Windsor Castle was originally built by William the Conqueror in the decade after the Norman Conquest of 1066. William established a defensive ring of motte and bailey castles around London; each was a day’s march – about 20 miles– from the City and from the next castle, allowing for easy reinforcements in a crisis. Windsor Castle, one of this ring of fortifications, was strategically important because of its proximity to both the River Thames, a key medieval route into London, and Windsor Forest, a royal hunting preserve previously used by the Saxon kings
Windsor is one of the many names that the Normans brought with them when they conquered England in 1066. The Windsor family lived in Berkshire, at Windsor Castle. Interestingly, “The Stanwell family claim descent from Walter Fitz-Other (fl. 1087), who held that manor at the time of Domesday Book and was warder of Windsor Castle, whence he derived the name Windsor This was not the only time a family would assume the name of the castle as in 1917, the present Royal family would do the same.
How Did the Royal Family Become the Windsor’s?
The Hanoverians ruled Britain from 1714 through basically through 1837. After the end of the Commonwealth, which ceased in 1659, with the death of Oliver Cromwell’s son Richard, there was a restoration of the Stuart Kings: Charles II and James II. The Stuart Dynasty ended badly in 1688 after the Glorious Revolution. William of Orange had invaded Britain over the continuing conflict, regarding not only succession, but the religious politics regarding the attempted restoration of Catholicism. The attempt to restore the Catholic Church to religious primacy was actuated by the arrest and trial of the Archbishop of Canterbury and six of his Bishops. When they were acquitted, James II attempted to flee Britain, was captured and forced off the throne. He later died in 1701.
His removal brought on the era of the Dutch Reign with the dual monarchy of William and Mary (1689-94) and eventually that of their unmarried daughter Anne (1702-1714). In between, there was the short reign of Mary II another Stuart. With her death brought on the end of the Stuart Line and the three Georges from Hanover, Germany.
The sons of George III were, according to the Duke of Wellington, were “millstones around the neck of any government that can be imagined.” George III lived to age 81 and died blind and deaf on January 29, 1820. Before his death, he had been rumored to be delusional or insane. His eldest son, George Augustus Frederick, was known of the “Prince of Pleasure,” and became the Regent while his father, George III was incapacitated.
His title was conferred by the Regency Act on February 5, 1811. Subject to certain limitations for a period, the prince regent was able to exercise the full powers of the King. The precedent of the Regency Crisis of 1788 (from which George III recovered before it was necessary to appoint a regent) was followed. The Prince of Wales continued as regent until his father’s death in 1820, when he became George IV. This period would be later known as “The Regency,” a period of style, clothing, architecture, excessive spending, and debt. The Regent never deprived himself anything. He fell in love in 1784 with a Roman Catholic widow, Maria Fitzherbert and married her.
Though the ceremony was illegal, and the Prince disclaimed it, the affair shocked the public and infuriated his father George III. Eventually, he was forced to marry Princess Caroline of Brunswick and his private life went from bad to worse. Their relationship was impossible and in fact, he despised her. Eventually, after two weeks she left him for Italy. When the King George III finally died in 1820, she returned to claim her rights as Queen. After divorce proceedings and the efforts of Parliament to deprive her of any claims, the Privy Council decreed that she had no rights to her title. Amazingly, she died two weeks later, and the problem was resolved. George IV never remarried, had no children, but a number of mistresses. Over the next years, his health deteriorated along with his grotesque bulk. In 1830, he suffered a number of strokes and died. Most of his subjects would have agreed with Horace Walpole’s (The youngest son of the first British Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Oxford,) view was that “he was a bad son, a bad husband, a bad father, a bad subject, a bad monarch and a bad friend.”
