How English are the Royals?
Dr. Georg Eckert / History
Photo: UniService Transfer

Just how English are the royals?

Dr. Georg Eckert on the influence of the the influence of German noble houses in the history of the British monarchy

When one thinks of the "Royal Family", one spontaneously thinks of names such as Henry VIII, his daughter Elizabeth I, or their rival Mary Stuart: all of them native Britons who wrote world history in their own way. But after the reign of the Tudors and Stuarts, numerous 'German' kings of the island kingdom can be traced. William III, for example, who reigned from 1688, was actually Prince William of Nassau-Orania. Dr. Georg Eckert, lecturer in modern history at Bergische Universität, knows the circumstances that led to this and other 'German' accessions to the British throne. Dynastic marriage policy

"Ruling dynasties of the early modern period hardly perceived themselves as national, but as a special class," Eckert says, "which stood above such affiliations by virtue of its origins." This, he says, reflects the dynastic marriage policy that was so essential to early modern politics, and which was designed to be 'international.' "Such connections were common, precisely also with William of Nassau-Orania. He was married to (another) Mary Stuart, the eldest daughter of James II/VII (of England and Scotland, respectively), and succeeded his father-in-law, who had wanted to recatholicize his kingdom, on the throne after the 'Glorious Revolution' in 1688/1689." Since then, the king has no longer been the sole ruler, but only the bearer of state sovereignty in conjunction with Parliament: 'King-in-Parliament' is the name given to this in the island's constitutional law. Nevertheless, over the course of time, increasingly harsh criticism of 'foreign' members of the royal house can be observed," Eckert knows. "The new king was repeatedly criticized for his non-English origins, since he continued to serve as governor in the United Netherlands until his death. Although William III supported the Anglican Church, he was only allowed to rule together with his English wife Mary II, who had equal rights with him.

Act of Settlement regulates Protestant succession to the throne

From 1701, a special law even limited the succession to the throne to the natural and legitimate descendants of Sophie of the Palatinate (1630-1714), Electress of Brunswick-Lüneburg and granddaughter of James I. In the so-called 'Act of Settlement` political and confessional motives overlapped. "At that time the situation was delicate. William III and Mary II had no children of their own, so the reign passed to Mary's sister Anne, another Stuart by birth," the scholar explains. Anne herself was a tragic figure, Eckert describes, suffering many premature births and stillbirths, and whose son William, the actual heir to the throne, died at age 11. Thus, the succession became an eminent political issue. "The dynasty of the Stuarts was now on the verge of extinction, with only one branch surviving." But that branch was, of all things, that of the aforementioned exiled Catholic king, James II, who had the support of the French Sun King Louis XIV in his claims to the throne. "To avert such a, Catholic succession, the English Parliament changed the succession rules in favor of the descendants of Sophie of the Palatinate." Sophie's mother Elizabeth, in turn, was the daughter of the first Stuart king, James I; her father, Elector Frederick V of the Palatinate, came from a line of the House of Wittelsbach. "The 'Act of Settlement' excluded both Catholics and those with Catholic spouses from succession to the throne," Eckert explains. "This novelty, which came at the end of protracted disputes, guaranteed that a Protestant would continue to rule in the future - and again a monarch who had little support of her own on the island, for Sophie of the Palatinate was married to the Hanoverian Elector Ernst August. One can almost discern a pattern in this: Powerful actors on the island again relied on a rather weak ruler from the continent to strengthen their own position." In principle, this law still applies today: after all, the British monarch is still 'Supreme Governor' of the Anglican Church - and it is only since 2013 that a Catholic spouse would no longer stand in the way of an accession to the throne. When Ernst August, Prince of Hanover and as such a distant relative of today's Royal Family and therefore subject to the British Succession Act, married the Catholic Caroline of Monaco in 1999, he had to ask Queen Elizabeth II for permission beforehand in accordance with the Act of Settlement.

The House of Hanover

From 1714 onwards, a German change of nobility took place at the English court and the House of Hanover took over the fate of the country until 1901. Under the rule of this line of the Guelph dynasty, Napoleon experienced his Waterloo, the dominance on the world's oceans was extended and the British Empire could even be enlarged on other continents. But how did the Hanoverians come to England? "The 'Act of Settlement` created the legal basis for this" says Eckert. The close ties between the House of Hanover and the British royal house go back to 1714. The Elector of Hanover ascended the English throne as George I. He was the son of the aforementioned Sophia. He was the son of the aforementioned Sophie of the Palatinate. "The issue of foreign monarchs continued to be virulent, for the kings from the House of Hanover continued to officiate in personal union in their ancestral territory as well. For their part, the Stuarts, based in Scotland, continued to enjoy nationwide support, as evidenced by several revolts or attempted revolts. The contemporary rumor that George I had been ignorant of English throughout his life further complicated the recognition of the House of Hanover." The close connection between the British throne and the Hanoverian mainland possessions ended only in 1837 with Queen Victoria's accession to the throne. She was a Hanoverian as the daughter of Edward August, Duke of Kent and Strathearn. But the Guelph law of succession did not permit female succession to the throne in the Kingdom of Hanover, unlike in Great Britain. Therefore, the personal union between Great Britain and Hanover, which had lasted for over a century, dissolved at that time.

