The monarchy is an institution in Britain stretching back hundreds of years. And while it is seen as a part of the nation’s culture that is supremely British, not all of its leaders were born there, in fact, some didn’t even speak the language. However, each of these rulers left a great impression on Britain, steering the United Kingdom into the country we know today.
1. Aulus Plautius
Aulus is technically the first foreigner to rule a large portion of Britain as its first Roman governor. His career was dutiful, but not terribly notable until the Emperor Claudius appointed him to lead the invasion of Britain in 43 A.D. The force he led included four legions (up to 6,000 soldiers each) plus 20,000 auxiliary troops. He marched his troops all the way to the Thames, defeating three different Briton leaders, permitting Claudius to come in with his elephants and heavy artillery. For his success, he was appointed governor until 47 A.D. and on returning to Rome, was given an Ovation (a celebration granted to a general who defeated a less-civilized enemy) in which the Emperor himself walked with Aulus to and from the Capitol.
2. Sweyn Forkbeard
Long after the Romans had left Britain, the land was subject to many raids from the Danes and the Norse. Sweyn became King of Denmark after leading a revolt against his father, who had been the first Danish king to accept Christianity. While much of his background is disputed, it is known that Sweyn participated in the raids against England as revenge for the St. Brice’s Day Massacre that saw an ethnic cleansing of Danish settlers in Britain. In 1013, he led a full-scale invasion, landing in Sandwich and marching through to London, with many Britons choosing to bow to him along the way. His conquest forced King Ethelred to flee to the Isle of Wright an he was crowned King of England on Christmas Day. Unfortunately, he was only able to rule for about five weeks before he died, leading to a battle for succession that first saw Ethelred reclaim the throne, only to be defeated by Sweyn’s son, Cnut the Great.
3. William I
Perhaps one of the most influential kings of England, William was the bastard son of Robert I, Duke of Normandy and his mistress Herleva. It was this illegitimate status that caused some problems for the first few years of his rule in Normandy (and the less-flattering name of “William the Bastard”). When his cousin Edward the Confessor died childless, the struggle was on for the English throne, with William claiming that Edward had named him as the successor. When Harold of Wessex was crowned king in 1066, William invaded, ultimately defeating Harold at the Battle of Hastings. After his crowning, William made many lasting changes to Britain, building many of its castles (including the Tower of London), establishing the feudal system of governance, and creating the Domesday Book, a vast survey of all landowners and their properties in the kingdom. Not too bad for someone who only spoke French and continued to do so for his entire reign.
4. William III
Not related to William I, William III was born in The Hague in the Dutch Republic in 1650 and became Prince of Orange as his father had died eight days prior of smallpox. While the Dutch Republic was under fire from France and England, William was made Stadtholder in 1672, essentially the head of state for the States of Holland. During the period of war with France, William married his first cousin Mary, daughter of the Duke of York. Prepared to invade England in 1688, William was sent a formal invitation to becoming the king to keep the monarchy out of the hands of the Catholic heir of James II. When it was clear James could not succeed against William, the former fled to France. William and his wife Mary (who was actually higher in the line of succession) were crowned as joint monarchs in 1689. When their marriage produced no children, they were succeeded by Queen Anne.
5. George I
Born in 1660 in Hanover, his mother Sophia was the granddaughter of James I by her mother. A conflict between England and Scotland as to Queen Anne’s successor resulted in George declaring his hereditary right to succeed as he was descended from the Stuarts and the right excluded any Catholic Stuarts from succession. With the death of his mother in 1714, George became Anne’s sole heir and he was proclaimed king and crowned on October 20. Like William I, George I did not speak any English, but was fluent in French and communicated with his advisors in that language. Though he eventually did learn English, he was ridiculed for his initial inability for much of his reign, though most of his subjects felt he was a better alternative to a Catholic king. He was also the originator of the House of Hanover in the British monarchy and his grandson would go on to lose the American colonies in the Revolutionary War.