The kings, queens, and captains that populate pop culture are, for the most part, imagined. But then there are those familiar figures who are far from fictional. While unfortunately there's no evidence there was ever an actual Mother of Dragons, other positions from books, folklore, television, and other cultural channels are (or were) very real, and we’ve got the backstories (and, in some cases, current titleholders) to prove it.
1. THE SHERIFF OF NOTTINGHAM
He was Robin Hood’s villainous rival in the classic English tale, trying his best to thwart the folk hero's stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. But in real life, the Sheriff of Nottingham’s responsibilities are remarkably less sinister.
Some argue Robin Hood’s sheriff was based on actual Nottingham Sheriff Reginald de Grey, who was tasked with pulling together an army to defeat the outlaws (including possible Robin Hood inspiration Roger Godberd), defying the area royals in the 13th century. Once modern police forces came along, the job had less law enforcement pull. Today, it’s largely ceremonial, with current Sheriff Jackie Morris (who now holds the position for a second time, having also been the predecessor to last year's sheriff, Mohammed Saghir) trading in the historic hunt for Merry Men for important stuff like supporting the city's tourism strategy, encouraging residents to utilize all Nottingham has to offer, and "hosting welcome receptions in order to promote the city."
2. THE QUEEN OF SHEBA
"The Queen of Sheba's Visit to Solomon." Getty
Nobody has been able to definitively prove who the Queen of Sheba actually was, but the legendary royal appears in the sacred religious texts and traditions of Christians, Jews, and Muslims, so scholars are pretty sure she must have been based on somebody (though the stuff about her having a goat hoof for a foot is probably less likely). Clues from her various cultural appearances suggest she came from a place rich with gemstones, spices, and incense, which would hint at roots in modern day Ethiopia, Yemen, or Somalia, and her interactions with King Solomon narrow down her lifespan to a few different periods people have assigned to the historic king. While Yemen and other regions still see the Queen of Sheba as their own legend, in Ethiopia she is credited with having a son with the biblical King Solomon named Menelik, who was said to have brought the Ark of the Covenant (yep, the same one Indiana Jones was after) back to their country. Sheba giving birth to Menelik was also believed to have been the start of the Solomonic dynasty, the Ethiopian emperors who ruled the country as recently as the 1970s.
3. THE EARL OF SANDWICH
The greatest thing since sliced bread was clearly the sandwich since it put bread to an even more delicious use—and the real-life man behind everyone’s favorite lunch staple was the Earl of Sandwich, a title that’s lived on for centuries in the quaint English community that shares its name. It was, in fact, the fourth Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu, who developed the edible namesake in the 18th century, apparently so he could keep snacking while he played cards (although people had eaten bread with fillings long before Montagu came along). But generations later, members of the Montagu family continue to use their inventive relative to their personal advantage: The 11th Earl of Sandwich (also named John Montagu) teamed up with Planet Hollywood founder Robert Earl in 2004 to launch a restaurant chain named after the family title. And the same Montagu’s son Luke, the heir to the earldom, is married to Julie Montagu, an American yoga instructor who joined the cast of Bravo's Real Housewives offshoot Ladies of London in 2014; on it, she often mentions her efforts to modernize and promote the family estate, Mapperton, and has told the story of her husband's ancestor and his favorite snack. The town of Sandwich celebrated the 250th anniversary of its most famous food in 2012.
4. THE KING OF SIAM
Getty Images // Wikimedia Commons
When the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic The King and I returned to Broadway for its 2015 revival, director Bartlett Sher was careful to pay homage to the real people whose lives inspired the musical: Indian-English governess Anna Leonowens and King Mongkut of 19th century Thailand, then known as Siam. Leonowens's 1870 memoir about her years as a governess at the Siamese court was the work former Christian missionary Margaret Landon based her 1944 novel Anna and the King of Siam on. Landon's book sparked an Oscar-winning movie and the iconic stage production, which led to another Oscar-winning movie, starring Yul Brynner as the king. The real Mongkut’s descendant, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, sat on the Thai throne for 70 years as the world’s longest-reigning living monarch until his death in October 2016 (his son was then crowned in December of that year). As far as we know, no musicals are being penned about Bhumibol—though even if they were, they’d probably be banned in his country, much like the play that made Siam’s king so famous in the first place.
5. LADY GRANTHAM (A.K.A. LADY ALMINA)
PBS // Wikimedia Commons
Even after Downton Abbey closed its TV doors in 2015, the proper lords and ladies who reside in the real Downton—southern England's Highclere Castle—aren’t going anywhere. The estate where the popular drama was shot has been home to the aristocratic Carnarvon family for generations, and Downton creator Julian Fellowes has said he finds the real Highclere "very intriguing." Currently, the 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon live part-time on the grounds, but in the early decades of the 20th century when the fictional action of Downton was unfolding, the lady of the manor was Lady Almina, the wife of the estate's 5th Earl. Almina shared many qualities with the TV show’s Lady Grantham: She was a wealthy American heiress, she turned the house into a makeshift hospital during World War I, and she modernized the property by adding electricity and a telephone line.
6. THE MARQUIS DE SADE
The world has long had mixed feelings about the guy who inspired the word sadism. Born in Paris in 1740, the infamous Marquis de Sade got an understandably bad rep for both his seriously scandalous writings (think violent orgies, prostitution, murder, and more) and his own troubling behavior (he died in an insane asylum). For generations after the marquis's death, the de Sade family chose to pretend their rebellious relative hadn’t existed at all. It wasn’t until the late 1940s that de Sade descendants started owning their famous forebear. Today, current marquis Elzéar de Sade and his brothers, Hugues and Thibault, have embraced their ancestor and hope others will too via exhibits of family artifacts and, of course, branded merchandise (Marquis de Sade wine, anyone?).
7. THE SOUP NAZI
His title was bestowed by contemporary sitcom writers, not ancient officials, but the so-called Soup Nazi was based on a very real New York soup-slinger with very little patience for those unable to adhere to his strict ordering rules. Initially, Al Yeganeh wasn’t crazy about the classic Seinfeld episode based on his restaurant (and was pretty vocal about it), but in the 20-plus years since the show first aired, Yeganeh and his Original Soupman brand have used the unexpected fame (and the actor who played the Yeganeh-inspired character on the show) to promote their soups and franchises.
8. THE PRINCE OF WALACHIA
You probably know him as Count Dracula. Author Bram Stoker's fictional, bloodthirsty noble went down in horror history when the eponymous novel was published in 1897. The original Dracula, otherwise known as Vlad III (and better known still as Vlad the Impaler), ruled the southern region of what is now Romania centuries earlier. Stoker likely looked to the 15th-century prince and his legendary brutality as a partial model when he penned his famous book—and there was plenty of reported cruelty to scour, such as Vlad's proclivity for leaving his enemies on spikes (thus giving him his posthumous nickname) and the legend of his dipping his bread in their blood. Subsequent Romanian royals were a lot more humane. The kingdom of Walachia was dissolved in 1859, and today it’s the president and prime minister that hold the real power in the region, though Britain's Prince Charles did claim to be a descendent of Vlad a few years back (prompting some to speculate he might take over the Romanian throne) and 95-year-old former monarch King Michael I, who abdicated in 1947, is still known as the king.