I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong. But I shall not have strength to carry out this resolution alone unless you join in it with me, as I now invite you to do: I know that your support will be unfailingly given. God help me to make good my vow, and God bless all of you who are willing to share in it.
— Elizabeth II, April 1947 —
In the midst of the First World War, as Britain and Germany were locked in a titanic struggle for the mastery of Europe, anti-German sentiment ran high on the streets of the United Kingdom. It reached its peak in March 1917 when German Gotha G.IV bombers attacked London and other cities in southern England. The name “Gotha” became a household name for all Britons, but it was already familiar to many. The royal house of Great Britain at that time was the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, taking its name from Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria. King George V, Victoria’s grandson, was advised by Prime Minister David Lloyd George that some of this anti-German sentiment might transfer to the Royal Family. The king initially dismissed these concerns, but later that year when his cousin, Czar Nicholas II of Russia, was forced to abdicate and the specter of republicanism arose in Britain, King George issued a proclamation:
Now, therefore, We, out of Our Royal Will and Authority, do hereby declare and announce that as from the date of this Our Royal Proclamation Our House and Family shall be styled and known as the House and Family of Windsor, and that all descendants in the male line of Our said Grandmother Queen Victoria who are subjects of these Realms, other than female descendants who may marry or may have married, shall bear the said Name of Windsor.
With this declaration, George V created the royal house which still today reigns in the United Kingdom under its current head, Queen Elizabeth II. The name “Windsor” has long been associated with Great Britain and the Royal Family, particularly from the castle which bears the name and has been a favorite residence of all four Windsor monarchs. The House of Windsor has reigned in Great Britain for over a century and has led the country through some of the most turbulent and transformative events in world history.
“For seventeen years, he did nothing at all but kill animals and stick in stamps” George V was the grandson of the great Queen Victoria. Born in 1865 to the future King Edward VIII, he was not expected to inherit the throne until the death of his elder brother Prince Albert Victor in 1892. George and his brother were educated together, and in his youth he showed little aptitude for academics, so he instead joined the Royal Navy and went on tours of the Empire with his parents and siblings. He married Princess Victoria Mary of Teck in 1893 and remained totally devoted to her throughout their lives together. When his father ascended the throne in 1901, George was permitted to read state papers and spent time with King Edward in preparation for the day in which he would eventually become king. Father and son were incredibly close, and when Edward died in 1910, George wrote in his diary, “I have lost my best friend and the best of fathers…I have never had a cross word with him.”
In his early years as King and Emperor, George played the role of mediator at a turbulent time in British politics. The rise of socialism in the Labour Party had upended the traditional Liberal-Conservative dynamic in the House of Commons, and George was often called upon to help the three parties find consensus on contentious issues. The Irish Question continued to plague Britain, and while personally opposed to the idea of Home Rule, the King always remained neutral in the discussions between the Cabinet and Irish nationalist group Sinn Fein. But George’s rule would forever change in August 1914 when Great Britain declared war on the German Empire, which was then ruled by the King’s older cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm II. As thousands of Britons died each month in the trenches in Flanders, the King did his best to keep up public morale by blaming the war on the Kaiser. Anti-German sentiment led to the creation of the House of Windsor in 1917, and when the King’s court was criticized by the writer H.G. Wells as “alien and uninspiring,” he famously retorted, “I may be uninspiring, but I’ll be damned if I’m alien.” When the war ended, King George returned to his mediatory role in British politics as socialism and republicanism swept across Europe and drove one monarch from his throne after another. For the British people, the King had become a symbol of stability and unity in a dangerous time.
George and Mary had six children in all: Edward, Albert, Mary, Henry, George and John (who died at the age of thirteen). Edward, the Prince of Wales and known as “David” within the family, was handsome and outgoing, and his free-wheeling lifestyle and many affairs with married women soured his relationship with the King. Albert (or “Bertie”), who was as unlike his elder brother as was possible, was a devoted family man who shied away from the spotlight due to a speech impediment and (contrary to a recent portrayal in an Academy Award-winning film) was very close to the King. David’s love life eventually thrust the Royal Family into controversy when he took up with a married American woman, and the affair forever destroyed any respect father and son had for each other; it would also have serious consequences for the family and the nation.
The Great War had destroyed King George’s health, combined with his years of heavy smoking. As he grew older, the king spent more time at his country estates collecting stamps, shooting pheasants, and doting on his eldest granddaughter Elizabeth, whom he affectionately called “Lilibet.” The King fell ill in December 1935 at Sandringham House and took to his bed, from which he never rose again. On January 20, 1936, the King’s doctor administered a fatal dose of morphine to his patient (claiming that he euthanized the monarch to preserve his dignity and to ensure that his death could be announced in the morning papers rather than the “less appropriate evening journals). The Royal Family was not consulted on this action, and the King’s death was announced to the nation and the world with the words that he was “more than a King, a father of a great family.”
