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Regnal numbers are ordinal numbers used to distinguish among persons with the same name who held the same office. Most importantly, they are used to distinguish monarchs. An ordinal is the number placed after a monarch's regnal name to differentiate between a number of kings, queens or princes reigning the same territory with the same regnal name.
It is common to start counting either since the beginning of the monarchy, or since the beginning of a particular line of state succession. For example, Boris III of Bulgaria and his son Simeon II were given their regnal numbers because the medieval rulers of the First and Second Bulgarian Empire were counted as well even if the present Bulgarian state dated only back to 1878 and were only distantly related to the previous Bulgarian states. On the other hand, the kings of England were counted starting with the Norman conquest of England. That is why the son of Henry III of England is counted as Edward I even though there were three Edwards before the Conquest.
Sometimes legendary or fictional persons are included. For example, the Swedish kings Eric XIV (reigned 1560–68) and Charles IX (1604–11) took ordinals based on a fanciful 1544 history by Johannes Magnus, which invented six kings of each name before those accepted by later historians.
In any case, it is usual to count only the monarchs or heads of the family, and to number them sequentially up to the end of the dynasty. A notable exception to this rule is the German House of Reuss. This family has the particularity that every male member during the last centuries was named Heinrich, and all of them, not only the head of the family, were numbered. While the members of the elder branch were numbered in order of birth until the extinction of the branch in 1927, the members of the younger line were (and still are) numbered in sequences that began and ended roughly as centuries began and ended. This explains why the current head of the Reuss family is called Heinrich IV, his son Heinrich XIV and his son Heinrich XXIX.
Examples of monarchical ordinals
Monarchs with the same given name are distinguished by their ordinals:
- Kings Umberto I and Umberto II of Italy
- Empresses Catherine I and Catherine II of Russia
- Princes Rainier II and Rainier III of Monaco
- Popes Benedict XV and Benedict XVI
Ordinals may also apply where a ruler of one realm and a ruler of that realm's successor state share the same name:
- Queens Elizabeth I of England and Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom.
- Kings Alfonso XI of Castile and Alfonso XII of Spain.
- Kings Victor Emmanuel I of Sardinia and Victor Emmanuel II of Italy
Practice varies where monarchs go by two or more given names. For Swedish monarchs, the ordinal qualifies only the first name; for example, Gustav VI Adolf, known as "Gustav Adolf", was the sixth Gustav/Gustaf, but the third Gustav Adolf. By contrast, the Kingdom of Prussia was ruled in turn by Friedrich I, Friedrich Wilhelm I, Friedrich II, and Friedrich Wilhelm II; and later by Wilhelm I. Likewise Pope John Paul I, who chose his double name to honour predecessors John XXIII and Paul VI, and was succeeded by John Paul II.
Some German princely families number all males whether head of the family or not; for example, Hans Heinrich XV von Hochberg was preceded as Prince of Pless by Hans Heinrich XI and succeeded by Hans Heinrich XVII; the ordinals XII, XIII, XIV, and XVI were borne by von Hochbergs who were not Prince of Pless. Similarly for the House of Reuss, where all men were numbered Heinrichs and some were reigning Princes of Reuss-Gera or Reuss-Greiz.
Almost all monarchs and popes after mediaeval times have used ordinals. Ordinals are also retrospectively applied to earlier monarchs in most works of reference, at least as far as they are not easy to distinguish from each other by any other systematical means. In several cases, various sorts of "semi-regnal" members of dynasties are also numeraled, to facilitate their individuality in works of reference – in cases such as co-regents, crown princes, succession-conveying consorts, prime ministers and deputy monarchs. In the first centuries after the Middle Ages, the use was sometimes sporadic, but became established by the 18th century. In the past couple of centuries, European monarchs without an official ordinal have been rarities.
As a rule of thumb, medieval European monarchs did not use ordinals at their own time, and those who used were rarities and even their use was sporadic. Ordinals for monarchs before the 13th century are anachronisms, as are also ordinals for almost all later medieval monarchs. Still, they are often used, because they are a practical way of distinguishing between different historical monarchs who had the same name.
Popes were apparently the first to assume official ordinals for their reigns, although this occurred only in the last centuries of the Middle Ages. It is clear, from renumberings of Popes John XV–XIX and Popes Stephen II–IX, that as of the 11th century the Popes did not yet use established ordinals. The official, self-confirmed numbering of John XXI means that at latest from the 13th century the Popes did take official ordinals in their accession.
Emperor Frederick II, king Charles II of Naples and king Premislas II of Poland evidently used ordinals sometimes during their reign, whereas most of their contemporary monarchs did not. In the 14th century, Emperor Charles IV sometimes used that ordinal. Presumably, use of the ordinal of king Frederick III of Sicily also is contemporaneous. The royal chroniclers of the Abbey of Saint-Denis were using ordinals to refer to the French kings as early as the thirteenth century with the practise entering common usage among royalty and the nobility by the late fourteenth century. The British tradition of consistently and prevalently numbering monarchs dates back to Henry VIII and Mary I; however sporadic use occurred at least as early as the reign of Edward III.
