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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

60 of History’s Strangest Royal Epithets

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Some figures from history lead such remarkable (or notorious) lives that they earn themselves an epithet that remains in use long after their death. More often than not these nicknames are used either to encapsulate a leader’s personality or appearance, or else to sum up the events or legacy of their time in power—but either way, there’s no guarantee it will be complimentary. In fact for every Catherine the Great there’s an Ivan the Terrible. For every William the Conqueror there’s a Vlad the Impaler. And for every Richard the Lionheart there’s an Albert the Peculiar. Sixty of the most bizarre—and in some cases the most unflattering—epithets from history are listed here.

1. ALBERT THE PECULIAR was Duke of Austria from 1395-1404. He was also called “Albert the Patient,” and “Albert the Wonderful.”

2. ALBERT WITH THE PIGTAIL was the father of Albert the Peculiar, and Duke of Austria from 1365-95.

3. ALEXANDER THE POTBELLY was Prince of Suzdal, in western Russia, from 1414-17. Other holders of the same title included “George Longarm,” and “John the Strongbow.”

4. ALFONSO THE DISINHERITED was too young to take the throne when his father Crown Prince Ferdinand of Castile died in 1275, and so instead he was taken into the care of his grandmother. Nine years later the vacant throne was claimed by a usurper, and Alfonso was left with no choice than to renounce all of his family’s claims before he was even old enough to rule.

5. ALFONSO THE SLOBBERER was King of Galicia from 1188-1230. He apparently earned his nickname because he foamed at the mouth when enraged.

6. ANNE, THE QUEEN OF BEES, aka Anne Louise Bénédicte, was Duchess of Maine in France from 1692-1736. She became known as “Queen of Bees” after founding her own chivalric order, The Order of the Honey Bee, in 1703.

7. ANTIGONUS THE ONE-EYED was a close friend of Alexander the Great, who made him ruler of Phrygia in the 4th century BC. He lost one of his eyes in battle defending his kingdom from a brutal attack by Persia.

8. ARCHIBALD THE GRIM was the 3rd Earl of Douglas and Lord of Galloway, Scotland, from the mid 1300s until his death in 1400.

9. ARCHIBALD THE LOSER was the son of Archibald the Grim, who served as 4th Earl of Douglas from his father’s death until his own death in battle in France in 1424.

10. BERENGUER-RAMON THE FRATRICIDE was an 11th century Count of Barcelona who earned his unappealing nickname when rumors began to circulate that he had been involved in his twin brother’s death in a hunting accident in 1082.

11. BERNARD THE HAIRY-FOOTED was a 9th century Count of Auvergne. If not a genuine reference to his feet, his nickname might instead have been inspired by some family crest or emblem.

12. BOLESŁAW THE WRY-MOUTHED was Crown Prince of Poland from 1102-38. Bolesław “had a mouth slightly bent on one side,” according to one 15th century description, although “this did not mar his face, and even added some charm to it.”

13. BOLKO THE STRICT was a 13th century Prince of Germany. His father was Bolesław the Bald, and his brother was Bernard the Lightsome.

14. BROCHWEL THE FANGED, or Brochwel Ysgrithrog, was a 6th century ruler of Powys in central Wales. His epithet ysgrithog means “fanged” or “tusked,” and probably refers either to his large or prominent teeth, or to his aggressive, short-tempered personality.

15. BURMUDO THE GOUTY, King of Léon from 984-999, suffered from such a bad case of gout towards the end of his life that he couldn’t ride his horse and had to be carried everywhere by his courtiers.

16. CADAFAEL THE BATTLE-DECLINER was ruler of the Welsh Kingdom of Gwynedd from 634-56. He earned the nickname “Battle-Decliner” by abandoning his ally, Penda of Mercia, the day before a decisive battle against the Kingdom of Northumbria in the mid 7th century.

17. CHARLES THE FAT—aka the 9th century Holy Roman Emperor Charles III—is just one of a number of ancient rulers known by the epithet “the Fat,” along with Alfonso I of Portugal, Conan III of Brittany, and Henry I of Navarre.

18. CHILDERIC THE IDIOT was King of the Franks from 743-751. No one is quite sure what he did to earn the epithet “the Idiot,” but seeing as he ended his reign by being deposed and consigned to a monastery, it may be nothing more than an attempt by his successors to tarnish his name.

