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Last Rulers Of Historical Kingdoms And Empires

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Identifying the last rulers of historical kingdoms and empires can be messy. Attaching names and dates to these events isn’t always easy, especially as governments transition from one form to the next – often in the midst of chaos and uncertainty.Naming the last ruler in France is full of complexities, as is getting a full understanding of what happened to the last ruler of the Aztec empire or the final monarch of Hawaii. Here are the “whos” and “whens” of some of the biggest, most powerful, and best-known kingdoms and empires in history.

Photo: Carl Frederik Kiörboe / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

Arguably, the last king of France was Louis XVI, the monarch who ruled when the French Revolution broke out during the late 18th century. After his unsuccessful attempts to flee from revolutionaries, Louis XVI (1754-1792) was put on trial for treason in 1792. The monarchy was abolished and, the following year, both the king and his wife, Marie Antoinette, were executed by guillotine.

During the first stage of the French Revolution, France functioned as a constitutional monarchy, although Louis XVI was little more than a figurehead. With the dissolution of the monarchy, the country transitioned into a republic, albeit one that became increasingly radicalized until 1794. During what is known as the Reign of Terror, controlling factions in France adopted a new calendar, banned Christianity, and put thousands of suspected enemies to death. Headed by Maximilien Robespierre, the Committee of Public Safety oversaw as many as 17,000 executions – with Robespierre himself falling to the guillotine in July 1794.

From 1795 to 1799, the Directory – five individuals appointed by the French parliament – made executive decisions for France. As the country fought in numerous international conflicts, saw continued political misconduct, and suffered economic crises, the door opened for Napoleon Bonaparte to stage a coup and seize control of the government.

The prominent general took dictatorial control of France, first becoming First Consul, then Consul for Life (1802), and emperor (1804). He fought in numerous territorial conflicts, ultimately prompting an alliance of European powers to unite and unseat him. In 1814, Bonaparte was forced to abdicate and exiled to the small island of Elba in the Mediterranean.

Bonaparte managed to escape from exile and returned to Paris in 1815. For 100 days, he attempted to reassert his dominance, but failed. After his defeat at Waterloo and another exile (this time to St. Helena in the South Atlantic), the monarchy in France was reestablished, with Louis XVIII placed on the throne in July 1815.

The monarchy in France continued, plagued by continued political and economic strife. In 1852, Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew, Charles-Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, became Emperor Napoleon III after serving as president of the Second Republic from 1848. He, too, became a dictator, and after being captured during the Franco-Prussian conflict, was deposed. France then established the Third Republic.

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Last Ottoman Sultan: Mehmed VI

The Ottoman Empire was established by Osman Bey during the final years of the 13th century. With Turkish roots that trace back centuries further, Osman consolidated power throughout the eastern Mediterranean, into Europe, and across North Africa. As the sultan (a word that reflects rule in Muslim areas where religious and political sovereignty are inextricably linked), Osman set the foundation for more than 600 years of Ottoman power.

During the late Middle Ages and through the early modern period, the Ottoman Empire ebbed and flowed in its territorial expanse, with great gains made in Yemen, Cyprus, and Ukraine through the late 17th century. One of the most important successes for the Ottomans was Mehmed II’s conquest of Constantinople in 1453. This ended the Byzantine Empire and gave the Ottomans control of the important strategic location, which they renamed Istanbul.

The decline of the Ottoman Empire was the result of internal instability brought on by revolutions and assassinations, foreign interference, and an inability to keep up with their rivals’ technological advancements. By the early 20th century, the Ottoman Empire was considerably smaller and weaker than it had been at its apex, but its end was sealed during WWI. The Ottomans joined the side of the Central Powers, and with their defeat in 1918, saw most of their territory distributed to foreign powers.

Nominally, the Ottoman Empire continued, with Mehmed VI functioning as sultan after the demise of his brother, Mehmed V, in 1918. Mehmed VI was overthrown in 1922 when the sultanate was officially abolished. Turkey declared itself a republic under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Photo: Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

To many scholars and observers of history, Charlemagne’s crowning by Pope Leo III in 800 AD marks the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire. Others emphasize the development of the role of Holy Roman Emperor during the 10th-century reign of Otto I, or even the 13th or 16th centuries with the adoption of the title “Holy Roman Empire.” Regardless of when the Holy Roman Emperor came to be, Francis II was the last in a long line of leaders – with the official end to the office in 1806.

