Keeping count of the Karls

I am making my unintentional continuation of the royal theme on this blog a tribute to the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s accession to the throne. A less regally-focused service will resume tomorrow!

Call them traditional or unimaginative, but royal dynasties enjoy using their favourite names – think of all the French kings called Louis (18), Edwards in England (8) and Alfonsos in Spain (13).

This would cause terrible confusion for historians if it wasn’t for the system of ordinal (or regnal) numbers. These are the numbers that are placed after a monarch’s regnal name at a stroke distinguishing them from their identically named predecessors and descendants.

The system should be straightforward and self explanatory – for example George V was the fifth King of England called George. So Karl IX of Sweden, son of King Gustav I, was the ninth King of Sweden called Karl, right? And his brother, Eric XIV, was obviously the 14th King of Sweden called Eric.

Unfortunately not. Both monarchs were influenced by Johannes Magnus’sHistoria de omnibus gothorum sueonumque regibus’ (History of all Kings of Goths and Swedes). Johannes catalogued the Swedish monarchy from the dawn of time but drew heavily on his own fertile imagination to fashion ‘facts’ from the murky and undocumented past.

In setting down his categorical collection of rulers, he invented at least six Erics and six Karls. His work was so influential that King Gustav’s sons both styled themselves with ordinal numbers far higher than the real number of predecessors sharing their regnal name.


As a result Karl IX was probably the fourth Karl to occupy the throne of Sweden, whilst only eight or so Erics preceded Eric XIV’s reign.