How “English” is the Queen of England?

Suggested by SMS

Comedians have long enjoyed making the accusation that Queen Elizabeth is not English but German. It seems like the ultimate irony. But what is the truth behind these accusations?

Ok, so it is true that Queen Elizabeth and the House of Windsor are of German ancestry. Originally, the currently reigning British Royal family was known as the House of Saxe-Coberg and Gotha. King George V (Elizabeth’s grandfather) changed the family name to Windsor in 1917, in line with anti-German sentiments of the time (apparently many English sounding names were considered, including Winters, but the King eventually settled on the name of his favourite residence – Windsor Castle). George V was himself at least one quarter German, his grandfather being Albert of Saxe-Coberg and Gotha, the beloved prince consort of Queen Victoria, from whom the family name is inherited. Of course, there had been German blood in the family much longer than the marriage to Prince Albert. Queen Victoria (George V’s Grandmother) was descended from a long line of German monarchs. In fact, she and Albert were first cousins. Little was done to dilute the gene pool of the Royals in the ensuing generations, keeping the family almost exclusively German. George V might have been born to a Danish mother but he went on to marry a Princess from the Kingdom of Wurttemberg in Germany. Their son, George VI (father of Queen Elizabeth), could therefore be considered to be three quarters German, one quarter Danish. At least he did have the foresight to marry an English girl, or mostly English at least. His wife, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (later known as the Queen Mother), was born of a Scottish noble, himself half English, and his English wife.

And Queen Liz herself? Well, all of this is pretty confusing but it basically means that she is three eighths English, three eighths German, one eighth Scottish and one eighth Danish (or there about). This does mean that she is as German as she is English, but she doesn’t have a particularly strong German accent so I think we can forgive her that.

In fact, all things considered, the Queen is pretty English, especially when compared to the many others that have taken the throne. British history has been a long list of foreign Kings and interlopers. Even before the accession of the house of Saxe-Coberg kings of England could rarely be considered English. Set against her predecessors, Queen Elizabeth stands out as one of the most English monarchs of all time.

Iron Age Britain

You have to go back a long time to find a truly English monarch, back to the very different landscape of England before the Roman invasion of Britain. In iron age Britain there was no such thing as the English monarchy, however. The country was divided into tribal communities, each ruled by separate, but very English, native chieftains. But even as the armies of Rome were amassing on the shores of the English Channel, Southern England had already been overtaken by another foreign power – the Belgae. The Belgae were settlers from Belgium. They had been forced out of their homeland by the Romans and begun establishing kingdoms along the South coast of England. Often forgotten by historians, they are evidence that England has been invaded and ruled by foreign powers since time immemorial.

Following the Belgae came the Romans and later the Jutes, Angles, and Saxons – Germanic tribes from which much of the current populous of England are descended. These Germans took advantage of the chaos of post-Roman England, dividing it into a jigsaw of new realms.

Danelaw

By the end of the first century AD there were two Englands; in the West, the Saxon kingdom of Wessex and in the North and East, the Danelaw – ruled by Viking invaders from Scandinavia. The Kings of Wessex, while often considered to be English, were the descendents of Saxons invaders. They fought many wars against the Danes but were unable to unite the realm. It would take the mighty Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard and his son Cnut to do that. Forkbeard was named King of all England in 1013 after forcing the King of Wessex, Ethelred the Unready, into exile. When his son Cnut came to power he ruled over a great North Sea empire. He secured the English throne by having the exiled Ethelred killed and taking his wife. Unfortunately for the Danes, the plan did not work. By taking Emma of Normandy as his wife he also took Ethelred’s son as his step-son, allowing the throne to pass right back to the house of Wessex. However, this was not such a victory for the purity of the royal bloodlines as it seems. Emma of Normandy was not English or French but Danish, making the new King of England, Edward the Confessor – patron saint of kings and, for a time, patron saint of England – half Danish.

1066

According to popular history, 1066 is the year in which England was successfully invaded by the French. Actually, the Normans weren’t so much French as they were French-speaking Danes. William the Conqueror (or Guillaume le Batard) was a descendant of the Viking conquerors of Normandy. Defending the English crown was Harold Godwinson (nephew of Edward the Confessor) whose great-grandfather was, you guessed it, Danish. William and his descendants ruled England for the next hundred years.

The Plantagenets

With the fall of the Norman dynasty the rule of England passed to the Plantagenets, a French dynasty that retained the crown for three centuries. The majority of the Plantagenets ruled from their territories in France and, over the years, gained many more.

Many of England’s most famous monarchs were French Plantagenets, including the hump-backed Richard III and Richard the Lionheart. It is thought that the Lionheart thought so little of his English kingdom that he never even visited, preferring to fight for new French territories.