Francis II became the Holy Roman Emperor in 1792, but was forced to abdicate after Napoleon Bonaparte wreaked havoc on Europe. Bonaparte’s Confederation of the Rhine, set up in 1806, unified all German states (with the exception of Austria and Prussia), shifting Francis’s place in European politics. Bonaparte gave Francis an ultimatum to dissolve the Holy Roman Empire in August 1806, which he did.

Francis didn’t disappear from European events, however. His daughter, Marie-Louise, married Napoleon Bonaparte in 1810 and joined in the military action against the self-proclaimed emperor of the French in 1813. Still the ruler of Austria, he was influential in the negotiations about what to do with Bonaparte’s former empire at the Congress of Vienna from 1814-1815.

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When Diocletian (r. 284-305 AD) took control of the Roman Empire, he split it into two parts. With the establishment of the tetrarchy, four officials ruled the empire, two in the West and two in the East. In each area, there was an Augustus (senior emperor) and a Caesar (junior emperor). Diocletian was the first Augustus in the East, while Maximian held the title in the West.

As the struggle for power over the Roman Empire continued, the East increasingly became the political, cultural, and economic powerhouse. Constantine (r. 306-337 AD) declared Byzantium the capital of the Roman Empire, while Rome was plagued by strikes from so-called barbarian tribes. Internal conflict and external pressure perpetuated a lack of stability, with the tetrarchy going in and out of use through the fourth century. By the start of the fifth century, Rome was essentially a symbolic capital, with the Western Roman emperors situated in Milan before shifting to Ravenna in 402 AD.

When Romulus Augustulus took control of the Western Roman Empire in 475 AD, he was just 15 years old. His father, Orestes, was more likely the individual in charge, but neither was able to resist the incursion of Flavius Odoacer into Italy. Odoacer, a former Roman mercenary, seized Ravenna in 476 AD, sealing the fate of the Western Roman Empire. Odoacer became king of Rome, with the emperor in the East, Zeno (r. 476-491 AD), passively accepting the declaration. The imperial title in the West, however, was no more.

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Kaiser Wilhelm II ruled Germany from 1888 to 1918, the son of Kaiser Frederick III and Victoria (the daughter of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom). When he took office at the age of 29, he tasked himself with strengthening the German military, dismissed Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, and pushed an aggressive expansionist agenda. Wilhelm II’s policies and positions were, according to a German diplomat, “the most contradictory… at high and all-highest level,” something one foreign minister also noted: “Today one thing and tomorrow the next and after a few days something completely different.”

After the slaying of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, Wilhelm II reportedly hoped diplomacy and familial ties would be enough to prevent war. Despite this, he acquiesced to pressure from the military and declared war on Russia and France in August 2014. During WWI, Wilhelm II nominally held command of the German military, with generals like Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff actually wielding power. Wilhelm II’s ineffectiveness and the resulting discontent throughout Germany led to calls for him to abdicate in 1918. He agreed to do so in November and, the following day, left Germany for the Netherlands. He spent the rest of his life there as a political refugee.

Decades after his passing in 1941, Wilhelm II was brought up on charges of war crimes at a mock trial, where historians and lawyers assessed accusations made against him in the Treaty of Versailles of 1919. In the end, the body found him guilty of sending German troops into Belgium, a neutral country.

Photo: Tanner (Capt), War Office / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

Last King Of Italy: Umberto II

As the only son of King Victor Emmanuel III (r. 1900-1946), Umberto II was king of Italy for just over a month in 1946. Born in 1904, he watched as his father ruled through two world wars, appointed and then dismissed Benito Mussolini (1883-1945), and ultimately abdicated as a way to try to revitalize the strength of the monarchy.

When Umberto II took the throne, he was faced with an existing referendum in Italy to abolish the monarchy his father hoped to save. Umberto II was well-versed in Italian politics and, as the vote about whether or not to transition to a republic approached, had the support of centrist factions in the country.

The referendum passed by a narrow margin in June 1946. When the Republic of Italy was proclaimed, Umberto II’s 34-day kingship officially came to an end, as did the Kingdom of Italy, which had been established in 1861. Rather than contest the results, Umberto II left Italy for Portugal, reportedly never returning to his homeland.

