Why King Aethelred Was Unready and Other Tales of Royal Epithets

While the demise of the absolute monarchy and the decline of the aristocracy have generally been heralded as progress in human events, they have deprived us of a most ingenious way of labeling our rulers: the epithet. Gone are the days when one could refer to leaders as Barack, the Osama-Killer, Vladimir, the Crimea Annexer, or Angela, the ATM of Europe. To recapture some of the strangeness, braggadocio and occasional hilarity contained in royal and aristocratic epithets, I took a look back at the epithets of yesteryear. The practice, which goes back to at least the 6th Century BCE seemed to reach its peak in the Middle Ages, between about 1000 and 1500. Here’s what I found.

1.  They’re Grrrrrrrreat!

For much of history, the best thing you could say about a ruler was that he or she was “Great.” From the Persians Cyrus and Darius and the Macedonian Alexander to the Russians (Peter and Catherine), the designation “Great” signified a ruler whose accomplishments – often in the area of empire building – were unparalleled in their time. The list that follows shows a few of those designated as “the Great.”

Cyrus the Great                      (King of Persia, 559-530 BCE)
Darius I, the Great                 (King of Persia, 522-486 BCE)
Alexander the Great              (King of Macedon, 330-323 BCE)
Mithradates II, the Great      (King of Parthia, 123-87 BCE)
Constantine I, the Great       (Roman Emperor, 324-337 CE)
Theoderic the Great              (King of the Ostrogoths, 493-526 CE)
Justinian I, the Great             (Byzantine Emperor, 527-565 CE)
Charles I, Charlemagne (the Great)   (Holy Roman Emperor, 800–814 CE)
Alfred the Great                     (King of England, 871–899 CE)
Otto I, the Great                     (Holy Roman Emperor, 936–973 CE)
William V, the Great               (Duke of Aquitaine, 993–1030 CE)
Canute the Great                    (King of England, 1016–1035)
Knud I, the Great                    (King of Denmark, 1019–1035)
Sancho I, the Great                (King of Castile, 1029–1035)
Ferdinand I, the Great           (King of Castile, 1035–1065)
Valdemar I, the Great            (King of Denmark, 1157–1182)
Peter III, the Great                  (King of Aragon, 1276–1285)
Albert II, the Great                  (Duke of Mecklenburg, 1329-1379)
Ivan III, the Great                    (Grand Prince of Russia, 1462–1505)
Peter I, the Great                    (Tsar/Emperor of Russia, 1682–1725)
Frederick II, the Great            (King of Prussia, 1712-1786)
Catherine II, the Great           (Empress of Russia, 1762–1796)

Only one prominent ruler ever earned an epithet that exceeded “the Great” – Suleiman the Magnificent, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire for 46 years in the 16th Century, must be granted a special place in the book of epithets, for “the Magnificent”, even if hyperbolic, must outrank “the Great” on any scale.  (Giving Suleiman a run for his money, though, is Otto I, the Illustrious (Duke of Saxony, 880-912), although while Suleiman the Magnificent works for the Sultan of a giant empire, “Otto the Illustrious” seems a little too much for the Duke of Saxony).

2.  Not Great, But… 

Most rulers did not reach greatness, and their epithets reflect an attempt by followers to pick out a quality – preferably a positive one – that represented the best or most characteristic aspect of the ruler.  For some, this quality was goodness, presumably a moral quality, not just a step down from “Great.”

Magnus the Good                   (King of Denmark, 1042–1046)
John III, the Good                    (Duke of Brittany, 1312–1341)
John II, the Good                     (King of France, 1350–1364)
Philip the Good                       (Duke of Burgundy, 1419–1467)
René the Good                        (King of Naples, 1434–1480)

In some cases, “Good” wasn’t good enough, so ancient peoples found other epithets to describe the goodness of their ruler.  Three kings of Aragon, in Spain, for example, were Alfonso III, the Generous (reigned 1285-1291), Alfonso IV, the Benign (reigned 1327-1336) and Alfonso V, the Magnanimous (reigned 1416-1458).  Assuming that “benign” refers to kindness and generosity and not a diagnosis, all three Alfonso’s had goodness running in their Aragonese blood.  The folks seeking an epithet for 12th Century Danish King Erik I decided he was not just good now, but good always, so they named him, “the Evergood.”  (I have yet to find a ruler with the epithet “the Ever-ready”, but I will keep looking.)

