I know this had to be one of many big issues in the whole dictator or monarchy government model where there's one supreme commander/ruler who is in and of itself the entire government and who can appoint people to take on roles for him.

If the King goes mad what happens then? You can tell the king he's mad, that's treason and one of the royals will execute you for such a threat. I'm sure even royals would not be able to tell the king he's mad.

You also can't do anything about it, there's no other system but him, he's the embodiment of the government so there's no real process to go around him and replace him.

And you can't lead an attack on him to force him off because then you're making immediate enemies with the entire army and guards.

As far as I can tell the only sole way to remove him would be to lead an attack after all his men or most of the country has no longer recognized his authority but by then, and to get that far alone, there's no telling the damage he could do. Even just a week of insanity, being allowed to do whatever he wishes, hundreds can die and the country could be in ruins well before that even happens.

What exactly did monarchies and dictatorships do in this situation which I presume was not that rare, how did they handle this, was there any way of fixing the situation before it completely gets out of control?

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    It doesn't only happen with dictators, though: sometimes mentally instable or unfit people make it to the top of "fully democratic" institutions (cough cough 'murica).. Things can actually be as bad, if not worse, because they have been put there by the people as it was supposed to be, so any legitimate intervention could be seen as antidemocratic, and a coup would be even worse. Let's keep our eyes open for any weird "accident", maybe?
    – Stefano
    May 29, 2017 at 7:45
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    Armed revolt or assassination are the traditional ways to deal with a mad king or dictator. Also these methods are often less frustrating than trying trying to rationalize your position to someone who is inherently irrational. An interesting exception is New Zealand's bloodless (?) revolution for independence wherein they just stopped listening to the UK and slowly wrote their own set of laws.
    – Beo
    May 29, 2017 at 14:19

4 Answers 4


First, one needs to understand that no autocratic ruler rules alone. They always need key supporters. These key supporters might be called generals, dukes, ministers, cardinals, corporations, senators, advisors or something else, but fact is, whatever an autocratic ruler decides will only have effect when the supporters act on them.

Now what if the ruler becomes mad? Would they still support them? It depends on what kind of madness they have.

  • They turn excentric, but are still effective rulers: There are dictators like François Duvalier who ruled Haiti from 1957 to 1971. He proclaimed himself a Voodoo god, claimed that one of his rivals transformed into a black dog and ordered every black dog in the country killed. But despite such crazy antics, they are still effective rulers. Any decisions they make which have actual impact are in accordance with the interests of their key holders. There is really no reason to replace such an autocrat. (Also, more often than not, such antics aren't a symptom of actual craziness, but rather an example of projecting power. They want to show that they can.)
  • They stop caring about governing at all: There are also cases of autocrats whose mental illness makes them either unable to rule or simply no longer interested in doing so. For example, Charles II of Spain was born mentally disabled. This is actually a great thing for the supporters, because it means they can do whatever they want without the autocrat meddling with their affairs. Such a ruler might "officially" stay in power all their life, although the actual power is in the hands of their supporters.
  • They become actively destructive: And then there are crazy autocrats who act in ways which actively harm their supporters. Such autocrats usually don't stay alive for long. A famous case is Roman emperor Caligula who wasted considerable amounts of money on pointless personal projects and (according to legend) insulted the senate by appointing his favorite horse a senator. When they had enough with his antics, he was murdered. Or to give a more historically proven example, Peter III, Tsar off Russia, who started his regency with stopping the seven year war (which Russia had almost won) and making liberal reforms the country just wasn't ready for. He was quickly replaced by his wife, (who then became known as Catherine the Great) and soon after died under mysterious circumstances.
  • Thanks for a great answer, I was originally referring to a bat-crazy king like one who occasionally mutters nonsense, paranoid and mass executes out of fear, the like but I didn't think about the other levels of madness and found this very helpful.
    – 黒い雪
    May 29, 2017 at 3:26
  • I'm also thinking the level of damage such a king can do in a short time before he begins to lose power - For example when he initially goes mad he could order entire villages to be burned down along with mass executions before anyone would have time to realize whats really going on with his mental state.
    – 黒い雪
    May 29, 2017 at 3:31
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    @黒い雪 Mass displacements and executions are a standard move in the dictator's handbook. Autocratic rulers give such orders all the time. That doesn't mean they are mad. They just need to be careful to not order any atrocities to be committed on demographics their key supporters have sympathy for. If they do, they fall into the third bullet point of this answer.
    – Philipp
    May 29, 2017 at 8:45
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    Was Peter III actually mad? The Wikipedia page doesn't mention that. May 30, 2017 at 5:33
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    Going by the wiki description, Peter III was ahead of his time, not actively destructive mad. Yes, the gamble backfired, but, someone had to institute religious freedom before anyone else. Mar 26, 2018 at 11:38

It really depends. At one extreme, George III of Britain was mad for the last part of his reign, and the situation was resolved peacefully by installing his son as regent. At the other end of the scale, we have the examples of such dictators as Ceausescu who held on to power until overthrown by forces from within the country, or Saddam Hussein, whose madness brought down the wrath of a powerful enemy on his country.

