July 17, 1917: The Birth of the House of Windsor

by Susan Flantzer

Badge of the House of Windsor; Credit – Wikipedia

The anti-German feeling in the United Kingdom existed even before World War I. In 1912, two years before the start of World War I, Prince Louis of Battenberg, Admiral in the Royal Navy, had been appointed First Sea Lord, the professional head of the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy. Some members of the British press were against Prince Louis’ appointment because he was a German.  Prince Louis was born Count Ludwig Alexander of Battenberg. He was the eldest son of Prince Alexander of Hesse and by Rhine, and Countess Julia Hauke. As his parents’ marriage was morganatic, Louis and his siblings took their titles from their mother, who had been created Countess of Battenberg (later elevated to Princess of Battenberg in 1858). Louis’ brother Prince Henry of Battenberg was the husband of Princess Beatrice, the youngest child of Queen Victoria.

Influenced by his cousin’s wife, Princess Alice, a daughter of Queen Victoria, and by Prince Alfred, another of Queen Victoria’s children, Prince Louis had joined the British Royal Navy and had become a naturalized British subject in 1868 at the age of fourteen. In 1884, Louis married Princess Victoria of Hesse and by Rhine, the daughter of his first cousin, Grand Duke Ludwig IV of Hesse and by Rhine and Princess Alice of the United Kingdom. (Note: Louis and Victoria are the maternal grandparents of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.) The couple made their home in England and raised their four children there.

Prince Louis of Battenberg; Photo Credit – Wikipedia

Louis’ rank continued to rise, as did his influence in the Royal Navy. In 1902, he was made Director of Naval Intelligence, and two years later elevated to Rear Admiral. In 1908, he was made Vice-Admiral and Commander-in-Chief of the Atlantic Fleet. In 1911, he was appointed Second Sea Lord and was made Admiral in July 1912. Five months later, Prince Louis was made First Sea Lord.

However, in 1914, with war imminent, there was an intense anti-German sentiment in Britain. Louis, despite his exemplary 46-year career in the Royal Navy, was still seen by many as just a German prince. There were false accusations in the media of spying for the Germans. In fact, due to his German relations, he was able to learn much about the German military and share that information with the British. Despite protests from King George V, Louis was asked to resign his position as First Sea Lord in October 1914.

King George V by Walter Stoneman, for James Russell & Sons, bromide print, circa 1916, Photographs Collection, NPG Ax39000

By 1917, anti-German sentiment had reached a fevered pitch in the United Kingdom. The British Royal Family’s dynastic name had gone from one German name to another, the House of Hanover to the decidedly more Germanic-sounding, House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Many British people felt that this implied a pro-German bias. Even Prime Minister David Lloyd George remarked as he was on his way to see King George V, “I wonder what my little German friend has got to say.” Letters were pouring into the Prime Minister’s office wondering how the British were going to win the war if the king was German.

In May 1917, King George V discussed the matter with his Private Secretary Arthur Bigge, 1st Baron Stamfordham.  Lord Stamfordham had to agree that Germanic names and titles were in several branches of the royal family and that no one was really certain what the royal family’s surname was. The College of Arms, which is delegated to act on behalf of the Crown in all matters of heraldry, the granting of new coats of arms, genealogical research and the recording of pedigrees, was consulted as to what was King George V’s surname. The answer was an uncertain one. Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was a geographic name. The surname was not Stuart and not Guelph which had been the old family name of the Hanoverians. That name was lost by common law when Queen Victoria married. Looking into Prince Albert‘s family, there was Wipper and Wettin,  but no one was absolutely certain of the answer.

