Daily Archives: July 9, 2009

Please Don’t Call Me That

Catherine the Great, 1775

Catherine the Great, 1775

Down through the centuries, there have been a handful of rulers whose accomplishments earned them the sobriquet “Great”.  There was Alexander the Great, of course, who was King of Macedonia until he became Alexander the Late in 323 BCE.  Russia had a couple of Greats:  Czar Peter I (died 1725) and Empress Catherine II (d. 1796).  Frederick II of Prussia (d. 1786) is remembered by history as Frederick the Great, causing Frederick III to wonder, “What am I, chopped liver?”

There have been many other monarchs who didn’t get the coveted “Great” attached to their names, and we’re not just talking about having to settle for being called Albert the Average.  It was common practice, particularly in the Middle Ages, to characterize a monarch by his most notable attribute.  That resulted in some unflattering titles.  There was Henry II the Quarrelsome (Duke of Bavaria, d. 995) and Peter I the Cruel (King of Castile, d. 1369).  Philip the Bold (Duke of Burgundy, d. 1404) isn’t so bad, but consider some of the many guys named Charles who have been in charge.  Bear in mind that these are not fictitious; you can look up any of the following in Encyclopedia Britannica.

Charles II the Bald was a king of France (d. 877), and is not to be confused with Charles II the Bad, who was King of Navarre until 1387.  There was Charles III the Fat, a Frankish king who died in 888, and Charles III the Simple, another French king who died in 929.  King Charles VI of France (d. 1422) was apparently a complicated man.  He is sometimes referred to as Charles the Well-Beloved, but is also known as Charles the Mad.  He got the “Mad” designation because he suffered bouts of mental illness which resulted in bizarre behavior; during one such spell he imagined that he was made of glass and would break if he moved.

My favorite not-so-noble name, though, is Ethelred II the Unready.  He was king of the English from 978 to 1016, so his subjects had a long time to evaluate his unreadiness.  Ethelred ascended the throne when his half brother, King Edward the Martyr, was assassinated.  (There was a different Edward the Martyr, incidentally, who had been snuffed a century earlier.)

Anyway, Ethelred the Unready was around ten years old when he became king, and who is ready to lead troops and conduct ribbon-cutting ceremonies at that age?  He’d barely reached puberty when the Danes overran England, so how could he be ready for an invasion of his country when he was having to deal with his first outbreak of acne?

Ethelred the Unready eventually had a son who became king; he was known as Edward the Confessor.  The Confessor part was supposedly due to his piety, but he also had some confessin’ — or at least explainin’ — to do because his ineffectual governance led to the Norman invasion, which resulted in William the Conqueror getting his impressive name.

This all got me wondering what would happen if that custom had persisted, and wasn’t applied only to monarchs but to commoners as well.  Think about it:  If, in addition to your given name, the people who know you added one adjective that they felt summarized your dominant trait — what would you be called?  Marty the Magnificent?  Christine the Chatterbox?  Edwin the Drowsy?  Sharon the Atrocious Speller?  My wife says I’d probably be known as Tom the Punctual.  I suspect I’ve been called worse.

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