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Last Hawaiian Royal: Queen Liliuokalani

Queen Liliuokalani ruled Hawaii from 1891 to 1893. Born Lydia Kamakaeha, she was both the first and last queen of Hawaii. When Queen Liliuokalani took power in 1891, it was after the demise of her brother, King David Kalākaua. Liliuokalani hoped to reassert the authority of the monarchy and native Hawaiians, something that had suffered as a result of the 1887 constitution of the Hawaiian Kingdom.

The constitution, signed under duress by King Kalākaua, nominally established a republic. In reality, it transferred political and economic power in Hawaii to foreign powers and elites within the kingdom. To those entities, Queen Liliuokalani represented a threat, resulting in a coup against her in January 1893. Although Liliuokalani surrendered when the coup took place, she appealed to President Grover Cleveland to reinstate her. Despite Cleveland’s reinstatement, contingent upon amnesty for all involved, the new provisional government in Hawaii refused to accept her as sovereign.

Queen Liliuokalani watched as Hawaii became a republic, with Sanford Dole elected its first president. She was confined, charged with treason, and later pardoned after agreeing to formally abdicate. Despite continued pleas to Cleveland, and then President William McKinley, Liliuokalani never reclaimed her crown. She spent the remainder of her life advocating for the rights of native Hawaiians, until she passed in 1917.

Photo: Frederick Arthur Bridgman / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

As the last ruler of the Ptolemaic line, Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator was Egypt’s last pharaoh. Better known simply as Cleopatra, she was the daughter of Ptolemy XII Auletes (d. 51 BC); she ruled jointly with him through her youth. After her father passed, Cleopatra nominally reigned alongside her brother, Ptolemy XIII, actually holding power more or less on her own.

As Cleopatra carried out domestic duties and foreign affairs (she was well-educated, multilingual, and extremely erudite), she was faced with an attempted coup by her sister, Arsinoe, her brother, and members of the military. In 49 BC, Cleopatra left Egypt but later enlisted the help of Julius Caesar to return to power. She and Caesar successfully defeated both Ptolemy XIII, who passed, and Arsinoe, who fled, and entered into a relationship that resulted in a son – Ptolemy Caesar (also called Caesarion).

Caesar, Cleopatra, and Caesarion went to Rome, but mother and child fled to Egypt after Caesar’s passing in 44 BC. As sovereign, Cleopatra continued to face political and economic challenges, especially when called to answer questions about her role in events following Caesar’s elimination. Called before the Roman authority in the East, Mark Antony (83-30 BC), Cleopatra allegedly charmed him just as she had Caesar.

The relationship between Antony and Cleopatra resulted in three children and lasted until 31 BC and the Battle of Actium, the culmination of a civil conflict between Mark Antony and his Western rival, Octavian (63 BC-14 AD, called Augustus Caesar as of 27 BC). Antony and Cleopatra lost the engagement, famously taking their own lives in 30 BC. With Octavian unopposed in the East, Rome took possession and made it a province of the empire.

Cleopatra is generally considered to be the last pharaoh, but there is some evidence that Egyptian priests may have recognized Octavian, and subsequent Roman emperors, as pharaohs because, as historian Martina Minas-Nerpel put it, they “needed to see him as a pharaoh; otherwise their understanding of the world would have collapsed.”

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Successor to Akbar II (d. 1837), Bahadur Shah Zafar II was the emperor of Mughal India until 1862. By the time he took power, the Mughal Empire, which originated during the 16th century, was already in a state of decline. As the British East India Company exercised more influence in India, and subsequently took control of more territory, the Mughals were relegated to having authority only over Delhi and its surrounding areas.

The Indian uprising of 1857 against the British East India Company resulted in Bahadur Shah II’s detainment, trial, and exile to Burma (another British territory). The British tightened their colonial grip on India, while the Shah passed in confinement in 1862.

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Tsar Nicholas II abdicated in 1917, appointing his brother, Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich, as the next emperor. Arguably, Michael was emperor for roughly 18 hours, but he openly expressed his support of the new provisional government in Russia – neither excepting nor declining the position.

