Many of Britain’s most famous monarchs are remembered by some nickname or soubriquet that has either long outlived them, or else has been bestowed on them posthumously by later historians. William I will forever be known as “William The Conqueror.” His red-headed son and successor William II was “William Rufus.” Both Edward VI and Henry VI were known as “The Boy King,” because they were just 9 years old and 9 months old, respectively, when they ascended to the throne. And while Elizabeth I was famously “The Virgin Queen,” her sister Mary I’s brutal treatment of anti-Catholic dissenters led her to become “Bloody Mary.”
But many royal nicknames aren’t quite as straightforward as these. King Henry I, for instance, was known as “Henry Beauclerc,” meaning “good-scholar”—a reference to his good education and love of learning. His grandson, Henry II, was nicknamed “Curtmantle,” apparently for his preference for hunting in short-trimmed jackets. And as well as being called “The King of the Sea” (more on that in a moment), Edward III was just as well known in his time as “Edward The Bankrupt,” after he defaulted on two personal loans in 1340, and thereby bankrupted two wealthy Florentine family banks. The origins of nine more royal nicknames, from the medieval period to the early 20th century, are explained here.
1. ETHELRED II // “THE UNREADY”
Ethelred was probably only around 11 years old when he rose to the English throne after the assassination of his half-brother, Edward, in 978. It was during his lengthy reign, in 1013, that England fell to the Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard, but after Sweyn’s sudden death just 40 days later (he remains the shortest-ruling king in English history), Ethelred was able to regain control and extend his reign by another two years. His peculiar nickname “The Unready” has helped him to become one of the most famous names in early British history—but its meaning isn’t quite as clear as it might seem. Despite popular opinion that it refers to Ethelred being “unprepared” or “unqualified” for battle or for royal life (which, it could be argued, he was), the word unready is actually a misreading of the Anglo-Saxon word unræd, which literally meant “bad-counsel,” or “ill-advised.”
2. RICHARD I // “OC-E-NO”
Richard I is of course much better known as “Richard the Lionheart,” a nickname referring to his well-known reputation as a bold and fearless military leader. But outside of England, Richard was sometimes known as Ricart Oc-E-Non, a nickname literally meaning “yes and no” in Occitan, an ancient Romance language spoken across parts of southern France and northern Spain and Italy. It apparently alluded to the king’s reputation for being straight-talking and uncompromisingly succinct.
3. KING JOHN // “SOFT-SWORD” AND “LACKLAND”
The youngest son of Henry II (and his favorite, after his elder brothers attempted a rebellion in the mid-1170s), John became King of England following the death of Richard I in 1199. During his 17-year reign, he was excommunicated by the Pope, fell back into war with France, lost all of England’s French territories, and in 1215 was forced by his rebellious barons into signing Magna Carta, the 800-year-old document that limited royal power in England. For all of this, John’s reign is seen by many as one of the most calamitous in history—while his two nicknames, “Soft-Sword” and “Lackland,” allude to his disastrous military record and his equally disastrous loss of crown territory.
4. EDWARD I // “LONGSHANKS”
By far King Edward I’s most famous nickname is “The Hammer of the Scots,” a title referring to the numerous battles and uprisings he faced north of the border during his long reign, from 1272 to 1307. In fact, the title is so famous that it was added in Latin to the inscription on his tomb in the mid-1500s. Edward’s less familiar nickname, however, is “Longshanks”—a reference to the fact that he stood 6 feet 2 inches tall, a noticeably imposing height for the late 13th century.
5. EDWARD III // “KING OF THE SEA”
Edward I’s grandson, Edward III, became known as the “King of the Sea” for making the establishment of a new and improved English Navy one of the priorities of his 50-year reign, so as to better see off the continuing threat of invasion from France, and to deal with increasing numbers of pirates operating in the Irish Sea. Although later historians have questioned just how accurate this nickname actually is (and credit the calamitous King John with funding a fledgling Royal Navy in the early 1200s), Edward nevertheless made great use of a vast fleet of English ships in the maritime Battle of Sluys in 1340, and eventually retook control of one-quarter of France for the English crown.
6. HENRY VII // “THE ACCOUNTANT” AND “THE HUCKSTER KING”
The founding monarch of England’s Tudor dynasty, Henry VII was as much an astute businessman as he was a royal figurehead. Under his rule, the annual royal income almost tripled to an unprecedented £142,000 (equivalent to more than £90,000,000 or $150,000,000 today) due in part to his shrewd business sense, and in part to his Lord Chancellor John Morton’s increasingly uncompromising tax laws. For all of his economic smarts, Henry VII became known as “Henry The Accountant,” and, for his skillful manipulation of England’s overseas trade, “The Huckster King.”
Henry reportedly liked to manage his own accounts, and oversaw daily updates of the state of the treasury so that by the time of his death in 1509, he had ensured that he left a full treasury behind as his legacy—which his son eventually squandered to the point of almost bankrupting the monarchy.
7. HENRY VIII // “OLD COPPERNOSE”
Henry VIII’s spending was so extravagant (and his on-going military campaigns in Scotland and France were so expensive) that toward the end of his reign he was forced to make several cost-cutting measures in order to make ends meet—and one of the most notable involved cutting the quality of English coinage by mixing the pure silver and gold used to make it with less valuable metals, like copper.
Before this process of “debasing” was introduced, the face value of the coins in circulation in England was often roughly the same as the value of the metal used to make them. But by the end of Henry’s reign in the 1547, in some cases this had decreased to just one-quarter of the face value—in fact, the coins were now so shoddily made that their thin silver coating would often rub off to reveal the cheaper copper underneath. Unfortunately for Henry, this tended to occur on the most prominent part of the emblem of the king’s face stamped on each one, which just so happened to be his “old copper nose.”
8. GEORGE III // “FARMER GEORGE”
Nowadays, King George III has three claims to fame. Firstly, he remains the longest-reigning king in British history, having ruled for just short of 60 years, from October 1760 to January 1820. Secondly, he is “the king who lost America,” as it was during his long reign that the original American colonies gained their independence from Britain. And thirdly, he was the “Mad King George” whose insanity—long attributed to a blood disorder called porphyria, but now claimed by some to be a kind of bipolar disorder—inspired the play and movie The Madness of King George. But George was also a keen agriculturalist, who liked to shun the pomp and ostentatiousness of the royal court to instead spend time on his numerous country estates. And it was this that earned him the nickname “Farmer George.”
9. QUEEN VICTORIA // “THE GRANDMOTHER OF EUROPE”
Queen Victoria had nine children, who in turn gave her no less than 42 grandchildren, many of whom married into other royal households across Europe. But thanks to her eldest son Edward VII’s marriage to Princess Alexandra, the second eldest of Christian IX of Denmark’s six children, there is now only one reigning monarch in all of Europe (King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands) who is not descended from Queen Victoria by blood or by marriage. Ultimately, Queen Victoria is known as “The Grandmother of Europe,” while King Christian is remembered, appropriately enough, as “The Father-in-Law of Europe.”