The House of Windsor only came into being in 1917, and over the course of the past 100 years or so, it has seen it all: war, constitutional crisis, scandalous love affairs and messy divorces. However, it remains one of the enduring constants in modern British history, and the Royal Family today remain widely respected across the country.
With little tangible political power or influence remaining, the House of Windsor has adapted to stay relevant in a changing world: a powerful combination of tradition and change has led to its remarkable popularity and survival despite assorted setbacks.
George V (1910-36)
A monarch whose reign spanned major change across Europe, George V renamed the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to the House of Windsor in 1917 as a result of anti-German sentiment. George was born in 1865, the second son of Edward, Prince of Wales. Much of his youth was spent at sea, and he later joined the Royal Navy, only leaving in 1892, after his older brother, Prince Albert, died of pneumonia.
Once George became directly in line to the throne, his life changed somewhat. He married Princess Mary of Teck, and they had six children together. George also received further titles, including Duke of York, had extra tutoring and education, and began to take on more serious public duties.
George and Mary were crowned in 1911, and later the same year, the pair visited India for the Delhi Durbar, where they were also officially presented as Emperor and Empress of India – George was the only monarch to actually visit India during the Raj.
The First World War was arguably the defining event of George’s reign, and the Royal Family were deeply concerned about anti-German sentiment. To help appease the public, the King renamed the British Royal house and asked his relatives to relinquish any German sounding names or titles, suspending British peerages titles for any pro-German relatives and even refusing asylum to his cousin, Tsar Nicholas II, and his family following their deposition in 1917.
As European monarchies fell as a result of revolution, war, and political regime change, King George became increasingly concerned about the threat of socialism, which he equated with republicanism. In an attempt to combat royal aloofness, and to engage more with ‘normal people’, the King cultivated positive relations with the Labour Party, and made attempts to cross class lines in a way not seen before.
Even in the early 1930s, it’s said George was worried about the growing power of Nazi Germany, advising ambassadors to be wary and speaking plainly about his concerns of another war on the horizon. After contracting septicaemia in 1928, the King’s health never fully recovered, and he died in 1936 following lethal injections of morphine and cocaine from his doctor.
Edward VIII (1936)
The oldest son of King George V and Mary of Teck, Edward gained a reputation for being something of a playboy in his youth. Handsome, youthful, and popular, his series of scandalous sexual liaisons worried his father who believed Edward would ‘ruin himself’ without his paternal influence.
On his father’s death in 1936, Edward ascended the throne to become King Edward VIII. Some were wary of his approach to kingship, and what was perceived to be his interference in politics: by this point, it was long established that it was not the monarch’s role to be too heavily involved in the day to day running of the country.
Behind the scenes, Edward’s long-standing affair with Wallis Simpson was causing a constitutional crisis. The new king was completely besotted with the divorced American Mrs Simpson, who was in the process of having her second marriage divorced by 1936. As Head of the Church in England, Edward could not marry a divorcee, and a morganatic (civil) marriage was blocked by the government.
In December 1936, the news of Edward’s infatuation with Wallis hit the British press for the first time, and he abdicated shortly afterwards, declaring
“I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as king as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.”
He and Wallis lived out the rest of their lives in Paris, as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
George VI (1936-52)
The second son of King George V and Mary of Teck, and the younger brother of King Edward VIII, George – known as ‘Bertie’ to his family as his first name was Albert – never expected to become king. Albert served in the RAF and the Royal Navy during the First World War, and was mentioned in despatches for his role in the Battle of Jutland (1916).
In 1923, Albert married Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon: some viewed this as a controversially modern choice given she was not of royal birth. The pair had two children, Elizabeth (Lilibet) and Margaret. Following his brother’s abdication, Albert became king, assuming the name George as monarch: the relationship between the brothers was somewhat strained by the events of 1936, and George forbade his brother from using the title ‘His Royal Highness’, believing he had forfeited his claim to it on his abdication.
By 1937, it was becomingly increasingly clear that Hitler’s Germany was a threat to peace in Europe. Constitutionally bound to support the Prime Minister, it’s unclear what the King thought of the alarming situation. In early 1939, the King and Queen embarked on a royal visit to America in the hope of preventing their isolationist tendencies and keeping relations between the nations warm.
The Royal Family remained in London (officially, at least) throughout the Second World War, where they suffered the same depravations and rationing as the rest of the country, albeit in more luxurious conditions. The House of Windsor’s popularity was bolstered during the war, and the Queen in particular had huge support for her behaviour. Post-war, King George oversaw the start of the disbanding of empire (including the end of the Raj) and the changing role of the Commonwealth.
Following bouts of ill health exacerbated by the stress of the war and a lifelong addiction to cigarettes, King George’s health began to decline from 1949. Princess Elizabeth and her new husband, Philip, began to take on more duties as a result. The removal of his entire left lung in 1951 left the King incapacitated, and he died the following year from a coronary thrombosis.
Elizabeth II (1952-present)
Born in 1926 in London, Elizabeth was the oldest daughter of the future King George VI, and became heir presumptive in 1936, on her uncle’s abdication and father’s accession. During the Second World War, Elizabeth carried out her first official solo duties, was appointed a Councillor of State, and took up a role within the Auxiliary Territorial Service following her 18th birthday.
In 1947, Elizabeth married Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark, who she had met years previously, aged just 13. Almost exactly a year later, in 1948, she gave birth to a son and heir, Prince Charles: the couple had four children in total.
Whilst in Kenya in 1952, King George VI died, and Elizabeth immediately returned to London as Queen Elizabeth II: she was crowned in June the following year, having announced the royal house would continue to be known as Windsor, rather than taking a name based on Philip’s family or ducal title.
Queen Elizabeth remains the longest-lived and longest-reigning monarch in British history: her reign has spanned the decolonisation of Africa, the Cold War, and devolution in the United Kingdom amongst many other sizeable political events.
Notoriously guarded and reluctant to give personal opinions on anything, the Queen takes her political impartiality as reigning monarch seriously: the House of Windsor has cemented the constitutional nature of British monarchy, and kept themselves relevant and popular by allowing themselves to become national figureheads – particularly during times of difficulty and crisis.