Peter Berresford Ellis explores the origins of the fake House of ‘Windsor’ and highlights some of the more questionable links between the British royals and their German family counterparts
NOW WE are heading for the jubilee of the accession to the throne of Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, ‘Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and of her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth’. And there’s not a protocol cloud in the sky.
I’m told that the departure from the cares of this world of the Queen Mother came as somewhat opportune for the royal protocol watchers. Any later departure might have resulted in the cancellation of the jubilee celebrations. It was rather like the relief that was expressed when old Queen Mary died in 1953 at an appropriate time for the mourning to have finished in order to allow the coronation celebrations to take place in June. Tricky stuff, these royal protocols.
Perhaps I should not mention my political views on the subject of that family as the Treason Felony Act of 1848 is still in force in the United Kingdom. This means that if anyone advocates the abolition of the monarchy, even by peaceful means, they can wind up being imprisoned for life.
Last October, in the House of Lords no less, Lord Greaves asked Lord Rooker, minister of state at the Home Office, whether the government planned to repeal that outmoded piece of legislation and was told: “We have no plans at present to repeal the Act”.
Kevin McNamara MP tried to introduce a bill last year in the House of Commons, which sought to amend section three making it no longer a criminal offence to advocate the abolition of the monarchy by peaceful means. He failed. And when The Guardian newspaper tried to get a judgement on the matter in the High Court they were told that Britain still maintains the right of punishing people with life imprisonment for advocating a republic, whether in writing, broadcasting or through other means.
People in these islands are generally confused about this family who so affects all our lives. Most people even believe that the current royals are direct descendants of every monarch that has sat on the throne of England. It’s interesting that the ‘English monarchy’ has rarely been English but it is amazing how jingoistic the English are about these economic-immigrants that reign over them.
The fact is that the current royal family is the product of a series of political decisions rather than being ordained to its position by natural descent. No, I won’t mention Willem van Oranje, Count of Nassau-Dillenburg, Stadholder of the United Provinces, who became William III and caused Ireland so much grief.
In 1714 the English government invited Georg von Braunschweig-Länberg to be King of Great Britain and Ireland. Georg was Duke and Elector of Hanover. He was made George I because he was a Protestant -— the idea being to prevent a Catholic coming to the throne even if they had a better successional claim.
Georg’s mother was Sophia Wittelsbach, and her mother, in turn, was Elizabeth, daughter of James I, who had married Friedrich V, King of Bohemia. Thus royal watchers could claim a distant female link to the Stuart dynasty.
The von Braunschweig-Länberg family settled in and to help the natives — because von Braunschweig-Länberg is a wee bit difficult to pronounce —- they became the Hanoverian dynasty. However, Georg spent most of his time in Hanover where he died in 1727. He never learnt English and his cabinet had to discuss matters with him in French.
George II had been born in Hanover but, aged 17, he learnt English, and sometimes translated for his family. George III was the first of the Hanoverians to actually be born in England but he suffered periods of royal insanity and the then undiagnosed disease of prophyria.
None of the first three Hanoverian kings bothered to visit Scotland, Wales or Ireland. The dynasty also maintained its German cultural background. From 1714 through to 1901 the kings always married to a German spouse and ensured that every ‘English’ king had a German born mother and a German-speaking father. German was the natural language of the court. When Victoria came to the throne, while she spoke English, German was her language of preference. She was, of course, mother to an Empress of Germany, grandmother to the Kaiser Wilhelm, mother of the Grand Duchess of Hesse and to the countess von Battenberg —- matriarch to a regiment of European kings, queens and other royals.
The dynasty of von Braunschweig-Länberg remained until Victoria married a German cousin. His name Albrecht von Sachsen-Coburg und Gotha.
Victoria, unlike Elizabeth II, was traditional enough to adopt the name of her husband. Thus in 1840 Victoria became the head of the new dynasty of Sachsen-Coburg und Gotha.
In 1914 George Sachsen-Coburg-Gotha (George V) found himself declaring war on his first cousin Wilhelm Hohenzollern (Kaiser Wilhelm) much to the distress of his consort Mary von Teck. Some might remember old Queen Mary who died in 1953 who was not allowed to speak in public due to her rather awkward German English.
The first sacrifice of the family was Prince Louis von Battenberg, a cousin, married to Victoria von Hesse und Rhine. He had to resign his position as first lord of the Admiralty in October, 1914. One couldn’t have a German in charge of the English Navy fighting the Germans could one?
Prince Louis also felt it expedient to change his name to ‘Mountbatten’ in 1917, when English war casualties were mounting and feelings were running high against those who a younger and more radical Lloyd-George had once denounced as ‘princes —- no better than German half-breeds!’
George Sachsen-Coburg-Gotha thought his cousin had found a great answer to the problem that had arisen. The natives had become confused at being told it was their patriotic duty to fight for one branch of a German family against another branch of a German family. The problem was compounded by the fact that Londoners and citizens in the Home Counties were being bombed by a German aircraft bearing the name of their royal family —- the Gotha!
A brilliant idea -— the Sachsen-Coburg-Gotha family would become the Windsor family.
Cousin Willie in Berlin (the German kaiser) thought it a bit of a laugh. He made one of his rare jokes telling his staff that he wanted to go to the theatre to see a performance of The Merry Wives of Sachsen-Coburg-Gotha. His grandmother might not have been amused.
The newly invented Windsor family managed to survive the family fracas of 1914-18. But there were continuing problems resulting from the rise of Adolf Hitler. Members of the family were joining the Nazi Party. Some even joined the SS.
