I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Some monarchs go into the history books with “Great” nicknames - Alexander, Catherine, Alfred. There are lots called magnificent, illustrious, good, and glorious. Others get humbler monikers, such as Alfonso “The Slobberer” King Of Leon, Henry the “Impotent” of Castille, or Llywelyn the “Last” of Wales. Some have passed down the ages with frightening epithets attached to their titles―Vlad III of Walachia (the “Impaler”), Ivan IV of Russia (the “Terrible”), Yazdegerd I of Persia (the “Wicked”).
Good Royal Names
Possibly reflecting the ability of well-heeled monarchs to hire quality spin doctors the number of good nicknames far outnumber the bad ones.
Leopold III, the Duke of Austria (1351-86) was known as the “Able.” He was accomplished in leading troops although he was killed in a battle. His children got a curious blend of good and not-so-good nicknames. William the “Courteous” was the first born son, followed by Leopold IV the “Fat,” Ernest the “Iron,” and Frederick IV of the “Empty Pockets.”
Were They All That Great and Magnificent?
Apart from poor tubby Leopold IV, the name seemed to be charmed. Leopold V was known as the “Virtuous,” and the sixth was the “Glorious.” Meanwhile, Leopold I was called the “Illustrious,” and the second was the “Saint” or the “Fair.”
There are more monarchs known as the “Good” than you can shake a sceptre at. The “Magnanimous” and “Magnificent” were also popular.
One wonders whether the complimentary names so frequently bestowed on regal types contained an element of self-preservation. Kings and queens had plentiful supplies of axes and swords, along with people happy to use them in persuading name-callers to be generous.
Many monarchs received nicknames that matched the peculiarities of their bodies; although these names were unlikely to be used in their presence by those with even a tiny measure of self-preservation.
Inge I of Norway in the 12th century and Richard III of England in the 15th century were both hunchbacks; as such, they were called “Crouchback” or “Crookback.”
Justinian II did not have a facial deformity when he succeeded his father Constantine IV as Byzantine Emperor in 685 CE. The lad was only 16 and used his exalted position to raise taxes that paid for his extravagant lifestyle.
His subjects grew weary of Justinian’s excesses, toppled him from his throne, and cut off his nose. Welcome to the world of Justinian the “Slit-Nose.”
But, the ex-monarch wasn’t done. He had a gold prosthetic nose attached, raised an army, and re-took his throne. However, his unpopularity remained the same and once more he was removed from power. This time the citizens were not taking any chances of a comeback so they bumped him off, along with his six-year-old son.
Geoffrey III of Anjou (1040–1096), was called the “Bearded,” which doesn’t really qualify as a distinguishing feature because there were very few clean-shaven kings before or after him.
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A tourism website for Barcelona tells us that the city’s cathedral has “a small stone sculpture of an extremely hairy knight fighting what looks like a griffin. The knight is Wilfred the ‘Hairy’ (Guifré el Pilòs) who was Count of Barcelona from 878 until his death in 897.”
As far as we can tell, there were no bearded queens.
Boleslaus III the Blind of Bohemia was a total disaster during his three-year reign that ended in 1002. There was another Boleslaw III who ruled Poland about 100 years later. Because his lips were slightly bent on one side he came by the name the “Wry-Mouthed” and spent a lot of time fighting his half-brother, Zbigniew, over the family inheritance. Eventually, Boleslaw got tired of the conflict and had Zbigniew blinded.
There is no evidence that the names Boleslaus/Boleslaw are the cause of problems with vision.
Bad and Bloody Royal Names
William I the “Bad” of Sicily came by his epithet unfairly. As royal rulers go, he did a decent enough job during his 12th-century reign, but he had the misfortune to have his life chronicled by a historian with an agenda. For some reason, Hugo Falcandus had a hate for William and saddled him with the “Bad” title.
There were other monarchs who earned the bad names by being, well, bad.
Henry VIII’s daughter, Mary, by his first wife Catherine of Aragon, became Queen of England in 1553. She set about returning the country to the Roman Catholic Church from which her father had severed relations.
For those who chose not to seek out the all-loving, all-merciful embrace of Rome Mary created a special ceremony―burning at the stake. More than 300 Protestants were executed in this fashion, from which the queen got the sobriquet Bloody Mary.
By the time Leopold II of Belgium ascended to the throne in 1865, the giving of nicknames had mostly gone out of fashion. However, if the custom is revived he would surely get a title such as “Butcher,” “Cruel,” or “Monster.”
He declared a vast area of Africa surrounding the Congo River to be his own personal territory. He ruled the forced labour on his rubber plantations with the utmost savagery. Three million Congolese died as the Belgian king amassed his fortune.
Timur ruled a lot of Central Asia from 1370 to 1405. He really was a nasty piece of work who left a massive body count behind him. But the historical record simply refers to him as Timur the “Lame,” the result of a leg injury he received during the unbecoming royal pastime of sheep stealing.