George IV’s only legitimate child Charlotte, died in childbirth in 1817, thirteen years before his death in 1830. There were no younger Hanoverians left in direct line to the throne. His second brother, William, Duke of Clarence, abandoned his mistress of twenty years and the mother of his ten children. After several rebuffs he was accepted by Amelia Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen, a minor German principality. Though there was rapid births, two daughters died in infancy and there were still born twins, there were never any heirs. The third brother, Edward, Duke of Kent, gave up his French mistress of 25 years and married Victoria of Leiningen. In 1819 they had a daughter, the future Queen Victoria, The fourth brother was Ernest, Duke of Cumberland, was an unpleasant, sexual pervert, already married to a German princess, who was rumored to have murdered her two previous husbands. With all the other siblings, there was no other available heir. Thus, with the death of George IV and the succession of his 75 year old brother, William, the reputation of the monarchy was at a low ebb, and he did little to revive it. There were many struggles with Parliament, the question of a Reform Bill and the problems in Ireland. He dismissed the Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, the last time a monarch was able to do that act, and Robert Peel, became Prime Minister. Peel found he couldn’t govern without a coalition, and William was reluctantly forced reappoint Melbourne. Aside from his gruff and blunt manner, he was regarded with a certain amount of affection, though combined, at times, with a lack of respect, bordering on contempt. He died in 1837 after a bout of pneumonia. The British crown went to his niece Victoria, and the crown of Hanover, barred to women by Salic Law, went to his brother, Ernest Duke of Cumberland.
As Victoria succeeded to the throne, which had been occupied by the three German Kings, known in the words of Sir Sidney Lea, “An imbecile, a profligate, and a buffoon!” Meanwhile, she had been brought up in a cloistered atmosphere by her controlling mother, the Duchess of Kent, who was under total influence of Sir John Conroy, the Comptroller of the Household. Her mother assumed that she would serve as Regent for her young daughter, who she saw as a pliant tool in their hands. Victoria had a strong sense of what she wanted, and was able to break away from her mother’s control and domination. After a period of leaning on dominant men, she met and married, at age 20, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, another German. He was bright, innovative, and he guided her skillfully until his death from typhoid in 1861. She entered a prolonged period of mourning as she retreated to her homes in Balmoral. Windsor and Osborn. She would remain out of sight for years, until her Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli was able to convince Parliament, against great opposition, to make her Empress of India in 1876. Eventually, in 1887, she celebrated her Golden Jubilee, regained a great deal of popularity and that popularity grew until her Diamond Jubilee in 1897.
She had become a great symbol for Britain, and had rescued the monarchy from the disasters of the Hanoverians and her own retreat from the face of her people. When she died in old age in 1901, there was a definite sense of loss and the end of an era. Her daughter lamented of an England without the Queen’s presence.
It was in 1901, the line of the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (itself a cadet branch of the House of Wettin) succeeded the House of Hanover to the British monarchy, with the accession of King Edward VII, son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. In 1917, the name of the British royal house was changed from the German Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to the English Windsor because of anti-German sentiment in the United Kingdom during the First World War.
Victoria’s son, who would become Edward VII, was born Albert Edward. As the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Cornwall, among his numerous titles, was known as Bertie to his family. He was trained by tutors from the age of three to be intellectually disciplined. He married Princess Alexandra of Denmark at age of 22. Victoria never expected much of her son, and she may have been correct. He lived a profligate life and was cited often in divorce proceedings. He was helped by his wife’s “blind” eye to his numerous dalliances. In fact, he had an insatiable appetite for wine, women, song, gluttony and gambling. When he became King, in 1901, after a very long wait until the age 60, he had been given few royal responsibilities .As King, his conduct didn’t improve, it may have worsened. But, he actually was quite popular, and after the austere period of the Victorian Age, his lifestyle and the wealth of Britain opened up a new era, called the Edwardian Age, He had high marks for his ability to influence foreign diplomacy. But his lifestyle caught up with him and after a series of heart attacks, he died on May 6, 1910, only nine years into his reign.
