Examples of young royals who rose to positions of extraordinary power are found in nearly every culture and civilization. But while most of these child rulers were simply figureheads until they came of age, others managed to lead empires, make influential laws and even fight wars—sometimes all before the age of 18. Find out more about six child monarchs whose grown-up actions changed the course of history.
The 13th ruler of Egypt’s Ptolemaic dynasty, Ptolemy XIII rubbed elbows with some of ancient history’s most towering figures during his short life. The young pharaoh first came to power in 51 B.C. at the age of 11 or 12. He soon found himself overshadowed by his famous sister Cleopatra, whom he had married in accordance with ancient Egyptian custom. Jealous of her increasing celebrity, in 48 B.C. Ptolemy sparked a civil war after he plotted with influential members of the court and expelled Cleopatra from Egypt.
Ptolemy also allied himself with the Roman leader Pompey, who was then at war with Julius Caesar. When Pompey was defeated and arrived in Egypt seeking refuge, the teenage pharaoh had him assassinated in an attempt to impress Caesar and ingratiate himself to Rome. The plan proved unsuccessful, and after arriving in Egypt Caesar forced the boy ruler to reconcile with his sister. Ptolemy XIII eventually led an Egyptian army against the Romans, but Caesar soundly defeated his forces in a battle that resulted in the burning of the famed Library of Alexandria. The young ruler is then believed to have drowned in the Nile River as he tried to flee capture.
The third emperor of China’s Qing Dynasty, 5-year-old Fulin (eventually known as the Shunzhi Emperor) rose to power in 1643 following the death of his father. Because he was so young, for the next several years China was ruled under the regency of his uncle, Dorgon. After Dorgon’s death in 1650, 12-year-old Shunzhi took the reigns of the empire. Wary of power grabs from his political enemies, he soon fostered a precarious alliance with influential court eunuchs and made efforts to fight corruption and consolidate the empire under Qing rule.
The Shunzhi Emperor is today remembered as a remarkably open-minded leader. He devoted significant time to the study of science and astronomy and was also tolerant of various religions. Around 1652 he hosted an elaborate reception in Peking for the Fifth Dalai Lama, but he also regularly consulted with an Austrian Jesuit missionary named Johann Adam Schall von Bell. While he never became a Catholic, the emperor considered Schall one of his closest advisors and even referred to him as “grandfather.” Shunzhi died from smallpox in 1661 at the age of 22. His son, the Kangxi Emperor, would go on to reign for over 60 years.
The Roman emperor Elagabalus may have taken power at the tender age of 15, but his four-year reign was anything but innocent. A native of Syria, Elagabalus seized control of Rome in 218 after his mother and grandmother sparked a revolt by claiming he was the illegitimate son of the recently murdered emperor Caracalla. The young ruler wasted little time in causing controversy. Before he had even arrived in the capital city he installed the Syrian sun god Elagabal—whose cult he ruled as high priest—as the chief deity of Rome. He went on to shock the public with his sexual excesses, which supposedly included cross-dressing, prostitution and a romantic relationship with his chariot driver. Elagabalus also earned the scorn of Rome’s political class by allowing his mother to enter the male-only halls of the senate.
Already viewed by many in the empire as corrupt, Elagabalus caused yet another scandal when he married a vestal virgin—a class of priestesses who were supposed to remain chaste—and proclaimed their union would produce god-like offspring. His debauched behavior eventually alienated the Praetorian Guard, and in 222 the 18-year-old emperor was assassinated and replaced by his cousin, Alexander Severus. Elagabalus was later characterized as one of the most decadent of all Rome’s leaders, but some modern historians have argued that his eccentric behavior was likely exaggerated by his political enemies in an attempt to discredit him.
Most famously associated with the 1922 discovery of his tomb, Tutankhamen was an Egyptian pharaoh thought to have ruled for 10 years in the 14th century B.C. “King Tut” inherited the throne at the age of 9 or 10 and initially ruled Egypt under the direction of advisers due to his young age. While his reign was not a significant time in Egyptian history, Tutankhamen did institute some major societal changes. Most important was his reversal of the unpopular reforms of his father, the “heretic king” Akhenaten. Abandoning Akhenaten’s decree that the sun god Aten be the sole deity, Tutankhamen reinstated the god Amun and restored Thebes as Egypt’s capital city.
King Tut died mysteriously around the age of 19, but his most important contribution to history would come over 3,200 years later, when the British Egyptologist Howard Carter uncovered his final resting place in the Valley of the Kings. One of the best-preserved Egyptian burial sites ever discovered, Tutankhamen’s tomb helped shape our modern understanding of ancient Egyptian royal customs.
Mary Stuart—more famously known as Mary, queen of Scots—ruled as queen of two separate nations before she was 18 years old. Mary became queen of Scotland after her father died only six days after her birth in 1542. While she was too young to govern, her position as a royal made the infant queen a very influential figure in international relations. Anxious to unite Scotland and England, in 1543 King Henry VIII proposed a future marriage between Mary and his son Edward. Political tensions between the two countries led the Scottish parliament to reject the engagement, and Mary was sheltered in various castles after Henry VIII invaded Scotland and tried to force the marriage in what became known as the “Rough Wooing.”
To keep her out of reach of the English, in 1548 the 5-year-old queen was taken to France. At 16 she married Francis II, briefly ruling as queen of France after he ascended the throne. Following Francis’ death, in 1561 Mary returned to Scotland to resume her duties as queen. She remarried twice as an adult, but a 1567 uprising forced to her abdicate the Scottish throne and flee to England. There she was imprisoned for nearly 19 years before being executed for her unwitting role in a plot to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I.
King Baldwin IV not only saved Jerusalem from capture at the age of 16, but he did it while suffering from a debilitating disease. Born in 1161, Baldwin IV rose to power at the age of 15 following the death of his father, Amalric I. Despite suffering from leprosy since childhood, Baldwin IV would go on to repeatedly defend his Christian kingdom against Saladin, the famed Muslim military tactician who ruled as sultan of Egypt and Syria.
When Saladin moved toward the city of Ascalon in 1177, the young King Baldwin IV rushed to the site with only a small complement of infantry and a few hundred Knights Templar. Besieged within the city’s walls by Saladin’s superior numbers, Baldwin IV managed to break his army out of the fortress before routing the Muslim forces at the Battle of Montgisard. After securing a brief peace agreement with Saladin, the teenager returned to Jerusalem a hero. He would go on to fight many battles against Saladin’s forces after the truce ended, often traveling in a litter when his leprosy made him too weak to ride a horse. Baldwin IV’s condition worsened over the next several years, and he finally died in 1185 at the age of 23. Two years later Saladin would win a decisive victory at the Battle of Hattin and effectively topple the Kingdom of Jerusalem.