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Monarchs on the Margins? A Global History of Royalty at Oxford

Numerically speaking, Oxford’s role as a training ground for global monarchy eclipses its function of ...

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OxfordPolitics & PowerRace & EmpireResearch & Opinion

Monarchs on the Margins? A Global History of Royalty at Oxford

Numerically speaking, Oxford’s role as a training ground for global monarchy eclipses its function of ...

return to all posts

OxfordPolitics & PowerRace & EmpireResearch & Opinion

Numerically speaking, Oxford’s role as a training ground for global monarchy eclipses its function of churning out prime ministers and presidents. At the time of writing, among Oxford alumni who are currently serving as heads of state or heads of government around the world, unelected monarchs outnumber elected leaders by two to one.

Thus far, 2020 has not exactly been a slow year for news, so you might be forgiven for having missed a story that would not have made UK front pages even in normal times; namely, the recent accession of Haitham bin Tariq as sultan of Oman, a sparsely populated state in the Arabian peninsula. For the inhabitants of his nation, however, this event was important indeed. As an absolute monarch, Haitham now wields unlimited power over all executive, legislative, and judicial branches of Oman’s government, and has inherited a regime that tightly restricts freedom of expression and of assembly. He is also an alumnus of Pembroke College, Oxford.

Photo portrait of a man with a headwrap
Sultan Haitham bin Tariq in February 2020

Given that his alma mater’s mission statement celebrates both its own “distinctive democratic structure” and its ability to “impact the world… through political and economic change”, the university’s official publicity channels understandably have not trumpeted the news that Oxford has acquired a new autocrat as an alumnus. However, Haitham is hardly the only Oxonian currently enjoying a non-democratic position of national leadership. His succession followed hot on the heels of the October enthronement of Naruhito (formerly of Merton College) as the – in this case, largely ceremonial – Emperor of Japan. Indeed, numerically speaking, Oxford’s role as a training ground for global monarchy eclipses its function of churning out prime ministers and presidents. At the time of writing, among Oxford alumni who are currently serving as heads of state or heads of government around the world, unelected monarchs outnumber elected leaders by two to one. [1] How and why did this situation come about?

On the one hand, the strong links between Oxford and royalty will come as little surprise to many. Despite its periodic posturing about being a beacon of liberal values, the university is famous for its associations with inherited privilege. It only takes a brief wander through the streets for a multitude of names and monuments (the statue of James I overlooking the Bodleian, the plaque commemorating the birth of Richard the Lionheart and Bad King John on Beaumont Street, Queen’s College on the High) to make the ancient associations between Gown and Crown abundantly clear.

Yet, on the other hand, a deeper delve into the past suggests that Oxford’s position as the preferred finishing school of kings is a rather more recent and provisional global phenomenon than we might intuitively suspect. For most of history, the monarchs of England (and later the United Kingdom) regarded Oxford University as a place to shower with patronage from a distance, but not somewhere they would ever dream of sending their own children. Only two British sovereigns have ever studied at the university – the future kings Edward VII and Edward VIII – both of whom had brief and undistinguished academic careers (“he knows everything except what is in books”, Gladstone reputedly said of the former) that ended without them taking a degree.[2]

Painting of a seated man in uniform
King Willem II of the Netherlands, painted by Jan Baptist van der Hulst

Neither of these Edwards was the first king to have attended Oxford; that distinction is in fact held by a foreigner, Willem II of the Netherlands, who was given a doctorate in 1811 after reading Civil Law at Christ Church. Exiled, bisexual, and from a family that was not yet royal (the Kingdom of the Netherlands was only created four years later), at the time of his studies Willem was a fairly obscure figure. This was not especially unusual. For several generations, members of princely houses who studied at Oxford were, on the whole, rather marginal individuals by regal standards. The context for their presence at the university was often the growth of the British Empire. As the Victorian monarchy expanded its sway ever further overseas, it did not generally displace pre-existing dynasties, but rather sought to turn local rulers into vassal clients and integrate them into a pan-imperial aristocratic hierarchy. In cases where this proved difficult, deposed royals were kept in semi-luxurious captivity, and improving transport links made it increasingly feasible to bring them to Britain itself for monitoring and, where possible, anglicisation.

black and white image of three young women in elegant dress.
Bamba, Catherine and Sophia Duleep Singh

This explains the presence of Bamba and Catherine Duleep Singh at Oxford, the first royal women to be educated there. The two sisters were heirs to the Sikh Empire, one of the last and most powerful Indian states to fall to the British Raj, and their father had been deported to England as a teenager lest he become a figurehead for resistance to colonial rule. Importing and educating royal women in this way sometimes had unintended political consequences; influenced by the progressive atmosphere at the all-female Somerville College, Catherine became a supporter of the women’s suffrage movement, and along with her younger sister Sophia (a noted suffragette campaigner) was able to use her privileged status as a ‘princess’ to confer additional legitimacy on the protesters. In the main, however, imperial policy towards deposed royals succeeded in its primary aim of buttressing the Raj. Although the sisters visited their family’s former realm in India and made some contribution to advancing women’s rights there, they were considered too Europeanised to be a serious threat to British authority.

The same basic pattern continued into the mid-twentieth century, even as the empire weakened and monarchs started coming to Oxford as leaders-in-waiting of their countries, rather than as powerless captives. One notable figure was Seretse Khama, the kgosi or hereditary chieftain of the Ngwato people in modern Botswana, who enrolled at Balliol College to read law in 1945. His life featured many clashes with British authority, which began at Oxford when he was forbidden from sitting the first-year exams because he lacked proficiency in Latin. Leaving the university to continue his training in London, he then caused a political storm by marrying a white woman, Ruth Williams. British politicians were nervous about antagonising the South African government (which was in the process of implementing apartheid, and had no desire for an interracial royal couple to become established as leaders in a neighbouring country), and conspired to prevent Seretse from occupying his throne. Undaunted, he switched to seeking power via the ballot box and became Botswana’s first president upon its independence in 1965.

Black and white photo portrait of a man with a moustache
Sir Seretse Khama, © National Portrait Gallery, London

Seretse Khama’s achievements in defying colonial racism and establishing the seeds of Botswana’s prosperity have made him an internationally celebrated hero, to the extent that his romance with Ruth was turned into a 2016 movie starring David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike. Nonetheless, it should be noted that despite his thorny relationship with the crumbling empire, as an aristocrat shaped by his educational and personal ties to England, he was never a mortal threat to British goals in the region. Wary of both communism and radical African nationalism, during his presidency Seretse established Botswana as a reliable UK ally and poster child for capitalist development. Consequently, Britain was only too happy to confirm his place within the symbolic semi-feudal hierarchy that outlived formal imperial rule, gifting him a knighthood and membership of the Order of the Bath.

This postcolonial context helps to explain why the golden age of monarchy at Oxford is in fact a recent and ongoing phenomenon. Determined to maintain its much-vaunted but fraying ‘soft power’, Westminster is keener than ever to attract potential world leaders to study at UK universities where they may be indirectly moulded by British influences. Future kings are easier to identify and recruit than future democratic premiers, and for their part, upholding family traditions comes naturally to dynastic rulers. For instance, it is hardly surprising that the reigning Hashemite king of Jordan (Abdullah II, another Pembrokian) was sent to Oxford for his education; his father and grandfather had also studied in Britain, and educational links go all the way back to the 1910s, when Oxonian scholar T.E. Lawrence helped raise the Hashemite family to royal rank. Meanwhile, Haitham of Oman’s eldest son and potential successor, Theyazin, is also an alumnus.

In the final analysis, although we’ve seen that Oxford’s royal alumni are a more diverse and downtrodden bunch than might be expected, it remains doubtful that they can ever be regarded as authentically marginal voices. There has always been a comfortable place for the blue-blooded in the Anglocentric world system, and universities remain an effective tool for neutering potential threats to British interests even after the empire’s fall.

Nonetheless, we should not end our consideration of undemocratic alumni without briefly considering another category distinct from hereditary monarchs, which may pose a greater challenge to the liberal order. On 30 March 2020, yet another Pembrokian followed Haitham and Abdullah’s example and was granted draconian authority over his country. Viktor Orbán is no born ruler, however, but rather one who has walked the opposite path to Seretse Khama and gone from democrat to uncrowned king. It remains to be seen whether his new emergency powers (ostensibly conferred by parliament to deal with the Covid-19 crisis, though without any kind of time limit) will indeed spell the end for Hungary’s rule of law. If so, then Oxford will gain the grim distinction of having produced its first fully-fledged dictator.

Written by Louis Morris


[1] The elected leaders are Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the UK, and President Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson of Iceland. The monarchs are Sultan Haitham bin Tariq of Oman, Emperor Naruhito of Japan, King Philippe of Belgium, King Abdullah II of Jordan, King Harald V of Norway, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck of Bhutan, and Supreme Head Abdullah of Malaysia. The tally of unelected to elected leaders thus stands at seven to three. If we were to exclude heads of state who exercise predominantly ceremonial functions and include only those who wield substantial political power, unelected monarchs would still be in front by three to two. Note that two leaders have been left out of both lists owing to their anomalous status: these are Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma (her position as State Counsellor was created for her to reflect her party’s democratic victory in 2015, but it is not an elected office and the de jure head of both state and government is President Win Mynt) and Viktor Orbán of Hungary (who will be discussed at the end of the article).

[2] There are unconfirmed reports that Henry V was briefly enrolled at Queen’s College in 1398, but if true this seems more likely to have been a political arrangement (his uncle was at that time chancellor of the university, and was protecting the young prince after Henry’s father had been banished from the kingdom) than an educational one.