7 Rulers of Countries Who Studied at Oxford
Few things express the key role that the University of Oxford has played in the history of the world as well as the sheer number of rulers of countries who have studied there over the centuries.
From kings to prime ministers to presidents, the notable and powerful from every continent on Earth (four continents are represented in our list below) have come to Oxford in order to be educated. The intensive tutorial system is a remarkable training ground for adversarial styles of politics such as the British parliament, where the ability to defend a point rapidly and well is vital in such arenas as Prime Minister’s Questions.
In the list below, we look at some of the rulers of nations who studied at Oxford, how they came to be there and what they did next.
1. King Henry V of England
It isn’t usual for British royalty to go to university, even now. The current Prince of Wales, Charles, was only the third member of the royal family ever to gain a degree – a 2:2 from Trinity College, Cambridge – and was even unusual among heirs to the throne in having been sent to school, rather than having a private tutor. Heirs to the throne have traditionally spent time in the army upon leaving school, rather than going to university.
In Henry V’s time, attending a university would have been even more unusual for an heir to the throne – but these were not usual times. His father, Henry IV, had been in exile in France and returned to claim the throne and usurp Richard II in 1399. This was the year that the boy who would become Henry V spent at Queen’s. He was only 12 years old, and was there under the care of Henry Beaufort, his uncle, who was Chancellor of the University.
What Henry did or learned at Queen’s is a mystery. His childhood had been strange enough; when his father was exiled, Richard II took him into his care and travelled with him through Ireland – then he was sent to his uncle on Richard’s usurpation. He was High Sheriff of Cornwall from the age of 13 to 17, and at 16 he led his own army into Wales against Owain Glyndŵr. While we might instinctively think of a boy of 12 feeling lost among the older Oxford scholars, they wouldn’t in fact have been so much older than him – it was entirely normal for boys as young as 14 to be sent to university, so he might well have been quite at home.
2. King Edward VIII of the United Kingdom
By the time that Edward VIII was at university, Britain, Oxford and the British monarchy were all very different from Henry V’s day. The British king or queen had very little real power, and had become little more than a figurehead, as remains the case today. Edward entered Magdalen College, Oxford, a few years before the outbreak of the First World War.
At this point it was reasonably normal for academically capable men and some women of the middle and upper classes to go to university, though among the upper classes there remained an anti-intellectual sentiment. Even at the start of the 20th century, a man of the upper classes would much rather be seen as a good sportsman, or entertaining conversationalist, than be known for academic achievements. Edward was no different from the rest of his class in this respect. He left Magdalen after eight terms without taking a degree, but did enjoy playing polo with the university club.
However, what Edward VIII is really known for is his relationship with Wallis Simpson, an American divorcée. Remarriage after divorce was still frowned upon by the Church of England, and Edward VIII as king was the head of the Church. Rather than give up his fiancée, Edward VIII chose instead to give up the throne to his younger brother, George VI, in order that he would be free to marry the woman he loved.
3. Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India
Indira Gandhi is the first person on this list to study at Oxford University and also to hold a degree from Oxford, although even then, she did not complete her studies, and her Oxford degree was honorary. Gandhi came to Oxford in 1937, and studied History at Somerville, which at that time was still an all-female college. Poor health required her to make frequent trips to Switzerland that made her studies a struggle, and in 1940, the Second World War left her stranded there for some time, unable to return to England. When she finally did make it back in 1941, she returned to India without finishing her degree.
This did not hinder her political progress. In 1971, she became India’s first (and thus far, only) female Prime Minister, eight years before Margaret Thatcher would achieve the same feat in the UK. Thatcher had also studied at Somerville, but arrived two years after Gandhi left, so they were not contemporaries. Gandhi was Prime Minister until 1977, then again from 1980 until her assassination in 1984.
4. Benazir Bhutto, Prime Minister of Pakistan
Benazir Bhutto was also the first and so far only female Prime Minister of her country, Pakistan, though unlike Gandhi and Thatcher, she did not study at Somerville. Instead, her undergraduate degree was at Harvard, studying comparative government, and she came to Oxford for postgraduate study. There she studied at Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Lady Margaret Hall and St Catherine’s College, and was also elected head of the Oxford Union debating society. While Lady Margaret Hall is a Victorian women’s college in the style of Somerville, St Catherine’s College was quite different: modern in architecture and outlook, and co-educational from 1974, making it one of the first men’s colleges to open its doors to women.