  1. Here I Come to Save the Day! 

After “the Great” and “the Good”, those affixing epithets to their rulers’ names had to pick from several paths: (1) war; (2) religion; (3) physical characteristics; or (4) going negative.  Going on the ‘war’ path could mean focusing on the ruler’s personal strength and bravery.  Polish King Augustus II, the Strong (reigned 1694-1733) got his epithet in part by breaking horseshoes with his bare hands.  We assume that William IV, the Strong-Armed (Duke of Aquitaine, reigned 963-993 CE) earned his sobriquet by feats of strength, not by having someone take advantage of him.  William VII, Duke of Aquitaine (reigned 1039-1058) was “the Brave”; John, Duke of Burgundy (reigned 1404-1419) was “the Fearless”, and Alfonso VI, King of Castile (reigned 1072-1109) was “the Valiant.”  Defying categorization are Alfonso I, the Battler (King of Aragon, 1104-1134) and Alan IV, the Iron-Gloved (Duke of Brittany, 1084-1112).

Then there were The Bold Ones:
Philip III, the Bold   (King of France, 1270–1285)
Philip the Bold        (Duke of Burgundy, 1363–1404)
Albert the Bold       (Duke of Saxony, 1464-1500)
Charles the Bold    (Duke of Burgundy, 1467–1477)

Leaders who were known for a particular victory or conquest often acquired the epithet “the Victorious”:
Erik the Victorious                   (King of Sweden, 980–995)
Valdemar II, the Victorious    (King of Denmark, 1202–1241)
John I, the Victorious              (Duke of Brabant, 1267–1294)

or “the Conqueror”:
William I, the Conqueror      (King of England, 1066–1087)
James I, the Conqueror        (King of Aragon, 1214–1276)
John IV, the Conqueror        (Duke of Brittany, 1364–1399)

In a deviation from the standard procedure, after Danish King Erik II (reigned 1134-1137) led his troops to victory in a successful rebellion, he was given the epithet “the Memorable.”

Another way to recognize your ruler for his military feats is to give him an epithet that is the name of an ancient Greek warrior:
Albert III, Achilles     (Elector of Brandenburg, 1440-1486)
Albert, Alcibiades    (Margrave of Brandenburg-Kulmbach, 1527-1553)

Another way to show the bravery and boldness of your leader is to compare him to a ferocious animal.  We all know about Richard I, the Lion–Hearted (King of England, 1189–1199), but what about these other lions:
Henry III, the Lion (Duke of Saxony, 1142-1180)
Louis VIII, the Lion (King of France, 1223–1226)
Henry II, the Lion (Lord of Mecklenburg, 1287-1329)

In second place, far behind ‘lion’, is the bear, as exemplified by Albert I, the Bear (Duke of Saxony, 1139-1142).  A more confusing animal epithet belongs to Erik III, the Lamb (King of Denmark, 1137–1146).  Is there a religious connection (Jesus as the Lamb of God?) or was he seen as meek and mild, not usually qualities valued in 12th Century kings?

(While on the animal comparisons, take a look at Harold I, Harefoot (King of England, 1035–1040) who was renowned for his speed and skill as a hunter.  Eric II of Denmark was also known as Harefoot for a time.)

  1. Holy, holy, holy. 

Before the separation of church and state, the religiosity of a leader could go a long way toward winning him or her support.  For that reason, many epithets refer to religious and spiritual qualities, the most common being piety:
Louis I, the Pious             (Holy Roman Emperor, 814–840 CE)
William I, the Pious         (Duke of Aquitaine, 898–918 CE)
Robert II, the Pious         (King of France, 996–1031 CE)
George, the Pious           (Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach, 1536-1543)
Frederick II, the Pious    (Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, 1756-1785)

Holy Roman Emperor Henry II (reigned 1002-1024), known as “the Saint”, was canonized in 1146.  Spanish King Ferdinand III, the Saint (reigned 1217-1252) was canonized in 1671.  King Edward of England, who reigned from 1042-1066, received the epithet “the Confessor” because he led a saintly life but was not a martyr.  (Even after Edward was canonized by Pope Alexander III in 1161, he was not called “the Saint”).  Though of royal blood, Ramiro II, the Monk (King of Aragon, 1134–1137) actually grew up in a Benedictine monastery and after three years as king, he returned to the contemplative life.  John I, the Theologian (Lord of Mecklenburg, 1227-1264) was a religious scholar in his spare time and Henry I, the Pilgrim (Lord of Mecklenburg, 1264-1271, 1298-1302) liked to travel to religious sites.

