Royals Who Mysteriously Vanished

It's good to be the king. Who wouldn't want to rule an entire nation, be subject to no one else, wear purple robes, and get to eat whole peacocks with their feathers still attached for dinner every night? OK, maybe those last two perks sound a little iffy but still, absolute power, right?

Most people who dream about the lavish, royal lifestyle forget to take a thing or two into account: Kings, queens, and other royals were in constant danger because there was always someone who wanted what they had. Throughout history, a surprising number of royals have fled, disappeared under mysterious circumstances, or just simply vanished, and many of those disappearances remain unexplained. So the next time you look at your dull and boring life and wish you could have been born into a royal family, just quickly review this list and maybe you'll change your mind.

Constantine XI

As far as Byzantium emperors go, Constantine's XI's life was kind of sucky. According to historian Sean Munger, when Constantine came to the throne he pretty much knew that his life was going to be a series of battles with the Turks and the eventual collapse of his empire. Try for a moment to put yourself in the poor man's royal shoes: Imagine if you spent your days never making any progress and eventually dying in the line of duty. You'd probably take a pass on the purple robes and feathered dead peacocks.

The last time anyone saw Constantine was at the fall of Constantinople. He pretty much knew he'd lost the battle, so he jumped into the fray along with all his common soldiers. Might as well go out a hero, right?

After that, stories differ. In some versions he avoided capture by asking one of his soldiers to kill him. In others, he escaped by boat. But since Constantine threw his royal emblems aside when he leaped into battle, it seems most likely that he just died along with everyone else, and his body was never identified.

That left plenty of fuel for the speculative fire. For centuries, people believed he was in a state of suspended animation somewhere near Constantinople, so he can one day rule over a restored Byzantium as a zombie overlord. Which doesn't sound very awesome, really, so we hope he'll just keep sleeping.


Legend says Rome was founded by twin brothers Romulus and Remus, who were evidently also raised by a she-wolf, so already the legend is somewhat suspect. (Many historians think the "she-wolf" was actually a prostitute, since ancient Romans sometimes called them "Lupae" or "she-wolves.") Whether their mom was a professional lady or a canine is neither here nor there — according to Ancient Origins, in 753 the brothers founded Rome and then Romulus ruled it for nearly 40 years. Then one day, Romulus went down to the temple of Vulcan to talk to some senators and promptly disappeared.

There are a couple different versions of this story. In one, a cloud engulfs him and he's "never spotted again anywhere in the world," which is super dramatic and cool but really doesn't seem all that likely. In another, a solar eclipse comes along and *poof* he vanishes. That one doesn't seem possible, either, since we had an eclipse in 2017 and it totally failed to take out any world leaders.

More likely, Romulus was assassinated by senators, who concocted the whole "disappeared in the clouds" story to cover up their deed. But what finally ended the debate was the sworn testimony of Julius Proculus, who said he'd encountered Romulus wearing really shiny armor, and Romulus told him he'd actually been a god all along and now he was going back to the heavens. And the Romans figured that was plausible, and it was settled.

Arthur I, Duke of Brittany

The royal succession is supposed to be pretty simple — king begets prince, prince assumes the throne when king dies, new king begets new prince, etc. But what happens when the king doesn't have any sons? For some reason, no one ever seemed to settle on the absolute rules of succession, so therefore a bunch of people had to die. Yes, being royalty was awesome.

According to English Monarchs, in 1199 childless Richard I decided to make his nephew Arthur, Duke of Brittany, heir to the throne. Then he went off and got killed during the Third Crusade, which was kind of a messed up thing to do when you're aware that your younger brother John is totally into the idea of being king and you really don't want him taking over for you. Anyway, Richard died and John said, "Cool, I get to be king now," and 12-year-old Arthur said, "No, I'm the king," and then a bunch of people died, as expected.

John defeated Arthur and for a while it looked like he planned to spare his nephew's life, but by 1203 Arthur had disappeared. There were loads of theories — one was that John killed him with his bare hands when the boy said something snarky. In another, it was Arthur's jailers who killed him, mostly because John told them to. Either way, John certainly had something to gain from killing his rival, though as with most historical mysteries it's a whodunit we'll probably never solve.

Archduke Johann Salvator of Austria

No one in Archduke Johann Salvator's family really approved of him because he was always going on about how bad the Austrian educational system was and talking smack about the military. In 19th-century terms, he was kind of like the promising young man who goes off to college in a polo shirt and comes back with dreadlocks, smelling faintly of marijuana. His family wasn't all that impressed with his liberal way of thinking.

