Stormy Birth for the House of Windsor

Tsar Nicholas poses with his lookalike cousin King George V (right), both dressed in German military uniform
Tsar Nicholas poses with his lookalike cousin King George V (right), both dressed in German military uniform

by Ray Setterfield

July 17, 1917 — Under mounting pressure, King George V renounced all his German connections on this day and changed the name of the UK Royal Family from the alien Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to the acceptable English-sounding Windsor.

It came at a time when anti-German feeling was reaching fever pitch in the UK. The end of the First World War was in sight but Kaiser Wilhelm II (a cousin of King George and a grandson of Queen Victoria) began pounding Britain with a new heavy aircraft bomber – the Gotha G.IV.

The name of the bomber became notorious across the UK and stirred resentment against the Gotha-named Royal Family, especially after 18 children were killed when a Gotha bomber attacked a school in the East End of London.

Faced with mutterings that he was pro-German, King George ordered his private secretary Lord Stamfordham to come up with an alternative family name.

The historic names of Tudor, Plantagenet and Stuart were all considered but rejected. Becoming desperate as he worked in a study at Windsor Castle, Stamfordham looked round for inspiration and thought: why not take the name of Windsor? The monarchy had used the castle since it was built in the 11th century and the name exuded Englishness.

It was a master stroke. Inspired by Stamfordham's suggestion, King George, who was appointed Colonel-in-Chief of a German regiment during a visit to Berlin in 1902 – and kept the title until the two countries declared war in 1914 – issued a royal proclamation. It read (in part):

"Whereas We, having taken into consideration the Name and Title of Our Royal House and Family, have determined that henceforth Our House and Family shall be styled and known as the House and Family of Windsor . . .

" . . . And do hereby further declare and announce that We for Ourselves and for and on behalf of Our descendants and all other descendants of Our Grandmother Queen Victoria who are subjects of these Realms, relinquish and enjoin the discontinuance of the use of the Degrees, Styles, Dignities, Titles and Honours of Dukes and Duchesses of Saxony and Princes and Princesses of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, and all other German Degrees, Styles, Dignities. Titles, Honours and Appellations to Us or to them heretofore belonging or appertaining."

When he heard the news, Kaiser Wilhelm, a man apparently blessed with a sense of humour despite all his difficulties, is said to have suggested that Shakespeare's "The Merry Wives of Windsor" should be renamed "The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha".

The teutonic name stemmed from the marriage in 1840 of Queen Victoria – the last member of the House of Hanover – to Germany's Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. It remained uncontroversial until the tumultuous year of 1917 when the Gotha bombings began. It was also the year when Czar Nicholas II of Russia was forced to abdicate, sending a shudder of fear across his extended European family.

Nicholas was related to several monarchs in Europe. His mother's siblings included Kings Frederick VIII of Denmark and George I of Greece, as well as the United Kingdom's Queen Alexandra (consort of King Edward VII). Nicholas, his wife Alexandra, and German Emperor Wilhelm II were all first cousins of King George V. Nicholas was also a first cousin of both Haakon VII of Norway as well as King Constantine I of Greece.

In the above photo Nicholas is in the uniform of the Westphalian Hussars and King George is in the uniform of the Rhenish Cuirassiers – their respective German regiments. It was taken during the wedding of the Kaiser’s daughter Princess Victoria Louise of Prussia on 24 May 1913 in Berlin. It was the last major gathering of the extended family before the outbreak of the First World War.

Czar Nicholas, with his wife, Alexandra, and their children, was shot dead by Bolsheviks in 1918.

Published: February 1, 2018

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