Before the invention of the telegraph, a message couldn't travel faster than the speed of a horse (or maybe a messenger pigeon or something along those lines - still pretty slow).

Has there ever been a situation in history where a ruler of a country left for war/attended foreign business far from their country, and an heir made the citizens believe the ruler was dead in order to take over the throne? Maybe he paid a messenger to pretend to carry the message of death?

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    There probably are many instances of this that we don't know about because the new ruler managed to successfully cover his/her tracks... – Annatar Jun 4 '18 at 11:30
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    Not the middle ages, and more legend than fact, but one could imagine the sons of Ancus Marcius (4th king of Rome) being accused of this. They assassinated Lucius Tarquinius Priscus (the 5th king, who they felt had stolen the throne after Marcius's death), but the king's son-in-law Servius Tullius claimed the king had survived the assassination. Once the people were comfortable with him as regent, he announced the king had finally succumbed to his wounds, and was elected the 6th king of Rome. – chepner Jun 4 '18 at 14:50
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    I assume you only want cases where the heir made the country believe the ruler was dead by some means other than causing the ruler to become dead? – Ray Jun 4 '18 at 18:14
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    Slight quibble; en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semaphore_line pre-dated the electric telegraph... – DJohnM Jun 4 '18 at 18:32
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    @Ray Yes, basically taking over country by using misinformation, not assassination. – Maurycy Jun 5 '18 at 7:44

Yes. King John of England attempted to take the throne from Richard I while he was on crusade. Richard's delayed return was due to the fact that he had been taken prisoner by Leopold V, Duke of Austria, and then handed over to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI. John, in the meantime, took advantage of his brother's imprisonment, gathering supporters around him and scheming with Philip II of France. He also

began to assert that his brother was dead or otherwise permanently lost.

Although Richard had named his nephew, Arthur Duke of Brittany, as his heir before leaving for the crusade, Arthur was only a child and John managed to gather around him leading nobles who recognised him as heir. In order to placate John and get his help in raising the ransom money,

Archbishop Walter urged Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine and the regency council to adopt a conciliatory policy towards John....Eleanor and the magnates took Hubert's advice and negotiated a truce with John. He agreed to surrender his castles to his mother and if they were unable to get Richard back, he would become king.

Richard, of course, did eventually return upon payment of a huge ransom. John promptly fled to France but was later forgiven by Richard. In 1196, Richard again named Arthur as his heir but he changed his mind on his deathbed in 1199 and named John instead, probably because he felt Arthur was too young to be king and to command the support needed to hold onto the Angevin empire. Arthur subsequently 'disappeared' (1203), with John being the prime suspect in his nephew's murder.

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    Isn’t this the milieu for the whole Robin Hood legend? – Jim Garrison Jun 4 '18 at 18:42
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    @JimGarrison Yes. And then, when Richard ultimately returned, he locked up John in the Tower of London, made him part of the tour, and declared that all of the toilets in England would henceforth be known as 'Johns.' :) – reirab Jun 4 '18 at 20:33
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    @reirab Darn I thought that was true at first but I couldn't find any reference to it. Would have been a interesting story. – Kodos Johnson Jun 5 '18 at 0:09
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    @KodosJohnson Allow me to introduce you to Mel Brooks. You'll thank me later. – reirab Jun 5 '18 at 5:18
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    @reirab: As you wish... :-) – Bob Jarvis Jun 6 '18 at 11:35

Although he was not an heir to the French throne, general Claude François de Malet attempted a coup in France, in 1812. After escaping from captivity, he informed the National Guard that Napoleon had died in Russia. He succedeed to release two generals, arrested a few others and tried to seize the power in Paris. The same day, he presented letters to Colonel Pierre Doucet that stated Napoleon had died on 7 October. However Doucet had knowledge of letters written by Napoleon after that date and went suspicious.

Shortly after, Malet was arrested and then executed.

Article from wikipedia : Malet coup of 1812


I'm not sure if this counts or not, since it wasn't a monarchy, the successor actually thought the ruler was dead initially (as a result of the detonation of the bomb that he had planted,) and it also wasn't in the Middle Ages, but Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg comes to mind.

In what was probably the closest an assassination plot came to succeeding against Hitler, Stauffenberg planted a bomb in a meeting he attended with Hitler in 1944 and then left the meeting due to receiving a planned telephone call. The device did detonate, at which point Stauffenberg assumed Hitler was dead and activated a plan known as Operation Valkyrie, which allowed Stauffenberg and his accomplices to briefly take over control of most of the German government.

Unfortunately, the conference took place in an above-ground conference room instead of the normal underground bunker due to the weather, so the pressure from the blast was not contained within the room and, thus, was not as deadly. Hitler was injured, but survived. Since the plot was already underway when he found out that Hitler had survived, Stauffenberg pressed for it to continue and attempted to deceive others into believing that Hitler was, in fact, dead.

However, since Hitler was not actually dead, the plot began to fall apart within a few hours as news slowly spread of Hitler's survival. Ultimately, the plot failed and Stauffenberg was executed about 12 hours after the detonation of the bomb. But, for a few hours, he and his accomplices did control much of Nazi Germany due to making people think Hitler was dead.

This coup attempt was the plot of the 2008 movie Valkyrie starring Tom Cruise.

  • Of course, it wasn't Stauffenberg who was supposed to see take over the government, but rather Ludwig Beck. – C Monsour Jun 9 '18 at 15:34

Another example was the (Byzantine) Roman Emperor John Komnenos. This was done according to some sources (Runciman, I think, but Wikipedia does not seem to agree) with the explicit consent of his dying predecessor and father Alexios Komnenos. Afraid that Alexios's daughter and son-in-law would try to stage a coup when Alexios died, John took his father's signet while his father was still dying but before he was dead, and rode to the palace where the people acclaimed him emperor. (His father did not in fact die until the next day.)

This is probably a little cheap in that he was already co-emperor, but while that was certainly more than a mere technicality, it was not really going to be a guarantee of succession (and his brother-in-law did attempt a coup a few months later).

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