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“The King and I”: The Real King of Siam

History has given us some great characters and some falsehoods to banish.

King Mongkut of Siam (After death named Rama IV).

King Mongkut of Siam (After death named Rama IV).

The Chakri Dynasty of Siam

The real king who inspired Yul Brunner’s king of Siam, King Mongkut looked very little like his acting counterpart and his character was not as you might expect either. We have governess Anna Leonowens, Broadway and Hollywood to thank for this.

King Mongkut was also known as Phrachonklao and after his death as Rama IV. He was born into the ruling Chakri dynasty on the 18th October 1804 to King Buddha Loetla Nabhalai, posthumously called King Rama II (also known as Phraphutthaloetla Naphalai), and his wife Queen Sri Suriyendra.

Mongkut was the 43rd child of the king but the first to be born to a queen and so he took precedence over his 42 siblings and half-siblings in the succession. However, when his father died in 1824 the accession council of Siam offered the throne to Mongkut’s elder half-brother Thap, the son of a secondary wife named Sri Sulalai. The nearly twenty-year-old true heir was forced to watch as King Nangklao or Phranangklao, later Rama III, took his place on the throne.

Mongkut was a Buddhist monk and abbot before he became King of Siam in 1851.

Mongkut was a Buddhist monk and abbot before he became King of Siam in 1851.

Exile: Buddhist Monk and Scholar

The intelligent and inquisitive Mongkut chose a new path for himself in exile. He became a Buddhist monk and eventually served as the abbot of a monastery in Bangkok. It was during this religious period in his life that he adopted and demanded strict adherence to instructions and faith.

It was through his influence that Buddhism in Siam was reformed and the Thammayut Order was founded. It survives in the 21st century. He also became highly regarded for his scholarly endeavours and as an expert in astronomy and English.

Mongkut travelled with a freedom from ceremony that very few royals before or since have been able to.

Foreign Policy and Siam's Economy Boost

He saw all walks of life in Siam outside the palace walls and in common with several of the Asian countries' royal heirs and ministers he became fascinated by western culture. Mongkut encouraged understanding between the Siamese clerics and their European counterparts.

Mongkut acceded to the throne of Siam in 1851 when his half-brother Rama III passed away. Mongkut’s choice of new chief or prime minister, Somdet Chao Phraya Si Suriyawong or Chuang Bunnag (1810-1883) was a man known to be of the same mind as the king. He was a moderniser and reformer, keen to maintain Siam’s independence. His appointment was not a surprise, the Bunnag dynasty’s members had held influential court roles since the 1600s.

Mongkut negotiated treaties in the mid-1850s with western powers. These allowed the Siamese access to trade in Britain, America and France. He cleverly played long-time frenemies Britain and France off against one another for his benefit and the economy in Siam became secure and protected for a generation through his strategic and tactful dealings.

King Mongkut and Prince Chulalongkorn of Siam in 1866.

King Mongkut and Prince Chulalongkorn of Siam in 1866.

Mongkut's Large Family and His Reform Goals

As successful as King Mongkut was in his foreign policies, the internal politics of Siam were always troublesome and he recognised that reforms would be slow and that his heir Prince Chulalongkorn would be the one to achieve his goals. He ensured that his ever-increasing number of offspring received a liberal education with teachers of European backgrounds so that modernisation would occur and be popular.

Prince Chulalongkorn was Mongkut’s ninth son but the first born to a queen and so he became Mongkut's heir. According to Unofficial Royalty, among the king's 32 concubines and wives were Queens Somanass Waddhanawathy and Debsrindra, Princess Pannarai and Samli Bunnag, a relation of his chief minister. These ladies gave him a total of 82 children: 39 male, 43 female.

Royal governess Anna Leonowens wrote two memoirs about her time in Siam. How accurate were they?

Royal governess Anna Leonowens wrote two memoirs about her time in Siam. How accurate were they?

Anna Leonowens at Siam's Court

The well-travelled widow Anna Leonowens, nee Edwards (1831-1915) accepted King Mongkut's offer of the role of governess to the royal children in 1862 after successfully running a school in Singapore. For five years she schooled his numerous children and she was a vital source of information for Mongkut, keen to learn more about western countries, attitudes and values.

Anna’s two memoirs about her time at the Siamese court have had their accuracy questioned. Maybe to secure significant interest and book sales there were allegedly a number of exaggerations in her writings about her employer. She painted King Mongkut as a tyrannical figure.

The image of a severely prejudiced and unsympathetic man has survived thanks to subsequent depictions in films and on stage but it seems that the real Mongkut was more liberal and tolerant. These qualities partly accounted for his success in foreign policy.

She also embroidered her own story. Anna claimed to have been born in Wales but she was actually born in India. She was christened Ann Hariett Emma but became known as Anna Harriette. Experts have argued that these rewrites were her way of distancing herself from her English-Indian heritage and her humble beginnings.

“The King and I” Trailer

The Tyrant King Mongkut Myth Continues

In 1944 Margaret Landon used Anna Leonowen’s books to create her own work, "Anna and the King of Siam" which in time was the inspiration for the Rogers and Hammerstein musical "The King and I." 4625 stage performances between 1951 and 1985 starred Yul Brunner and, of course, he was the king in the 1956 film version directed by Walter Lang, for which Brunner won an Oscar. For several years “The King and I” was banned in Thailand, the new name for Siam, because it was said to be historically inaccurate and unfair to the late king.

Rama IV (Mongkut) had died from malaria aged 63 on the 15th October 1868. King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) reigned until 1910 and during his reign the country saw extensive liberal reforms.

Today Thailand is ruled by King Vajiralongkorn otherwise known as Rama X of the Chakri dynasty, reputedly the richest ruler on the planet.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Joanne Hayle