In a perfect monarchical system, the king or queen will be the personal embodiment of a country’s sense of identity. If monarchy stands for anything, it is tradition and history – a personal and unbroken link to centuries past.
Of course, the reality is often quite different. The House of Windsor has a quintessentially English ring to it, but this was the intentional First World War response to the distinctly un-English sounding House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.
Dynastic imperative, royal marriage and deference to aristocracy have produced some distinctly curious sovereigns – kings, queens and empresses who defied logic, geography, chance or history to find their place on the throne of a strange land. These are my five favourites.
5. Queen Elizabeth I of England
There was nothing particularly foreign about Queen Elizabeth, with her ‘heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too’. Her long and successful reign was unlikely because of the sheer number of possible alternatives.
Elizabeth owed her position on the throne to the childless death of her uncle, Prince Arthur (her father, Henry VIII’s elder brother and heir apparent to Henry VII). She then had to outlive her brother (Edward VII) and elder sister (Queen Mary I) and even then only reached the throne because both siblings died without issue.
If these weren’t enough obstacles, she also faced the possibility of usurpers (for example, the nine day queen Lady Jane Grey), her father’s determined attempts to sire more sons (six wives and god knows how many attempts), the taint of illegitimacy under the Second Succession Act of 1536 and dicing with death at the hands of her zealously Catholic sister Mary.
It is thus no wonder that on hearing that she had become Queen, Elizabeth reportedly quoted Psalm 118:23 – It is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes.
4. King Charles XIV & III John of Sweden and Norway
Sweden is famous for its strong sense of national identity, Viking spirit and unbroken history. You would expect the royal house to have a suitably Nordic name – Munsö, Stenkil, Bjälbo or Sverker and Eric (all examples of earlier Swedish dynasties).
Bernadotte is not a very Swedish sounding name. But it is the name of Sweden’s ruling family and has been since 1818. The regally named Charles XIV & III John of Sweden and Norway was born Jean Bernadotte in Pau, a small town nestled in the foothills of the northern Pyrenees (some 1,350 miles south-west of Stockholm).
His family were not particularly noble or rich and Bernadotte owed his meteoric rise to the top thanks to the meritocratic possibilities opened up by the French revolution, his success in the French army and the demise of the House of Holstein-Gottorp following the death of the childless Charles XIII.
Sweden needed a virile monarch, preferably an accomplished soldier and ideally someone who carried weight with Emperor Napoleon I of France. Bernadotte, a Marshal of France, had become popular in Sweden following tales of his kindness to Swedish prisoners of France’s war with Denmark.
Napoleon treated the whole affair as an absurdity, but Bernadotte would outlive his former master by 23 years and was King of Sweden and Norway for 26 years.
3. King William III & II of England and Scotland and King George I of Great Britain
A joint entry for William III and George I as both kings came to the prize of the British throne(s) as a reaction against the possibility of a Catholic monarch. In an age of zealous Protestantism, the prospect of a Catholic king was anathema to both the nobility and the masses.
On his restoration, Charles II had shown dangerously Catholic tendencies and may have converted to Rome on his deathbed. His brother, James II & VII, was even less guarded – he had converted to Catholicism in 1668 or 1669, and his faith was made public following the implementation of the Test Act of 1673.
His reign was a short and troubled three years between 1685 and 1688, culminating in the invitation by seven Protestant nobles to William, Prince of Orange (and husband of James’s Protestant daughter Mary) to invade England and, ultimately, the Glorious Revolution. James fled his capital and country, and the Stadtholder of the Netherlands, William III of Orange (or Willem III van Oranje), became joint ruler with his wife of England, Scotland and Ireland.
George I would similarly find his way to the throne of Great Britain as the next best Protestant successor to a childless Queen Anne. Thus the Elector and Prince of Hanover became the King of one of the world’s rising imperial powers.
2. King Otto of Greece
King Otto of Greece belonged to the House of Wittelsbach. Neither name sounds very Greek, and that is because the Wittelsbachs (in general) and Otto (in particular) were Bavarian. Otto spent the first 17 years of his life as a Prince of Bavaria, the second son of King Ludwig I.
As a second son, his prospects of wielding real power seemed limited. But a combination of a philhellenic father, a successful Greek uprising in the 1820s and the Great Powers’ insistence that the independent Greek state be a monarchy provided a royal opening for young Otto.
The Convention of London decided to offer the throne of Greece to Otto and he readily accepted. He Hellenized his look and name (becoming Othon). He did not found a dynasty – this would be left to his successor, King George.
King George was a Danish prince, from the House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg who became King of the Hellenes in 1845.
1. Empress Catherine II (the Great) of Russia
Catherine II is one of the most famous rulers of all time and certainly ranks as one of the most successful Russian monarchs. As Empress and Autocrat of All the Russians she attempted to bring Enlightenment principles to the vast Eurasian empire.
But long before she ascended the throne and placed the Grand Imperial Crown on her head she was born Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst. Princess Sophie was the daughter of the Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst, a small German principality dwarfed by its larger northern and eastern neighbour, Prussia.
The chances of her marrying into a European royal family seemed slim – she brought no large dowry, lands or political clout. The prospect of her becoming a ruling Empress would have seemed fanciful, even absurd, to her contemporaries.
She managed to do both by the luck of dynastic links with Empress Elizabeth of Russia, a forceful and ambitious mother and Frederick the Great of Prussia’s determination to cultivate links with his powerful eastern neighbour. Sophie would become the bride of Grand Duke Peter, the heir presumptive of Russia, adopt Eastern Orthodoxy as her religion and Catherine as her new name.
Her advancement to become supreme ruler of Russia owed much to her own abilities and to the failures of her husband. She ingratiated herself with the people and nobles, learning Russian, showing outward devotion to the Orthodox rites and astutely managing relationships.
Peter, by contrast, hated Russia, favoured his Hessian countrymen, kept a regiment of Hessian troops and spoke German at any opportunity. His eventual overthrow and assignation paved the way for Catherine’s accession and long rule.