George V was the second son of Edward VII. His older brother Albert was groomed for the crown, but died of pneumonia in 1892. George not only took his older brother’s place, but his fiancée, May of Teck, known later as Queen Mary. After he had become king, following the death of his father Edward VII, the country was in the midst of a dual crisis regarding the limiting of the power of the House of Lords, and a very critical Home Rule Bill. After the war with Germany broke out in 1914, he became a great symbol of patriotism with his visits to the front and his curtailing of royal expenses. Generally, for a quiet and unassuming man, he remained popular, and highly admired. He certainly was not an intellect or terribly educated. His reign was plagued with post WWI problems, a general strike in 1926, and the onset of the Great Depression. During World War, George V declared the following:
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….
The name had a long association with monarchy in Britain, through the town of Windsor, Berkshire, and Windsor Castle; the link is alluded to in the Round Tower of Windsor Castle being the basis of the badge of the House of Windsor. It was suggested by Arthur Bigge, 1st Baron Stamfordham. Upon hearing that his cousin had changed the name of the British royal house to Windsor and in reference to Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, German Emperor Wilhelm II remarked jokingly that he planned to see “The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha”.
He had four children, was a stern, unfeeling, distracted and uninvolved parent, as was his wife, Queen Mary. His eldest son, who become Edward VIII, had his own problems. George V was so concerned about his conduct and his shirking of responsibilities that he confessed to a friend, “After I am gone, the boy will ruin himself in twelve months.” But, by 1935, the economy seemed to be improving, he celebrated 25 years on the throne, but his health started to deteriorate from chronic bronchitis. He passed away in January of 1936.
As the monarchy passed to his son Edward, it seemed that his father’s prediction had come true. Edward VIII was a 41 year old bachelor and had been a restless soul, mostly interested in a very fast set and married women. His social proclivities were not covered in the press and he was quite handsome and popular. But, beneath the outward glamour, he was seen, by people who knew him, as lonely and insecure. He had met many women in his years as Prince of Wales, but nothing came close to a suitable marriage. Eventually, he came in contact with the married, and once-divorced American, Wallis Warfield Simpson. Eventually after her 2nd divorce, in October of 1936, he wanted to marry her. A constitutional crisis arose, and since he was head of the Church of England, a marriage to a divorced woman was basically illegal. Thus, the conflict could not be resolved in his favor. He abdicated in 1936 for his brother, George, who was hardly prepared for the role, could not speak well at all, had a horrible speech impediment, but at least had very smart and strong wife. Edward VIII, lived out his life as an exile, spent the war in Bermuda, visited the United States often, and died in 1972. Over the years his reputation has taken a mighty hit, especially regarding his fascist leanings, his visits to the 3rd Reich before the war, and the theories that if Britain was forced to make peace on Nazi Germany’s terms, he would be placed back on the throne.
George VI was a very reluctant king, shy, introspective and the father of two young daughters. In a sense, his eldest daughter Elizabeth was the heir presumptive, assuming Edward VIII had remained king and never had children or her father never had a third child, who was a son. As a young boy he was never strong, had an uneasy relationship with his father and was highly strung. As a child he had developed a stammer. With the help and guidance of his wife, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon and a speech therapist Lionel Logue, he eventually mastered his stammer. He had been active in WWI, served in the Navy and the Air Force, and became the first member of the Royal family to obtain a pilot’s license. His reign was dominated with the tensions that led to WWII, the war itself, and the difficult recovery Britain suffered through in post war period. He and his wife Elizabeth tirelessly toured the bombed out areas of London and made a narrow escape when Buckingham Palace was bombed. He announced that he was prepared to die there fighting. The King and Queen became incredibly popular, as with his two daughters.
He certainly was worn down by the war, but the worry didn’t kill him, but, for sure, his incessant smoking led to his lung cancer and death in 1952. Of course, that would lead to his daughter Elizabeth ascending the throne, and the rest is history.
As for the Windsor Dynasty- There have been five British monarchs of the House of Windsor since 1917: George V, Edward VIII, George VI, Elizabeth II, and Charles III.