The House of Windsor is 100 years old today, the anniversary of when the Queen’s grandfather King George V dropped the German surname Saxe-Coburg-Gotha in 1917 amid anti-German feeling during the First World War.
Professor Jane Ridley said: “The effect of the First World War was to make people feel much more patriotic about being British, so having a monarch with a British surname was a clever piece of branding.
“There was another war coming. If in 1939 the royals had a German surname, and given the fact that many of the small German princes were rather friendly with Hitler, it would have been an extremely unfortunate situation, so it turned out in the long term to be a very good move.”
On 17 July, 1917, the king issued a royal proclamation changing the royals’ house and surname, declaring that they would “be styled and known as the House and Family of Windsor” and that they would “relinquish and discontinue the use of all German Titles and Dignities”.
The Royal Mint has marked the historic anniversary with a commemorative £5 coin which features Windsor Castle’s Round Tower.
George V’s decision followed concern in the press in the wake of the Russian revolution and the forced abdication of the Tsar Nicholas II that the king should not offer asylum to the Russian royals, and criticism that the United Kingdom was at war with Germany but had German royals on its throne.
In June 1917 the Germans intensively bombed the East End of London with a new plane called the “Gotha” and staged a daylight raid on a primary school which killed 18 children.
Prof Ridley, an author, and history professor at the University of Buckingham, said: “The coincidence of the Gotha bomber and the King’s surname being Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was obviously not very good publicity...They had already decided to change the name before the June bombing, but it certainly made it more urgent.”
She added that the patriotic public welcomed the switch.
Although George V had a lot of German relations, including his grandfather Prince Albert, he actually came across as English, Prof Ridley said.
“He was very much an Englishman. He didn’t speak with an accent. He hated travelling and he spoke very bad German,” she revealed.
Saxe-Coburg-Gotha became part of the royal family in 1840 with the marriage of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert.
Dynasties had changed throughout history such as the Stuarts and the Hanoverians but the decision to completely replace the name of those on the throne was a dramatic new move. The royals were initially unsure of which alternate one to pick and the end result could have been very different.
“There was lot of debate. There were various suggestions. Should they call themselves Tudor-Stuart or call themselves Guelph, which was the Hanoverian name?” Prof Ridley said.
“But all were thought to be unsuitable and they got rather stuck until Lord Stamfordham (the King’s private secretary) had this brainwave and suggested Windsor. Windsor was incredibly English and the monarchy had been based at Windsor since the Middle Ages so it was a brilliant idea.”
Built in the 11th century, Windsor is the oldest and largest continually occupied castle in Europe.