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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

A special relationship: Britain's Charles III visits Germany

Charles III and his wife Camilla, the queen consort, will be in Germany from Wednesday for three days. They face a busy schedule. Charles, a regular in Germany, will be familiar with many of the stops.


Ceremonial welcome at Brandenburg Gate

The royal couple will, for the first time, be welcomed with military honors at the Brandenburg Gate. No state guest has been greeted at this Berlin landmark before, according to the office of the German president. The special welcome symbolizes the close relationship between Germany and the United Kingdom. Charles and Camilla made a stop at the Brandenburg Gate in 2019.

Image: Soeren Stache/dpa/picture alliance

Almost best friends

King Charles and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier have developed a friendly relationship over the course of their many meetings. Here, the two met in May 2019 in front of the entrance to Bellevue Palace, the president's official residence. This is where a state banquet in honor of the royal guests is planned for the evening of March 29.

Image: Frederic Kern/Geisler-Fotopress/picture alliance

Bundestag address

The British monarch is also scheduled to visit the Bundestag. In November 2020, he gave a speech there on Remembrance Day — in German, but to an almost empty parliament due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. This time, he is expected to face a full hall.

Image: Axel Schmidt/AP Photo/picture alliance

Visit to Hamburg

On day two of the state visit, King Charles is set to tour a German-British military unit in Brandenburg that specializes in bridge construction. Accompanied by the German president, he will then travel to Hamburg. In the port of Hamburg, the king, who has had a keen interest in environmental protection for decades, will be shown some local climate-friendly technologies.

Image: Marcus Brandt/dpa/picture alliance

Remembrance at St. Nikolai Church

Codenamed Operation Gomorrah, Britain and the US flew massive air raids on Hamburg in July 1943. More than 35,000 people died in the so-called Hamburg firestorm, and almost 1 million people were left homeless. The ruins of St. Nikolai church still stand today as a World War II memorial. King Charles and Steinmeier will lay wreaths at the church in remembrance.

Image: Joko/Bildagentur-online/picture alliance

1987 Hamburg visit

During their visit, King Charles and Camilla will also sign the city's Golden Book at Hamburg City Hall. Charles signed the book way back in November 1987 when he visited the German port city with then wife, Diana (above). The couple was invited to visit the city by the former lord mayor of Hamburg, Klaus von Dohnanyi (far left in the photo).

Image: Carsten Rehder/dpa/picture alliance

Honored guest in 2009

The king has also been to Bellevue Palace before, at the invitation of former German President Horst Köhler in 2009. At the time, he was also accompanied by Camilla. Their marriage is considered a victory of love over protocol in the British royal family.

Image: Wolfgang Kumm/dpa/picture alliance

Visits galore to Germany

Since 1962, Charles has visited Germany more than 40 times, which the king himself noted when reiterating his close ties with the country. Most of his stays have been private, though he rarely left without meeting with his fans. Here he jokes with onlookers in Munich in 1995 before paying a visit to the famous Viktualienmarkt farmers market.

Image: Frank Augstein/AP Photo/picture alliance

Germans happy without a monarchy

According to a Forsa survey conducted on the occasion of the king's visit, many Germans welcome royalty from afar yet wouldn't care to have royals of their own. Only 8% of Germans would like to see a German monarchy. Most citizens are content to have a federal president as their state representative.

Image: Peter Kneffel/dpa/picture alliance

Royal family's German ancestors

The English royal family has deep Teutonic ties. In 1714, George Louis, elector of Hanover, became the first king of German origin to succeed to the English crown. Over the past 300 years, strong ties have continued to be forged between the English throne and German noble families. King Charles, too, has German ancestry. He even speaks fluent German — with a genteel British accent.

Image: National Portrait Gallery/dpa/picture alliance
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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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