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How German are the British royals?

Silke Wünsch
May 5, 2023

As King Charles III is crowned, DW takes a look at the British royals' German roots. There are more ties than you might think.

King Charles and Camilla standing in front of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate in 2019
Charles, then prince, visited Berlin with his wife, Camilla, back in 2019Image: Soeren Stache/dpa/picture alliance

About 300 years ago, on August 1, 1714, England's Queen Anne died. As a result, the German Elector George Louis of Hanover was proclaimed king of Great Britain in absentia. He was the only possible heir to the throne, and the first German to ascend an English throne.

Manners, please

At the beginning, his British subjects were not amused. The German king did not set foot on English soil until two months after his proclamation and was crowned King George I on October 20, 1714. 

A divorced man, he publicly flirted with two mistresses. It was claimed that George hardly spoke any English — though some historians have disputed this, suspecting it was a ploy used in some ministerial meetings — and he had no manners. In fact, legend has it a protocol instruction for banquets asked for people not to hurl pieces of meat at the servants.

King George I was crowned on October 20, 1714Image: National Portrait Gallery/dpa/picture alliance

However, the British people soon realized that George I did a great deal for the kingdom. By focusing on peace, stability and prosperity for his two states — Great Britain and Hanover — he contributed to establishing "a new European balance of power that ended decades of war," according to Encyclopedia Virginia.

George II and George III

His son George II left the British their national anthem, "God Save The King," which later became "God Save The Queen."

His grandson George III was the first in the line of German kings to be born in England, with English being his first language. He married the German Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. The couple had 15 children.

Cartoonists made fun of George IIIImage: Heritage Art/Heritage Images/picture alliance

George III suffered from a metabolic disorder, his health deteriorated and he became mentally ill. This made the popular monarch, who supported the arts and sciences, increasingly incapable of ruling. He is mostly remembered as "Mad King George."

George IV, a low point for the royal family's reputation

His eldest son, foppish Georg August Friedrich, took over during his father's lifetime as prince regent in 1811 and was crowned King George IV in 1820 — the next king with a predominantly German bloodline.

George IV's extravagant lifestyle did not endear him to his subjects, and the obese monarch was not mourned much when he died. His eccentricity managed to severely damage the reputation of the royal house. He left behind no particular political legacy, but a cultural one: Buckingham House was expanded into a palace and a building was erected in the seaside resort of Brighton that is still unique in Europe in terms of opulence — the Royal Pavilion.

The Royal Pavilion in Brighton was built during the reign of George IVImage: Phil Bird/Zoonar/picture alliance

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert

In 1837, George IV's niece Victoria, who also had a partly German bloodline, was crowned. She married her cousin, the German Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. Initially, the British wondered why their queen would choose a provincial German prince, but they soon changed their minds.

Queen Victoria ruled for almost 64 yearsImage: CPA Media Co. Ltd/picture alliance

Albert allegedly initiated in England the German custom of putting up Christmas trees. He established the first World's Fair, in London in 1851, while also reforming administration and construction througout the kingdom.

Thanks to the queen's consort, the British royal family regained its reputation. A magnificent statue of Albert stands in the center of London and Albert Bridge in London was named after him, as was the famous Royal Albert Hall concert hall.

'Grandmother of Europe'

Meanwhile, Queen Victoria carried out representative functions in addition to her role as mother of nine children. Her influence in foreign policy was primarily grounded in her kinship relations with the leading ruling houses of Europe.

She made sure her children married into other European royal courts — little wonder that today her descendants sit on the throne in many European royal houses, including Queen Margrethe of Denmark, Kings Harald V of Norway and Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, the former Spanish royal couple Juan Carlos I and Sophia — all the way to Elizabeth II, the former British queen.

Victoria was nicknamed the "Grandmother of Europe" and at the time, with 64 years on the throne, she was Britain's longest-serving monarch. The Victorian era, named after her, saw the growth of the British Empire to a global industrial power, as well as advances in the arts and sciences, along with societal changes.

Some 120 years later, her length of rule was surpassed by her great-great-granddaughter, Elizabeth II.

Saxe-Coburg renamed Windsor

Queen Victoria died in 1901, succeeded by her eldest son Edward VII, the first English king from the German dynasty of Sachsen-Coburg and Gotha. To make the name easier to pronounce for the English, the house was renamed Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. Just a few years later, in 1910, his son George V became king. He was married to Maria von Teck, who also had German blood, and who became known as Queen Mary.

George V and Queen Mary visited Belfast in 1921Image: empics/picture alliance

The reign of George V coincided with World War I, which was waged against his cousin, German Emperor Wilhelm II. In England, attitudes toward all things German changed — after all, the German Empire was seen as the main aggressor.

In 1917, George V decided to change the German family name to Windsor. George also renounced all German titles, as did his cousin Ludwig von Battenberg, who renamed his family Mountbatten. Queen Elizabeth's husband, Prince Philip, came from this family.

UK's royals and the Nazis

George's son Edward VIII became king in 1936. Less than a year later, he abdicated for love and married Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee. His brother Albert ascended the British throne as George VI.

At the time, the Nazis and Adolf Hitler had long since gained a firm grip on Germany, with the world watching the Third Reich with interest and skepticism. Edward and Albert's mother, Queen Mary, insisted that her sons not forget their German roots — after all, they also had plenty of relatives in Hitler's Germany.

For his part, Edward openly showed sympathy for the Nazis. One photo taken in 1937 shows the duke and his wife smiling and shaking hands with Hitler.

In 1937, the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson visit Adolf HitlerImage: EPA/dpa/picture alliance

Just a few years ago, a video emerged showing Edward and his sister-in-law practicing the Hitler salute with two little girls — Margaret and Elizabeth, with the latter one day becoming the queen of England. The snippet was filmed by Elizabeth's father, King George VI.

To this day, the British do not like to be reminded of the at times cordial relations of the British aristocracy with the German Nazis, trying as much as possible to keep evidence of such connections under wraps.

How German is King Charles III?

The mother of Queen Elizabeth II was British, so she was only partly of German descent — even if she did display some stereotypical German virtues throughout her life, including discipline and a sense of duty.

Her husband Philip, however, had predominantly German ancestors and spoke fluent German. In 1947, he became a British citizen and, shortly before his marriage to Elizabeth, relinquished his German title of nobility and called himself only "Mountbatten." 

Their eldest son, the new King Charles III, has a bloodline made up of roughly half German ancestors.

Although King Charles III has many German ancestors, he is British through and throughImage: Daniel Leal/AFP/Getty Images

He and his first wife, the British Diana Spencer, had two sons: William and Harry. Prince William's wife, Catherine, has no German ancestors at all; Harry's wife, Meghan, is the daughter of an American with Irish roots and is said to have German ancestors.

The person who is the last in line in the succession to the throne is actually a German. Hospital therapist Karin Vogel, who lives in Rostock, is a descendant of Sophia of Hanover, the mother of King George I, the first British king from Germany.

But it's extremely unlikely that she would become queen of England one day: Nearly 5,000 people in the royal lineage would need to die before that can happen.

This article was originally written in German and was first published in October 2022.

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