An Oxford Historian
Anglo-Saxon Royal Nicknames
Updated: Apr 26, 2021
One of the most commonly acknowledged forms of historical nicknames are those applied to monarchs - Charles the Bald, Bloody Mary, Robert the Bruce etc. The Anglo-Saxons are no exception, and we find some impressive examples in the written sources.
A question of terminology: Royal 'Nicknames' are traditionally referred to as 'Epithets' - descriptive or characteristic. There is remarkable inconsistency in terminology employed in the academic study of 'Nicknames' ('Nickname', 'Epithet' and 'Byname' are often used with little clear definition). Here, I'm just opting for the blanket use of 'Nickname'.
First, the two most obvious:
Edward 'the Confessor' - debatably the most famous Anglo-Saxon King, Edward's nickname stems from his later veneration as a Saint (he was canonized in 1161). This is a great example of the use of nicknames retrospectively, as a means of commemoration.
Ethelred 'the Unready' is, of course, a pun. The majority of Anglo-Saxon forenames are monothematic and can be literally translated. Ethelred literally means 'well-counseled' while Unræd translates as 'ill-counseled' - a hilarious Anglo-Saxon joke, no doubt. Interestingly, in my (admittedly incomplete) database, I can find no other obvious example of this humorous contrast.
It is interesting, from a modern historiographical standpoint, that these two are almost never referred to in modern publications/ popular culture without their epithets. It points, I think, towards a fundamental use of nicknames in myth-making even in the modern-day.
Now, to the less well-known examples:
Edmund 'the Magnificent' - Crowned in 939, Edmund is known else-where as the 'Deed-Doer' (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Edmund-I). This seems to be a simple reflection of praise of rulership, and fits well within broader trends of positive nicknames in the Early Medieval period.
Edmund 'Ironside' - King for a measly 7 months in 1016 (the son of Ethelred the Unready), Edmund's name is certainly impressive. Unusually, the ASC provides us with an explanation for the name - 'because of his valour'. In this it mirrors a trend of praising military might and bravery more prevalent in the Viking corpus than the Anglo-Saxon one.
Edith 'Swan-Neck'. The Queen of Harold Godewineson, Edith is also know as 'The Fair'. This appears to be a reference to beauty, but is certainly a strange form. I am, however, in support of the idea that this nickname swann hnecca is a clerical error for swann hnesce - 'gentle swan' - a far more likely translation! Female nicknames are substantially less frequent in the Anglo-Saxon corpus and when they do occur they tend either to be crude sexual references, or to praise beauty.
Harold 'Harefoot' - Again, an invention of later chronicle work, Harold's nickname seems a pretty obvious reflection of speed and agility. Clearly positive, it's unclear whether this is a general remark on a speedy man, or a reference to a particular event.
Edgar 'the Peaceful' - Anthropologists point out that nicknames often act as a means of social regulation, criticizing socially unacceptable traits and praising positive ones. This seems to be an expression of support for Edgar's ability to maintain peace. Most remembered for a general solidification of his kingdom, this nickname seems fitting.
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Check out my previous articles on Anglo-Saxon (here), Viking (here) and obscene (here) nicknames. A new Deep-Dive article on Anglo-Saxon thegnly diets can be found here.
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