The long history of the Papacy has led to difficulties in some cases. For example, Stephen was only Pope for three days before dying of apoplexy, and was never consecrated. Because not all list-makers count him as having been pope (as Stephen II), there has been some confusion in regard to later popes who chose the name Stephen. Later Stephens are sometimes numbered with parentheses, e.g., his immediate successor (in name) is denoted either Stephen (II) III or Stephen III (II). The church did consider Stephen II a Pope until 1960, when he was removed from the list of Popes in 1961. Another example of this is that there has never been a Pope John XX.
In the case of personal unions, one king has often have more than one ordinal, because he has had different ordinals in the different realms where he reigns. For instance, Charles XV of Sweden was also king of Norway, but in Norway he went under the name Charles IV. The Swedish-Norwegian union was in force 1814–1905 and both realms had had kings called Charles before the union, but Sweden had had many more kings by that name.
In the event of one kingdom reaching independence from another but still under the same monarch, the monarch often retains the same number as he has already had in the older realm. King Christian X of Denmark thus became King Christian X of Iceland when Iceland became an independent kingdom in personal union with Denmark in 1918. The same is true for Commonwealth realms, where the monarch retains the regnal number from the British line of monarchs (see below).
Ordinals and the British Acts of Union 1707
Beginning in 1603, when England and Scotland began to share a monarch but were still legally separate realms, their monarchs were numbered separately. The king who began the personal union was James VI of Scotland who was also James I of England, and his name is often written (especially in Scotland) as James VI and I. Similarly, his grandson is James VII and II. Mary II's ordinal coincidentally relates to both her predecessors Mary I of England and Mary I of Scotland; her co-sovereign husband is William III and II (here the English number is first). Charles I and Charles II had a name not used in either country before 1603.
Acts of Union
After the realms were united with the Acts of Union 1707, separate numbers were not needed for the next five monarchs: Anne and the four Georges. However, when William IV acceded in 1830, he was not called William III in Scotland. (George Croly pointed out in 1830 the new king was William I, II, III, and IV: of Hanover, Ireland, Scotland, and England respectively.) Nor were Edward VII and Edward VIII known as Edward I and Edward II (or possibly II and III, if one counts the disputed reign of Edward Balliol) of Scotland. These kings all followed the numbering consistent with the English sequence of sovereigns (which, incidentally, was also the higher of the two numbers in all occurring cases). This was not without controversy in Scotland, however; for example, Edward VII's regnal number was occasionally omitted in Scotland, even by the established Church of Scotland, in deference to protests that the previous Edwards were English kings who had "been excluded from Scotland by battle".
Queen Elizabeth II
The issue arose again with the accession of the current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, as Scotland has never before had a regnant Queen Elizabeth, the previous queen of that name having been queen of England only. Objections were raised, and sustained, to the use of the Royal Cypher EIIR anywhere in Scotland, resulting in several violent incidents, including the destruction of one of the first new EIIR pillar boxes in Scotland, at Leith in late 1952. Since that time, the cipher used in Scotland on all government and Crown property and street furniture has carried no lettering, but simply the Crown of Scotland from the Honours of Scotland. A court case, MacCormick v Lord Advocate, contesting the style "Elizabeth II" within Scotland, was decided in 1953 that the numbering of monarchs was part of the royal prerogative, and that the plaintiffs had no title to sue the Crown.
It was suggested by Winston Churchill that, in the future, the higher of the two numerals from the English and Scottish sequences would always be used. So, theoretically, any future British King Edward would be given the number IX, even though there have only been two (or three) previous Edwards in Scotland, but any future King Alexander would be given the number IV, even though he would be the first Alexander to reign in England. This had been the case de facto since the Acts of Union 1707, with names that have the higher numerals in the English sequence (William, Edward, Elizabeth) using that one.
As the Kingdom of Ireland was subordinate to the Kingdom of England, the English ordinals were used in Ireland even before the Acts of Union 1800. Elizabeth I of England is referred to in Irish regnal year legal citations as "Elizabeth" rather than "Elizabeth I" because Ireland became a republic before Elizabeth II became queen.
"The first" 
In some monarchies it is customary not to use an ordinal when there has been only one holder of that name. For example, Queen Victoria will not be called Victoria I until there is a Victoria II. This tradition is applied in the United Kingdom, Belgium, Luxembourg, Norway, and in the case of the queens regnant of the Netherlands. It was also applied in most of the German monarchies and in the Hungarian. In Sweden, the practice is not consistent, as Sigismund and Adolf Frederick never have ordinals, whereas Frederick I often does.