Johann didn't really care for the whole royal thing anyway, and in the late 1880s he gave up his title and married a dancer, which was extra-scandalous at the time because royals were only ever supposed to marry other royals. Not long afterward, Johann got a captain's commission and purchased a cargo steamer, with the intent to travel to South America.

Johann and his wife were last seen at Cape Tres Puntas on July 12, 1890. Conventional wisdom says their ship probably sunk during a storm off Cape Horn, but with no witnesses there's really no way to know for sure. (It's worth noting, however, that a 1911 Milwaukee Sentinel article said his ship had been carrying a cargo of cement, so there's that.)

Still, Johann wasn't actually declared dead for more than two decades, and because every royal disappearance is an opportunity for someone to pretend to be a royal, rumors that he lived under an assumed identity in Norway and therefore has heirs that can claim his lands have persisted ever since.


By the time Julius Caesar came to power, it was fairly well established that the Romans' purpose was mainly just to crush enemies and wear those stupid-looking helmets with the dust brooms on top of them. So Caesar did what was expected of him — he conquered nations and championed the wearing of the stupid helmets. One of the first territories on his list was Belgica, where modern Belgium is today. 

Caesar introduced himself to the Belgae by conquering them and selling a bunch of them into slavery. A few years later, he sent his legions into the region to establish winter quarters and got his butt kicked by a tribe called the Eburones, which was led by a king named Ambiorix. The king led a series of assaults on the Romans, one of which resulted in 6,000 dead Romans and approximately 6,000 abandoned stupid helmets.

The problem was that the Romans were many and the Eburones were few, so within a year Caesar had put down the uprising for good. But after his last stand, Ambiorix was seen running off into the forest with some guards and was never heard from again. According to legend, his people resettled among the German tribes. As far as history remembers, the Romans never did track him down. Today the Belgians consider him a hero — a statue of him sits in Tongeren, which is believed to be the historical site of the Eburones.

Alexander Helios and Ptolemy Philadelphus

As much as it kind of sucked to be a royal adult, at least you could balance out all the mortal peril by executing your enemies and eating peacocks. If you were a kid, life pretty much sucked all around. Your security depended on your parents' ability to stay on the throne, and as soon as someone knocked them down, suddenly you were being paraded through the streets in golden chains.

Cleopatra gets a lot of love, but her children are hardly ever mentioned. She had four of them, but she was kind of a terrible mother because when Octavian defeated her in 31 B.C., she decided to just commit suicide (traditionally, by venomous snake) and leave the kids to fend for themselves.

According to Ancient Origins, Octavian had Cleopatra's oldest son murdered, so that was that. He took the younger kids — 5-year-old twins (a girl and a boy) and a 9-year-old boy — to Rome in golden chains and paraded them around town, along with an effigy of their dead mother, which, by the way, had an asp attached to one arm. So really, the jury is still out on whether Octavian was actually being kind when he spared their lives.

After that, the kids were sent to live with Octavian's sister, and then the two boys sort of fall off the face of the earth. The girl — Cleopatra Selene — married and became a queen,  but no one can say what became of the boys.

Hereward the Wake

Hereward was descended from Oslac, the first earl of York, but like Johann Salvator he was kind of the black sheep of the family. According to English Monarchs, his father exiled him from England when he was 18, which was the medieval version of kicking your kid out of the house for obnoxious behavior. For a while he worked as a mercenary soldier, and then he heard about the Norman conquest and figured he'd better go back home and see what happened. When he arrived, he found that his family had been murdered and their lands had been given to some random Norman guy, and after that he sort of lost it. With the help of just one follower, he killed 14 Normans and then went on to lead a rebellion against William, the newly anointed king.

William was concerned enough about Hereward that he enlisted the help of a witch, a pretty extreme measure for a Christian king. Ultimately, the Normans were able to defeat Hereward by bribing someone to help them get across the marshes where Hereward's army was hiding.

What happened to Hereward after that isn't known. Some stories say that William eventually pardoned him, which really seems pretty unlikely, and other stories say he lived as an outlaw until he was killed by the Normans. Either way, things didn't exactly turn out awesomely for him — William remained king and England remained Norman, and that random Norman guy still had all his land.

