Medieval kings and rulers often got nicknames. If you were lucky, you would be called the Good, the Great, or the Hammer – honourable mention goes to John II, Duke of Cleves, who was nicknamed the Babymaker for having fathered 63 illegitimate children). Those monarchs who didn’t perform as well might get the name the Bad, the Cruel, or the Mad.
However, a few men from the Middle Ages had rather unusual nicknames, and probably ones they really didn’t want. Here is our list of the top ten oddest nicknames given to medieval rulers.
Alfonso IX, King of León and Galicia (1188-1230), was a fairly successful ruler in the northern part of Iberia, managing to stay on the throne for 42 years. However, the North African scholar Ibn Khaldun noted that he was called Baboso or the Slobberer because he would foam at the mouth whenever he got upset.
One of the great Viking leaders of the ninth century, Ivar and his brothers commanded the Great Heathen Army that invaded England in 865 and eventually established Viking rule over much of the country. The sagas and chronicles about him give very different reasons for how he got the name Boneless: one poem even states he had no bones at all! In other accounts it was said that his men carried Ivar on a shield, which has led some historians to speculate he suffered from a genetic disease where he had brittle bones, or that he had lost use of his legs.
Softsword and Lackland
King John I of England (1199-1216) is considered one of the least successful monarchs of his country (which is probably why there has not yet been a John II). When his brother Richard the Lionheart died in 1199, John inherited a powerful Angevin empire. Within a few years, he was completely driven out of Normandy by the French, and would soon be facing upheaval in England. His lack of military success earned him the nickname ‘Softsword’ from English chroniclers. Years before he became king, however, John’s own father Henry II gave him the nickname ‘Lackland’ when he realized this son would not be getting much of an inheritance compared to his older brothers.
Bermudo II was another King of León and Galicia, ruling from 982 to 999. His campaigns against al-Andalus had some initial success, he eventually found himself on the losing end of his wars. Perhaps it was because he suffered from gout, a medical condition that can cause severe inflammation of the foot, particularly around the big toe. By the last year of his reign, Bermudo’s gout was so severe he could no longer ride on horseback and had to travel around on a litter.
The Name of Shit
Constantine V was the Byzantine emperor from 741 to 775, but his harsh stand against the use of icons in the Christian church earned him many critics. His critics gave him the nickname Kopronymos, which means ‘Name of Shit’, allegedly because when Constantine was an infant he defecated in a baptismal font.
The Poorest Man in France
John II, Duke of Alençon and Count of Perche, was fifteen when he fought at the Battle of Verneuil in 1424. There he was captured by the English and imprisoned for five years. To pay off his ransom of 200,000 saluts d’or, Jean had to sell off all his possessions, while another English lord took control of his duchy. When he was released in 1429, he was called “the poorest man in France”. However, he soon became good friends with Joan of Arc and served as one of her top commanders. Joan gave him a new nickname: The Fair Duke.
Henry IV of Castile ruled the Spanish kingdom from 1454 to 1474, but even before this he was caught in a royal scandal. When he was fifteen, Henry was married to Blanche II of Navarre. Thirteen years later, Henry sought a divorce, stating that they had never consummated the marriage. The Catholic church held a trial, where they confirmed Blanche’s virginity and received testimony from several prostitutes who explained that Henry’s sexual prowess was just fine, except when it came to his wife. The divorce was granted, and Henry married his cousin Joan of Portugal – she bore him one daughter (although later on his subjects had their doubts on whether he was the father) and then Joan spent most of her time having affairs with various lovers.
The Universal Spider
Louis XI, King of France (1461-1483) was an effective ruler of his kingdom, expanding his royal power, often at the expense of his vassals. His supporters nicknamed Louis ‘The Cunning’ and ‘The Prudent’, but for his enemies the French monarch ‘The Universal Spider’ for his ability to spin webs of plots and conspiracies.
Ivaylo was just a simple peasant who worked as a swineherd, but in 1277 he led a rebellion against the Bulgarian monarchy. The Bulgarian emperor Constantine I went to do battle with the peasant army, but he was defeated and killed (supposedly by Ivaylo personally). A year later Ivaylo became the emperor, although his reign lasted until 1279. Ivaylo also had two other nicknames: The Radish and The Cabbage.
Justinian II was the Byzantine Emperor from 685 to 695, and dreamed of conquests and enlarging his empire. However his draconian rule led to an uprising where Justinian was captured and deposed. His captors also cut off his nose, believing this mutilation would make sure that he could never become Emperor again.
However Justinian would regain the Imperial throne in 705 – he paid for an army of Bulgars and Slavs to sneak him into Constantinople by surprise. His second reign (705-711) was marked by Justinian now wearing a golden prosthetic nose and being an even worse tyrant. Eventually the Byzantines rose against him again, and Justinian’s own soldiers seized and beheaded him.
Top Image: King John of England depicted in a 15th-century manuscript. British Library MS Cotton Julius E. IV fol.5