Other monarchies assign ordinals to monarchs even if they are the only ones of their name. This is a more recent invention and appears to have been done for the first time when Francis I of France issued testoons (silver coins) bearing the legend FRANCISCVS I DE. GR. FRANCORV. REX. This currently is the regular practice in Spain and Monaco (at least for Prince Albert I, as Princess Louise Hippolyte, who reigned 150 years earlier, does not appear to have used an ordinal). It was also applied in Brazil, Greece, Italy, Mexico, Montenegro, Portugal (where Kings Joseph, Louis and Charles are usually referred to as "Joseph I", "Louis I" and "Charles I", although there haven't been any Joseph II, Louis II or Charles II yet, while Kings Denis, Edward, Sebastian and Henry are usually referred without the ordinal). The ordinal for King Juan Carlos I of Spain is used in both Spanish and English, but he is sometimes simply called King Juan Carlos of Spain in English. In Russia, use of "The First" ordinal started with Paul I of Russia. Before him, neither Anna of Russia nor Elizabeth of Russia had the "I" ordinal. In Ethiopia, Emperor Haile Selassie used the "I" ordinal, although previous Ethiopian monarchs did not use it, and they are not referred as "the first" unless there were successors of the same name.
The Catholic Papacy used the ordinal I under Pope John Paul I, but early Popes who are the only ones to have reigned under a certain name are not referred to as "the first" (for instance, Peter the Apostle; his immediate successor Pope Linus; Pope Anacletus, etc, are all referred to without an ordinal). The current Pope Francis has declined the use of an ordinal, while on the other hand his Orthodox counterpart Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople is using one, as does Aram I, the catholicos of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
In Austria, Emperors Francis, Ferdinand, Francis Joseph and Charles all styled themselves as "the first" despite the fact that only Francis Joseph was the first Austrian ruler of that name (Francis was the second, Ferdinand the fifth, and Charles the fourth). This was due to the elevation of the title of the Austrian ruler from Archduke to Emperor.
The use of "The First" ordinal is also common to self-proclaimed ephemeral "kings" or "emperors", such as Dessalines, Christophe and Soulouque in Haiti, Iturbide in Mexico, Zog in Albania, Bokassa in Central African Republic, the adventurer Boris Skossyreff in Andorra, or Emperor Norton in San Francisco. In this case it is obvious that they want to emphasize the change of regime they pretend to introduce.
It is traditional amongst monarchists to continue to number their pretenders, even though they have never reigned. Hence, a supporter of the Comte de Paris would call him Henri VII, even though only four men named "Henri" have been King of France.
Non-consecutive ordinals may indicate dynastic claims for non-regnant monarchs. For example, after Louis XVI of France was executed during the French Revolution, legitimists consider him to have been succeeded by his young son, whom they called Louis XVII. Although the child died in prison a few years later and never reigned, his uncle, who came to the French throne in the Bourbon Restoration, took the name Louis XVIII in acknowledgement of his dynasty's rights. Similarly, when Emperor Napoleon I's regime collapsed, he abdicated in favour of his four-year-old son, who was proclaimed Napoleon II. The young emperor was deposed only weeks later by Napoleon's European rivals and was never recognized internationally; but when his first cousin Louis Napoleon Bonaparte proclaimed himself Emperor in 1852, he declared himself Napoleon III of France in recognition of his predecessor.
While reigning monarchs use ordinals, ordinals are not used for royal female consorts. So whereas King George V used an ordinal to distinguish him from other kings in the United Kingdoms called George, his wife, Queen Mary, had no ordinal.
The lack of an ordinal in the case of royal consorts complicates the recording of history, as there may be a number of consorts over time with the same name with no way to distinguish between them. For that reason, royal consorts are sometimes after their deaths recorded in history books and encyclopaedias through the use of their pre-marital name or, if from a reigning family, its Royal House (dynastic name) or the name of the country (e.g. Alexandra of Denmark).
It is not usual to number male consorts of a Queen regnant, or even to consider them as 'kings', unless both of them are crowned: as it was the case of Mary II and William III of England, or of all male kings consort in medieval crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem and in medieval Spanish Kingdom of Navarre.
The kingdom of Portugal had the uncommon custom of not only recognizing the title of 'king', but also numbering a consort of a Queen regnant, but only if and when he fathers a heir apparent to her, and nevertheless they are also not included in official lists of Portuguese Chiefs of State. And so, the husband of Maria I is known as 'king consort Pedro III' until his death in 1786 before his wife; and also the husband of Maria II was titled 'King consort Fernando II' when their elder son, the future king Pedro V, was born in 1837, but this same title was retired from him when his queen wife died in 1853.
- Söderberg, F. F. V. (1910). "Johannes Magnus". Nordisk familjebok (in Swedish). 13 (Johan – Kikare). p. 40. Retrieved 24 October 2012.
- Croly, George (1830). The life and times of his late majesty, George the fourth. London: James Duncan. p. xlix.
- Matthew, H. C. G. (September 2004). "Edward VII (1841–1910)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/32975. Retrieved 24 June 2009. (Subscription required)
- "ROYAL STYLE AND TITLE". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Commons. 15 April 1953. col. 199–201.
- "Statute Law Revision (Pre-Union Irish Statutes) Act, 1962 , Schedule 1". Irish Statute Book. Retrieved 10 September 2016.