Everyone loves a good epithet. Charles the ‘Great’, Sven ‘Forkbeard’, Eric the, er, ‘Memorable’.
But namecalling, it turns out, is really not cool and can be very mean. So spare a thought for these six men: the Johnny-two-straps of History’s great playground.
James the Shit (King of England, Ireland and Scotland, 1685-88).
Poor James II was probably England’s most rubbish King, ever. In 1685 he inherited a state that was peaceful, prosperous, and financially secure. And yet he managed to mess it all up faster than you can say ‘David Moyes’. Never one to miss the opportunity for a strop, he chucked the Great Seal into the Thames and legged it to Ireland where he made some lovely new allies, before promptly deserting them. They showed their feelings about this through the medium of wit, and dubbed him for posterity as Seamus an Chaca. In English, charmingly, this means ‘James the Shit’.
John-George Beer-jug (Elector of Saxony, 1611-56).
Epic times, of course, throw up epic heroes. Other leaders, however, prefer to watch events unfold from the comfort of the pub. John-George, elector of Saxony, was one such. He decided the Thirty Years War was not for him, so he simply went down the Dog and Schnitzel, bought himself a pint, and waited for the whole thing to blow over. His people, though, were unforgiving of his preference for mead over musketry, and so the witty blighters started calling him ‘John-George Beer-jug’, making him sound like one of Gazza’s dodgy mates. He’s also distantly related to the British Royal Family, so if anyone wants to know what the reign of Prince Harry would be like…
Crazy Otto of Bavaria (King of Bavaria, 1886-1913).
It’s a fair bet that anyone called Otto is probably both crazy and Bavarian, and Crazy Otto of Bavaria is no exception. Just like every other nineteenth-century European monarch he had a mad brother, enjoyed musical boxes, and hated both being looked at, and doors. In fact, he probably suffered from severe depression, but folk back then were, um, a tad un-PC, so they just called him ‘crazy Otto’ and got on with being German.
Timur the Lame (Overall Bad-ass, 1336-1405).
Here’s a man who probably thought he had the name thing sorted. ‘Timur’ meant ‘iron’, a name that’s more macho than a topless Vladimir Putin in a (totally non-Soviet) tank. But it was not to be, for when he busted a metatarsal (or something) while stealing sheep, the Persians, showing a finely-honed appreciation of the 1990s teenage insult, began to take the piss out of him for being ‘lame’.
Sadly Timur, who was a little intense, refused to see the funny side, and went off to spend years storming moodily around Eurasia making towers out of peoples’ skulls. Not laughing any more, are you? Probably because you’ve no longer got a head.
Pippin the Short (King of the Franks, 752-68).
Timur should have chilled out, for poor King Pippin was doubly unlucky. Firstly – despite being one of the most successful kings of his day, he’s been cursed with a shit epithet. But secondly, because he was a) short, and b) called Pippin, he’s since been completely written out of History. The reason, sad to say, is not for the quality of his kingship. It’s because if you try and mention him to students, they simply assume that you’ve no idea what you’re talking about, have replaced all the characters in your lecture with Hobbits, and are hoping they won’t notice.
Ivaylo the Cabbage (Emperor of Bulgaria, 1278-79).
History, alas, is particularly mean to those who’ve had the cheek to rise to power from humble origins. Poor Thomas Cromwell was never forgiven for coming from the rough-as-a-bear’s-arse ghetto of Putney, while everyone laughed at Elizabeth Woodville for not shopping at Waitrose. So, despite his success against the Byzantines and the Mongols, poor pig-farming commoner Ivaylo of Bulgaria had no chance at all.
Showing a level of erudite humour normally only associated with the Bullingdon Club, the local nobles mocked his rural origins by naming him… wait for it…. ‘The Cabbage’. Sadly, Ivaylo was promptly toppled, and the epithet has stuck. Spare a thought, then, for the man now permanently associated with the most flatulence-inducing of the medieval five a day.