What’s in a Name? A Lesson from the French Kings

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Most of the French Kings throughout history were awarded an epithet which emphasized a physical characteristic, a personal characteristic or an interesting accident of fate. These names seem to have been universally accepted, at least by those who wrote their history.

Most of us have heard of The Sun King but how many have heard of Clovis the Lazy (name awarded because he was dominated by others throughout his reign), Louis the Stammerer or Louis the Quarreler?

Unflattering Nicknames

Many of the nicknames didn’t seem to emphasise the individual’s best characteristics. As well as the Lazy, Stammerer and Quarreller there was Pepin the Short, Charles the Bald, Charles the Fat and Charles the Simple (although that may also be understood as ‘straightforward’). The Kings called Charles seem to have gone though a bad time for a while!

Double Nicknames

Some Kings ended up with two nomenclatures due to changes during their reign. Louis XI was first called the Prudent and then the Universal Spider as he began to hatch a spider’s web of plots to keep his kingdom united. Louis I was both Pious and Debonaire, but poor Charles VI started as Beloved and ended up as Charles the Mad as his psychotic bouts became more frequent.

Physical and Personal Characteristics

Kings were tall; fair; good; young and wise. They were The Lion; The Saint; The Just; The Fortunate and The Bold. The only interesting thing that could be said about Charles VIII after 15 years as king was that he was The Affable. Presumably he was disappointed on his deathbed to discover that affability was the dominant characteristic of his life! “What have I done for France? What are you going to call me?” – “Affable!”

Incidental Names

A couple of other kings were known by an accident of fate. Louis VI was known as ‘From Overseas’ because he had to spend some of his childhood in England for his own safety and John I was The Posthumous as he was born several months after the death of his father. Dying himself only a few days later, he did not live long enough to earn himself another title.

Modern Examples

This practice of awarding explanatory nicknames has much to recommend it. One could think of a host of names for, for instance, Presidents Clinton and Bush, Reagan and Carter, the latter at the time being known as The Peanut Farmer. Gerald Ford could be known as Ford the Unsteady due to his propensity for stumbling. As for Mrs Thatcher – will Thatcher the Milk Snatcher stand the test of time or should we come up with other names depending on whether we are a miner, a steelworker or one of those who benefited from the great utilities and council house sell-off?

Names for Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – The Dissembler and The Grump respectively? We could have Sarkozy the Short, Putin the Indestructible and Berlusconi the Scandalous! As for modern British monarchs – George the Stammerer will come from the popularity of the recent film The King’s Speech. Elizabeth II will no doubt be known as The Dutiful and Victoria as The Unamused. As for Edward VII and Edward VIII – best not to delve too deeply into their private lives!

As well as the amusement factor it is well known that attaching a characteristic to something can be used as a memory aid. Future school children tasked with remembering lists of presidents, monarchs, and heads of state would do well to follow the lesson of the French Kings. How better to remember them than by Bald, Fat, Lazy, Affable, Mad, Victorious, Old, Young, Fortunate and Good?