The House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha

When Queen Victoria died in 1901, the line of the Hanoverians ended with the accession of her son, Edward VII, to the throne. The new English king now came from the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. "The dynasty of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha was a collateral line of the Wettins, ruling over a comparatively subordinate territory. But that was probably one reason why it won several kingships within a few years in the middle of the 19th century," says Eckert. For example, this family occupied the throne in Belgium with Leopold I - the current King Philippe also comes from the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha - founded the Coburg-Braganza dynasty ruling in Portugal with Ferdinand II, and married into the British royal family with Edward VII's father, Prince Albert. "In the 19th century, which was strongly influenced by national ideas, this marriage initially met with massive rejection from the British public," Eckert knows, "especially since the role of a prince consort without his own ruling rights first had to be reinvented." Albert and Victoria each pursued a vigorous modernization of the British monarchy in their own way, the researcher explains. "Albert was particularly enthusiastic about technical innovation. The first World's Fair in London in 1851 can be traced back to his efforts. Victoria succeeded in becoming a popular figure of identification during her 64-year reign, albeit with a rather reluctant surrender of political decision-making power." Since then, British monarchs tended to stay away from day-to-day politics and made their impact by performing representative duties and running numerous charity programs. "You could say that they became media stars as early as the late 19th century," Eckert describes the source material.

Saxony - Coburg and Gotha` becomes the House of 'Windsor'.

Since 1917, the royal family of the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha around the recently deceased monarch Elizabeth II has been called by the surname Windsor. There was a political reason for the name change, which can be explained by the marriage policy mentioned at the beginning. The marriages of Victoria's children, Eckert explains, show how much dynasties still sought to elude national categorizations. "Victoria's daughter of the same name was married to the Prussian heir to the throne, Frederick, the Hundred Days Emperor from the House of Hohenzollern. She was the mother of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who later became King Edward VII, and was married to a Danish princess," Eckert enumerates. "Alice, another daughter, married the Hessian grand duke, her brother Alfred a Russian grand duchess from the tsarist house. All the other siblings, up to the youngest daughter Beatrice, who became the wife of Heinrich Moritz von Battenberg, also intermarried with continental high nobility." These foreign and especially German connections suddenly became a problem in the enormous national upheaval that World War I brought. Eckert explains it this way, "Now the overtly German name of the dynasty came to have a shrill ring, in principle and in the specific curiosity that in 1917 German bombers of the type 'Gotha G.IV` of all things flew their first air raids on Great Britain. Moreover, the abdication of the Russian tsar had also increased concern among the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas in Britain about an abrupt end to the monarchy, so George V proclaimed a new name for his dynasty in July 1917." The House of Windsor was born. "George V thus reoccupied a name present in tradition - Windsor Castle is thus older by many centuries than the renamed dynasty that still owns it today. Incidentally, Kaiser Wilhelm II is said to have reacted to the renaming of his kin with the thoroughly witty remark that he was already looking forward to the next performance of the 'Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha', alluding to Shakespeare's 'The Merry Wives of Windsor'."

Prince consort with an unloved name

In 1947, the future Queen Elizabeth II married Prince Philip - admittedly only after a name change, which in turn was intended to disguise his 'German' origins. Philipp suddenly became a "Mountbatten" shortly before the wedding. This family had also changed its name in the course of the First World War, previously it was called Battenberg. "Originally, this is a collateral line of the Hessian Grand Duchy," Eckert knows. "The Battenbergs belonged to the British royal house, and at the same time as the latter, they reacted to the anti-German bias of the World War era. It was so strong that the most important Battenberg at the time, British Admiral Ludwig Alexander von Battenberg, who was born in Graz and grew up in Hesse, had to resign from the distinguished post of First Sea Lord as early as October of 1914 after a campaign that cast doubt on his loyalty to Britain." His son, Louis Mountbatten, was the last Viceroy of India and gained sad notoriety when he was assassinated by an IRA assassination attempt in 1979. He was the uncle of Philip, later Duke of Edinburgh. The latter in turn was "born Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark. His father came from the house of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg. This was not a respectable name for a prince consort, even in the period immediately after the Second World War. In the year of his marriage to the heir to the British throne, Philip changed his surname and, following his mother's lineage, now also became a Mountbatten. He received British citizenship only in the course of the wedding preparations."

Hollywood instead of Hohenzollern

With Sophie, Countess of Wessex, Queen Consort Camilla, Princess Catherine and Duchess Meghan, no more German representatives have married into the Royal Family in recent years. The new British king, Charles III, however, speaks fluent German, as he has since father Philip, and one could already see this for oneself during the crown prince's speech in the German Bundestag in 2020. In principle, however, a certain nationalization of the royal dynasty can be observed, says Eckert, the number of British spouses has been increasing since the late 19th century, but as a sign of a democratization of the monarchy, civil marriages did not meet with approval until the middle of the 20th century. The abdication of Edward VIII through his marriage to the twice-divorced middle-class - and on top of that: American - Wallis Simpson briefly plunged the monarchy into another crisis in 1936. "As you can see from Duchess Meghan, Hollywood is now far more attractive than the Hohenzollerns," Eckert concludes. "The mourning for Elizabeth II even shows the extent to which British monarchs have once again become global figures in a very different way than before. Apart from the fact that Charles III would certainly not expose himself to the suspicion of preferring to be advised by members of other nations, one can say quite in the sense of ancient aristocratic practice: if a 'German' had a special influence at a royal court, then rather not qua his national, but if anything his kinship proximity."

Finally, the only Bergisch queen on the English throne should not remain unmentioned, also a 'German': Anne of Cleves (1515 - 1557). Born in Düsseldorf, she spent her youth at Burg Castle before being married to the English King Henry VIII. She went down in history as his fourth of six wives.

Uwe Blass

Dr. Georg Eckert studied history and philosophy in Tübingen, where he received his doctorate with a study of the early Enlightenment around 1700 with a British focus, and habilitated in Wuppertal. In 2009, he started as a research assistant in history and now teaches as a private lecturer in modern history.

More information about #UniWuppertal: