Who were ‘The Great’ Rulers of the Middle Ages?

Who were ‘The Great’ Rulers of the Middle Ages?

Many rulers of the Middle Ages got nicknames, ranging from the Magnificent to the Crazy. Some monarchs got the title ‘The Great’ – what did they do to deserve such an honour. Here is a little information about 15 ‘Great’ medieval rulers, arranged chronologically:

Theoderic, King of the Ostrogoths – The King of Ostrogoths for over fifty years (475–526) he led his people into Italy, conquered the country, and established his own kingdom based out of Ravenna. His reign marked a return to prosperity for much of the Italian peninsula.

Justinian I, Byzantine Emperor – Byzantine emperor from 527 to 565 – his reign saw an attempt to restore the Roman Empire, with military campaigns launched against Persia, North Africa, Italy and Spain. While he is also known for his extensive judicial reforms and for the construction of new buildings, Justinian was almost driven from power by civilian riots in Constantinople, and his reputation among contemporary writers of this period was mixed.

Charlemagne, King of the Franks and Holy Roman Emperor – The name Charlemagne comes from Karolus Magnus, or Charles the Great. He became King of the Franks in 768, and for the next 46 years would build the Carolingian Empire, and become himself the first Emperor in Western Europe in about three centuries.

Alfred, King of Wessex – Anglo-Saxon king from 871 to 899 – he successfully defended his kingdom from Viking attacks, promoted education and learning, and instituted legal reforms.

Alfonso III of Asturias – King of León, Galicia and Asturias from 866 to 910. During his long reign, Alfonso was able to consolidate power over northern Spain, and had numerous military victories over Islamic and Christian opponents.

Otto I, Holy Roman Emperor – After becoming King of Germany in 936, Otto would work to establish greater authority over his aristocracy. In 955 he defeated the Magyars at the Battle of Lechfeld, one of the most important battles of the tenth century. Otto followed this victory with the conquest of Italy. In 961 he was crowned the King of Italy, and the following year he became the Holy Roman Emperor. Otto died in 973, having started an era known as the ‘Ottonian Renaissance’.

Vladimir Sviatoslavich, Grand Prince of Kiev – After killing his half-brother, Yaropolk I, Vladimir ruled as Grand Prince of Kiev from 980 to 1015. His conversion to Christianity in 988 was an important moment in the Christianization of Kievan Rus, and he is considered a national symbol by both Ukraine and Russia.

Sancho III of Navarre – Although he was only about 12 years old when he became the King of Navarre (itself a very minor kingdom) in 1004, Sancho had the ambitions to take control of Christian Iberia. He was able to take over the kingdoms of Castile and Leon, as well as the French Duchy of Gascony, and force the Count of Barcelona to be his vassal. By the time of his death in 1035, Sancho was known as ‘rex Hispaniarum’.

Cnut, King of Denmark, England and Norway – Beginning with England in 1016, Cnut was able to gain the crowns of three countries (Denmark in 1018 and Norway in 1028). By the time of his death in 1035, he had established what can be seen as a Scandinavian empire.

Roger II of Sicily – King of Sicily from 1130 to 1154, Roger was able to take over the other Norman-ruled areas of Southern Italy, and successfully defend against an invasion from the Holy Roman Empire. His kingdom would see economic prosperity during his reign, as well as cultural interactions between Normans, Byzantines and Muslims.

Valdemar I of Denmark – After nearly being killed by his cousin Sweyn III at the ‘Blood Feast of Roskilde’, Valdemar raised an army and defeated Sweyn at the Battle of Grathe Heath in 1157. He would go on to rule Denmark until 1182, which saw his country becoming a leading force in northern Europe.

Peter III of Aragon – King of Aragon and Valencia, and Count of Barcelona from 1276 to 1285, and King of Sicily from 1282 to 1285 – while his reign was shorter than most of the other monarchs on this list, it was dominated by aggressive military campaigns, including the conquest of southern Italy and destroying a French army that invaded his kingdom in 1284-5.

Casimir III of Poland – King of Poland from 1333 to 1370 – Despite having come to throne in 1333 when Poland was considered a weak state, Casimir was able to double the size of kingdom by the end of his reign, improve the economy, and oversee legal reforms. He also founded the University of Kraków and built Wawel Castle.

Louis I of Hungary – King of Hungary and Croatia from 1342 to 1382; King of Poland from 1370 to 1382 – All but three years of his forty-year reign was spent in foreign military activities, with his kingdom expanding into the Balkans and gaining strong influence over European affairs. Meanwhile, Hungary itself was relatively peaceful and prosperous, as gold mines made the country and court very wealthy.

Ivan III of Russia – Grand Prince of Moscow from 1462 to 1505. Over his 43-year reign, Ivan was able to triple the size of his kingdom and centralize control over Russia’s many small principalities.

You can learn more about some of these medieval rulers, including:




Alfred the Great


Roger II of Sicily

Casimir the Great: 1310-70

Louis the Great

The Christianization of Kieven Rus’ and Piast Poland

See also Alfonso the Slobberer and Ivar the Boneless: Worst Nicknames for Medieval Rulers

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