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    Do you have sources for any of this? I did a quick google and I cannot find any reliable sources that say either Hussein or Ceausescu were insane. Their Wikipedia pages do not mention mental health issues either. The question asked what happens when an absolute ruler goes insane. King George III was removed by an act of parliament. If you can be removed by parliament, you aren't an absolute ruler. May 28, 2017 at 16:26
  • @BobTheAverage: I don't see where the question asks about absolute monarchs, just non-figurehead kings, which George III certainly was. As another answer points out, even the most autocratic ruler can't rule alone. As for Hussein & Ceausescu, how does one define insanity? Their actions, which led directly to their downfall and executions, do not make a strong case for rationality :-)
    – jamesqf
    May 28, 2017 at 18:52
  • @jamesqf In this post I defined insanity as bat-crazy, out of mind. Such as paranoid, delusional, fearful of everyone, thinking even the most innocent or random people are plotting to destroy you, maybe even mumbling nonsense or jiberish occasionally and also insanity as in the king would irrationally and hastily act on and take action upon these delusions. Such a king would place the entire kingdom in very immediate danger before anybody could realize whats going on. Hundreds could die in a few days before they realize the king isnt in his right state of mind.
    – 黒い雪
    May 29, 2017 at 3:39
  • @黒い雪: The "paranoid, delusional, fearful of everyone" certainly seems to fit Hussein, doesn't it? Likewise his delusions placing the entire country in very immediate danger - remember his boasts about "The Mother of All Battles"?
    – jamesqf
    May 29, 2017 at 7:02

In an absolute monarchy the succesion is usually taken care of, provided there is an heir, who is uncontested. So, in the case of insanity, the heir takes over as acting regent. The same procedure would be followed if the king died, and the heir is still a child, then a regent is appointed until the heir comes of age.

Dictatorship are generally weaker on the succession part, as the dynastic principle of monarchies does not stabilize the sitation . When Lenin died, there was an internal struggle for power, which turned out quite bloody. Thus, when a dictator is declared insane, the same procedure, or non-procedure, will be followed as if the dictator had died.

If the dictator or monarch, only gradually goes insane, it strongly depends on how the inner workings of government. When, Fidel Castro became increasingly ill, he was able to transfer power to his brother.

It very much depends on how the the absolute ruler goes mad, and how evil, with respect to country or population, this madness turnes out to be.

Hitler's Nero Decree was largely ignored, as the people who were expected to carry out the order were appalled by it, and could afford to disobey the order. However,one could argue whether Hitler was insane by that time. If a gone-mad dictator gives similar appalling orders, his subordinates might also agree to disobey the orders, or decide to remove the gone-mad dictator from power.


The television series Game of Thrones is set in a world shortly after this happens. Their solution was to wait until the mad king convinced his guards that he was mad. Then they killed him. Rebels then killed his eldest son, the son's wife, and her children. They missed two of his other children.

A lot of this assumes a monarch with unlimited power. Note that in practice, monarchs were often more limited. The constitutional monarchy has long precedent, but even before that, lords in aggregate were often the real power. The king needed the support of the nobility to actually do things. A mad king without the support of the nobility would simply be replaced.

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    I don't think that using examples from fiction is appropriate on this site when there are enough (non-polarizing) real-world examples available.
    – Philipp
    May 28, 2017 at 13:30
  • @Philipp If you think there are a lot of recognizable real world examples, then you should write an answer with them. Personally, I barely remember George III as being a historical British king, much less mad. Ceausescu doesn't trigger anything for me at all -- I'd have to look him up. And I think that calling Saddam Hussein mad is misunderstanding the situation (particularly since Hussein's power was limited for some time before he was deposed). On the other hand, there are quite a few people who watch Game of Thrones, and there is no doubt that Aerys was mad.
    – Brythan
    May 28, 2017 at 13:49
  • @Brythan I think Game of Thrones could be a great supplement for a strong answer based on history. May 28, 2017 at 16:29
  • @Brythan: Depends on one's cultural context, doesn't it? I barely know that Game of Thrones is some sort of TV show. Indeed, your single paragraph probably doubled my total knowledge of it, so answers referring to it wouldn't mean much.
    – jamesqf
    May 28, 2017 at 19:03
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    Bear in mind that Game Of Thrones is based, at least in part, on the part of UK history called the Wars of the Roses. In that case, a King who was not on top of his game would rapidly find himself (or herself) missing their head after a rebellion. Mar 26, 2018 at 12:38

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