Tuesday 13 January 2009

Why Kings Can't Count

Medieval monarchs no doubt hoped history would be kind to them. That history would remember them with a kindly epithet.
Because it so often happened that they shared the same name as other rulers of their line. In France, for example, they tended to be called Philip, or Louis, or Charles. In Castile, they were called Alphonso.

So history needed a way of distinguishing between them. And that way was simple- but not always kind.
They were remembered by an epithet. Charles the Great, Charles the Bald, Charles the Fat, Charles the Simple.

Indeed, an amusing aside of history is the poor King of Castile known as Henry the Impotent. Everybody in Castile knew him as Henry the Impotent. There was no questioning the King was not likely to have children. It was a known fact that the organ he was born with was too malformed to make fathering children possible. Unless it was by immaculate conception. But no one seemed to have the heart to tell King Henry the Impotent what his entire kingdom knew.

So when the Queen gave birth, it was somewhat of an embarrassment. Worse, no one told the poor daughter, who grew up believing herself to be a princess who would one day be Queen of Castile.
One her 'father's' death, she was shunted off to a convent and her aunt Isabella became Queen. She of Ferdinand and Isabella fame.

Perhaps Kings started to realise there was a good way to avoid this fate, because about this time Kings started adopting a practise the popes had long done. Number themselves. Thus Henry the Impotent is saved by history- he is called Henry IV. Alphonso the Slobberer is remembered as Alphonso IX. Louis the Fat becomes Louis VI. Whilst history still remembers the names their people gave them, regnal numbers have saved their dignity. And in this new world, monarchs avoided acquiring epithets in the first place. Henry VIII of England, for example is spared being remembered as Henry the Poxy, or Henry the Angry.

But these numbering systems are often fraught with problems, glitches and in fact, a closer look at the numbering schemes of most countries, reveals a few oddities. There are several reasons for this, but a key one is, they were often backdated and often contained mistakes. Or things that actually don't quite add up. It's worth remembering that when we talk of say, Louis IX of France, he didn't call himself that. Louis XII called himself Louis XII, but he was the first Louis to do so.

I thought it might be amusing to go through some of the oddities of these regnal numbering systems. Because most of them, have their own oddities.

England- England is in the unusual situation of being a few digits short in one royal name. The only country which is, I think. But the fact is, Eleven English Kings have been called Edward. And yet the last one was Edward VIII. The commonest given reason is that we don't number Kings before William I, but no reason for this is ever really given. The actual reason is more complicated. Henry VII was the first King to use a regnal number. But, when numbers were backdated, it was noticed one King of England HAD actually used a number on his coins. The King we call Edward the Third, had actually called himself that. But, he wasn't saying he was the third King of England called Edward. He knew he was the sixth. What he meant was, he was the third SUCCESSIVE King called Edward. The third in a line of Edwards. And he kind of confused everybody ever after, who followed his own bizarre numbering scheme.

Scotland- Scotland does have flaws, depending on what scheme you use. Not of course, that it matters in Scotland's case. But one will find variations in the way the earlier kings are numbered. this is because earlier schemes included a whole series of mythical and legendary kings who were supposed to have reigned from the time of Alexander the Great until Kenneth McAlpin in the eight century. Modern schemes ignore them, and thus the brother of Malcolm III, is Donald III. But some schemes list him as Donald VII.

France- Aside from the obvious fact that Louis XVII never reigned and nor really did Napoleon II, France has the fact that one of its Kings was removed from the record as well. A Forgotten Charles X reigned after Henry III, but was removed from the record by Henry IV. And thus the next Charles, is Charles X again. Otherwise, there are problems in the early numbering as well. The Merovingian Kings aren't included, and France starts with the Carolingians. But quite who the first two Charleses were, is open to interpretation. Either Charles the Great and Charles the Bald, or Charles the Bald and Charles the Fat. But opinions vary.

Spain- The most obvious issue, is that the numbering starts right back with Pelayo of Asturias, who ruled the tiny sliver of Spain that the Moors DIDN'T conquer. And as his kingdom expanded, it often got partitioned between descendants. So the numbering system doesn't follow a straight line. It was backdated by the Kings of Castile and Leon to include their predecessors, but at one point the two kingdoms were divided having separate monarchs. Yet the Kings of both are included in the same numbering system. Henry I was ONLY king in Castile. Ferdinand III was ONLY King in Leon. Alphonso VIII and Alphonso IX ruled at roughly the same time, in separate kingdoms. The sequence is not continuous. It is the result of being backdated. I doubt Alphonso IX would have chosen to take the number following a contemporary King of another kingdom.

