Alexander the Great, Ivan the Terrible, Pedro the Cruel. Many countries in Europe choose to regularly identify their rulers with an adjective, so much so that in Russia it seems that all you had to do was to survive the coronation to earn the appellation “great”. Further west, descriptions tended to be more personal, Charles the Bald, Louis the Fat and Joanna the Mad among those who’ve graced the palaces of Western Europe.
The kings and queens of England have proved relatively immune to this trend, especially after the Saxon kings like Alfred the Great, Æthelread the Unready and Edward the Confessor were displaced by the Normans. Our rulers have tended to be known by number alone – roman numerals to emphasise their elevated status. So Henry VIII is the name that is recorded in the history books, not Henry the Wifekiller. The truly great royals are noted in other ways; such as the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award.
However, this is not the full story and many of our Kings and Queens did have contemporary nicknames based upon their personal, often sexual, peccadilloes that censorious historians, mindful of the impressionable minds of their young students, sought to suppress. They have been remarkably successful in this endeavour, with only the most evocative descriptions – like Richard Lionheart – remaining in popular consciousness, and then only distorted from its origins.
Now the true story is revealed.
Traditional history often refers to William I as William the Conqueror, after he defeated Harold Godwinson in 1066 to claim the English crown. Before he managed this he was frequently dubbed William the Bastard, ostensibly in reference to his parentage.
However, this is another instance of historians trying to cover up some of the less salubrious aspects of the past. In fact William’s nicknames were respectively bestowed upon him by men, in admiration and envy of his numerous romantic conquests and the women who he left in his wake.
On his death William’s territories were divided between his sons, Robert Curthose (so known because of his remarkably small penis) got the prized position of Duke of Normandy, William the lesser prize of the English Crown.
William was nicknamed Rufus. Again, historians have glossed over the real background for this by suggesting that this was due to his red face. However, as florid as Will was, again the real origins of this suffix lay in his sexual behaviour. William’s homosexual tendencies were deeply unpopular among the Norman nobility, accustomed more to his fathers rampant womanising. They would taunt him by adding to his name that of whichever strapping lad was rumoured to be the subject of William’s attentions. By the far the most popular and enduring rumour linked William a man named “Rufus”, and so William Rufus was the name that persisted in history.
William’s unpopularity came to an abrupt end with his death in a hunting “accident” in the New Forest, and to this day huntsmen still try to cull homosexuals as avidly as foxes.
William was succeeded by his younger brother, Henry I nicknamed Beauclerc allegedly for being a great scholar. In an age where Kings tended to be more noted for their prowess at hunting and feasting than by whether their subscription to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was up to date, it is possible that even Henry’s meagre scholastic abilities might have stood out.
As usual, though, there is another side to the story. What Henry’s sobriquet reveals is that his beau was a clerk, and all the fancy reading and writing he did was because he undertook extra tuition in order to spend more time with his fancy without attracting undue suspicion.
Henry’s own son died tragically at sea, and so he was succeeded by his cousin, Stephen, the Duc de Blois. No nickname has survived for Stephen, which was a deliberate snub from the Norman barons who deprecated his often unsuccessful attempts to fight his rival for the throne, a mere woman, Mathilda – daughter of Henry. Even worse was his decision to name his son Eustace, which even in the 12th century was recognised as an irredeemably naff name.
Ashamed of his failure to acquire a memorable nickname, Stephen had no choice but to nominate as his successor Henry Plantagenet who duly became Henry II. Henry was known by the nickname Curtmantle. Henry’s curtness was pronounced and manifested itself in various directions, towards the Irish, French, turbulent priests and so on. However, the name actually refers to the length of his robe. Rather implausibly, it’s been mooted that this was due to his introducing a new style of dress into England, but this is of course ridiculous. Instead it became notorious because Henry wore it to facilitate his frequent forays into indecent exposure.
Henry was succeeded by Richard Lionheart. Ostensibly due to his bravery, this name was bestowed upon Rich because of his boundless love for the King of the Jungle. While some more salacious historians have imputed a sexual motive to this affection, the historical evidence suggests that it was purely a platonic infatuation and that Richard’s greatest pleasure was, like many a contemporary David Attenborough viewer, to watch a lioness on the prowl or the adorable playfulness of the cubs.
Unfortunately however, medieval England was not well provided for with lions, so Richard resolved on going abroad to get some. Taking advantage of his naivety, the Papacy told him that there were loads of lions in the Holy Land, and thus tricked Richard into joining the Third Crusade. Inspired by this Richard fought heroically, but was unable to find any lions. Not put off by this, Richard continued his safari expeditions in France, until he was killed in the Limousin, which due to his undiagnosed dyslexia he had read as Lionmusi or “Lion museum”.
Richard was replaced on the throne by John “Lackland”. Historical orthodoxy has attributed this, rather prosaically, as a reference to all the lands in France that were lost by the English crown during John’s reign. What must be remembered though is that the medieval kings of England all spoke French as their first language, and that “Lackland” represents a basic phonetic translation of “Lac Londres” or London Lake. This was because it was John’s habit when aggravated by the various annoyances that plagued his reign – barons, relatives, merrie men – of ordering that they should be thrown into the Serpentine.
The next on the throne was Henry III, who like Stephen did not manage to produce a lasting nickname, and again this was due to popular derision. While it was bad enough that Stephen was sometimes bested by a woman, Henry managed to find himself imprisoned by the forces of Simon de Montfort, who had no royal blood whatsoever.
Fortunately for the good name of the English monarchy, the next king was Edward I, whose deeds were much more regal, slaughtering the Welsh and the Scots in particular. He was commonly known as Longshanks, which some historians have taken to suggest that he was particularly tall. However, the reverse is true and the “shanks” refers not to his legs but to the stilts he wore in public to try and compensate for his near-comical lack of inches.
Edward I however represents the last in line of English kings with memorable nicknames. The fact that his son, Edward II didn’t acquire one despite providing ample material for it is a clear indication that the English court had given up on the idea, and left it for those dastardly continentals. Plenty of the undistinguished blue-bloods who have occupied the throne since then have reason to be grateful that their foibles were not to be immortalised with them.