A common motif in art of the Middle Ages is that of the Wheel of Fate. A spoked wheel is shown with a king sitting at the top. As the wheel turns, the king is toppled from his place and shown as a beggar crushed by the turn of fate.
Of course, the other side of that wheel shows how a beggar may rise to become a king, reigning at the top of the wheel. Indeed, there have been many times in history where the most unlikely people have risen to the apex of society. Here are ten such people who beat the odds to become monarchs.
Being born into the important Claudian family in ancient Rome should have guaranteed Tiberius Claudius Drusus an important role in the government of the empire. His grandmother Livia was married to Emperor Augustus, his great uncle Tiberius became emperor, and his nephew Caligula followed Tiberius as emperor. His proximity to the imperial throne should have made Claudius the obvious choice for becoming emperor himself—but Claudius was disabled in a world that had no sympathy. His own mother called him a “monster” because he limped, stammered, drooled, and had shaking hands. When Caligula was emperor, he mocked his uncle Claudius mercilessly.
When others in the empire became tired of Caligula’s little jokes, they assassinated the young emperor. The assassins aimed at restoring the Republic because there was no obvious male heir for the emperor. But they had forgotten poor old Claudius. According to the historian Cassius Dio, in the chaos after the assassination, soldiers ransacking the imperial palace found Claudius cowering behind curtains. They dragged him out and made him the new emperor.
Historians debate the merits of Claudius’s rule. He seems to have been easily led by low-born officials and his wives, but he also led the conquest of Britain. He was made a god after his death, so he didn’t do too badly in the end.
9 Ivaylo The Cabbage
It isn’t necessary to be born into a royal family to reach the throne. Many times, it is someone completely outside of the royal court who makes it to the top. Ivaylo began his life as a peasant, perhaps even as a swineherd, but one who dreamed of bigger things. Bulgaria of the 13th century was menaced by Mongol hordes, and it was the constant threat of the raiders that drove Ivaylo to take action. Raising an army of other disaffected peasants, he launched a campaign to drive them out. He was remarkably successful. This success did not please everyone, however, the current ruler of Bulgaria and the emperor in Constantinople, for instance. Constantine, tsar of Bulgaria, met Ivaylo’s forces in battle and promptly lost to the pig herder. Ivaylo may even have slain the tsar personally.
The emperor in Constantinople now tried to put a tsar of his own choosing on the throne of Bulgaria. To shore up his position, Ivaylo married the widow of the tsar he killed. His reign was immediately challenged by the Byzantines and new Mongol forces. He had further military successes, but eventually, the aristocracy drove Ivaylo into exile among the Mongols, where he was soon killed. His reign lasted only a year, but he is remembered as a popular figure in Bulgarian history. Ivaylo was nicknamed “the Cabbage” or “the Raddish” to ridicule his humble origins.
8 Basil I
The Byzantine Empire may have disliked the idea of a commoner rising to the throne of Bulgaria, but it was not unknown for it to happen in Constantinople, too. In the ninth century, a penniless wanderer appeared. Basil, from a peasant family, traded on his good looks to gain a position in the emperor’s stables. When he won a wrestling contest, he also won the attention of Emperor Michael III “the Drunkard.” The two soon became constant companions. The emperor married Basil to one of his favorite mistresses as a mark of his favor. Basil murdered the emperor’s uncle, on the emperor’s orders, and became the second most powerful man at the Byzantine court. This position was confirmed when Basil was crowned co-emperor.
When Michael began to favor a new man, Basil decided to act. When the emperor and the new favorite were insensibly drunk at a feast, Basil had his men kill them both, becoming instantly the sole ruler of the Byzantine empire. For the next 19 years, Basil ruled over a prosperous and expanding empire. He died from a wound sustained in a hunting accident when his belt became caught in the horns of a stag.
7 Justin I
Even before Basil, the Eastern Roman Empire had been ruled by a peasant. In AD 518, a former swineherd called Justin came to the throne. A Thracian by birth, with the un-Roman name of Istok, he barely spoke any Greek, which was the imperial language. The future emperor moved to Constantinople when he fled a barbarian invasion with two friends. They carried only the rags on their backs and a sack of bread. Because of his strength, Justin was made one of the imperial bodyguards.
Justin rose through the ranks, and after decades of service, he became head of the emperor’s guard. On the death of the Emperor Anastasius I, there was no obvious choice of successor. The people of Constantinople became restive in the power vacuum. Because Justin was the only military commander with troops present, he was raised to become the new emperor. For supporting his claim, Justin paid his troops well. He was later succeeded by his nephew Justinian, remembered by history as Justinian the Great.
6 Toyotomi Hideyoshi
Little is known for sure about the early life of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who rose to rule Japan in the 1580s and ended the Warring States period. He is not mentioned in any official records in his early years, and tradition has it that he was born into a peasant family. Some have the young Hideyoshi being sent to a temple, only to run away in search of adventure. It appears he served as a lowly soldier in the army of a great lord before being recognized for his skill at war. He was rewarded with an official position as a sandal-bearer. His love of drinking and conversation eased his rise through the ranks.
