There are few more terrifying pairings than power and incompetence. It is in light of this terror that we may try to sympathize with countless royal hands across the ages that answered to young men in the throes of puberty wielding the power to end innumerable lives (along with their own empires).
The brat king is perhaps a timeless literary trope, but the lives of these young rulers were themselves far from fortunate. Many kings saw their crown far before even adolescence, standing little chance to navigate the intricacies of royal politics or rise against the forces they were pitted against. It rarely ended well for young kings thrust into positions of power for which they were not prepared.
Emperor Puyi of China was crowned at the age of 2 as the last monarch of the Qing Dynasty, following the death of Guangxu. Puyi thrashed in fear on the Dragon Throne during his coronation, which marked the end of any semblance of a normal upbringing. The young emperor was separated from his family and raised by the eunuchs of the Forbidden City, which he routinely abused out of boredom and sadism. Throughout his early years, his wet nurse, Wang Wen-Chao, served as his only maternal figure and was occasionally able to calm him during his more cruel moods.
Puyi was abdicated in 1911 following a mutiny at an army garrison in nearby Wuhan. This marked the beginning of Puyi’s lifetime as a Chinese figurehead fraught by political intrigue from every direction that he was ill-equipped to manage. Puyi maintained his residence in the Forbidden City for years after and was heavily shaped by the tutelage of Sir Reginald Johnston, a Scottish diplomat.
A 1924 coup saw Puyi’s expulsion from the Forbidden City, after which he lived as a private citizen, a “war criminal,” a puppet monarch, and finally a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in communist China. Puyi’s life became the subject of countless writings and revisions from various political and national perspectives—including his own, as his life served as a symbol for the transformation of Chinese government during a period of heavy outside influence leading up to the establishment of the CPPCC.
Henry VI inherited the English throne from his deceased father at the age of nine months, along with the Hundred Years War. During the early years of Henry’s life, England was ruled by the Regency government, composed of powerful English nobles and heavily influenced by his uncle Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. Henry took the responsibilities of the crown of both England and France at the age of 16 to the effect of a loss of English lands to Joan of Arc and Charles VII.
Henry displayed a significant lapse in his mental state after his loss of Bordeaux in 1453. He was rendered nearly catatonic, even to the birth of his own heir, for over a year. He eventually recovered from his episode, but his failures in the Hundred Years War stirred political turmoil at home, which eventually broke out into civil war during the War of the Roses. Henry was imprisoned by King Edward before being briefly reinstated through the political efforts of Queen Margaret.
In historic memory, Henry has been recalled as timid, pious, and mentally unstable. His extended legacy of political and military defeats eventually broke the young king’s mind before he died alone and insane, imprisoned at the Tower of London.
John the First, “the posthumous,” was crowned as King of France on the day of his birth following the death of Louis X four months prior. His reign lasted all of five days with the circumstances of his death still remaining unclear.
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