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17 July 2012

On this day in history: King George V changed his family name, 1917

Three years into the Great War, anti-German feeling was running high in Britain. To appeal to nationalist sentiment King George V decided to change the name of the British royal house to the House of Windsor from the Germanic sounding House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, which had been the house of the royal family since Queen Victoria married Prince Albert, son of the Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. The new, quintessentially English, name is that of a town to the west of London with a long history of royal connections not least because of the castle there, which is one of the royal residences.

So, on 17th July 1917, George V issued an Order-in-Council that decreed that everyone descended from Queen Victoria would change surname to Windsor, excluding any married women and their children (and those who were on the German side - not least his cousin, the German monarch Kaiser Wilhelm II - who were to be ostracized). Furthermore, he also relinquished all of his German titles and those of the members of the newly renamed House of Windsor. Many of George's male relatives who lost German aristocratic titles received British peerages in compensation, thus his cousin, Prince Louis of Battenberg, became 1st Marquess of Milford Haven and took the surname Mountbatten, which is an Anglicisation of Battenberg.

The text of the King's proclamation is available on the Heraldica website.

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florencemarwood said...

What an interesting article. I’ve always wondered how the English Monarchy managed to come up with Mountbatten-Windsor/Windsor as a surname. While some part of me always knew that the English town and the royals were linked, I always assumed there was some unclarified ‘chicken and egg’ reasoning behind the similarity in names (eg. was the town named after the family, or did the family name themselves after the town).
It’s amazing what the anti-German sentiment during WWI (& WWII) spawned across the globe. I’ve read various articles in the past that argued that anglicising German names wasn’t limited to surnames, but also extended to objects, whole towns, even food! It’s almost inconceivable to think that something like that could ever be implemented today, unless of course, you want to revisit the short-lived ‘Freedom Fries’ movement of 2003. Although I’m not sure how seriously that was taken by political commentators and historians around the world. I imagine this name-changing business is a nightmare for any historians that try and attempt to trace royal lineage, in an already complicated and confusing family tree.

Kevin Grieves said...

Thank you for your excellent comments.

I would imagine that dynastic family names change very rarely considering the appeal to tradition and breeding that are so important to the aristocracy. Saying that, the changing of family and place names act as pitfalls for the unwary historian. I recently found out that Brighton, a resort on the south coast of England, used to be called Brightlingstone.