The Popes- Plenty of errors here. Not all of these are serious- merely that Popes who once were counted, are now classed as illegitimate and so shouldn't really be included, but are. Benedict X and Boniface VII are the obvious ones. But the most glaring is the fact that there is a John XIX and a John XXI, but no John XX. Confused? Well, the answer is more confusing still. It isn't John XX that's missing. We have to call John XXI, John XXI, because that's what he called himself. His predecessor Johns hadn't started numbering themselves, so we can number them correctly. But John XXI treated John XIX as John XX. And John XVIII as John XIX. The problem lies further back, when someone made a scribal error and thought that a John who'd been deposed was a different Pope to the same John being described as dieing months later. And so a John XV that never existed got invented.

Denmark- A similar problem to Scotland. Earlier numbering systems add the legendary Kings of Denmark. Thus Harald III is Harald VIII in some versions.

Sweden- Again, same problem as Scotland and Denmark. Except in the case of Sweden, it isn't rectifiable. It doesn't matter in the case of Scotland or Denmark, because the names in question, weren't used in modern times. But in Sweden, they have been. The current King is Carl XVI. But the first six were the products of the fertile minds of early historians and never existed. The name Eric is in the same boat- the last one was Eric XIV, but seven Erics belong to myth.

Poland- This has one of the more interesting oddities. The apparent lack of an Augustus I. And the answer really is bizarre. It turns out that the King called Sigismund II Augustus ALSO counts as Augustus I. Go figure.

These really are only a small sample of the confused numbering systems in existence for monarchies across the world. In fact, they're merely the ones that spring to mind.
But they really do represent the tip of the iceberg.

But I'll leave you with one last oddity.

The next Spanish King called Juan, will be Juan IV.
It's true.

And yet, you won't find a Juan III in the history books. So why will the next Juan be Juan IV?

The reason is that in 1947, Franco declared Spain to be a Kingdom again. The thing was, he couldn't decide who should be King. Whether it should be the Carlist heir, Prince Xavier, or the Alphonsist heir, Prince Juan. He didn't much care for Juan, and when Juan agreed to renounce his claim in favour of his son, Juan Carlos, Franco decided that he would decide in Favour of Juan Carlos.

So technically, although Juan Carlos didn't ACTUALLY become King until Franco's death, seeing as he was the legitimate King, and Spain was a Kingdom in strict legal terms, his reign started when his father renounced the throne. And accordingly, his father actually was Juan III from 1947 to 1969. He is buried next to his ancestors with 'Juan III' on his tomb.

An entire backdated reign.

Curious things, these Kings.


Anonymous said...

Hey, how are you doing?

Anonymous said...

All the Kings of Albania were called Zog... this is true by the way.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this..monarchy is a strange thing. I am really into reading About gings on in renaissance times, but the names can be confusing. One of my faves is Lucretia Borgia...I am at the moment about to read the likely fluffy/trashy? "The Cronicles of Diana" by Tina Brown...juicy!

Anonymous said...

Blimey. Let's go back to the Original way of doing it.

Prince Charles - The Gt. Pretender (but only before and after his marriage). Ooh and I DO know he isn't a Queen quite yet, even though he plays with Sooty.

Anonymous said...

I agreed with Mugged, the old way is much more fun. Your current one could be Elizabeth The Grumpy and your next one, Charles The Silly, oh and his sons, what options there are there.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this post. Royal histories are so full of secret twists and turns its a wonder we believe any of it.
My family roots (on my mom's side) are traced back to England's Edgar The Unready...but when I make a stupid mistake - I feel more like its Eddie The Idiot...

Anonymous said...

Don't they argue that they count English kings and Queens from when they were kings of all of England, not just bits of it.

Then there is the matter of James I of England having two number sequences in separate counts. An English one and a Scottish one and technically I guess subsequent to him also.

Anonymous said...

I like the old way better too. Lets go back to it. It gives you much more of an insight into what the people really thought of their monarch!

What would our recent and present monarchs be know as I wonder?

Anonymous said...

So what should we have called George Bush?

And now Obama?

Anonymous said...

Leon- So so.

Mutley- Oddly enough, your comment has a twist...
The twist is that indeed, at first glance Albania' mnoarchical history begins- and ends with Zog I.


Albania did have another King in the twentieth century. The throne was offered to Prince Wilhem of Weid in 1913. He did land there, but the country was kind of in a state of anarchy and he never really established himself before war broke out. And after the war he didn't return. And being German, he was now a bit out of favour with the allies. A number of competing regimes ruled for the next few years, some of them ostensibly in his name, others not. His reign may be said to have ended legally in 1925 when Zog declared a Republic. and then decided three years later to be King instead of President.

So the twist? Well, the twist is that the Albanians have a national hero called Skanderbeg. Now in reality, he wasn't a King. More a kind of Hereward the Wake type rebel against the Turks.

But. Just to be confusing, Zog I, like old Sigismund II who is also Augustus I, Zog I ALSO used the title...
Skanderbeg III.

