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July 18, 2013

BRUCE’S HISTORY LESSONS: Becoming the House and Family of Windsor

In the summer of 1917, Great Britain’s King George V had something of a public relations problem. His country was at war with Germany — World War I as it would be known — and the fighting was so fierce, and British casualty rates so high, that King George’s British subjects were increasingly resentful of all things German.

Including German names, which was unfortunate for King George since his full name and title was King George V of the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. As George well knew, few names sounded more German than that, although the Prince and Princess of Hesse and by Rhine, and the Prince and Princess of Schleeswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenber came close. Those were actual people, and they were the well-known cousins of King George V. They also were British subjects.

And so this week (July 17) in 1917 George V wisely issued an Order in Council (legislation in the king’s name by the Privy Council) that changed his and his family’s dynastic name from the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to the House of Windsor, a name taken from England’s most famous castle, Windsor Castle.

From then on, all male descendants of Queen Victoria, whose marriage to Prince Albert of the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha gave George V his original German name, would carry the name Windsor.

But George’s Order said nothing about female descendants, meaning that any female who ascended to the British throne was free to reclaim her German dynastic name. And as it happened, in 1952 King George V’s granddaughter, Elizabeth, became Queen Elizabeth II. Sensibly, Elizabeth II — keenly aware that just seven years earlier Britain had fought another world war against Germany — quickly issued her own Order in Council declaring that it was her “Will and Pleasure that I and My children shall be styled and known as the House and the Family of Windsor, and that my descendants who marry and their descendants, shall bear the name of Windsor.”

It has been the House of Windsor ever since.

Although, interestingly enough, the Royal Family is not legally required to remain the House of Windsor. For example, should Elizabeth’s oldest son Charles, the Prince of Wales, ever gain the throne he could theoretically issue his own Order in Council changing his dynastic name again. Should that day come, perhaps Charles would decide to become King Charles III of the House of Mountbatten in honor of his father, Prince Philip of Mountbatten.

Prince Philip, by the way, is the grandson of the German Prince Louis of the House of Battenberg. And coincidentally, or perhaps unsurprisingly, in 1917 Prince Louis also decided to change his family name — from the German-sounding Battenberg to the much more British-sounding Mountbatten.

Bruce G. Kauffmann’s email address is bruce@historylessons.net.

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