Bhutto became Prime Minister of Pakistan in 1988, but struggles with the President of Pakistan led to her government being dismissed in 1990. After three years as Leader of the Opposition, Bhutto became Prime Minister once again in 1993 until her government was dismissed again in 1997. Public opinion turned quite sharply against her time in power, leading her to move out of the country for nearly a decade. She returned in 2007 and prepared to stand for the 2008 elections through a power-sharing deal with then President Pervez Musharraf. However, almost as soon as she returned to Pakistan, a bombing attempt was made on her life that she survived, but that led to the deaths of 139 others, particularly a large number of security guards who formed a human shield to protect her. Two months later, a second similar attempt succeeded.
5. Bill Clinton, President of the USA
The story of Bill Clinton’s time in Oxford begins with the will of Cecil Rhodes, the British imperialist and businessman after whom the country of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) was named. In order to promote civic leadership among young people “with the moral force of character and instincts to lead”, Rhodes left money in his will to sponsor non-British scholars to come and study at Oxford. To be a Rhodes Scholar is highly prestigious, and it was a Rhodes scholarship that brought Clinton, a graduate of Georgetown University, to University College, Oxford, in 1968. He studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics, but left for Yale Law School before he took his degree. The Australian Prime Ministers Bob Hawke, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull were all also Rhodes Scholars.
When Clinton stood for election in 1992, much was made of his time at Oxford – George H W Bush referred disparagingly to “liberal guys that were hanging out with him at Oxford.” The same set of associations appear in Clinton’s own letters from the time, such as one where he wrote: “Oxford is a lovely place, a triumph of man and nature. And the atmosphere is conducive to reading, studying, and thinking. If it eases your mind any, I have not yet fallen prey to any dangerous left-wing ideas I didn’t have before I left the States!”
Despite the aspersions cast on an Oxford education, Clinton defeated Bush in 1992 to become the 42nd President of the United States of America. In 1996, he was reelected for a second term. There was a famous attempt to impeach him on grounds of perjury in 1998, but he was acquitted. He continues to be active in US public life, most notably at the moment in his support of his wife, Hillary Clinton, as she bids to become President in 2016.
6. Seretse Khama, President of Botswana
By the time Seretse Khama was a student at Balliol College, Oxford, he had already been a king for nearly twenty years. He had been king of the Bamangwato people since his father’s death in 1925, when he was just four years old. He obtained his undergraduate degree from Fort Hare University College in South Africa, before coming to the UK to spend a year at Balliol, which has traditionally been one of Oxford’s most forward-thinking colleges.
From Oxford he moved to London in order to become a barrister, and there met Ruth Williams, who was white and English. Their marriage, being interracial, was shocking at the time and had implications for international relations between the British colony of Bechuanaland (which would later become Botswana), and South Africa. It led to Khama’s exile from Bechuanaland, but this was short-lived – he renounced his throne, returned to Bechuanaland with his wife and ultimately helped secure Bechuanaland’s independence. He became the first President of the new country of Botswana.
Under his presidency, until his death in 1980, Botswana had the fastest-growing economy in the world – admittedly from a very low base. Khama’s focus on development, on avoiding Botswana’s involvement with the wars of its neighbours, and on minimising corruption, does seem to have contributed considerably to the success of the country. Khama’s son, Ian, has himself been President of Botswana since 2008. The pivotal relationship between Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams has also been a great subject of interest – in the book ‘A Marriage of Inconvenience’ and subsequent film adaptation, and in another upcoming film, ‘A United Kingdom’.
7. David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
Nearly as many Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom have been educated at Oxford as all other universities put together, especially looking at the 20th and 21st century. So in order not to fill up this list solely with British Prime Ministers, we’re looking solely at the current one. David Cameron studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Brasenose College, Oxford, graduating in 1988.
His academic abilities have been praised by his former tutor, Vernon Bogdanor, despite their differing political views. Another fellow student said in Time magazine that, “We were doing our best to grasp basic economic concepts. David – there was nobody else who came even close. He would be integrating them with the way the British political system is put together. He could have lectured me on it, and I would have sat there and taken notes.” All the same, Cameron’s time at Oxford has been used as a point of criticism. He has been accused of having been a member of rowdy and immoral student clubs, with much debate over how much he actually took part in their various activities.
More importantly, he has frequently been described as an “essay crisis Prime Minister”. Oxford students have to write one or two essays per week, and so are often in a state of panic with an essay deadline approaching worryingly soon. It has been suggested that Cameron takes much the same approach to government – throwing something together at the last minute, and hoping it will hang together. But perhaps this ability to think on his feet is also what has led him to excel at the difficult spectacle of Prime Minister’s Questions.
Oxford has prepared a wide range of royalty and politicians for their tricky positions in public life – quite possibly more than any other university in the world. All that remains is to wonder which of the current or future generations of Oxford students will follow in their footsteps and go on to shape the world!