Unfortunate royal epithets

Ever wondered about the stories behind historical monarchs’ epithets? Here’s 10 royals from the past who gained some rather unfortunate nicknames…

It’s tradition for monarchs the world over to gain a few additional names, both during and after their reigns. For some, these might be good or heroic e.g. William the Conqueror or Elizabeth Gloriana; for others they might be more mundane. Both Henry I and Henry II, who granted important privileges to St Neots priory in the 12thC, had epithets of a less exciting nature (Henry I was known as ‘Beauclerc’, the French for ‘Good Clerk’, and Henry II gained the name ‘Curtmantle’, Middle English for ‘short cloak’).

Unfortunately for a large number of royals, the nicknames associated with them are of a more, shall we say, unflattering tone. We’ve picked our top 10 below, revealing the story behind the name…

Ethelred the Unready

Two Anglo-Saxon silver pennies of Aethelred held by the museum

Let’s start with a famous one! Ethelred (or Aethelred) the Unready, was king of the England from 978-1013CE and again from 1014-1016CE. He is famous for being an incompetent ruler, who failed to prevent the Vikings from overrunning England. He first attempted to buy his way to peace, but when this failed, he launched attacks on the Danish settlers, only provoking further invasions! The epithet ‘unready’ is derived from ‘unraed’, which actually means ‘bad counsel’ or ‘no council’. The nickname is in fact a twist on his name which rather comically means ‘noble counsel’.

Ivar the Boneless

Ivar the Boneless was a Viking leader who invaded Anglo-Saxon England in the 9thC, becoming ruler of York. The origin of the nickname is up for debate; several of the Viking sagas alarmingly describe him as lacking legs or bones, whilst in the ‘Tale of Ragnar’s Sons’, it’s suggested that his name is in fact figurative, and refers to male impotence!

According to the ‘Tale of Ragnar Lodbrok’ (Ivar’s father), his bonelessness was the result of a curse. His mother Aslaug, a seeress, prophesied that she and Ragnar needed to wait three nights before consummating their marriage. But Ragnar, overcome with lust after a long separation whilst raiding England, ignored this advice. As a result, Ivar was born with weak bones.

Ivaylo the Cabbage

Slightly more surreal in the name-game is Ivaylo of Bulgaria. Ivaylo is remembered as a strong military leader, spearheading numerous peasant uprisings before climbing up the social ranks and eventually becoming emperor. His nickname ‘the cabbage’ or ‘lettuce’ was given to him to reflect his low social origin. Charming!

Louis the Unavoidable

Poor old Louis XVIII of France spent much of his reign in the late 18thC in exile due to the French Revolution of 1789-1799. When things began to stabilise once again at the turn of the 19thC, and Napoleon was finally defeated in 1815, Louis was deemed the ‘unavoidable’ choice to return and reclaim the throne. Talk about a blow to his self-esteem!

Joanna the Mad

The impact of a grief filled life earned poor Joanna of Castile this unfortunate name. Big sis to Catherine of Aragon, and sister-in-law to Henry VIII, Joanna was also married to Philip ‘the handsome’ of Spain (lucky her!) In her early life she was an intelligent and well-educated young woman, with numerous languages under her belt. However, after the deaths of numerous family members, she suffered from long bouts of insomnia and poor appetite, and was often known to fly into a rage when prevented from exercising her will.

But the act that really sealed her as ‘mad’ in the minds of the people, happened when her husband died in 1506. Joanna refused to part with her husband’s body for a disturbingly long time. Though she was heavily pregnant, she travelled with his body from Burgos to Granada (just shy of 670 kilometres!), where he was to be buried. She was said to have often opened her husband’s casket on route, to embrace him. Eep!

Charles the Mad

Staying along the same lines, the French King Charles VI was known to have suffered from multiple spells of real insanity during his life time. We’re told that at times he couldn’t remember who he was, nor did he recognise his wife or children. He would often ‘run wildly’ through the corridors of his palace, compelling his staff to have entrances walled up to prevent him from escaping! The thing that Charles is most famous for, however, was the belief that he was made of glass and could shatter at any time, he even had iron rods sewn into his clothes to stop himself from breaking…

Bloody Queen Mary

Mary I of England spent only five years on the throne, but during that time she gained quite a reputation for herself. She is famous for her persecution of her protestant subjects, burning them at the stake (the preferred method of execution by the notorious Spanish Inquisition) in an effort to return the country to Catholicism. In actual fact, she was responsible for far fewer deaths than her father Henry VIII, but later propaganda during her protestant sister Elizabeth I’s reign, muddied her name and magnified her acts of oppression.

Mary had been married to Phillip II Spain, who had attempted to use the union to exercise his own influence over England. After Mary’s death, Philip sent a fleet of ships (the famous Spanish Armada) in an attempt to take control, but was defeated by the English navy. Mary was seen as the catalyst for this renewed threat from Spain and was therefore blamed for the whole sorry matter. That bloody Queen Mary, eh?

Louis the Spider

This one depends on how you feel about spiders really… King Louis XI of France had a love of plotting and intrigue, he had a history of planning and participating in conspiracy, even against his own father Charles VII. After he ascended to the kingship in 1461, his love of scheming continued, he had a network of royal postal roads developed, with messengers at his constant disposal to aid in his intrigues. He earned the names ‘Cunning’ and the ‘Universal Spider’ due to these communication ‘webs’, along with the webs of conspiracy he would spin around Europe.

Harald the Lousy

Sticking with the creepy-crawly theme… Harald Harfagre was the first King of Norway in the 9thC. His byname, ‘Harfagre’ actually means ‘fair haired’ or ‘beautiful haired’, but according to historical sources this wasn’t always the case…

Legend tells us that Harald had previously vowed not to cut his hair until he was the king of Norway. By the time he actually received the crown a decade later, his hair was understandably in quite a state, and home to a fair few skin-itching hitchhikers! It’s no wonder he chose to re-brand after becoming king…

Charles ‘the Bad’ of Navarre

What better place to end than downright bad? Charles’ career was littered with rebellion and assassinations as he fought to gain power from John II, King of France. In his attempt to gain the crown, he even allied himself with the English King Edward III, the ultimate betrayal! But the act that really earnt him the title ‘bad’ was his involvement in the ruthless suppression of the Jacquerie (French peasant) revolt in 1358, where men were slaughtered in their thousands.

Charles was to get his comeuppance however, and his horrific death in 1387 became famous throughout Europe as a divine justice. After Charles became ill, his doctor ordered him to be wrapped head-to-toe in brandy-soaked cloths. When the nurse administering the wrapping had finished, instead of using scissors to cut off the excess fabric, she used a candle to burn off the end. And you can guess what happened next…

Charles the Bad and John the Good