, such as kings who have been accidentally killed on hunting expeditions and in the heat of battle. Regicide is also a theme in some myths; King Arthur, for example, was the victim of attempted regicide in many Arthurian legends.

Since monarchs historically ruled by divine right in many cultures, regicide was a serious crime, because it challenged God in addition to the monarchy. The intimate relationship between monarchs and gods was an important part of the tradition of many cultures, from China to England, ensuring that monarchs ruled with the blessing of God. Because of this, attempted regicides were often severely punished historically, to remind restless citizens that the monarch held the powers of life and death over his or her people.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@ceilingcat - Yes, divinely ordained rulers does seem like a pretty silly idea now. But then again, I'm an American, so I'm pretty attached to democracy.

When I was reading this article I was reminded of the book Game of Thrones and the television series that was based upon it. In the story, a King is killed "by accident" on a hunting expedition. Of course, it later turns out to not have been an accident at all, but it ends up being quite hard to prove. It seems the author of the book to a cue from actual history!


It was awfully convenient for those monarchs that they supposedly had a "divine right" to rule. Most people in this day and age can't imagine having that kind of attitude, but people really did. They thought they were born into whatever station of life they were supposed to be, and there was no hope of ever advancing.

Anyway, I can't imagine how anyone who thought this way ever got up the courage to commit regicide! I mean, if you think your kind was divinely ordained to rule, then killing him would be pretty serious. I think someone would have to really have strong convictions about something to consider this crime! I'm pretty sure that's why the regicide's discussed here weren't crimes of passion, but politically motivated.


@MrsWinslow - I'm a British history buff, myself. It's interesting not just what happened with Charles I, but what happened a couple of kings later when they decided *not* to contemplate regicide. James II, the last Stuart king, was deeply unpopular because of his Catholicism. There was at least one attempt at a rebellion to put his brother's illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, on the throne. (It didn't go well for the Duke!)

Most people were prepared to wait him out - he was no spring chicken, after all - but then he married and had a son. Then, the lords of England saw Catholic kings stretching into infinity, and they acted. Essentially, James II was deposed and his adult, Protestant daughter Mary and her husband William took the throne in a negotiated settlement. People were so pleased that no blood had been shed, they called it "the Glorious Revolution." This was in the 1680s if I remember right.

Decades later, his grandson returned from France and tried to take the throne. This time, plenty of blood was shed; he raised an army and was defeated in battle. Seems like when you want to get rid of a king, there's always fallout someway or another. Sir Walter Scott's novel Waverly is actually about the uprising led by Bonnie Prince Charlie; a young man gets involved in it, but his treason is laughed off as a mere romantic youthful peccadillo!


While regicide, by definition, may just mean the killing of a king, it can have a lot of fallout. Charles I's children were left alive, but that was unusual, and it turned out badly for the regicides - his oldest son grew up and returned to take revenge. Fearing such an outcome, the children have often been killed along with their parent. In the case of Tsar Nicholas II, some of the household staff were also killed.

I've always been a big fan of Roman history - they had some colorful monarchs! When the emperor Caligula was slain, the assassins also killed his two-year-old daughter by smashing her head against a wall. Futilely, as it turned out - their goal was to restore the Republic, but Caligula's uncle Claudius escaped the city and was proclaimed emperor.

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