Making of a modern monarchy

The reformed Royal family sailed unscathed through the mid-century crises of the abdication, the Depression and the Second World War

This article is taken from the May 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Prince Philip, famously, was born on a kitchen table in Corfu in 1921. The birth-pangs of the house of Windsor only four years previously were scarcely less dramatic. And both events were a product of the pan-European crisis of monarchy triggered by the Russian Revolution. This toppled the four great Continental empires of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Turkey and Russia itself and left many of the lesser kingdoms — like that of Greece to which Philip was in the line of succession — hanging by a thread.

But not Britain. Partly it was due to the good luck of being a victor in the First World War rather than one of the vanquished. But it was also a product of the good management of that most underestimated of kings, George V.

George V, King of Great Britain and Emperor of India, had been close to Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. The two were first cousins and, with similar build and identical beards, the spitting image of each other. So, George felt for Nicholas’s fall almost as for his own. “After he has been 23 years Emperor”, George confided to his diary following the news of Nicholas’s forced abdication in March 1917, “I am in despair.” 

But — in the face of stirrings of republicanism, social unrest and even naval mutiny on the home front — George’s despair quickly turned into a settled determination to do something, anything to stop Britain following in Russia’s footsteps. And to do it quickly. The result was that this most conservative of men, with his unvarying daily routine of his weather-gauge, his diary and his stamp-collecting, became a royal revolutionary who, in the name of keeping things the same, changed everything —starting with his own family name.

Actually, changing the name was the most important. No one was quite sure what the British royal house was called. Guelf? Saxe-Coburg-Gotha? But one thing was certain: it was German. Which when Britain was engaged in a life-and-death struggle with the German empire was impossible. Especially when the German Emperor and warmongering chief, Kaiser Wilhelm II, was Victoria’s eldest grandson, principal mourner at her funeral and George’s own first cousin.

George’s private secretary, Lord Stamfordham was set the task of finding an English alternative. Ex-prime ministers were consulted and history books searched. Plantagenet, Tudor and Stuart were all considered but rejected, as was Fitzroy: “it hinted at wealth [and] … is too foreign”, the king declared revealingly. 

The first investiture of the new Order of the British Empire at Ibrox Park was the most “modern” event in the history of the Windsor monarchy

Finally, in mid-June, Stamfordham hit upon “Windsor”. Quintessentially English, classless and redolent of St George, Shakespeare and soft-soap, it was the perfect choice. The change of name was formally announced at meeting of the Privy Council on 17 July 1917. But that was not the only thing: “I also informed the Council,” the king noted in his diary, “that May (Queen Mary) and I had decided sometime ago that our children would be allowed to marry into British families.”

“It was,” he added, “quite a historical occasion.” The understatement was characteristic. The Kaiser might scoff, in his perfect English, that “he looked forward to the next performance of the ‘Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha’”. But George had pulled off a genuine transformation: he had turned the British royal house from the German dynasty he inherited from his (and the Kaiser’s) grandmother, Queen Victoria, into an English family. 

Queen Victoria had also declared that “she would never be Queen of a democracy”. George, through the root and branch reform of the honours system, now proceeded to make himself king of one. The existing system, with the great chivalric orders of the Garter, the Bath and the Thistle at its apex, was aristocratic, deliberately restrictive in numbers and wholly male. On 24 August 1917, the creation of a new honour — the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire — was announced that was the antithesis of all this. 

Closely modelled on the French Légion d’honneur, it was a mass order: designed for large numbers; embracing, through its various classes, the whole gamut of society, from the GBE (Knight Grand Cross) at the top to the BEM (British Empire Medal) at the bottom and including women on equal terms with men. 

The enormity of the change was signalled by the location of the first investiture of the new order on 18 September 1917, as the gilded apartments of Buckingham Palace were swapped for Ibrox Park Football Stadium in Glasgow. The king, in khaki uniform, was driven (with shades of Philip’s Land Rover) round the perimeter of the pitch in a staff car to greet the vast crowd. And the stars of the show were two of the humblest recipients: a Stakhanovite munitions worker, whose BEM the king pinned to her pert bosom to vast applause; and a badly wounded private who, unable to walk or stand, was carried in on a chair to even louder cheers.

It was no failing feudal relic into which Prince Philip married, it was he himself who was thought to be the dangerous throw-back

The Ibrox Park Investiture was, and remains, by far the most “modern” event in the history of the Windsor monarchy. And it took place four years before Philip, the supposed moderniser, was born.

The key elements of Ibrox Park — modernity, militarism and mass emotion — became the staple of the vast public events of the new dictatorships of Continental Europe. Here, there was a calculated retreat to the staider historicist ceremonial of horses, carriages and costumes which George V had inherited from his father, Edward VII.

But it was a return with a difference: Edward had loved ceremony and public speaking, at which he excelled. George hated both. But he did them out of duty. And “duty” became one of the watch-words of the Windsor monarchy. The other was morality as the refashioned and renamed Royal Family embraced Family Values. “You cannot resolve that your marriage shall be happy,” the Queen’s parents, the future George VI and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, were told at their wedding in 1923, “but you can and will resolve that it shall be noble.” In other words, you’ll never, ever divorce.

The result was a winning formula. The Windsor monarchy became a national religion: a British shinto, as it has been neatly described. It sailed unscathed through the mid-century crises of the Depression, the Abdication and the Second World War; its grim stoicism even enabled it to thrive under the hair-shirt socialism of the 1945 Labour government. “Soon,” ex-king Farouk of Egypt declared, “there will only be five kings in the world: four in a pack of cards and the king of England.”

So it was no failing feudal relic into which Prince Philip married in 1947. Indeed, it was Philip himself who was thought to be the dangerous throw-back: “He is a German Junker at bottom,” one shrewd observer wrote, “laughs too loudly at bad jokes; talks too loud; airs his opinions too much.” 

Philip, in fact, seemed to be too much of everything: too foreign and too German for a family that had reinvented itself as “mere English”; too attractive to women for a monarchy that had come to pride itself on its strict morality; too fond of change for change’s sake when everything that mattered had been changed in 1917. 

And, above all, too like Edward VIII whose own good looks, waywardness and determination that “something must be done” had, only ten years previously, led to the Abdication and the only serious crisis in the house of Windsor. They need not have worried. Elizabeth, as she declared forcefully from the outset, was determined to follow in the footsteps of her father and grandfather and be a Windsor Queen; while Philip, perhaps to his own surprise, turned out to be the model Windsor consort: dutiful, uxorious and carefully distant in public at least from his German in-laws.

Philip, perhaps to his own surprise, turned out to be the model Windsor consort

Change has come. But it has come, not from Philip, but from those family members who, unlike Philip, refused to follow the rules; who put their personal happiness above their public duty; who got divorced; who broke the code of royal omertà and talked about their feelings to the media.

These — Diana, Meghan, Harry, Charles himself in some of his moods — are the new royal revolutionaries. Will they be the reinventors of the house of Windsor for the Age of Woke? Or an awful warning of what not to do, like Edward VIII, whose behaviour anticipated so much of theirs?

Prince William’s tribute to his grandfather Philip, in which he hails his sense of duty, suggests that he has chosen. He will be a Windsor King with Kate as the model Windsor Queen. I can already hear his catchphrase: “My wife and I.”

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover