King George V and the Story behind the Royal Family’s Name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor

A 1917 Punch cartoon depicts King George sweeping away
his German titles. Image: Wikipedia
On August 4, 1914, Great Britain was thrown into World War I after Germany invaded Belgium. In his diary, King George V recorded that the War was a “terrible catastrophe” for all. Entangled in this arms struggle from 1914 until 1918 were the royal families of Europe, shattering familial relations brought about by political differences and ideologies. Leading the Central Powers was the German Empire, upon which the Kaiser Wilhelm II was George’s first cousin. On the Allied side were Great Britain and Russia, ruled by George’s cousin, Nicholas II. 

King George V and Wilhelm II share the same paternal grandfather, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. Thus, the King and his children bore the titles Prince and Princess of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha and Duke and Duchess of Saxony. Queen Mary, meanwhile, was the daughter of the Duke of Teck, the grandson of the King of Württemberg.

The extended members of the British Royal Family also bore German titles: The King’s brothers-in-law and cousins, while British subjects, continued to carry German titles. These included the Duke and Duchess of Teck, the Princes and Princesses of Teck, Prince and Princess Christian of Schleswig-Holstein and their family, and Princess Beatrice and her children.

By 1917, anti-German sentiment was already sweeping Britain and the ire of the nationalistic Britons hit the Royal House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, a name that sounded every bit German. On July 17, 1917, the King attempted to appease his subjects by issuing a royal proclamation, changing the name of the British royal house from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to the House of Windsor. The King also relinquished on behalf of the Royal Family and his relatives who were British subjects their German titles and styles, and also changing their names to British-sounding ones. Thus, the House of Battenberg became known as Mountbatten, while the House of Teck was changed to the more familiar Cambridge. To compensate them for the loss of their German titles, the King created his male relatives British peers. Prince Louis of Battenberg, who was forced to resign from his position as First Sea Lord after anti-German sentiment, was ennobled as Louis Mountbatten, 1st Marquess of Milford Haven. Queen Mary's brothers became Adolphus Cambridge, 1st Marquess of Cambridge, and Alexander Cambridge, 1st Earl of Athlone.

The case of Prince and Princess Christian and their two daughters, meanwhile, was oddly different. After the King disposed of the Christians’ German titles and styles, Christian, Helena and their daughters simply became known as Prince and Princess Christian and Princess Helena Victoria and Marie Louise, giving them the peculiar distinction of being royals with royal titles but without any particular royal family.

King George V also signed a letter patent, gazetted on December 11, 1917, restricting the use of the style Royal Highness and the titular dignity of  Prince (or Princess) of Great Britain and Ireland to the children of the sovereign, the male-line grandchildren of the sovereign and the eldest-living son of the eldest-living son of a Prince of Wales. The Letters Patent says: "Titles of Royal Highness, Highness or Serene Highness, and the titular dignity of Prince and Princess shall cease except those titles already granted and remaining unrevoked."

The King’s relatives who were members of the British Royal Family but fought on the German side during World War I, like Prince Ernst August of Hanover, 3rd Duke of Cumberland and Teviotdale (the most senior male-line great-grandson of George III) and Prince Charles Edward, Duke of Albany and reigning Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (a male-line grandson of Queen Victoria), were stripped of their British peerages after a 1919 Order in Council under the provisions of the Titles Deprivation Act 1917. However, Prince Charles Edward remained a Prince of the United Kingdom, a title that was his by virtue of his birth. Queen Alexandra, who loathed the Germans after they occupied her father’s territories in Schleswig-Holstein, also pressured King George V to remove the Garter flags of his German relations from St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle.


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