In the past, kings and other rulers would lead their armies into battle. The last British monarch who did this, for example, was George II, at the Battle of Dettingen (1743) and the last major battle where all the belligerent armies were under the personal control of their respective monarchs was Solferino (1859). Specifically, Emperor Napoleon III of France and King Victor Emmanuel II of Sardinia fought against Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria. Most seem to have survived to tell the tale, but there have naturally been cases where a prince was killed in battle. For instance, John, King of Bohemia and Count of Luxembourg, was killed at the Battle of Crécy (1346) - he showed amazing bravery, for although blind, he insisted on fighting and with some help got into the battle and “strake a stroke with his sword, yea and more than four, and fought valiantly” according to the chronicler Jean Froissart. And then there was Richard III of England, who was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field (1485). Moreover, there have been generals who were killed in war, such as at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham (1759) which took the lives of both the British commanding general, James Wolfe, and the French one, Louis-Joseph de Montcalm. Today, as I understand, commanding generals normally stay in the rear echelons.
In practice, though, how much of a risk were these princes and top generals actually taking? Would it have been relatively easy for a common soldier to take out the opposing side’s king, or were there factors that would have played a protective role for the latter? Imagine for example that I am a Sardinian private at the Battle of Solferino. I see Franz Josef on his horse. I think: “Va funculo, Mister Emperor, you’ll be my trophy today” and I aim at him. Is this a realistic scenario, or would I be too busy shooting other private soldiers in order to keep them from shooting me first to be able to focus on their leader? Would Franz Josef, Napoleon and Victor-Emmanuel have even been near the firing line or would they have actually stayed well behind? I have read somewhere something to the effect that Louis XIV liked to be in the thick of battle and had to be admonished by his generals to be more cautious. How difficult would it have been in practice for a common soldier to attempt to kill the king or commanding general of the opposing army?
I imagine the development of the firearm in Europe during the 14th century would be a primary driving force in that shift. When ranged weapons were inaccurate and armor was effective against them the risk would have been smaller as the guard around the king and his armor could give him fairly effective protection. Once a sharp shooter across a field can specifically target the king with a projectile no armor can stop, you really don’t want him out there.
“During this period, King Albert fought alongside his troops and shared their dangers, while his wife, Queen Elisabeth, worked as a nurse at the front. During his time on the front, rumours spread on both sides of the lines that the German soldiers never fired upon him out of respect for him being the highest ranked commander in harm’s way, while others feared risking punishment by the Kaiser himself, who was his cousin. The King also allowed his 12-year-old son, Prince Leopold, to enlist in the Belgian Army as a private and fight in the ranks.”
Just as another example of military commanders getting in harm’s way, the Persian general Mardonius was struck in the head with a well-aimed rock at the battle of Platea. He was killed and this threw his troops into disarray, allowing the Greeks to claim victory.
Even an arrow can take out a king like Richard I. But barring a lucky shot by a sniper or bowman, kings were fairly safe behind units of bodyguards made up of their most loyal and able men. Kings also had the best armor and the swiftest horses, which also increased the likelihood of surviving a battle.
Cyrus the Younger was killed during a battle against his brother - which was awkward, because Cyrus’ army won the battle handily; awkward because the Greek army was in foreign territory with no king to work for, and because Artaxerxes (Cyrus’ brother) had to deal with the army that had defeated his forces.
Gustav Adolf II of Sweden is another king who got killed in battle, 1632 at the 30 Years War Battle of Lützen. It is said that though being extremely shortsighted, he was too vain to wear glasses on the battlefield and so lost his orientation and got too close to the enemy’s troops, catching several bullets.
Abraham Lincoln had a brush with death in 1864 when he went to inspect the battle at Fort Stevens. He got within range of Confederate snipers and a man next to him was shot. It’s possible that the soldiers shooting at him knew who he was, and tried to kill him, but just missed.
The last European king killed in battle was Charles the 12th (Carolus Rex) of Sweden in 1718. He was most probably killed by a grapeshot ball fired from a fortress he was besieging, but rumours persist he was killed by his own side.