19. COLOMAN THE BOOK-LOVER, or Coloman The Learned, was king of Hungary from 1095-1116.

20. CONOMOR THE ACCURSED was a 6th century leader of Brittany. He was such a notoriously violent and temperamental ruler that some of his subjects apparently believed he was a werewolf.

21. CONSTANTINE THE DUNG-NAMED was the nickname of Constantine V, the Byzantine Emperor from 741-55. The Latin epithet Copronymus, “dung-named,” was unsurprisingly bestowed on him by his many enemies.

22. DOMNALL THE SPECKLED was the freckle-faced ruler of Argyll in Scotland from 629-42. He’s also a distant ancestor of Kate Middleton.

23. ERIK THE PRIEST-HATER, aka King Erik II of Norway, earned his nickname as his reign from 1280-99 was characterized by a persistently fraught relationship with the Church.

24. ERIK THE SHORT-CHANGER was Erik V, King of Denmark from 1259-1286. He was widely known at the time as Klipping, a Danish epithet referring to the medieval practice of “clipping” coins to devalue them.

25. EYSTEIN THE FART, Eystein Halfdansson, was an 8th century king of Norway. The epithet “Fart” is usually taken to mean that he was a busybody or loudmouth, although no definitive explanation has yet been found.

26. FEODOR THE BELLRINGER was one of the sons of Ivan the Terrible and Tsar of Russia from 1584-98. His nickname “Bellringer” is thought to be a reference to his strong Orthodox faith, but there are numerous folktales of him traveling across Russia ringing bells in every church he came across.

27. FERDINAND THE BOMB was King Ferdinand II of the Two Sicilies, who ruled from 1830-59. He earned the Italian epithet re bomba, “The Bomb King,” when he ordered the shelling of a Sicilian town believed to be a stronghold of antimonarchist separatists, despite its large civilian population, in 1848.

28. FERDINAND THE FICKLE was king of Portugal from 1367 until his death in 1383. Also known as Ferdinand The Handsome, he was the son of Peter The Cruel and grandson of Alfonso The Brave.

29. FREDERICK THE BITTEN was apparently bitten on the cheek by his mother when he was just a baby. He served as Margrave (a medieval title equivalent to marquis) of Meissen in Germany from 1291-1323.

30. FRUELA THE LEPROUS was king of Asturias in northern Spain from 910 until his death from leprosy in 925.

31. GARCÍA THE TREMBLER, García Sánchez II, was king of Pamplona in Spain from 994-1004. According to one account, “though a man of tried courage, he never prepared for battle without visibly trembling from head to foot.”

32. HAAKON THE CRAZY was a Norwegian earl who died in 1214. The epithet “the Crazy” doesn’t mean “mad” or “foolish” but rather “wild or “frenzied,” and probably refers to his fighting technique.

33. HALFDAN THE BAD ENTERTAINER, also known as King Halfdan the Mild, was the son of Eystein the Fart. His nickname apparently refers to his habit of paying his soldiers generously, but providing them with little food or entertainment.

34. HARALD THE LOUSY ruled Norway as King Harald I for almost 50 years from 872-930. He is better known as “Harald Fairhair,” but is also referred to as “Harald Tanglehair” and “Harald the Shockhead.”

35. HENRY THE IMPOTENT was king of Castile from 1454-74. His nickname probably refers to his disastrously ineffectual reign, although some accounts have since suggested that Henry was genuinely impotent, if not secretly homosexual.

36. IVAYLO THE CABBAGE, also known as “Ivaylo the Swineherd,” was a Bulgarian farmer who led a peasants’ revolt in the late 13th century and proclaimed himself Emperor of Bulgaria in 1278. He was overthrown the following year and assassinated.

37. IVAR THE BONELESS was a 9th century Viking leader. Although some accounts claim his nickname was a reference to impotence, a more likely theory is that he was an incredibly swift fighter and was able to move quickly and effortlessly in battle.

38. JOAN THE LAME ruled as Queen of France while her husband, Philip IV, fought in battles during the Hundred Years’ War. Fiercely intelligent yet ruthless and austere, by all accounts she was hugely unpopular among the French people, who apparently saw her physical deformity—probably nothing more than a curvature of her spine—as a mark of the Devil.

39. JOHN THE MAD, Count of Rietberg in Germany from 1552-62, earned his nickname became of his violent and confrontational character.

40. JUSTINIAN THE SLIT-NOSED was a tyrannical Byzantine Emperor who was deposed in a rebellion in 695 and had his nose sliced off as a punishment by his usurpers. When he reclaimed the throne in 705, he had the nose replaced with a solid gold replica. He remained in power 711, when he was again overthrown and eventually killed in battle by his own soldiers.

