Many rulers of the medieval era got nicknames, ranging from the Magnificent to the Crazy. Some monarchs even got the title ‘The Great’. What did they do to deserve such an honour? Here is a guide to 20 ‘Great’ medieval rulers, arranged chronologically.
Theoderic, King of the Ostrogoths
The King of Ostrogoths for over fifty years (475–526) he led his people into Italy, conquered the country, and established his own kingdom based out of Ravenna. His reign marked a return to prosperity for much of the Italian peninsula.
Justinian I, Byzantine Emperor
Byzantine emperor from 527 to 565 – his reign saw an attempt to restore the Roman Empire, with military campaigns launched against Persia, North Africa, Italy and Spain. While he is also known for his extensive judicial reforms and for the construction of new buildings, Justinian was almost driven from power by civilian riots in Constantinople, and his reputation among contemporary writers of this period was mixed. See also: “The Great Emperor”: A Motif in Procopius of Caesarea’s Wars
Charlemagne, King of the Franks and Holy Roman Emperor
The name Charlemagne comes from Karolus Magnus, or Charles the Great. He became King of the Franks in 768, and for the next 46 years would build the Carolingian Empire, and become the first Emperor in Western Europe in about three centuries. See also: The Scholar and the King: The story of Alcuin and Charlemagne
Alfred, King of Wessex
English king from 871 to 899 – he successfully defended his kingdom from Viking attacks, promoted education and learning, and instituted legal reforms. Click here to read more about his life and reign.
Alfonso III, King of León, Galicia and Asturias
King of León, Galicia and Asturias from 866 to 910. During his long reign, Alfonso was able to consolidate power over northern Spain and had numerous military victories over Islamic and Christian opponents.
Otto I, Holy Roman Emperor
After becoming King of Germany in 936, Otto would work to establish greater authority over his aristocracy. In 955 he defeated the Magyars at the Battle of Lechfeld, one of the most important battles of the tenth century. Otto followed this victory with the conquest of Italy. In 961 he was crowned the King of Italy, and the following year he became the Holy Roman Emperor. Otto died in 973, having started an era known as the ‘Ottonian Renaissance’.
Vladimir Sviatoslavich, Grand Prince of Kiev
After killing his half-brother, Yaropolk I, Vladimir ruled as Grand Prince of Kiev from 980 to 1015. His conversion to Christianity in 988 was an important moment in the Christianization of Kievan Rus, and he is considered a national symbol by both Ukraine and Russia.
Rajaraja I, King of Anuradhapura and Chola Emperor
Coming to power in the year 985, this ‘King of Kings’ created a naval force that dominated the Indian Ocean. His conquests include much of southern India. Sri Lanka, and the Maldives. Under his administration, the Chola Empire grew wealthy as it took control of maritime trade between East Asia and the Middle East.
Sancho III, King of Pamplona, Count of Aragon
Although he was only about 12 years old when he became the ruler of a very minor kingdom in 1004, Sancho had the ambition to take control of Christian Iberia. He was able to take over the kingdoms of Castile and Leon, as well as the French Duchy of Gascony, and force the Count of Barcelona to be his vassal. By the time of his death in 1035, Sancho was known as ‘rex Hispaniarum’.
Cnut, King of Denmark, England and Norway
Beginning with England in 1016, Cnut was able to gain the crowns of three countries (Denmark in 1018 and Norway in 1028). By the time of his death in 1035, he had established a Scandinavian empire. See also: The Changing Story of Cnut and the Waves
Roger II, King of Sicily
King of Sicily from 1130 to 1154, Roger was able to take over the other Norman-ruled areas of Southern Italy, and successfully defend against an invasion from the Holy Roman Empire. His kingdom would see economic prosperity during his reign, as well as cultural interactions between Normans, Byzantines and Muslims.
Valdemar I, King of Denmark
After nearly being killed by his cousin Sweyn III at the ‘Blood Feast of Roskilde’, Valdemar raised an army and defeated Sweyn at the Battle of Grathe Heath in 1157. He would go on to rule Denmark until 1182, which saw his country becoming a leading force in northern Europe.
Berengaria, Queen of Castile and Toledo and Queen of León
While she only ruled in her own name for a few weeks in the year 1217, Berengaria was a highly skilled leader, especially during the reign of her son Ferdinand III of Castile. As the power behind the throne, she was able to reunite the kingdoms of León and Castile, making it the dominant force in Iberia.
Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, Prince of Wales
Between 1195 and 1240, Llywelyn was the dominant force in Wales. He was able to carve out power for himself against other Welsh leaders as well as against the more powerful English neighbours. Among those to bestow the nickname of ‘The Great’ on Llywelyn was the 13th-century chronicler Matthew Paris.
Peter III, King of Aragon and Valencia, Count of Barcelona and King of Sicily
While his reign was shorter than most of the other monarchs on this list (Peter was King of Aragon and Valencia from 1276 to 1285, and King of Sicily from 1282 to 1285), it was dominated by aggressive military campaigns, including the conquest of southern Italy and destroying a French army that invaded his kingdom in 1284-5.
Casimir III, King of Poland
Despite having come to the throne in 1333 when Poland was considered a weak state, Casimir was able to double the size of his kingdom by the end of his reign in 1370, as well as improve the economy and oversee legal reforms. He also founded the University of Kraków and built Wawel Castle.
Louis I, King of Hungary and Croatia and King of Poland
King of Hungary and Croatia from 1342 to 1382; King of Poland from 1370 to 1382 – All but three years of his forty-year reign was spent in foreign military activities, with his kingdom expanding into the Balkans and gaining strong influence over European affairs. Meanwhile, Hungary itself was relatively peaceful and prosperous, as gold mines made the country and court very wealthy.
Sejong, King of Joseon
Regarded as one of the greatest leaders in Korean history, Sejong held power from 1418 to 1460. Although he had some military success, including defeating Japanese pirates, Sejong’s claim to fame comes from the many reforms he made to government and society during his reign, which includes the promotion of Confucianism, creating a new alphabet, devoting resources to improving science, technology and agriculture, and even improving public welfare.
Ewuare, Oba of Benin
Ewuare overthrew his brother and took control of the city-state of Benin in 1440. For the next 33 years, Ewuare expanded he expanded his territory into other parts of present-day Nigeria, making Benin City one of the wealthiest and most powerful places in late medieval Africa.
Ivan III, Grand Prince of Moscow
The Grand Prince of Moscow from 1462 to 1505. Over his 43-year reign, Ivan was able to triple the size of his kingdom and centralize control over Russia’s many small principalities.
Top Image: The Bust of Charlemagne is a reliquary from around 1350 which is said to contain the top part of Charlemagne’s skull. Photo by Florian B. Gutsch / Wikimedia Commons