“A Good Riddance” cartoon by Leonard Raven-Hill from Punch, Vol. 152, 27 June 1917, commenting on the King’s order to relinquish all German titles held by members of his family

King George V decided that to show the British people that the royal family was indeed British, a change of name was necessary. The king’s uncle Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught suggested the name Tudor-Stuart, but that name was discarded because of unpleasant implications. Other names suggested were Plantagenet, York, Lancaster and even just plain England. Meetings began to take on the nature of a parlor game. Lord Stamfordham ultimately came up with an acceptable idea. King Edward III had been known as Edward of Windsor after his birthplace Windsor Castle. Windsor, which comes from the old English windles-ore or “winch by the riverside,” had been a settlement hundreds of years before William the Conqueror had a castle built there in 1070. King George V agreed that Windsor would be the family name. On July 17, 1917, the Privy Council gave final approval and on the next day, the following proclamation from King George V appeared in newspapers:

GEORGE R.I.

WHEREAS We, having taken into consideration the Name and Title of Our Royal House and Family, have determined that henceforth Our House and Family shall be styled and known as the House and Family of Windsor:

And whereas We have further determined for Ourselves and for and on behalf of Our descendants and all other the descendants of Our Grandmother Queen Victoria of blessed and glorious memory to relinquish and discontinue the use of all German Titles and Dignities:

And whereas We have declared these Our determinations in Our Privy Council:

Now, therefore, We, out of Our Royal Will and Authority, do hereby declare and announce that as from the date of this Our Royal Proclamation Our House and Family shall be styled and known as the House and Family of Windsor, and that all the descendants in the male line of Our said Grandmother Queen Victoria who are subjects of these Realms, other than female descendants who may marry or may have married, shall bear the said Name of Windsor:

And do hereby further declare and announce that We for Ourselves and for and on behalf of Our descendants and all other the descendants of Our said Grandmother Queen Victoria who are subjects of these Realms, relinquish and enjoin the discontinuance of the use of the Degrees, Styles, Dignities, Titles and Honours of Dukes and Duchesses of Saxony and Princes and Princesses of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, and all other German Degrees, Styles, Dignities. Titles, Honours and Appellations to Us or to them heretofore belonging or appertaining.

Given at Our Court at Buckingham Palace, this Seventeenth day of July, in the year of our Lord One thousand nine hundred and seventeen, and in the Eighth year of Our Reign.
GOD save the KING.
(London Gazette, issue 30186, July 17, 1917, p. 1.)

When Wilhelm II, German Emperor, a grandson of Queen Victoria and a first cousin of King George V, received the news, he smiled, got up from his chair, and said in his perfect English that he was off to the theater to see Shakespeare’s play The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. A number of King George V’s relatives who had Germanic titles and were British subjects exchanged their old names and titles for new ones. While the transition in names and titles was occurring, Prince Louis of Battenberg spent some time at the home of his eldest son George. After his surname was anglicized from Battenberg to Mountbatten and Louis became the Marquess of Milford Haven instead of Prince of Battenberg, he wrote in his son’s guestbook, “Arrived Prince Hyde, Departed Lord Jekyll.”

The children of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha and subsequently male-line descendants inherited the titles Prince/Princess of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha and Duke/Duchess of Saxony through Prince Albert. Those particular titles held by British subjects were discontinued by the proclamation.  With the exception of the Saxe-Coburg and Gotha/Saxony titles above, family members who lost German names/titles and their new names/titles appear on the list below.

Works Cited

  • “House Of Windsor”. En.wikipedia.org. Web. 26 May 2017.
  • “Prince Louis Of Battenberg”. En.wikipedia.org. Web. 26 May 2017.
  • “Prince Louis Of Battenberg, Marquess Of Milford Haven”. Unofficial Royalty. Web. 26 May 2017.
  • “Queen Victoria’s Children And Grandchildren”. Unofficial Royalty. Web. 26 May 2017.
  • Spoto, Donald. The Decline And Fall Of The House Of Windsor. 1st ed. New York: Pocket Books, 1995. Print.
  • Velde, Francois. “Royal Styles And Titles Of Great Britain: Documents”. Heraldica.org. Web. 26 May 2017.
  • “Windsor, Berkshire”. En.wikipedia.org. Web. 26 May 2017.