It is a bit puzzling why both Ferdinand, King of Aragon (reigned 1479-1516), and his wife Isabella, Queen of Castile (reigned 1474-1504), received the epithets “the Catholic”, when the Reconquista of Iberia from the Muslims was nearly complete and the Protestant Reformation had not yet begun.  I have also been unable to find the basis for the epithet given to Alfonso II, the Chaste (King of Aragon, 1164–1196).  Alfonso appears to have had a long married life, which produced many children.  There is even some hint that he may have engaged in extramarital affairs.  Maybe they meant “chased.”

5.  Now It Gets Ugly

The physical appearance of the ruler was apparently fair game for epithets, whether merely descriptive or downright insulting.

Some rulers were known for their height:
Knut the Tall         (King of Sweden, 1229–1234)
Albert the Tall      (Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg. 1252-1269)
Philip V, the Tall   (King of France, 1316–1322)

And others, not so much:
Pepin the Short                      (King of the Franks, 751-768 CE)
Władysław the Elbow-high   (King of Poland, 1320-1333)

Some were handsome and fair (meaning fair in appearance, not in meting out justice):
Albert VII, the Handsome    (Duke of Mecklenburg, 1503-1547)
Philip I, the Handsome        (King of Castile, 1504-1506)
Philip IV, the Fair                  (King of France, 1285–1314)
Charles IV, the Fair              (King of France, 1322–28)

Redheads were distinctive, then as now:
Haaken the Red           (King of Sweden, 1066–1079)
John I, the Red             (Duke of Brittany, 1221–1286)

Light hair was also a mark of distinction:
William III, the Towhead      (Duke of Aquitaine, 934–963 CE)

Beards were notable:
Godfrey I, the Bearded      (Count of Louvain, 1106–1128)
George the Bearded          (Duke of Saxony, 1500-1539)

Red beards were even more notable:
Frederick I, Barbarossa (Red-Beard)      (Holy Roman Emperor, 1155-1190)

And so were beards with unusual shapes:
Alan II, Twistedbeard     (Duke of Brittany, 937–952 CE)
Svend I, Forkbeard        (King of Denmark, 986–1014 CE)

A number of rulers are identified by their substantial girth:
Charles III, the Fat      (Holy Roman Emperor, 881–887 CE)
William VI, the Fat      (Duke of Aquitaine, 1030–1038)
Louis VI, the Fat         (King of France, 1108–1137)
Conan III, the Fat       (Duke of Brittany, 1112–1148)
Henry IV, the Fat       (Duke of Mecklenburg, 1422-1477)

At least one by his leanness:
Henry, the Gaunt       (Duke of Mecklenburg-Stargard, 1417-1466)

Others by lack of hair:
Charles II, the Bald      (Holy Roman Emperor, 875–877 CE)
John II, the Bald           (Lord of Werle-Güstrow, 1316-1337)

Or possibly too much hair:
Bernard II, Plantapilosa (hairy or hairy-footed)     (Count of Auvergne, 872–885 CE)

Some rulers were crippled by disease.
Sigobert the Lame       (King of the Franks, 483-507 CE)
Charles II, the Lame    (King of Naples, 1285–1309)

Others were missing parts:
Frederick II, the One-Eyed      (Duke of Swabia, 1105-1147)

Or had dental issues:
Harald I, Bluetooth (King of Denmark, 940–986 CE)

Other epithets can only be regarded as insults:
Nicholas IV, Pig’s Eyes (Lord of Werle, 1350-1354)

6.  It’s What’s Inside that Counts

Physical characteristics were visible to all, while other qualities could only be revealed by the ruler’s actions.

One of the most popular such qualities was wisdom:
Leo VI, the Wise         (Byzantine Emperor, 886-912 CE)
Robert the Wise         (King of Naples, 1309–1343)
Charles V, the Wise   (King of France, 1364–1380)
Frederick the Wise    (Duke of Bavaria-Landshut, 1375-1393)

Is it better to be wise or learned?  Ask Alfonso X:
Alfonso X, the Learned     (King of Castile, 1252–1284)

Not sure where to put this one but I’m sure Peter IV would know the protocol:
Peter IV, the Ceremonious      (King of Aragon, 1336–1387)

It’s hard to tell whether some epithets are meant as praise or denigration:
Peter, the Cruel          (King of Castile, 1350–1369)
John III, the Pitiless    (Duke of Bavaria-Straubing, 1418-1425)
Ivan IV, the Terrible   (Russian Tsar, 1533–1584)

Are these epithets referring to the rulers’ treatment of their enemies or their own subjects?  (Maybe their own subjects are their enemies.)  My guess is that “cruel”, “pitiless”, and “terrible” were meant as high praise.