“The boy will ruin himself within twelve months…” David, Prince of Wales, became king on the death of his father on January 20, 1936. Already consumed by love for the married American Wallis Simpson, King Edward VIII’s short reign nearly tore Great Britain apart. Edward wished to reign in a more modern fashion than his father had done, and he routinely broke with centuries of royal tradition in both his actions and demeanor as king. The British people loved their young, handsome king and believed him to be a symbol of a new age for the country; they knew little of what was going on behind the scenes and in the King’s bedchambers.
The Cabinet of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin knew the truth about King Edward; that he was incautious with state papers and allowed his guests to read them freely, that his mistress was also having an affair with the Nazi German ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop, and that the King had expressed on numerous occasions his admiration for fascism in general and for Adolf Hitler’s rule in Germany in particular. In November 1936, Edward summoned the prime minister to Buckingham Palace and informed him that he intended to marry Mrs. Simpson once her divorce from her previous husband was finalized. Baldwin told the king that the public would not accept the marriage and that, as the head of the Church of England, Edward could not marry a divorcee. The king tried to reason with the prime minister, but nothing could be done. He thus had three options: give up Mrs. Simpson, marry her against the wishes of the Government, or abdicate the throne. Edward was unwilling to break off the relationship, and he knew that to marry her against the Cabinet’s wishes would lead to a constitutional crisis, and so he chose to relinquish the throne.
On December 10, 1936, Edward met with the Privy Council and his brothers at Fort Belvedere, where he signed the instrument of abdication. He then broadcast a message to the Empire and the world announcing his abdication before leaving Great Britain for exile in France. His mistress joined him early in 1937, and they were married in June of that year. His successor named David Duke of Windsor (though his wife was not named a Duchess), and the relationship between the Duke and his family would remain turbulent until his death in 1972.
“I pray to God…that nothing will come between Bertie and Lilibet and the throne.” In many ways, Prince Albert Frederick Arthur George was the image of his father King George V. Not academically-gifted but dedicated to public service, not expected to inherit the throne until a catastrophe struck the family, a devoted husband and loving father, the new King George VI was nervous upon taking the throne but resolved to do his duty. In a letter to his mother Queen Mary, he wrote of what happened when he learned of his brother’s abdication: “I broke down and sobbed like a child.” The coronation of George VI and his wife Queen Elizabeth took place in May 1937 (the date which had been planned for Edward VIII’s), and almost immediately the new king was thrust into the perilous situation developing in Europe. German and Italian aggression in Africa and Spain brought the Continent ever-closer to war, and the governments of Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain desperately hoped to appease the fascist dictators. George VI initially supported the policy of appeasement and continued to do so even after the outbreak of war in 1939. As the Germans swept across France in May 1940 and Chamberlain’s government collapsed, the King made it known privately that he hoped Sir Edward Halifax (one of the architects of appeasement) would become prime minister and open negotiations with Hitler. However, the consensus among the people and the House of Commons was for a more aggressive man to take the center chair in Downing Street, and they bypassed Halifax for Winston Churchill. This decision, though initially opposed by the King, would ultimately define his reign.
Churchill and George VI had come into conflict in the years before the Abdication Crisis, and the politician had supported Edward VIII until he relinquished the throne. Churchill’s reputation as the man who had cost thousands of lives at Gallipoli during the Great War, combined with his aggressive tone when describing the dangers of appeasement, had made him unfit for national service in the King’s eyes. Their first meeting was quite cold and formal, but over the course of the wartime years they grew close and came to see eye-to-eye on the need to defeat Germany and win the war for the cause of world freedom. When some Britons urged the King to depart the country for Canada as the Germans prepared for an invasion, George VI received Churchill’s warm support in his resolve never to abandon his post. During the Battle of Britain, the two men toured bombed-out areas and boosted the morale of the common people, which historians have said did as much to keep Britain fighting as did the bravery of her pilots. When victory came in May 1945, the King invited Churchill onto the balcony at Buckingham Palace to receive the adulation of the crowd, and he wrote a heartfelt letter of condolence to the prime minister upon his electoral defeat later that year.
The peace which followed the fall of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan was turbulent for Great Britain, and the King’s health soon began to fade (exacerbated, like his father’s had been, by his heavy smoking of cigarettes). Britain’s strength had been sapped during the war, and she was unable to hold her colonial empire together. India was granted independence in 1947 and other colonies departed the Empire—some joining the British Commonwealth—for the rest of George’s reign. The King spent much of his time with his family or on tours of the empire until 1949, when a journey to Australia and New Zealand had to be delayed due to a serious illness. George never fully recovered, and his daughter Elizabeth took on more royal duties as heiress- presumptive. She completed her father’s tour in 1950 and was by his side when his left lung was removed a year later after a malignant tumor was found.
