The politically incorrect guide to historical nicknames

I have recently been reading The Good, the Bad and the Unready, a look at “the vainglorious, unfortunate and sometimes downright insulting names that pepper the history books.” The author of the book, Revd Robert Easton (childhood nickname Ridiculous Robert) has spent years gathering together the best and worst nicknames given to the rich and powerful over the centuries, and The Good, the Bad and the Unready is the result of this labour of love. He looks at such figures as Charles the Silly, Fulk the Surly, Hugh the Dull, Malcolm the Maiden, Olaf the Slippery, Pepin the Hunchback, Peter the Ceremonious or Wenceslas the Worthless. Here is a selection from the book, supplemented with other stuff I found online:

VLAD THE IMPALER

This has got to be one of my “favourites”. It’s a name that intimidates you. Living in the middle of the fifteenth century in the province of Wallachia in southern Romania, which at the time was a vassal under Turkish suzerainty. It was a brutal time and Vlad, who called himself ‘Dracula’, meaning ‘Son of the Dragon’, was the most bloodthirsty prince of all. He ruled the province three times. The six years of his principal reign, between 1456 and 1462, mainly involved fighting the Turkish forces of Mehmed the Conqueror and constantly crushing rebellions by the Saxon citizens of Brasov. During this period he allegedly put 20,000 people to death.  He was ruthless in his determination to remain in power. Easton describes his methods:

 He loved to watch people being boiled alive in copper cauldrons. He delighted in peeling the skin off the feet of Turkish prisoners, covering their wounds with salt and then bringing goats to lick their soles. Once, some Ottoman ambassadors refused to remove their turbans as a sign of respect for him, so he had their turbans nailed to their heads.

But it was for impaling that he was notorious. The mechanics of impalement are not for the squeamish. A sharp stake is thrust through the victim’s rectum, and then forced through the body, emerging either through the eye or throat. The stake is then planted in the ground, leaving the victim to die in agony. Vlad is said to have impaled some 100,000 people in his lifetime. Although this figure is surely an exaggeration, he was one of the crueller rulers in this book. Once again truth outdoes fiction and the life of Vlad is far more chilling than anything Bram Stoker managed to think up.

JOAN THE MAD (JUANA LA LOCA)

The wife of Philip I, king of Castile, certainly lived up to her name. When she met her husband-to-be, Philip the Beautiful (Felipe el Hermoso), it was love at first sight. They immediately summoned a priest to marry them on the spot. As Easton describes it, the declaration of their union had barely left the minister’s lips before the couple raced into the royal bedchamber to consummate their marriage. However Phil was an incorrigible womanizer with a bevy of mistresses. When he died still in his twenties, Joan simply went completely and utterly insane never going anywhere without her husband’s corpse. She would be confined to a nunnery for the rest of her life.

EDWARD I, KING OF ENGLAND, THE HAMMER OF THE SCOTS

In Flower of Scotland the Scots like to sing about the lesson they gave to Edward II at Bannockburn:

Those days are past now

And in the past they must remain

But we can still rise now

And be the nation again

That stood against him

Proud Edward’s Army

And sent him homeward,

Tae think again.

But with his father it was a different story. This is where he acquired his nickname. If he were around today, he would surely make short shrift of Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon and their ilk.

LADY WU THE POISONER

Compared to Lady Wu, Livia, the wife of the emperor Augustus was Mother Theresa of Calcutta. Arriving at the court of the Tang dynasty in 638 she joined the ranks of junior concubines. She was just 13. Yet, her insatiable imperial ambition led her to reach the heights of the Tang dynasty. She began by strangling her own baby and framing a rival for the murder. She was then able to wu the new emperor, Kao Tsung, eventually becoming his favourite concubine. However this was not enough for Wu, who wanted more than being a mistress. She would not stop at anything including:

  • poisoning a sister, a niece and a son
  • forcing another son to hang himself
  • having four grandchildren whipped to death
  • ordering the execution of two stepsons, and sixteen of their male heirs
  • killing four daughters-in-law, one by starvation
  • executing 36 government officials and generals
  • overseen the slaughter of 3,000 families.

After getting to the throne in 660 the new empress set about exacting revenge on her opponents. The former empress Wang and the senior concubine were singled out for special treatment, being flogged, dismembered and then tossed into a vat full of wine to die. As the emperor was frequently ill she was the real power in China. She is actually said to have been a skilled ruler, bringing peace and prosperity to the country.

MAGNUS BARELEGS

After a visit to his Scottish territories in 1098, Magnus was so impressed by the native attire that he decided to copy it after getting back to Norway. He would often be seen, of an evening in Trondheim, in full Highland garb– kilt, sporran, the works. His subjects, impressed by the manliness of being so scantily clad in Scandinavian climes, gave him the abovementioned nickname. In a visit to the Isles fifteen years later, he wasn’t so lucky; he lost his life in a skirmish while foraging for food in a bog, his bare legs knee deep in mud.

ANNE OF CLEVES, THE FLANDERS MARE

On New Year’s Day 1540 King Henry VIII set off to Rochester to see the woman who was to be his fourth wife. Having seen Hans Holbein’s painting of Anne of Cleves, Henry was eager to meet his new bride in the flesh. Unfortunately the woman he saw bore no resemblance to Holbein’s portrait and Henry saw a distinctly equine appearance, giving rise to the Flanders Mare epithet. Henry did actually marry Anne although the relationship was not consummated. In fact, she was probably lucky to be divorced. Henry’s settlement was generous – he provided her with two houses, a substantial retinue and £500 a year. Indeed she would outlive both Henry and his last wife, Catherine Parr. The minister who made the match, Thomas Cromwell, of Wolf Hall fame, was not so fortunate – he was beheaded just six months after the meeting.

FYODOR THE BELLRINGER

In 1584 the 27-year-old Fyodor I was crowned Tsar of Russia. He was the unlikely son of Czar Ivan IV, better known as Ivan “The Terrible”, (or “The Awesome” as he is known in California). In English he is generally known as Fyodor the Bellringer due to his strong faith and inclination to travel around Russia ringing the bells at churches. However, in Russian the name “Bellringer” is hardly ever used. His reign was not a happy one. He was apparently as they used to say at my school a bit of a bungalow – not much on top. He was the ruler of Russia in name only; his duties were carried out by his wife’s brother and trusted minister Boris Godunov. As Fyodor died childless it was Godunov who would later succeed Fyodor as Czar. Fyodor was the last of Rurikid dynasty and Russia would into the catastrophic Time of Troubles.

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