Names matter. Over the centuries a person’s family name could cost them their life. Exile, imprisonment or death faced those who, at the wrong time or place, were associated with the families of Plantagenet, Tudor or Stuart. After a long period of relative stability under the Hanoverians, the last royal name change occurred in 1917, 100 years ago.
Queen Elizabeth II is the 7th great grand-daughter of the first Hanoverian monarch, George I, who became king in 1714. During that time the royal surname has been changed twice. The first was in 1840, when Queen Victoria married Albert and chose to take his surname in place of Hanover. His surname, reflecting his family origins, was “Saxe-Coburg-Gotha”. This remained the royal surname for the next 77 years, when the First World War brought about another change.
World War One was named “The Great War” for a reason: it was by far the most widespread and deadly conflict the world had ever seen. In Great Britain, patriotic fervour reached such a pitch that German immigrant families came under attack. Many had settled in London’s East End, where they worked in the sugar baking industry. As the war progressed they were increasingly persecuted and one of their most popular gathering places, the King of Prussia pub, was renamed the King Edward VII.
In March of 1917, in the first use of powered aircraft in warfare, the German Air Force began launching strategic bombing raids over London. Though initially plagued by equipment failures, the German heavy bombers eventually began to pose a significant threat to civilian populations. In June 1917, the most devastating such raid took place over Poplar in East London. The death toll of 162 included 18 schoolchildren found in the rubble of a local primary school. Adding insult to death and injury, the aircraft used was the Gotha G.IV, after its place of manufacture. The Germanic nature of “Saxe-Coburg-Gotha” had already become an embarrassment. This clear association with the surname of the King proved fateful.
After three years embroiled in a conflict costing millions of lives against an enemy led by his own cousin, this was too much for King and country to tolerate. The following month George V issued a proclamation renouncing all his German titles, revoking all British titles held by his German relatives, and declared that the House and Family of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha would henceforth be known by the name Windsor. The old surname was gone, but not before George V’s cousin Kaiser Wilhelm used the occasion to joke that he was looking forward to seeing a performance of Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg Gotha”.
The choice of “Windsor” reflected the long association of the castle with the Royal Family. And so it has remained, though the name was briefly challenged in 1952, when Prince Philip’s uncle and mentor, Lord Louis Mountbatten, attempted to use the accession of Elizabeth II as a pretext to rename the royal family the “House of Mountbatten”. This was quickly squashed by the new Queen and her family, though later she authorised the use of the surname “Mountbatten-Windsor” for those of her children who chose to do so. However the next three generations of successors are firmly within the House of Windsor, so the name is likely to remain unchallenged for the foreseeable future.