This has probably already been answered, but what the hell.
A king would have the best armor and weapons available, as well as the best technology. They would also, as you pointed out, have a cadre of loyal and skilled soldiers whose task would have been to protect the king. That said, it could and did happen. But it wouldn’t have been easy except through luck (an arrow, sling stone, or another projectile weapon). The converse of that is that on a lot of early battlefields the king would have been pretty apparent. Their armor and if they used standards would have made them very visible to the enemy, and they certainly would have gone after the king. But for a common soldier to take one out I think a hefty degree of luck would have been needed.
I think it would have been pretty tough to do it purposely. Most common soldiers didn’t have the weapons or armor to really take out a king easily unless, as I said, they got lucky with some sort of projectile weapon…or unless the king got isolated from his inner guard. This changed later on with the introduction of reliable gunpowder of course. It’s why later on you don’t see many generals or kings commanding from the front in distinctive clothes or armor. One has but to look at how things changed with respect to uniforms to see how this progressed as gunpowder weapons became more reliable and more accurate at longer distances.
The classic example would be the Battle of Hastings, where King Harold Godwinson of England was killed in battle. But that was in a battle gone wrong, and Harold was killed toward the end. Lore has it that he was struck in the eye by a Norman arrow, but there’s no actual proof, and the sources are unreliable.
I just was thinking, “Oh, how could I have forgotten to mention Harold Godwinson?”
Apparently the whole arrow-through-the-eye fit in with the Normans’ narrative that Harold was an oath-breaker, inasmuch as he didn’t nominate William as his heir like he said he was going to – per the Normans. God blinded liars.
One might note, in addition, that “leading into battle” is less common than you might think.
Most wars were fought as a series of take-overs of fortified positions, towns, and towers. In movies, nearly every battle is shown as two armies facing off against one another, across an open field. But, in the real world, sieges and things like starving an enemy out composed the majority of military actions. In those cases, I don’t know that there would really be a king out front leading the way, or anything. I’m not aware of any rulers scaling a wall on a ladder (?). Probably they couldn’t secure them the way that they could for a field battle, with heavy armor and fast horses.
A movie-style meeting would generally only occur in a situation where both of armies think that they have the advantage. Ergo, when they see the other army, they move in to meet them. Since that’s hard to arrange, it didn’t occur much. Otherwise, most other field battles would probably have been as a result of the dominant force successfully hunting down the smaller force and the smaller force being unable to get away. In that situation, I’d venture to guess that the smaller force tended to be less organized and capable. They might have mostly been running away as the king swooped in and slashed at them from behind.
Its doubtlessly not a coincidence that this date was the last time it happened. The 1860s and on saw the widespread general issuing of rifled rather than smoothbore firearms in armies, making firearms vastly more accurate out to greatly increased ranges. This led to the casualty rate for officers to become markedly higher than among enlisted ranks. For example, in the US Civil War:
The loss in officers killed or wounded, in proportion to their number, was in excess of that of their men. Of the total number killed and wounded during the war, there were 6,365 officers, and 103,705 enlisted men; or, one officer to 16 men. In the common regimental organization there was one officer to 28 men; and this proportion would have consequently required only one officer to 28 men among the killed.
This greater loss among the officers did not occur because they were so much braver than the men in the ranks, but because the duties of their position while under fire involved a greater personal exposure. Sharpshooters were always on the alert to pick them off; and, even in the confusion of a hot musketry fire, any soldier, no matter how poor a marksman, would turn his rifle on any conspicuous man in the opposing ranks whose appearance indicated that he might be an officer. In close quarters, guns were not apt to be aimed at privates if a Lieutenant was in sight near by. There was just as good stuff in the ranks as in the line; in fact, the line officers were recruited almost entirely from the ranks; but when the gallant private donned an officer’s uniform, he found his chances not at all improved, to say the least.
And even more dramatically in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71):
In the Franco-Prussian war there was a remarkable excess of loss among the German officers. The percentages of killed and mortally wounded in the entire German army were: Enlisted men, 3.1; Line officers, 8.0; Staff officers, 9.6.