Nothing symbolizes “England” more than the Royal family, the House of Windsor. But in reality, the Windsor family is not English at all–it is German. How a German aristocrat came to be King of England and form a dynasty that would rule for 300 years (most recently under an assumed name), is a story of religious conflict and near-civil war.
In 1688, as the “Glorious Revolution” came to an end, King James II of England fled the country. For centuries, since the time of the Reformation, Catholics and Protestants had been fighting each other all across Europe, as conflict over religious ideology merged with political conflict over the so-called “divine right of kings”. In the Catholic countries, it was assumed that the King was King because God wanted him to be King, and, with the blessing of the Pope, the Monarch held absolute power. In the Protestant countries, by contrast, the authority of the Pope was rejected, and the “divine power” of the Monarch was checked by a Parliament, a legislature made up of lower nobles.
Although he ruled a country that was nearly all Protestant, King James II of England had been Catholic, and firmly embraced the ideology of “divine right”. That inevitably led to conflict with Parliament and unpopularity with the public–a conflict which King James lost. After King James’ departure, Parliament declared that his daughter Mary Stuart, a Protestant, would take his place as Monarch. She agreed only on the condition that her Dutch-born Protestant husband, William of Orange, be accepted as co-sovereign. Shortly after, in 1689, parliament passed a Bill of Rights that weakened the power of the King and legally established the Parliament-appointed Ministers as the real holders of political power.
Queen Mary II and King William III had a short reign, however. Queen Mary died of smallpox in 1694, and William III died in 1700. That left Mary’s sister Anne as Queen.
But Queen Anne’s succession to the throne presented a potential political crisis. Although Anne had given birth to 17 children, all but one of them died in childhood–and the survivor, the Duke of Gloucester, soon died at age 11. That left Queen Anne as the last of the Stuart line, without a direct heir. Further, an underground political movement had appeared, known as the “Jacobites”, who were agitating for the return of the Catholic eldest son of James II, James Francis Stuart, as King James III. It was a potentially explosive situation.
To solve it, Parliament in 1701 passed the Act of Settlement, laying out new rules as to who could or could not be the English Monarch. The most important provision was that the Monarch could not be a Catholic or married to one, and had to swear a holy oath to uphold the Church of England under the title “Defender of the Faith”.
Therefore, when Queen Anne died in 1714 without a direct heir, the Act of Settlement ruled out nearly all of the remaining Stuarts (who were Catholic), finally settling on George, a relatively minor nobleman of Brunswick-Luneberg, in the Hanover area of Germany. He was the son of Princess Sophia, who was herself the grand-daughter of England’s King James I. George Hanover, who was 52nd in line to the English throne, became King George I of England. Not only had he never visited the British Isles, but he did not even speak a word of English.
With George I, the Stuart Dynasty came to an end, and the Hanover Dynasty began. It turned out to be a golden age for Britain. Over the next 100 years, under the Hanover Kings, England became the dominant world superpower, with an empire that stretched literally around the world (despite the loss of the American colonies under King George III). The era also saw the institutionalization of the current Constitutional Monarchy, with the Sovereign as symbolic head of state but real power in an elected Parliament. By the time Queen Victoria assumed the throne in 1837, the British Empire was the largest and richest society that had ever existed.
Queen Victoria, who was the grand-daughter of King George III, arranged marriages of her children and grand-children to most of the royal houses of Europe. As a result, when World War One broke out in August 1914, it pitted Kaiser Wilhelm III, Queen Victoria’s grandson, against Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and King George V of England, also Victoria’s grandsons. The three were cousins. Victoria’s husband had been Prince Albert, of the German House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, and therefore King George V was also a member of that House. But in the anti-German hysteria that consumed England during the war, the name became something of an embarrassment. And so in 1917, at the height of the war, King George V first declared that his family was renouncing all of the hereditary titles that they held in Germany, and then shortly later announced that the family would be immediately changing its name and would no longer be the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha: “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 the 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.” When Kaiser Wilhelm heard the news, he is said to have joked that he was going to see the Shakespeare play “The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha”.
The Act of Settlement of 1701 was in legal force in England for over 300 years. As recently as 1998, the Earl of St Andrews was removed from the line of succession to the British throne after he married a Catholic. Then, in 2013, a new Act of Succession to the Crown was passed, which ended the anti-Catholic requirement.