The area that is now Albania fell to Ottoman rule in the late 15th century. At some point in the 16th century, the head of a Kosovar family named Zogolli traveled to Albania, and was named hereditary governor of the small district of Mat. The Zogolli family would retain control of the district into the twentieth century, even as Ottoman power receded. In 1912, as a result of the Second Balkan War, the Turks were forced from Albanian by a coalition of Balkan countries. Fearing Serbian power, Italy and Austria-Hungary forbade the division and annexation of Albania by Serbia and Greece, and instead created an independent principality. A principality requires a prince, of course, and the Great Powers set about finding one. They settled on William of House Wied (nephew of the Queen of Romania), but William was notably reluctant to take up the throne and move to Albania. Eventually, the Austrians convinced William to accept the throne, and he arrived in Albania in February 1914.
Forces internal and external to Albania immediately began to work for William’s overthrow. Essad Toptani, head of a prominent Albanian family and minister to William, sought to undermine William’s rule, and was charged with treason. Italy, unhappy with the selection of a Prince beholden to the Austrians, supported anti-William elements. The Greeks occupied much of the southern half of the country. By September 1914 William had had enough. He fled to Italy, thence to Germany, where he joined the German Army. He died in April 1945, but never renounced his claim to the Albanian throne.
Albania went through a decade of turmoil following the exile of Prince William. Ahmet Zogolli, the young governor of Mat, emerged as a prominent figure during and after the war. Ahmet became President of Albania in 1925 amidst much intrigue, changing the family named to Zogu along the way. In 1928, he had himself crowned King Zog I, and embarked on a campaign of reform and modernization. Zog was famous for his smoking habit (200 cigarettes a day), and for his penchant for surviving assassination attempts; due to the political intrigue and Albania’s tradition of blood feud, fully 55 unsuccessful attempts were made on his life. The modernization campaign had only limited effect, and helped make Albania deeply dependent on Italy, as only Italian loans were available. Italian influence steadily grew, and in 1939 Mussolini decided to the end the increasingly thin fiction of Albanian independence, and invade.
Zog fled in order to continue the fight for Albanian independence abroad. Living variously in Egypt, Britain, and elsewhere, he eventually settled in France. Some royalist resistance existed in occupied Albania, but communist partisan forces were much stronger, and eventually carried the day. Zog died in 1961, leaving the throne to his son Leka, who became King of the Albanians. Leka had been born two days before Zog was forced to flee, and was educated in Egypt, England, and Switzerland. Along the way Leka befriended Ronald Reagan, presenting the latter with an elephant in 1967. Leka also had good relations with Richard Nixon, to whom he is a distant cousin. In the 1970s he was thrown out of Spain on suspicion of arms dealing, later settling in South Africa. Leka denied participation in the arms trade, insisting that agents of the Albanian government were out to get him. Given the nature of the Albanian state, this may well have been true. In 1993, Leka’s Royal Court-in-exile printed an Albanian passport which listed Leka’s occupation as “King”. The post-communist Albanian government recognized the passport, and allowed Leka to enter the country.
Leka displayed a clear interest in assuming the throne, but insisted that he would accept the results of a referendum on the monarchy. When the monarchy was defeated by a 2/3rds margin in a 1997 vote, Leka denounced the procedure and again fled into exile. He was convicted of sedition in absentia and sentenced to three years in prison. Happily, in 2002 this conviction was pardoned by the Albanian parliament. Prospects for a return to the throne are uncertain. Leka is backed by a political party, but this party has not been overwhelmingly successful, and Leka has kept parliamentary democracy at arms length. Leka’s son, Leka II, is active in Albanian life and politics, and recently joined the Albanian Foreign Ministry. Leka and Leka II currently reside in Tirana.
Trivia: What monarch became head of government fifty-five years after ceasing to be head of state?