Owain Glyndwr

Today the eldest son of the king or queen of England holds the title "The Prince of Wales," but once upon a time there was an actual Prince of Wales and he was actually Welsh. The kings of England almost universally did not like the fact that the Welsh were running around Wales being independent, but it wasn't until 1282 that Edward I finally took down Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, the last Welsh-born Prince of Wales.

According to Historic UK, the Welsh never really got over this, and 100 years later a soldier named Owain Glyndwr, who claimed descent from Llywelyn ap Gruffydd's grandfather, became disgruntled about some land dispute or another and decided to start a rebellion.

The people of Wales got behind Owain and abandoned their universities, farms, and even their places in the English army to join him. By 1400 he'd reclaimed the title "Prince of Wales," but the Welsh never did have a whole lot of luck against the English, and it was all sort of destined to fall apart. In 1406 he lost the battle of Pwll Melyn and by 1410 he was an outlaw.

Most hunted outlaws eventually come to justice, but not Owain — his hiding place was never betrayed and he likely died in peace and relative safety. But just like Constantine XI, the Welsh like to say that he'll be back some day. And also, they like to display his standard at rugby matches because it really annoys the English.

Sebastian of Portugal

Stories about great leaders who will rise again seem to be everywhere in the historical record. Here's another one: Sebastian of Portugal, who was a religious fanatic and heir to the throne of Portugal. Britannica says he was educated by the Jesuits and believed that it was his destiny to take down the Muslims, but there was this pesky little problem of a Portuguese policy against getting involved with "costly conflicts" standing between him and crusader glory. That changed when he assumed power in 1568, and by 1578 he was ready to lead an army in a costly conflict to Morocco, where he got his butt kicked. And so ended Sebastian of Portugal ... mostly.

History doesn't remember what happened to Sebastian after that. It's likely he got killed in battle along with everyone else he was leading into religious glory, but when history doesn't actually remember the fate of its popular figures there are always those who want to fill in the blanks. No less than four Sebastian pretenders tried to woo the Portuguese people between 1584 and 1598, and after that people just hoped he'd come back someday. And that hope gave rise to an entire messianic faith called Sebastianism, wherein followers believed that one day he'd rise again and deliver them from Spanish rule, blah, blah, blah, but of course he never did. Because dead people don't usually come back to life, at least not centuries after they got killed in some unnecessary and costly conflict.


Nefertiti was married to the heretic king Akhenaten, who kind of looked like Kylo Ren in an Egyptian headdress. Akhenaten was the father of Tutankhamun and a religious reformer who made the Sun the center of Egyptian religion and had a couple of other gods erased from the monuments, which was a fairly large undertaking even for someone who can harness the dark side of the Force. Still, it was his wife Nefertiti who most people know from history. So had so much political power, in fact, that Tour Egypt says she's depicted in ancient reliefs about twice as often as Akhenaten. He didn't seem to really mind, though, and after his death he had her likeness carved into the four corners of his sarcophagus so she could protect his mummy, which was generally something that was only done by female gods.

According to Ancient Origins, in the 12th year of Akhenaten's reign, Nefertiti disappeared from the historical record. Because historians love to speculate, there are theories that she either died or fell out of favor (that last one seems unlikely given that she was guarding Akhenaten's mummy after his death), and there are other theories that she was given a new identity and ruled as co-regent with Akhenaten. That certainly beats living as an outlaw or being secretly murdered by your uncle, but still, a little credit would have been nice.


Jianwen was the second emperor of the Ming dynasty, and the guy who almost wrecked everything for the rest of the Ming dynasty. According to Britannica, when he came to power in 1398, he was mostly concerned with getting rid of all the other Ming princes so he could rule over everything, which is not actually totally unexpected for a 21-year-old with absolute power, but let's continue.

During the first year of his reign he took out the princes of Qi, Dai, Zhou, and Xiang and was feeling pretty good about himself, but then he turned on his uncle, who was the prince of Yan, and his uncle said, "No, thank you," and rebelled.

The war lasted four years and ended when the Prince of Yan attacked the capital and burned down Jianwen's palace. Sadly, when Jianwen saw his uncle coming he just hid in the palace. He was still there when it all burned to the ground. Except that, sigh, there are some people who thought he'd actually escaped — the body that Prince Yan presented as proof of his nephew's demise was charred beyond recognition, so it really could have been anyone. No one seemed to think that one day Jianwen would rise again and save China, though — instead it's said he lived out his days as a monk in a nearby monastery. And that's the super boring end of the Jianwen story ... maybe.