Queen Victory's Legacy

The royal courts of Europe enjoyed a strong familial network prior to the First World War. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany was the grandson of England’s Queen Victoria and first cousin of King George V of England. The czar of Russia, Nicholas II, was a first cousin of Wilhelm and of King George. In a famous photograph of the time, Czar Nicholas II and King George V look like identical twins.

The royal continental linkages were mostly Queen Victoria’s doing. She and her Prince Consort, Albert, produced nine children out of their marriage bed and planted them like seeds throughout the royal households of Europe, mostly German. It was Queen Victoria’s hope that by having royal family links with the crown heads of the other major European powers, strong ties through blood relationships might forestall the spilling of blood on the battlefield. As some historians have noted, there are all kinds of examples to prove the weakness of this theory. All you do is introduce family jealousies into the already tenuous mix of international relationships.

You know, of course, that Victoria herself had found marital bliss and happiness in a German court. Her husband Albert, who died at a relatively young age and whom the queen mourned in black for the rest of her life, came from the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. He was the son of Ernst, the Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. Victoria, like many modern married women of today, kept her maiden reference to the House of Hanover. Her son, Edward VII, succeeded her in 1901 as a member of the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. Her grandson George V took the throne with the same name in 1910, but intense public opinion against Germany in the First World War forced him to change the family name to the House of Windsor in 1916. He and his British relatives gave up their German titles and names; Prince Louis of Battenberg became Louis Mountbatten, for example. (Just as an aside: Lord Mountbatten was killed in 1979 when the Irish Republican Army blew up his fishing boat in Ireland.)

Now, if you will bear with me, dear Uncle, I will lay out the details of Queen Victoria’s seeding of Europe with her British progeny. Then I will speculate on how this may have contributed to one of the greatest misjudgements of the war and why you came to die at Vimy Ridge.

Here’s how Victoria’s family tree took root in Europe.

Her first-born, Edward (born 1841), married Alexandra, daughter of Christian IX of Denmark.

Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh and of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (born 1844) married Marie of Russia.

Arthur, Duke of Connaught (born 1850) married Louise Margaret of Prussia.

Leopold, Duke of Albany (born 1853) married Helen of Waldeck-Pyrmont.

Victoria, Princess Royal (born 1840) married Friedrich III, German Emperor. Watch this one for further details.

Alice (born 1843) married Ludwig IV, Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine.

Helena (born 1846) married Christian of Schleswig-Holstein.

Louise (born 1848) married John Campbell, 9th Duke of Argyll.

Beatrice (born 1857) married Henry of Battenberg.

You see how this goes. First make a link with Denmark. Maybe, in a moment of remorse, this was compensation for Britain stealing the entire Danish fleet in 1807. Then link to Russia, and then Prussia, and a bunch of German states. Keep in mind that there was no Germany at this time; there was Prussia and a string of related German provinces. The nation of Germany would form in 1871 out of victory in the Franco-Prussianå war.

Now, why would all these states want ties to Britain through a family of British-born monarchs who were going to produce heirs to their various thrones? Because it was quite an honour. Britain was a superpower in the 19th century. Under Victoria’s rule, the island nation had blossomed into a worldwide empire on which the sun never set. Through industrial growth, economic prosperity, and resources beyond measure in its global colonial empire, Britain was immensely powerful and wealthy. Being part of the empire, even if only through blood links with the monarch, had its benefits.

When war broke out in 1914, the Victoria Factor was quickly put to the test. Victoria had planted all those British seeds throughout Europe, remember? This is just speculation, but is it possible that the Germans and the Kaiser were misled by the number of British monarchical links throughout the German/Prussian world? Perhaps they felt that Britain was actually soft on Germany because of those connections. They gambled that the British would not enter a conflict with them. 

As we know from bitter experience, Queen Victoria's dreams of strong family bonds came to naught. Maybe they even exacerbated the situation.

(From a chapter in the forthcoming book, Letters to Vimy, by Orland French. For more details on the book, click HERE)