In the first twenty years of the 20th century, the British Royal Family had undergone a period of profound change. The death of Queen Victoria in 1901, after a 63-year reign, marked the end of an era for her subjects. But while her passing left many feeling bereft, others were hopeful that the accession of her son, Edward VII, to the throne would re-invigorate a monarchy which had stagnated in the latter decades of his mother’s reign.
And indeed Edward VII (pictured left) did prove himself willing to embrace change. In what seemed to some to be indecent haste, the new king enthusiastically set about banishing the lingering cobwebs of his mother’s long rule. In addition to ordering a dramatic refurbishment of the royal residences, he also devised a number of spectacular ceremonies, including the Trooping of the Colour, with the aim of injecting some much-needed pomp and pageantry into the monarchy.
However, Edward VII’s reign was not destined to be a long one – when he died just nine years after becoming king, the Crown passed to his son, George V. And, although the serious-minded and conservative George was diametrically opposite in temperament to his more liberal-leaning and gregarious father, it was during his reign that the British monarchy overcame the most difficult challenge it had faced in centuries.
During the First World War, when anti-German feeling was at its zenith, a wave a republican sentiment swept through the country, threatening the monarchy’s very existence. This disaffection was borne out of the fact the British Royal Family was an off-shoot of the long-running German Hanoverian dynasty. To add insult to injury, Kaiser Wilhelm II was George V’s first cousin – and these close family ties with the reviled enemy rankled with a significant proportion of the British public.
Around this time, other hereditary European sovereigns were being deposed at an alarming rate, including another of George’s cousins, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia (who would eventually be assassinated, along with his family, in an orgy of revolutionary zeal in 1918). George soon realized that, in order to prevent a similar fate befalling him, something had to be done … and fast.
Eventually, in 1917, he hit on a solution to the problem. Displaying a keen survival instinct which would continue to be a defining characteristic of the British monarchy to this day, George set about ‘anglicizing’ his family. The only way to disassociate himself from his German ancestry, he decided, was to shed the family surname of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha in favour of one which would be more pleasing to the British ear.
After considering, and dismissing, a number of possibilities including Tudor, Stuart, Plantagenet, York and Lancaster, George and his advisors finally settled on the perfect dynastic surname for the British Royal Family – by Royal Proclamation on 17 July 1917, the House of Windsor was born.
And George did not stop there. Having successfully rebranded his branch of the family tree, this politically-savvy king introduced yet another innovation which would further bolster his British credentials – he decided to break with tradition and allow his children to marry into British commoner (or non-Royal) families.
Up to now, in order to strengthen their ties with their European neighbours, it had been the Hanoverian habit to marry their children off to scions of other Continental royal families. But now, George’s offspring were free to choose a spouse from the pool of British aristocratic clans.
One of the first members of the Royal Family to take advantage of the opportunity to introduce some ‘new blood’ into the lineage was George’s second son, Prince Albert, the Duke of York (known to all as Bertie). After a two-year courtship, during which she twice refused his proposals of marriage, Bertie finally became engaged to Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon in January 1923.
When the wedding of Lady Elizabeth (a daughter of the Scottish Earl of Strathmore) and the Duke of York took place in Westminster Abbey on 26 April of the same year, the union was widely welcomed by an enthusiastic British public. Crowds lined the streets to cheer the newlyweds as they emerged from the Abbey, and large numbers congregated in front of Buckingham Palace to witness the couple’s brief appearance on the balcony – evidence indeed that the British public’s love affair with their royal family had been rekindled.
As far as George V was concerned, it was mission accomplished.
But not even George, for all his insightfulness, could have known just how much the future of the newly-minted House of Windsor would come to depend on Bertie, his wife, and their eldest daughter, Princess Elizabeth of York …
Read more in The Queen: History In An Hour published by Harper Press