The kings and queens of the ages have been renowned for their grand displays of wealth and splendour. The royal courts around the world are synonymous with extravagance and ostentation, proud displays of the affluence and wealth of the reigning monarch and their kingdom. 

Within the culture of royalty, it has long been the norm to present sumptuous living and opulent palaces as evidence of a monarch’s power and prestige. While some kings and queens have adopted these highly public displays of riches and finery more extravagantly than others, it is traditional for royals to flaunt their flamboyant lifestyles openly, and often brazenly, for the eyes of the world to see. 

Yet there have been times throughout the history of royal dynasties when certain members might have preferred to not be subject to so much public scrutiny, times when their antics and behaviour were more reflective of salaciousness and scandal than evidence of being regal and high-born. 

Even at the highest levels of society, among those who claimed to have been divinely anointed in their position as reigning sovereign, there are still human weaknesses, character flaws, and immoral tendencies. 

Perhaps it’s not too surprising that members of royalty should be subject to the same trials and temptations as the rest of society, they are still human beings after all, despite any convictions of superior status. As such, they are still subject to the same human whims and desires that can lead to trouble or even ruin. 

The difference with royal behaviour, however, is that not only is it more unexpected – with them often being held on a pedestal as paragons of virtue and the epitome of social behaviour – but it is also more public. This is why the stories of royal misdemeanours tend to make the headlines and the history books far more often than similar behaviour would warrant in the lower social ranks or the quiet lives of ordinary citizens. 

Here are some of the misadventures that have led to those involved becoming embroiled in the biggest royal scandals of all time. 

King Henry VIII Splits From The Church

Perhaps the ultimate royal scandal was the unprecedented divorce and subsequent religious fall-out that resulted from King Henry VIIIs desire to marry the pretty young daughter of an English Earl in the 16th century. 

King Henry VIII in 1540
King Henry VIII in 1540 Hans Holbein the Younger, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Anne Boleyn was working as maid of honour to Henry VIII’s wife, Catherine of Aragon, when she caught the eye of the king. While it was not unusual at that time for a king to simply take a mistress (or even several mistresses) in addition to a wife, the headstrong Miss Boleyn was determined to avoid the fate of her sister, who had become one of the king’s discarded playthings. 

Anne’s refusal to become the king’s mistress resulted in the king seeking first an annulment from his marriage to the queen, and then later divorce. Since divorce was prohibited by the Roman Catholic Church – the staunch religious power of the time – Henry VIII made the astonishing move to break with the Church and pronounce himself as head of a new faith, creed and doctrine that would become the Church of England. 

These extraordinary events were not only shocking to the people of England at the time, they set in motion fractures in the systems of royalty and governance in other European countries, resulting in the immense religious and political upheaval that would dominate the lives of many for generations to follow. 

The French King Who Destroyed The Knights Templar

Philip IV was King of France from the late 13th century to the early 14th century, and is reputed to have been a handsome and imposing monarch, with nicknames such as le Bel (the beautiful) and le Roi de fer (the Iron King). 

Yet his most lasting and historic legacy is perhaps his famous destruction of the renowned Order of Knights known as the Knights Templar. The mighty Knights Templar had grown from a humble Order of Knights assigned to protect the pilgrims during the years of the Christian Crusades and beyond. They were renowned for honesty and virtue, restoring the public image of knights from the previous thieves and bullies to become figures of noble honour, protection and altruism. 

By the time of King Philip’s reign, the Knights Templar had grown over the centuries to become a powerful force within medieval society. They had also amassed tremendous wealth, which they used to make financial loans to people at all levels of society, including kings and queens. 

It’s believed that King Philip himself was heavily indebted to the Knights Templar, which may well have influenced his actions. The French King became convinced that the Knights Templar had become a threat to the monarchy, effectively forming a ‘state within a state’, and he also claimed that they indulged in shocking and unholy practices that threatened the religious mores of the time. 

Regardless of the truth behind the accusations, a number of knights were arrested and subsequently charged with numerous crimes, though it’s believed their confessions were made under duress. The scandalous allegations marked the decline of the once-mighty Order of the Knights Templar, which never again attained its status of power, wealth and influence. 

After the initial arrests that shocked the French capital, further arrests were warranted against knights throughout the lands, moves sanctioned by the head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Clement. While the allegations were investigated and tried, the knights found their assets seized or confiscated. Many knights were ultimately executed for their supposed crimes. 

The Order of the Knights Templar was then officially disbanded, as a direct result of the scandal, with the history books citing King Philip IV, the Iron King, as the main player in the theatre of its demise. 

The motives behind these scandalous cases were typical of many human endeavours – the desire to remarry, a craving for power, a need to destroy a perceived enemy – and yet the fact that they played out so publicly amongst the highest social realms only adds intrigue and fascination to their stories. 

The powerful role that these scandalous kings held also played a part in their historic legend and legacy. The actions and choices of a powerful king – however human or understandable – undoubtedly have seismic ramifications when played out on the world stage, which explains why these events ranked among the biggest royal scandals of all time.