41. LLYWELYN THE LUXURIOUS was a 14th century Welsh prince. Quite how he earned his lavish nickname is sadly unknown.

42. LOUIS THE DEBONAIRE succeeded his father Charlemagne to become Holy Roman Emperor in 814 and ruled until his death in 840.

43. LOUIS THE GOOD-FOR-NOTHING was King Louis V of France, who reigned for just one year and died with no heir to succeed him in 987. Medieval historians called him qui nihil fecit—or “he who did nothing.”

44. LOUIS THE STAMMERER was King Louis II of France, the great-great-grandfather of Louis the Good-for-Nothing. He reigned for just two years from 877-879.

45. LOUIS THE UNAVOIDABLE was the nickname of Louis XVIII of France, who spent much of his reign in the late 1700s and early 1800s either in prison or in exile during the French Revolution. When Napoleon was finally defeated in 1815, Louis was the “unavoidable” choice to return and reclaim the throne.

46. MANUEL THE SAUSAGE-MAKER was Count Manuel Francisco Domingo Godoy, Prime Minister of Spain from 1792-1797 and 1801-1809. Born in an area of central Spain known for producing sausages, Godoy’s epithet is probably also a crude reference to his long-term affair with the Spanish Queen, Maria Luisa.

47. MICHAEL THE CAULKER was the Byzantine Emperor Michael V, whose father – before becoming an admiral in the Byzantine navy – had been a professional caulker, employed to ensure that ships were unfailingly watertight. Michael reigned for just four months from 1041-1042, until he was deposed, arrested, blinded, castrated, and imprisoned in a monastery.

48. OLAF THE TITBIT was king of the Isle of Man from 1112-1143. His Norse epithet bitlingr, meaning something like “titbit” or “morsel,” was predictably a reference to his height.

49. PEPIN THE SHORT was the father of the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne and King of the Franks from 751-768.

50. PIERO THE UNFORTUNATE was ruler of Florence for two years from 1492-1494. Abandoning an alliance with France in favor of one with Naples, Piero lost control of the city when the French invaded, then was ousted from power when the people revolted and plundered the Medici Palace. As if that weren’t unfortunate enough, he eventually drowned crossing a river while fleeing from a battle in 1503.

51. RHYS THE HOARSE was a 13th century Welsh prince, known as a fierce warrior who played several other leaders against each other in order to further his own interests.

52. SANCHO THE CAPED is said to have gained his nickname from his habit of wearing a capelo or leather-trimmed cape as a child. He ruled as King Sancho II of Portugal from 1223-1247.

53. ULICK OF-THE-HEADS, aka Ulick Burke MacWilliam, was a 16th century Irish earl. He earned the Gaelic nickname ­na-gCeann, meaning “of the heads,” by collecting together all of the heads of his enemies' soldiers who had died in battle.

54. VASILY THE CROSS-EYED was Grand Prince of Moscow from 1434 until he was overthrown the following year by an alliance of forces loyal to his brother Dmitry and his cousin, Vasily II. He was subsequently blinded and banished from the Kremlin.

55. VSEVOLOD THE BIG NEST was Grand Prince of Vladimir in eastern Russia from 1177-1212. The nickname “Big Nest” is a reference to his family – he and his wife Maria had at least fourteen children.

56. WILFRED THE HAIRY was a 9th century Catalan nobleman and Count of Barcelona. According one medieval description of him, Wilfred was “hairy in places not normally so in men.”

57. WILLIAM THE BASTARD is the less well known nickname of William the Conqueror, the illegitimate son of the Duke of Normandy who led the Norman Conquest of England in 1066.

58. WILLIAM THE SILENT was Prince William I of Orange, ruler of the Netherlands from 1544-1584. His nickname apparently derives from an anecdote in which, while on a stag-hunt with the King of France, William remained so silent that the French king unknowingly explained all of the details of a secret pact with Spain, presuming that William knew all about it. The Dutch national anthem, Wilhelmus—the world’s oldest—is dedicated to him.

59. WŁADYSŁAW THE ELBOW-HIGH was the short-statured king of Poland from 1320 until his death in 1333.

60. ZENO THE HERMIT was a courtier of the Roman Emperor Valens from 364 until the Emperor’s death in 378, when he retired to a cave near Antioch in southern Turkey. He remained there in total isolation until his death, 36 years later.

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A Very Brief History of Chamber Pots

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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