Why Do Monarchs Use Roman Numerals in Their Names?

Queen Elizabeth II, Henry VIII, Pope Benedict XVI… Ever wondered why monarchs and Popes have Roman numerals in their names? Is it just a tradition to make them look magisterial or does it have a practical use? Which monarch has the longest numeral in his or her name? And when did this use start? Here’s all you need to know about the Roman numerals in kings’ and queens’ names…

Regnal Numbers

The use of Roman numerals in the names of monarchs is actually only for practical reasons. They make it easy to retrospectively identify sovereigns with the same name in the same territory. Helping to distinguish between kings or queens with the same name, these Roman numerals are by definition ordinal numbers. The number is placed after the name of a monarch to distinguish him or her from the predecessors with the same name. Queen Elizabeth II’s name is pronounced as ‘Queen Elizabeth the second’ whereas Henry VII as ‘Henry the eighth”.

When Did This System Start?

The tradition to use a regnal number to distinguish monarchs or Popes with the same name was adopted in Europe during the late Middle Ages. Before this, monarchs would be named by their achievements or characteristics, such as William the Conqueror. Medieval European monarchs did not use ordinals in their own time of reign.

The use of ordinal numbers was occasional in the first centuries of the Middle Ages and was started by the Popes rather than monarchs. By the 18th century, this was the established rule. So much so that the monarchs before this date were retrospectively given ordinals for practical reasons and at this time, nearly all European monarchs held a name with a Roman number attached. In some royal families, not only the sovereign but princes, princesses and other members also had ordinal numbers in their names.

When to Start ‘Counting’

The criteria to ‘start’ counting and determine the ordinal number of a monarch differ. In some countries, the reference point is the beginning of the monarchy as a whole whereas in others, the start of the line of succession of the specific royal family in power is used. 

The Bulgarian king Boris III carried the ordinal number three because the medieval sovereigns were counted as well. On the other hand, kings of England were started to be counted after the Norman conquest of England. Therefore, he son of Henry III was Edward I although there were three Edwards before the Norman conquest.

Monarchs with More than Two Regnal Numbers

Marriages between royal families or personal unions in European history have generated some complications and debates in terms of counting and assigning regnal numbers to monarchs. 

One famous example is Charles XV of Sweden. Due to the Swedish-Norwegian union during 1814–1905, he was the king of both Sweden and Norway. However, in Norway, he used the name Charles IV instead of XV. This was because Norway had far less previous kings named Charles than Sweden.

Another well-known example is from Britain, where James VI of Scotland was also James I of England. After England and Scotland united with the Acts of Union 1707, different numerals for the same monarchs were not needed for the next five sovereigns. However, this issue was again raised with William IV’s accession to the throne in 1830 and with that of Queen Elizbeth II in 1952. The solution found in the end was to use the highest number in both territories. This will, for instance, mean that a future king named Alexander would use the number IV due to the previous Alexanders in Scotland - even though he would be the first Alexander to be the sovereign in England.

What to Do with ‘the First’?

In some monarchies, the number I is not used until a second holder of that name becomes the sovereign. For instance, Queen Victoria will only be called Victoria I after a second Victoria becomes the ruler. Apart from the United Kingdom, Belgium, Luxembourg and Norway as well as most German and Hungarian monarchies go by this tradition.

On the contrary, some monarchies apply ‘the first’ (I) even though there has been only one king or queen with that name. It is thought that this tradition was started by Francis I of France when he issued silver coins referring to himself with the ordinal I. The use of ‘first’ during a monarch’s own reign and before another bearing the same name can also be seen in Brazil, Greece, Italy, Austria, Mexico, Montenegro and Portugal.

Fun Fact: Heinrichs of Germany

The German House of Reuss named all their male children as Heinrich (Henry) for generations. Not only the current head of the family but all of the Heinrichs were numbered. The ordinal numbers determined by the date of birth would increase until 100 (C in Roman numerals) and then restart from 1 (I). The male members of the family’s younger line are still all called Heinrich but the counting system has changed. In modern times, the Reuss family restarts counting from the beginning of a new century but not when the number reaches 100.

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