As a result, Nikolai Alexandrovich Romanov holds the distinction of being the last tsar of Russia. Born in 1868, Nicholas succeeded his father, Tsar Alexander II (d. 1894). At the time, Nicholas expressed his abilities to lead, telling a friend, “I am not prepared to be a tsar. I never wanted to become one. I know nothing of the business of ruling.”

Through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Nicholas II dealt with Japanese aggression and an internal revolution, the latter of which resulted in the establishment of the Duma, or elected legislature, in 1905. During WWI, Russia allied with France and Britain, although military failures, economic strife, and political divisions resulted in widespread discontent with his leadership. When another revolution erupted, Nicholas II was forced to abdicate in 1917.

Nicholas II, his wife, Alexandra, and their five children were imprisoned, unable to secure asylum despite numerous attempts. The entire Romanov family was executed in 1918 by Bolshevik revolutionaries who’d seized control of the government, bringing the centuries-old dynasty to an end.

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When the Roman Empire shifted East, it set the foundation – or continued, depending on one’s perspective – of the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine Empire lasted until 1453, when Muslim forces captured Constantinople and dispatched the emperor, Constantine XI Palaiologos (1404-1453).

Through the sixth and seventh centuries, the Byzantine world expanded in territory and dominance in the Mediterranean. The lack of an effective infrastructure, along with internal misconduct and foreign threats, caused the empire to experience various levels of strife through subsequent centuries, with the development and growth of Islam factoring heavily into its overall decline.

By the time Constantine XI Palaiologos became emperor in 1449 AD, he’d already served as regent of Constantinople, a city that was much smaller and weaker than it had been during the 12th and 13th centuries. The threats presented by Sultan Mehmed II to the city prompted Constantine to try to maintain a friendship with the Muslim power. This fell apart during the early 1450s, and Mehmed II prepared to strike the city.

During the siege of Constantinople, Constantine XI Palaiologos coordinated the defense of the city against anywhere from 20,000-60,000 Muslim forces. Mehmed II, with cannons large and small, demanded a surrender, but Constantine refused. Through April and May 1453, inhabitants of the city tried, and failed, to keep Mehmed II and his men from breaching Constantinople’s walls. Ultimately, Ottoman forces made their way into the city, reportedly raping and pillaging everything in their path as they felled and enslaved thousands – including the emperor.

Photo: Leandro Izaguirre / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

Last Aztec Emperor: Cuauhtémoc

Cuauhtémoc, cousin to Moctezuma II (d. 1520), became emperor after his brother, Cuitláhuac. Cuitláhuac ruled briefly in 1520 as Moctezuma II’s successor. As the 11th Aztec emperor, Cuauhtémoc also came to power in 1520 as the Spanish fought to take control and as smallpox ravaged his people.

Cuauhtémoc successfully defended Tenochtitlan until August 1521, but could not find reinforcements to stop Hernan Cortes’s continued advances. Cuauhtémoc was captured on August 13, reportedly asking Cortes to terminate him after he surrendered. Cortes tormented Cuauhtémoc instead, attempting to get him to reveal the location of the empire’s vast treasures.

In 1525, Cortes took Cuauhtémoc on one of his exhibitions, but discovered the former emperor was conspiring against him. Cuauhtémoc was executed as a result, his final words reportedly:

Now I understand your false promises and the kind of death you had in store for me, for you are killing me unjustly. May God demand justice from you, as it was taken from me when I entrusted myself to you in my city…

Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

Born in 1906, Puyi (also known as Hsian-T’ung or Henry Pu Yi) was the 11th emperor of the Qing dynasty. Puyi had a storied political life, serving as Chinese emperor from 1908 to 1912 and the emperor of Manchukuo (under the auspices of Japan) from 1934 to 1945.

At just 3 years of age, Puyi was chosen by Empress Dowager Cixi to replace his recently deceased uncle, Emperor Kuang-hsu. Cixi and other regents ran China as Puyi was educated for the role, but he was forced to abdicate after the revolution led by Sun Yat-Sen in late 1911. At that time, Puyi stayed in Beijing until he was 24, at which point he went into exile in Japanese-controlled territory.

When Japan annexed Manchukuo in 1934, he was appointed emperor, a position he held until he was captured in 1945. He spent five years in prison in Russia before returning to China, where he was again imprisoned. Puyi spent his final days as a gardener in China, passing in 1967.

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