On January 31, 1952, George accompanied his daughter to London Airport to see her off for a second tour of Australia via Kenya. It was the last time the two would see each other. George VI died in his sleep a week later on February 6, 1952, and the princess flew home from Kenya as Queen Elizabeth II.
“It has always been easy to hate and destroy. To build and cherish is much more difficult.” Elizabeth II is today the longest-reigning monarch in British history, as well as the world’s longest-reigning female head of state. Coming to the throne at the age of 26 (the youngest of the Windsor monarchs), her reign has seen the most incredible changes in British society since the end of the Middle Ages. In 1952, Great Britain stood as one of the world’s leading powers, a victorious empire who had crushed the monstrous tyranny of Nazi Germany and whose flag flew over a quarter of the earth’s surface. Today, Britain remains a strong nation, though one with significantly-diminished influence. The postwar rise of the United States and the Soviet Union supplanted the old European imperial powers, and the strain of war led to the collapse of the British Empire. Now, thanks to the Brexit vote in 2016 and Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, the nation stands on the brink of even more change. Yet through the ups and downs of 66 years, Elizabeth’s steady hand and wise counsel has balanced the British ship of state.
More than any of the other Windsor monarchs, Queen Elizabeth has lived two lives: the public and the private. In public, she is always serene and detached from the day-to-day political and social movements of British life. Having been served by thirteen prime ministers of both the Labour and Conservative parties, she has remained independent and neutral in political matters (though the British press has often speculated about her private views). Royal commentators have observed that her attitude must have been the product of her upbringing by George VI and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, both of whom taught her from a young age that her duty was to the nation first. As queen, Elizabeth has been a model constitutional monarch, one who reigns but does not rule.
The Queen’s private life has been far more turbulent. She adored both her father and grandfather, and royal watchers believe that her toxic relationship with her uncle Edward, Duke of Windsor, stemmed from her belief that his affair and abdication contributed to both men’s early deaths. When her younger sister Margaret sought her permission to marry a divorced man, Group Captain Peter Townshend of the Royal Air Force, in 1953, the Queen forbade the marriage. She remembered how a royal scandal involving a divorcee had brought down her uncle and driven her father to the throne, and she was determined never to permit this to happen again. Sadly, divorce remained a constant menace to her family, as one royal marriage after another fell apart (most famously and publicly that of her son, Prince Charles, to Diana Spencer). For her part, Elizabeth has always remained faithful to her husband Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, and while rumors swirled in the tabloids of his infidelity, the two have always remained a rock of strong traditional family values in public.
The year 1992 was Elizabeth’s forty-year anniversary of assuming the throne, but in her speech in November to commemorate the occasion, the Queen called the year her annus horribilis. The press was speculating wildly about her private wealth (leading some to call for the monarchy’s abolition), the marriages of both her son Prince Andrew and her daughter Princess Anne ended in divorce, and a fire destroyed a large part of Windsor Castle, her favorite home. As the year ended, the Prince of Wales’ divorce of Princess Diana was finalized, and over the next five years all kinds of sordid details—some rumor, others true—soiled the Royal Family’s reputation. When Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris in 1997, public support for the monarchy reached its lowest point of her reign. Only when the Queen spoke to the nation in its hour of grief (after pressure from Prime Minister Tony Blair) did it begin to recover. Tragedy again struck the Queen in 2002 when her sister Margaret and the Queen Mother died only six weeks apart. Yet in public, Elizabeth continued to fulfill her duties as she had promised in her early years as Queen.
Elizabeth celebrated her Diamond Jubilee in 2012 and famously appeared in a video opening the 2012 Summer Olympics in London with James Bond actor Daniel Craig, a symbol of the monarchy’s renewed popularity among the people. She continues to enjoy broad public support (though that for her son Charles waxed and waned as he commented on political matters and carried on an affair with his Camilla Parker-Bowles, whom he married in 2005). She does not intend to abdicate the throne, though she has scaled back her public duties and relinquished some of her patronage of charities and mourned the death of her last Welsh corgi, Willow, in April 2018. Prince Philip has retired from public life, and it is expected that as the Queen approaches her 95th year that she will do the same.
“Find a presentable wife, father a male heir (and preferably a male “spare” as well), and keep the show on the road” The future of the House of Windsor is secure for the time being. Upon the death of Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles will inherit the throne (after the longest time spent as heir-apparent in British history), and he will then be succeeded by Prince William, Duke of Cambridge. William and his wife Catherine Middleton have three children—George, Charlotte and Louis—and the Royal Family has continued to expand with Prince Harry’s marriage to Meghan Markle in 2018. As Great Britain journeys forward into an unknown post-Brexit future, it is believed that the House of Windsor will continue to provide the sense of order and stability which the British public crave and for which this noble and duty-minded family is famous.