Most of us have heard of William the Conqueror and Richard the Lionhearted, the respective nicknames of William I and Richard I of England. Known to the grammarian set as cognomens, these nicknames are formed by attaching an adjective or noun before or after a person’s name, bestowing upon the individual a snappy epitaph, no tombstone required.
History is peppered with a number of familiar cognomens; Vlad the Impaler and Attila the Hun come to mind. But there are plenty of names that have been lost to obscurity over time. We don’t hear much about Vladislaw the Elbow-High (Wladyslaw I of Poland) or Bermudo the Gouty (Bermudo II of León) anymore. Alas, the conjuring of cognomens seems to be a dying art.
With that in mind, we thought we’d take a look at some of the more curious nicknames from centuries past — the following all courtesy of Britain's famed royalty.
1. Ethelred the Unready: Ethelred II of England (968-1016)
As if "Ethelred" wasn’t bad enough, his equally awkward epithet is actually a poor translation of the Old English "unræd," meaning bad-counsel. Rather than describing the quality of his rule, the name that stuck actually refers to the poor quality of advice which he received throughout his reign. History can be cruel.
2. Edward the Confessor: Anglo-Saxon king of England (1003-1066)
Edward the Confessor was the first Anglo-Saxon and the only king of England to be canonized; he was called "the Confessor" not for divulging salacious details about his goings on, but as was the custom for someone who was believed to have lived a saintly life.
3. Harold the Harefoot: Harold I of England (1015-1040)
While having your eternal cognomen be derived from the body part of a burrowing mammal may not seem all that positive, Harold I earned that nickname because of his speed and talent in hunting.
4. William the Bastard: William I of England (1028-1087)
William I may be best known as William the Conqueror, but lo and behold, the first Norman King of England was a "bastard" as well; he was the son of the unmarried Robert I, Duke of Normandy, by his mistress Herleva.
5. Henry Curtmantle: Henry II of England (1133-1189)
Described as an energetic and sometimes ruthless ruler, Henry II nonetheless ended up with a relatively insipid nickname, which doesn’t call to mind to any of his virtues but rather his choice of cloak. Curtmantle refers to the form of robe he wore, which was shorter than that of his predecessors.
6. Edward the Hammer, aka Edward Longshanks: Edward I of England (1239-1307)
Edward I was a tall man for the time, his long legs earning him the nickname of "Longshanks.” He was also a temperamental and intimidating man; the “hammer” referring to his insistent and punishing campaigns against the Scots.
7. Bloody Mary: Mary I of England (1516-1558)
The only child produced during the ill-fated marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, Mary I was the first queen to rule England in her own right. She earned her sobriquet, Bloody Mary, for her persecution of Protestants in an attempt to restore Roman Catholicism in England.
8. William the Sailor King: William IV of the United Kingdom (1765-1837)
The last king of Britain's House of Hanover, William IV garnered his nickname for his service in the Royal Navy. Although upon the time of his death he was survived by eight of his 10 illegitimate children (a mother in every port?) he had no legitimate heirs to the throne, paving the way for his niece, Victoria, to be crowned Queen.
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