A cousin — Philip von Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg —- whose parents had tried to pass as Greeks in order to sit on the Greek throne but had been kicked out in 1922 —- came to the UK in 1937.
This could have been a recipe for disaster. Philip had been educated in Germany near Lake Konstanz; a place called Schloss Salem, founded by Prince Max von Baden and Kurt Hahn. It was based on the Nazi’s educational philosophy. Hahn initially supported the Nazis until it was discovered he had some Jewish ancestry whereupon he left for Scotland.
Philip’s sister had married a cousin, Prince Christoph of Hesse. Prince Christoph had joined the Nazi Party in 1933 and by 1935 was a standartenführer (colonel) of the SS on the personal staff of Heinrich Himmler and chief of the forschungsamt (directorate of scientific research) —- in reality a special intelligence operation using new electronic intelligence gathering methods.
Their son was named Karl Adolf after Hitler and Philip afterwards took a keen educational interest in his nephew.
Perhaps the family was spared some embarrassment when the Prince of Hesse was killed on active service in 1943. His sister was killed in an Allied bombing raid.
Another of Philip’s sisters Cecilia was married to Georg Donatus, Grand Duke of Hesse-by-Rhine, also a great-grandson of Queen Victoria. They died when the Luftwaffe Junker aircraft, personally supplied by Herman Göring to allow them to attend Georg’s brother’s wedding, crashed.
Another relative of Philip was the Prussian Prince Bernhard von Lippe who joined the Nazis while studying at the University of Berlin in 1934 and worked openly in the motorised SS.
According to Newsweek (April 5, 1976) it was known that Prince Bernhard was a member of a special SS intelligence unit in IG Farben and this had originally been pointed out in testimony at the Nuremberg trials.
Bernhard resigned from the SS, in 1937, when he married the future Queen Juliana of the Netherlands. Adolf Hitler forwarded a congratulatory message though Bernhard, who became a naturalised Dutchman
Philip and Bernhard remained not just distant relatives but close friends and in October, 1961, founded the World Wildlife Fund. Prince Philip rather ruined his image more recently when, doubtless filled with nostalgia for his days at Schloss Salem, he told a journalist that he hoped to be ‘reincarnated as a deadly virus’ to solve ‘population problems’ in the world.
Prince Bernhard was forced from public office in 1971, of course, not for his politics but over the financial mis-dealings known as the Lockheed scandal.
At the age of sixteen, in November, 1937, Philip joined his former headmaster Kurt Hahn in Scotland where he had established a new school called Gordonstoun. Hahn was also advising the UK Foreign Office on German affairs and urging a policy of appeasement based on appeals to ‘centrist’ Nazis.
Things were upset when, in spite of the strong appeasement lobby among the English establishment, England and Germany went to war again. What’s more Hitler had developed a plan to invade England and replace George VI with his older brother Edward (who had abdicated in 1936). Edward was much more amenable to Adolf and his ideas. Philip, who had just joined the Royal Navy, was told to change his name to that of his uncle —- not von Battenburg but Mountbatten.
The royal family, all branches, kept in touch throughout the war. The ‘post-box’ seemed to be through Sweden where Mountbatten had a sister Louise who was crown princess of Sweden. Through this back channel all the German royals, in England and Germany, kept in close communication.
The family has been keen to depict this wartime collaboration between ‘enemies’ as merely family correspondence. Yet when Kronberg Castle fell to the Americans the royals were in panic. This was the home of Prince Philip’s sister Sophie and her SS husband, Prince Christoph. In June, 1945, George VI, despatched a former MI5 officer to Kronberg to ensure all the correspondence was gathered up and brought to the safety to Windsor Castle.
The intelligence man entrusted with the job was Sir Anthony Blunt, later rewarded as ‘Keeper of the King’s Paintings’. When he was arrested in 1979 and interrogated by MI5, having been revealed as a Soviet agent, Elizabeth II insisted that there should be no interrogation of Blunt about his secret trip to Kronberg.
The family was desperate to keep these documents secret. Clearly, they had not just been sending Christmas Cards to one another.
The royals weathered the storm. Even Edward (Duke of Windsor) was publicly exonerated in the 1950s in spite of the revelation by former SS Oberführer Walter Schellenberg, head of counter-intelligence, whose job was to help put Hitler’s plans for the Duke into operation. Prince Philip finally married Princess Elizabeth in 1947 and she became Queen Elizabeth II in 1952 —- the coronation was in 1953.
So why aren’t the Windsors called the Mountbattens —- let alone the von Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksbergs?
Poor old Philip had to accept that his children would bear the name of his wife’s father and not his —- well, the Windsor name, that is, not Sachsen-Coburg Gotha. Philip had gone so far as to become a naturalised British subject as ‘Philip Mountbatten’ on February 28, 1947, but to no avail.
I suppose the royal names have been changed so much that it really doesn’t matter. But he was not even allowed to officially be called ‘Prince’ Philip until February 22, 1957. Whether they be German or English, Irish or Scots, Welsh or Manx or Cornish, I really can’t see why I should pay any deference to a family whose sole claim to assume their modern station in life is that their ancestors were better thieves and robbers than my ancestors.
Come to that, ancestors apart, the recent generations appear to have kept up family traditions. Roll on a true egalitarian social democracy and if you don’t hear further from me, you’ll know the 1848 Act is still taken pretty seriously in the UK.
Connolly Publications Ltd, 244 Gray's Inn Road, London, WC1X 8JR
Copyright © 2001 Connolly Publications Ltd