What’s in a Name: Latin Titles

by Heather R. Darsie

How important is it to understand Latin when sorting a monarch’s status in Medieval and Early Modern portraiture? A monarch’s title indicates over what he or she rules. There is a long history of the use of Latin to specify over who and what a monarch rules. Looking back into the Ancient period, when civic identity was paramount, the only things which had agency to act were people and representatives of the people. A country itself had no agency to act. For example, the US President or the people of the US could act politically, not the United States, which is a territory. This concept is embodied by the ancient use of the Latin word populus, applying to the people residing within a city. This slowly began to change during the Medieval period.

In the Medieval period, geographic identity and thus, agency, became more important on the international stage. The word populus, applying to the people, faded away in favor of the word gentes, applying to a nation. As time wore on, there was a shift in titles of rulers, as well. However, that shift arguably did not apply to the royal title of Scotland’s rulers until the Union of the Crowns under James I & VI. Ruling titles slowly shifted away from, for example,  rex Anglicanorum, King of the English People, to Angliae rex, King of England. Legally speaking, there is no real difference, but it is curious to see that Mary, as regina Scotorum, possessed a much more ancient title as queen of her people specifically, and not the country generally.

Conversely, Elizabeth I was identified as Angliae, Franciae, et Hiberniae regina, or Queen of England, France, and Ireland. Elizabeth I’s and Mary’s successor James I & VI held two separate titles, first as rex Scotorum until 1603, then as Mag. Brit., Franciae, et Hiberniae rex, or King of Great Britain, France, and Ireland.

Looking into the linguistic subtleties of a monarch’s Medieval and Early Modern Latin titles also allows the savvy observer to know who is depicted in a portrait. For example, when looking at England, simply assuming that “AR” must mean Arthurus rex (King Arthur) instead of Angliae rex (King of England), greatly depends upon the context of where the “AR” is found. Additionally, “RA” would have a completely different meaning, as rex Anglicanorum (King of the English).

The issue of linguistic distinction arises from time to time when confusion is caused over well-settled identifications. This is usually due to misidentification by under- or un-trained individuals trawling through historic documents and portraiture.** Looking specifically at the Tudor period, Anne Boleyn’s short reign has caused such a controversy.

Anne Boleyn, love her or hate her, is one of the most elusive of Henry VIII’s queens. The only known portrait of her is a badly damaged lead medal that was skillfully recreated within the last several years. It identifies the sitter as “AR,” which could mean either Anna Regina or Angliae Regina, the context is unclear, and there is an argument to be made for both. If the medal was to circulate only within England, it would be reasonable to assume that “AR” meant Anna Regina, (Queen Anne) but if the medal were intended for an international audience, the the meaning would more likely be Anglaie Regina (Queen of England).

The utility of Latin when reviewing prime source documents is also important for sorting out individuals with multiple names. Frequently, a scholar or cleric from at least the Early Modern period will have their birth name, plus a Latin name. For example, the French humanist Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples was also known by his Latin name of Jacobus Faber Stapulensis.

In conclusion, let this post serve as a reminder to all of us that it is important to keep in mind not only the source of an item, but for whom the item was intended and the item’s purpose. Having a rough idea of Latin titles and names is vital when researching or writing about the Early Modern period.


** I, too, have been guilty of this; hence why I find it important to write about the linguistic distinctions and need for putting said distinctions in context of an entire work.

Love learning about the Early Modern period? Are you interested in Tudor history or Women’s history? Then check out my book, Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s ‘Beloved Sister’, a new biography about Anna of Cleves told from the German perspective!

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Please check out my new podcast, Tudor Speeches.

You Might Also Like

  1. The Curious Case of a Misidentified Portrait of Anne Boleyn
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  3. Breaking Up is Hard to Do: Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II of England
  4. The White Rose
  5. Phoenix Birth: Jane Seymour and the Importance of Death and Birth in Tudor England


Sources & Suggested Reading

  1. Pohl, Walter. “Ethnonyms and Early Medieval Ethnicity: Methodological Reflections.” The Hungarian Historical Review 7, no. 1 (2018): 5-17. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26571575.

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