As in, counting Skanderbeg as an Albanian King.
So who was Skanderbeg II? This confused me too. It turns out, he's Wilhelm of Weid. As far as I know, he never used that title himself, I'm guessing Zog decided that in retrospect he was Skanderbeg II.

But the point is- all Albanian Kings get to be called Skanderbeg...

Candy Minx- It's difficult to separate fact from fiction regarding the Borgias. Cesare Borgia seems to have been a spoilt brat with very little talent, but his father's main fault seems more to have been blatant nepotism. I don't think he was a very saintly man, but he seems to have loved the mother of his children very much.

I've been Mugged- There were some good ones in the Spanish epithets. Alphonso the Slobberer we've noted. But there was also Bermudo the Gouty and Wilfred the Hairy. Turkey had Selim the Grim and Selim the Drunkard, Byzantium had Justinian the Noseless, Denmark had Harald Bluetooth.

King Charles the Botanist?
King Charles the Wierd?

Gingatao- Well, William the Vacant and Harry the Bastard seem in keeping with tradition...

Sweet Cheeks- One thing always gets me, is how many of them aren't royal lines. You just don't know.

By that I mean, there are at least three good examples of thrones which may well have left the royal line due to some royal cuckoos showing up.
Selim the drunkard, named above was the surprisingly ginger haired alleged son of Suleiman the Magificent and Roxana, his chief concubine. who had a favorite slave. Who was ginger.
Fro this point on ginger hair was a common feature of Ottoman princes.
And after Suleiman the magnificent, most Ottoman rulers are useless. whereas as before they were stern stuff.

Louis XIV son of Louis XIII? Maybe not. I think it rather unlikely.

And it's often agreed that Isabella II of Spain being the life loving and lust driven woman she was and her husband being- well, gay- that the current King of Spain is descended from horseguard stock.

It's actually suggested- and it pans out- that if you were to be able to find out all the living descendants of Ethelred the Unready, it would be several million. It's probably true, Queen Victoria already has about 250 living descendants.

They say you can't be Irish and NOT claim descent somehow from a King. it isn't genetically possible, due to the number of Kingdoms that existed.

Sue- I think the current one would get away with something reasonable. But Charles, no.

Sometimes the names give us a hint, but they can mislead. Ivann the terrible for example was terrible in the sense of 'terrible majesty'. And Ethelred the unready wasn't unready, he was 'unraed', an obsolete word meaning ill advised.

Charles- George the Simple sounds about fair...

Successor to Bill the Slippery.

As for Obama, well, we'll need to see...

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. Poor old Louis the Impotent!

Anonymous said...

Re. the double numbering of kings in England and Scotland - ie. James I & VI (I in England, VI in Scotland).

This was not an issues after James II (& VII) so was largely forgotten about during the Act of Union... until 1952.

So it is now the case that, if Scotland and England potentially have a different regnal number for any monarch, the highest number goes. Thus we have Elizabeth II across the UK, even though Scotland never had an Elizabeth I.

This does tend to favour England as Donald, James, Alexander etc. tend not to be names used anymore.

Incidentally, British monarchs do not necessarily reign under their own name - George VI's name was Albert, for example - and it has been suggested that Prince Charles may possibly not choose to reign as Charles III, what with the slightly dodgy reputation of the previous two, and may indeed choose to be George VII.

Anonymous said...

Moggs- Sorry you got missed there, not sure how that happened...

Well, Athelstan certainly ruled all England. After him, they ruled the lot. But convention calls Alfred the Great the first King of England.

After the act of Union, British monarchs have only used the highest ordinal so as to avoid too many numbers, as John Birch below points out.

It's the same in Spain actually. Monarchs there take the highest number from Castile and Aragon.

However, having separate numbers for separate countries is not unusual. The last Austro-Hungarian ruler was Emperor Charles I of Austria and King Charles IV of Hungary.

Welshcakes- Henry :)
In fact, I don't think he ever knew. I think women who went with him were told to tell him he was a bit of a stud. Allegedly, he believed he was.

John- I could imagine a King Alexander IV, though the others I can't see being used, I'll be honest.
Of course, the name and number a King takes DOES make a historical statement, in a sense. There was some debte when John XXIII became Pope if he'd be XXIII or XXIV. And LOUIS XVIII going for XVIII not XVII of course, made a statement that nothing between 1792 and 1814 was valid.
If we had a Queen Jane, for example, would she be first or second? Would she acknowledge the nine day Queen?

I guess I'd find it hard to see Prince Charles as Charles III. I suppose instinctively I see Charles III as being the Young Pretender.

Anonymous said...

Now in his favour it does have to be said that Charles was into sustainability, organic farming methods and green practices long before they became fashionable.

In fact that was one of the things the tabloid press used to try to brand him as nutty. Who's agenda?