Top baddies of the Middle Ages

The Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople

A medieval depiction of the death of Androniko...

Cardinal Cencius (future Pope Honorius III), t...
Cardinal Cencius (future Pope Honorius III), the author of the Liber Censuum; portrait by Giotto (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Where would you start? Well – why not with ‘bad’ King John. The man who took on the barons and lost, was excommunicated by the pope, mislaid the crown jewels in a marshy swamp and finally fled in the face of an invasion of England by the king of France. Here is the Discovery Channel take on King John.

In our list of hatred, we’d obviously have to include King Philip the Fair of France. He might have been handsome on the outside, but he was pretty ugly within. The monarch who turned on the church, the Jews, merchants and finally the Templars in order to pay off his debts. We definitely don’t like him.

If you think heresy hunters are a bad lot – then we better include Pope Honorius III who sanctioned the Dominican order – the clever but sinister bunch sent out to find sinners and torch them. This pope is also supposed to have penned a book called the Grimoire of Honorius the Great – a treatise on witchcraft that included advice on the benefits of human sacrifice as a way of rooting our sorcerers. Nice.

But he wasn’t the worst pope. That honour must surely go to pope Boniface VIII whose crimes were so appalling that the medieval poet Dante put him in the deepest pit of hell in his classic work, the Divine Comedy. Simony and worshiping idols were among his crimes – and basically…not actually believing in God at all.

The doge of Venice – Enrico Dandalo – who ruled the city during the Fourth Crusade is high up on my list of dodgy medieval characters. Here’s a man who cynically re-directed a crusade against Islam towards the eastern Christian city of Constantinople because it suited Venice’s needs to destroy its old rival ahead of the Saracens. The ninety-something doge didn’t allow his old age and blindness to prevent him personally attending the siege, rallying his troops when they slackened. The result of breaching the walls of Constantinople was an orgy of destruction that contributed hugely to the eventual collapse of the Byzantine empire.

Not that the Byzantines were entirely pleasant people. Court intrigues frequently involved the losing party being mutilated in some ghastly manner. The roll call of horror is something else. Take the Emperor Zeno who rather objected to being buried alive but his grieving wife ignored the screams from the sarcophagus and carried on with the funeral. Another empress had the emperor Nikephoros II killed by a group of assassins who entered the palace dressed as women.

And who could forget the grim end of Andronikos I Komnenos? This Byzantine had ruled by complete terror betweeen 1183 and 1185 until the people could take it no longer. The city mob tied him to a post and beat him for three days. They cut off his right  hand, pulled his teeth, hair and eyes out and possibly because he had been quite good looking, pored boiling water over his head.

Who are your favorite medieval baddies?


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