We all know that pride goeth before a fall, but what if it follows a ruler’s name?  Once again, my guess is that the quality of pride is here seen as positive.
Henry X, the Proud   (Duke of Bavaria, 1126-1138)
Henry II the Proud   (Duke of Saxony, 1137-1139)

It is difficult to find the positive spin on the next set of epithets, which describe unpleasant traits of the ruler.  I don’t think these were run by the publicist first.
Arnulf the Bad                        (Duke of Bavaria, 937-938 CE)
Aethelred II, the Unready     (King of England, 978–1016 CE)
Louis V, the Sluggard            (King of Western Francia, 986-987 CE)
Henry II, the Quarrelsome   (Duke of Bavaria, 955-976 CE)
Louis X, the Stubborn           (King of France, 1314–1316)
Otto VII, the Lazy                   (Duke of Bavaria, 1347-1351)

The hope at the bottom of the box:
Henry V, the Peaceful      (Duke of Mecklenburg, 1503-1552)

  1. Miscellany

Because of the rules of royal and aristocratic succession, it was not uncommon for an infant or small child to become a king.
Louis III, the Child             (Holy Roman Emperor, 899–911 CE)
Otto the Child                   (Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, 1235-1252)
Nicholas I, the Child         (Lord of Rostock, 1282-1314)

In one case, the baby was only king for five days:
John I, the Posthumous      (King of France, November 15-20, 1316)

Rulers could be young…
Louis VII, the Young      (King of France, 1137–1180)

Or old.
Emund the Old      (King of Sweden, 1050–1060)

Adopted:
Childebert the Adopted      (King of the Franks, 656-657 CE)

Or born out of wedlock (at least I think that’s what they mean):
Ebalus the Bastard      (Duke of Aquitaine, 927–934 CE)

Sometimes, there is a story attached to the epithet.  Queen Mary of England (reigned 1553-1558), earned the name “Bloody Mary” after executing Protestants.  Holy Roman Emperor Henry I (reigned 919-936 CE) was called “the Fowler” because he was fixing his birding nets when informed that he was to be king.  Ferdinand IV, King of Castile (reigned 1295-1312) was given the epithet “the Summoned” after two brothers about to be executed specified a time for him to answer for their deaths in the afterworld.  Danish King Erik IV (reigned 1241-1250) earned notoriety for his hated tax on ploughs, and is now known as “Ploughpenny.” Henry III, the Sufferer (King of Castile, 1390–1406) died at the age of 16 after a long, painful illness.

Regarding Joanna I, the Mad (Queen of Castile, 1504-1555), there is conflicting evidence about whether Queen Joanna was mentally ill, but the move to have her relinquish her rights after the death of her husband Philip I in 1506 and confine herself to a convent seems like a naked power grab.

Sometimes the epithet indicates a favorite pastime:
William IX, the Troubadour        (Duke of Aquitaine, 1086–1126)
John, the Alchemist                     (Margrave of Brandenburg-Kulmbach, 1440-1457)
William IV, the Sailor–King        (King of England, 1830–1837)

Regarding Conan I, the Crooked (Duke of Brittany, 990–992), it is unclear whether “Crooked” refers to a physical ailment or some character trait.

Regarding Charles III, the Simple (King of Western Francia, 898-922), it is unclear whether King Charles suffered from a mental ailment or whether he was merely straightforward and uncomplicated.

The love of the subjects for their king is the focus of these French epithets:
Charles VI, the Well–Beloved       (King of France, 1380–1422)
Louis XV, the Well–Beloved         (King of France, 1715–74)

These French kings have well-known nicknames:
Louis XIV, the Sun King                    (King of France, 1643–1715)
Louis–Philippe, the Citizen King    (King of France, 1830–48)

Two more for good measure:
Henry IX, the Black      (Duke of Bavaria, 1120-1126)
Henry XVI the Rich      (Duke of Bavaria-Landshut, 1392-1450)

NOTE: THIS IS ONLY A SMALL CROSS-SECTION OF THE ROYAL AND ARISTOCRATIC EPITHETS GIVEN TO RULERS IN THE PAST. 

Oh, and about Aethelred the Unready – the term “Unready” is a mistranslation, but it has stuck for several hundred years and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.  Scholars now say that a better term would be “Ill-advised”, which is a critique of Aethelred’s participation in a failed coup attempt, which forced him to flee England for a while.

 

 

 

 

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