By 1582, Hideyoshi was commanding armies for his lord, Nobunaga. While besieging a castle, Hideyoshi called for reinforcements. When Nobunaga came to his aid, he was betrayed by another of his generals and committed suicide while surrounded. In the confusion that followed Nobunaga’s downfall, Hideyoshi took charge. He took revenge on those who had betrayed his master and then conquered those regions of Japan that were in revolt. Hideyoshi had himself adopted into a high-ranking family so that he could take over important court positions. He emerged as the regent of Japan and unified the fractious country.
5 Zhu Yuanzhang
Zhu Yuanzhang had a tough upbringing. He was born in the 1320s in a China that was suffering regular famines. The youngest of seven or eight sons of a peasant family, he saw several of his brothers given away to ease the family burden. He was also notoriously hideous. When he was 16, his home was destroyed by a flood, and many of his family died of disease. The monastery that he fled to was unable to feed him, so he had to beg for food. Then the monastery was destroyed by troops from the ruling Yuan dynasty. Most people would be tempted to give up, but Zhu joined a band of rebels instead.
As more people rebelled against the Yuan, Zhu Yuanzhang emerged as a leader of the revolt. His forces helped helped bring down the Yuan and then defeated other rebel leaders. He declared himself the first emperor of the new Ming Dynasty in 1368 and unified all of China under his rule in 1381. His rule saw the restoration of the Great Wall into its current form as an imposing stone structure. It also saw brutal purges of officials as well as any painter who portrayed his unusual features in too lifelike a manner.
4 Charles XIV John Of Sweden
Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte was born the son of a lawyer in 1763 in France. Instead of picking up his father’s pen, Jean-Baptiste decided that a sword would suit his hand better. He was destined for a military career. He could not have picked a better time; Jean-Baptiste was just the sort of talented military officer who would rise in the French army during the revolution. In just a few years, he became a general. As Napoleon Bonaparte rose to prominence, Jean-Baptiste joined himself in marriage to the Bonaparte family. Under Napoleon, he became one of the marshals of France and was finally made a prince.
In 1810, Sweden was facing a crisis. King Charles XIII had no children to succeed him. The government began to cast their eye over Europe for a suitable heir. Bernadotte, seen as a military hero, was offered the position of heir. He took it up gladly. When Charles XIII died, Jean-Baptiste became Charles XIV John of Sweden.
In the 1790s, he had written, “Being a republican both by principle and by conviction, I want to fight all royalists to my death.” Obviously, being offered a crown rather changed Bernadotte’s mind. The House of Bernadotte still reigns in Sweden.
3 Catherine The Great
Catherine the Great was born Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst to a minor prince in Prussia. Despite her high title, there was little money or power in her immediate family. Through her mother’s family, however, she was related to powerful aristocrats. Looking to strengthen the bonds between Prussia and Russia, it was decided that the young princess would be wed to Grand Duke Peter, heir to the Russian throne. In Russia, she converted to the Orthodox faith and took the name Catherine.
The marriage was a disaster. She hated Peter’s appearance and the fact that he played incessantly with toy soldiers in bed. Peter could not rule, as his mother Elizabeth had seized the throne and had no wish to hand it over to her son. Catherine learned from her mother-in-law. When Elizabeth died and Peter became the tsar, he only ruled for six months before Catherine led a coup and proclaimed herself empress of Russia. Eight days later, Peter died mysteriously.
Catherine would rule for 34 years and was succeeded by her son.
When Alexander the Great was out conquering the known world, he faced a problem. It would be impossible to rule his vast territories directly. He would have to leave rulers behind who would be loyal to him but would also be acceptable to the people he had defeated. His solution was often to simply force the rulers he beat in battle to swear allegiance to him. In the city of Sidon, there was no obvious person to take charge, so he set his friend Hephaestion the task of finding a new king.
Hephaestion found a poor gardener in the city who some nobles had said they thought highly of. A distant relative of the family that had ruled the city, Abdalonymus had taken no notice of the war and had simply continued to tend his garden. His honesty and hard work appealed to Hephaestion. It was while pulling up some weeds that Hephaestion and the nobles of Sidon arrived to offer Abdalonymus the insignia of the king. The gardener thought they were either joking or mad but was eventually convinced to take the throne.
1 James Brooke
Sir James Brooke was born at the height of the British Empire and would found one of its strangest corners. He was raised in India but sent to a school in England, from which he ran away and returned to India. He joined the army of the East India Company and gained a taste for warfare. When his father died and left him £30,000, James bought a large ship called (appropriately) Royalist, thinking to engage in adventuring, exploring, and trading.
The sultan of Brunei was trying to put down a rebellion in Sarawak on the island of Borneo. Brooke sailed his vessel to help. He was offered a good deal: If Brooke crushed the rebellion, he would be given Sarawak to rule. Brooke enthusiastically set about putting down the raiders, pirates, and rebels of Sarawak. In 1842, the sultan made Brooke the rajah of Sarawak. Brooke was succeeded by family members, each becoming the white rajah. The last white rajah abdicated in 1946 and ceded the state to Britain as a colony.