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Great Brits that were not actually born in Britain

Updated August 10, 2017

Britishness, as we all know, is as much a state of mind as it is a national identity. This can be seen in the number of major figures from British history who were not British -- or, at least, wouldn't be thought of as British if they were alive today; as borders change and empires fade, people from around the world are no longer thought of as British. So which great Brits originally came from abroad? Read on and find out.

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Elizabeth I

Today we think of Elizabeth I as one of the greatest British rulers, but in her time the idea would have seemed strange. The word "Briton" didn't come to mean someone from the British isles until well after her death. Elizabeth I was English, while the term "Briton" referred mainly to the inhabitants of the British Isles before and during the Roman period -- the ancestors of the people of Wales and Cornwall. The term didn't come back into use until after James I became the first King of Great Britain.

The Duke of Wellington

Although Arthur Wellesley famously said that being born in a stable didn't make him a horse, the fact remains that he was born in Ireland and lived there until he was 12 years old. At the time, Ireland was ruled by Britain, making Wellesley, together with many other Irish natives on this list, British in a legal sense.

Andrew Bonar Law

Little remembered today, Bonar Law was Prime Minister for less than a year, dying suddenly in 1923. He is unusual for being the only Prime Minister who was not from Britain. Law was born in Canada in 1858 and only moved to Scotland in 1870. At the time, Canada was part of the British Empire.

Oscar Wilde

Works like "The Importance of Being Earnest" or "The Picture of Dorian Gray" are such important features of the English theatre and literature that it's easy to forget that Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was not British. He was born in Ireland in 1854, moved to Britain in 1874 to attend Oxford, and relocated to France following his release from prison in 1897.

George Bernard Shaw

Playwright and public curmudgeon George Bernard Shaw's wit and combativeness represent some of the proudest traditions of British letters. Of course, like Wilde, Shaw was Irish, born in Dublin in 1856. A man of many talents and interests, he is also known for having co-founded the London School of Economics and being the only person to have received both a Nobel Prize in Literature and an Oscar.

T.S. Eliot

One of the greatest poets of the 20th century, T. S. Eliot is a towering figure in British literature. Although he became a British citizen in 1927 at the age of 39, Eliot was born in St Louis, Missouri. Another great 20th century poet, W. H. Auden, made the journey in reverse, being born in Britain but becoming an American citizen in 1946.

Bram Stoker

Although he lived in London and set his famous Gothic novel Dracula mainly in England, novelist Bram Stoker was, you guessed it, Irish, born in 1847 in Clontarf. In fact, Stoker and Wilde were friends from university. Wilde even briefly courted the woman Stoker would later marry.

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Freddie Mercury

Music legend Freddie Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara in Zanzibar in 1946. At the time, Zanzibar was a British protectorate, making Mercury a British subject; he and his family relocated to England following Zanzibar's revolution in 1964. Not only was Queen one of the best known British bands around the world, it's name and regal aesthetic are a clear reference to British culture.

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Saint Anselm of Canterbury

He made major contributions to church philosophy, clashed with William Rufus, and was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 to 1109. But Saint Anselm of Canterbury was born in Aosta, in what is today Italy, and had been a monk in a French monastery. The medieval church was a very international place; one of Anselm's main rivals, Bishop Ranulf Flambard of Durham, was originally from Normandy.

Related: The hidden heritage and meaning of English names

Joe Strummer

John Mellor's parents were British, making him a British citizen, but his father's diplomatic career gave him an international background. Born in Turkey in 1952, the punk icon better known as Joe Strummer inherited a tradition of world travel: his father had been born in India, and before settling in the United Kingdom, the future Joe Strummer would live in Egypt, Mexico and West Germany.

Related: 20 Moments that changed modern music forever

Prince Philip

Born in Greece in 1921, the Prince Consort is a member of both the Greek and Danish royal families. Following the family's exile from Greece, the young Philip served in the Royal Navy during World War II. Before marrying then-Princess Elizabeth, he gave up his titles, became a British citizen and adopted the surname Mountbatten.

Related: A very royal history of scandals

British India

A list of great Britons who were born or raised in colonial India could be its own article, so here are a few highlights: master of the adventure story Rudyard Kipling, novelist and essayist George Orwell, inexplicable heartthrob Cliff Richard, Academy Award winner Vivien Leigh and professional madman Spike Milligan.

Related: History's 10 greatest forgotten moments

... and the rest of the Empire

The rest of the Empire also produced its fair share of iconically British figures. Fantasy author J. R. R. Tolkien was born in South Africa while it was still part of the Empire, while comedian Eddie Izzard was born in the Middle Eastern colony of Aden, in present-day Yemen. Actor and director Richard E. Grant was born in Swaziland and is a dual citizen of Swaziland and the UK.

Related: 10 Historical lies that Hollywood made us all believe

Saint Patrick

Just to prove that it isn't all Britain borrowing other countries' famous people, consider the example of Saint Patrick. Although he is the patron saint of Ireland and one of the most recognisable symbols of Irish national identity, Saint Patrick was actually British; he first went to Ireland as a slave at the age of 16.

Related: 16 Thoughts that make you undeniably British

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About the Author

Dr James Holloway has been writing about games, geek culture and whisky since 1995. A former editor of "Archaeological Review from Cambridge," he has also written for Fortean Times, Fantasy Flight Games and The Unspeakable Oath. A graduate of Cambridge University, Holloway runs the blog Gonzo History Gaming.

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