The Unhinged Monarchs
The people of Bavaria had to endure a couple of, shall we say, eccentric kings during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
First up was “Mad” King Ludwig II. He was reclusive and insisted on dining outside no matter what the weather. He is remembered today for indulging his passion for building castles, perhaps the most famous being the fairy-tale-like Neuschwanstein.
The expense of his construction projects plunged him into deep debt and, in part, led to him being removed from power, in 1886, after being declared mad by a panel of psychiatrists. Three days later, Ludwig’s body was found floating in a lake. A debate continues as to whether Ludwig took his own life or was helped on his way to eternity.
For the Bavarian people, the news that “The king is dead. Long live the king” was a bit of an out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire deal because Ludwig was succeeded by his brother, Otto.
Ludwig had already nailed down to “Mad” title so Otto was awarded the “Crazy.” Apparently, Otto did not like being looked at and he hated doors. The official word was that “the King is melancholic,” but he may have been schizophrenic, although another suggestion is that his condition was the result of advanced syphilis. A regent was appointed to rule in his place until he was deposed in 1913.
Charles VI of France became king in 1368 at the age of 11. There seems to be some indecision about his value as a monarch because he got two honourary titles―Charles the “Mad” and Charles the “Beloved.”
He lived through lucid periods and then plunged into psychotic episodes. During one of the latter, he killed several of his loyal knights. He sometimes travelled about his palace on all fours and was not aware that he was king. Put on the psychiatrist's couch today, the diagnosis would likely be bipolar disorder.
Scatological Royal Nicknames
Eighth-century Norway was graced by the presence of King Eystein Halfdansson, known as Fret or Fjert; translation, Eystein the "Fart." It’s not known exactly how he came by this name but one can make an educated guess.
And, while this chapter is open we’ll have to drop in on James II of England and VI of Scotland, the last Catholic king of England, Scotland, and Ireland. He was kicked out in 1688 and replaced by the Protestant William of Orange. James fled to Ireland where he raised an army to try to get his throne back.
James was comprehensively defeated at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. He took off to France, no doubt the better to lead his remaining followers from a distance.
His flight earned him the Irish title “Séamus an Chaca” or “James the Shit.”
And, here comes another one with an unfortunate appellation, Constantine V, the Byzantine Emperor from 741-55, aka Constantine the “Dung-Named.” His resumé features a lot of warfare and it seems the victims of his belligerence were the ones that gave him his coveted title.
- The titles discussed here are called “cognomens.” The word comes from ancient Rome where such third names were given to some people and were hereditary.
- Prince Philip has routinely called his wife, Elizabeth II, by the pet name of “cabbage.”
- The Nebraska Admirals Association has conferred upon Queen Elizabeth II the title of Admiral of the Nebraska Navy. A distinction she shares with Bing Crosby, Martin Luther King III, and Ann Landers, among others. Nebraska is landlocked.
- Harald “Bluetooth” Gormsson was the King of Norway and Denmark. His reign ended 1,008 years before the invention of Bluetooth data exchanging technology.
- “Wilfred the Hairy: History and Legends.” Barcelonalowdown.com, undated.
- “7 Monarchs with Unfortunate Nicknames.” Ida Yalzadeh, Encyclopedia Britannica, undated.
- “Names of Shame. The Six Rulers with History’s Worst Epithets.” Jonathan Healey, The Social Historian, April 17, 2014.
- “10 Mad Royals in History.” Shanna Freeman, Howstuffworks.com, undated.
- “60 of History’s Strangest Royal Epithets.” Paul Anthony Jones, Mentalfloss.com, November 23, 2015.
- Uncle John’s Actual and Factual Bathroom Reader, Portable Press, 2018.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on March 15, 2019:
All commentators are welcomed onboard.
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on March 15, 2019:
Very interesting! I thought Bloody Mary was harsh; it's better than many.
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on March 13, 2019:
Hello, Rupert, a king "Empty Pocket"?That sounds ridicule! But that is the reality. The carton looks terrific and piteous. Being human, such things are bound to happen.
In my country Nigeria, they is this army General who the Press dub "Maradona" after the legendary football player when he was on course. As things turns out, he veered off course, and styled himself the "evil genius" which still holds. As a lover of historical stories, this article is a master piece. Thanks for sharing.
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on March 13, 2019:
More on the humble cabbage.
Ivaylo was the Tsar of Bulgaria for only a year in the 13th century. He was known as “Cabbage” until he was bumped off by the Mongols in 1280. There is probably a tasteless joke about coleslaw somewhere in there.
Liz Westwood from UK on March 13, 2019:
You do well to gather all these facts together. I did not know our Queen was called 'cabbage'.
Marja Radic from Split, Croatia on March 12, 2019:
So funny and interesting article! Eystein the Fart is by far the funniest :)