The Tudors

The Tudor dynasty followed the Plantagenets, beginning with Henry VII, the son of a Welsh nobleman and a Plantagenet lady. He also took a Plantagenet as his wife (the daughter of the late Plantagenet king Edward IV) making his son, the infamous misogynist Henry VIII, part French and part Welsh.

Henry VIII’s eldest daughter was half Spanish (born to Catherine of Argon) – the aptly named Bloody Mary. Her reign was as bloody as it was short. His second daughter, Elizabeth I, however was particularly English. In fact, Elizabeth I was one of the most English monarchs ever to take the throne. The daughter of Anne Boleyn she was almost entirely English, with only a little French and a pinch of Welsh blood from her father’s side of the family.

Inspired by her half-sister Mary (a half Spanish queen who married a Spaniard), Elizabeth went one step further and declared that she was ‘married to England’. Due to the biological impossibility of her becoming pregnant to a landmass, however, she died without heir, allowing the crown to fall once again into the hands of a foreign power – those troublesome Scots.

The Stuarts

While many angry and deluded Scotsmen mistakenly believe that the union between England and Scotland came about through the English invasion of Scotland, it was actually the King of Scotland who took control of the English crown. In reality, however, James I was actually half English, only one quarter Scottish and one quarter French. His son, Charles I, was half Danish and married Henrietta Maria of France. This made the following two kings of England, the brothers Charles II and James II, only one sixteenth Scottish, one eighth English, one quarter Danish but mostly French. They were also raised in France after going into exile during the English civil war.

Of course things got even more complicated when England was invaded once again (on the invitation of parliament) during the Glorious Revolution. This time the country would be ruled by a King and Queen each in their own right – Queen Mary (the daughter of James II and half English on her mother’s side), and King William III, Prince of Orange and Stadtholder of the Dutch Republic (who was Dutch by birth but also half German and of distant French ancestry).

At this point it was decided to just scrap the whole ‘Scottish king’ idea and start from scratch, by getting in some well-dressed Germans. Go figure.

The House of Hanover

That’s right, we were so confused about who should rule England that we invited the Germans to come over and sort it out for us. George I, George II, George III, George IV and William IV were all of pure German blood, saving anybody the trouble of trying to work out how English they were – they weren’t. Eventually Queen Victoria was born of this line, marrying her cousin Albert and taking his name to form the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (Windsor) to which our beloved Queen Elizabeth II was born.

How did the Germans get their hands on the English crown? Well, it had more to do with religion than royal bloodlines. In 1701 the British Parliament passed the Act of Settlement. This controversial piece of legislation stated that no member of the catholic faith could take the throne of England. Thanks to the Act of Union, 1707, the thrones of England and Scotland would also be permanently joined at the hip. Unfortunately, while the ruling monarchs, William and Mary, were ardent protestants none of their children survived beyond infancy. This meant we had to look a little further to find a legitimate, protestant heir to the throne, eventually settling on Duchess Sophia of Hanover (the granddaughter of James I) and her heirs. The Duchess Sofia did not live to take the throne but her son George Louis did. Over fifty of his distant relatives had stronger claims on the throne but he was the only non-catholic. Over the next several hundred years the sons of George I would marry an endless string of German princesses, helping to secure their power over an equally endless string of central German provinces. Had German tradition allowed for women to inherit their fathers’ titles, Queen Victoria would have added the Kingdom of Hanover (one of the largest kingdoms in Germany at the time) to her many dominions. But don’t go thinking that the German connection stops there. Although Victoria did not inherit her family’s Hanoverian lands, her descendants continued to inter-marry with the Germans until the First World War.

So, with all comparisons made, how English is the Queen of England? Well, she could be more English, but then few other English monarchs have been, and if she were, we would have one less reason to make fun of her. She certainly isn’t German, as many of critics maintain. She may be descended from a long line of German monarchs, but then those monarchs have ruled England for so long that they have become an integral part of England. Yes, she has German ancestry, but then England is populated by the ancestors of German Anglo-Saxon settlers. She is also part Danish, but then half of England was once ruled by the Danes and as many as several thousand Vikings may have settled there. She is also part Scottish, but then she is the Queen of Scotland too. All in all, she is as English as anybody could expect. Her husband, on the other hand, is part Greek, part Danish and part – you guessed it – German!

How English is the future King of England, Prince Charles? He’s one sixteenth Scottish, two sixteenths Greek, three sixteenths Danish, 7 sixteenths German and a pitiful three sixteenths English. But then it’s not the purity of his blood that really matters.

Comments

comments