An Explanation of the Windsor Name

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As many of us know, the current Royal Family is known as the House of Windsor. Their family name, by default, is Mountbatten-Windsor. These are, essentially, made up stylings. I thought I’d offer a quick explainer on why in light of the new reign of Charles III.

 Let’s jump back all the way to the Norman Conquest in 1066…because I don’t like half-measures. In that year, The Duke of Normandy conquered England at the Battle of Hastings and established himself as king, becoming William I. The dynasty he founded has thus become known as the House of Normandy. Royals didn’t have last names – they had titles, and if they didn’t have titles, they had stylings that noted their paternity and/or place of birth. For example, had I been born at Westminster and my father was the king, then I could be known as Princess Rebecca of Westminster. Alternately, I could be known as Princess Rebecca of England. The former notes my place of birth, and the latter my father’s title – king of England. Both would be correct.

The House of Normandy ended with the Anarchy of the 12th century, which occurred because William I’s son, Henry I, died without a son. The throne was thus in dispute between his only living child, a daughter named Matilda, and a nephew, Stephen. For a while, Stephen won out, making him the last Norman king. Before he died, he reached an agreement with Matilda and her eldest son, Henry, that left the throne to Henry.

As such, in 1154, when Henry became King Henry II, he was not considered a member of the House of Normandy. His paternity, via his mother’s marriage to his father, Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, trumped his maternal ties to the English Royal Family. We have retroactively named the dynasty that Henry II then founded the House of Plantagenet, which is a riff off of Geoffrey of Anjou – there are a couple theories as to where that name came from that aren’t important for the purposes of this post, so we’ll keep this moving.

The House of Plantagenet ruled from 1154 until 1399, when the last Plantagenet king, Richard II, was deposed by his cousin, Henry IV. Henry was the son of Richard II’s uncle, The Duke of Lancaster, and thus his reign marks the House of Lancaster. Now, technically, since Henry and Richard were related via their fathers, you could make the argument that Henry should have been considered a Plantagenet king, like Stephen was considered a Norman king. Except we don’t – we consider the line to have been broken via the usurpation.

The House of Lancaster ruled from 1399 until 1461, interrupted by the Wars of the Roses, which ushered in the House of York. Each of the kings of these two houses were male cousins, descended from the same Plantagenet kings. As such, no real surname. Lancaster and York were simply the titles the “founders” of each House held prior to kingship.

This changed in 1485 when Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond became Henry VII by defeating the last Yorkist king, Richard III, in the Battle of Bosworth. Henry Tudor’s paternal line came via an un-titled Welshman, Owen Tudor, whose family were extremely prominent in earlier Welsh history. Welsh authority held little sway in England; as such, Henry’s only real claim to the throne came via his mother, Margaret Beaufort, who herself was a great-granddaughter of same duke of Lancaster who founded the earlier royal House.

You can certainly argue that the Tudor victory at Bosworth was actually a Lancastrian victory, except that 1) Henry’s claim (arguably) came via his mother, 2) Henry was the first monarch to really have a surname in the sense that your average person does, and 3) he was savvy enough to know after decades of civil war, England needed a fresh start.

Henry Tudor married Elizabeth of York, daughter of one of the Yorkist kings, merging the two warring sides in the House of Tudor. I would argue that Tudor is the first real royal surname.

The House of Tudor ruled from 1485 until 1603 when its last monarch, Elizabeth I, died. Even if Elizabeth had married, the House would once again have changed, her children taking on the surname or styling of their father. In this case, the throne passed to Elizabeth’s cousin, King James VI of Scotland, whose surname was Stuart or “Stewart.” As such, the House of Stuart was founded in England via King James I & VI (I in England, VI in Scotland).

The Stuarts reigned until 1714 with the death of Queen Anne. Anne had married, however she had no living children to succeed her. The throne thus passed to a distant cousin, George Ludwig, Elector of Hanover. If that sounds incredibly foreign and German, it was – and this has haunted the British Royal Family ever since. George Ludwig – who became George I – was the eldest son of Sophia of The Palatinate, herself a daughter of Elizabeth Stuart, only surviving daughter of James I. Elizabeth had left England at her marriage in 1613, and her descendants were scattered across the continent, primarily in Holland and Germany. Unlike other royal cousins, they were Protestant, and so they came to Britain.

George I’s dynasty was thus known as the House of Hanover and it ruled from 1714 until Queen Victoria’s death in 1901. Because Victoria was a woman, her children took on the styling of their father – in this case, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. As such, when Victoria’s son, Edward VII, took the throne his house was the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. He died in 1910, the throne passing to his own son, George V.

What happened next is World War I. Anti-German sentiment was pervasive in England and the British Royal Family, now feeling themselves very British despite strong German heritage, decided the name of their House was inappropriate. In other words, they re-branded. A few names were tossed around, including calling back “Tudor” or “Stuart,” or merging them in “Tudor-Stuart.” They landed on Windsor, a Medieval castle with associations with almost all kings and queens, and which was still an active royal residence.

At the same time that the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha became the House of Windsor, they also took care of certain German or foreign-sounding minor royals in the family. One of those were the Battenbergs, a German line who had married into the British Royal Family in two ways – once via Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Beatrice, and another time via her granddaughter, Princess Victoria of Hesse. It is this second marriage that is particularly important.

Princess Victoria had four children – Alice, Louise (who became the queen of Sweden), George, and Louis (for whom the current Prince Louis of Wales is named). Alice married Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark, and their only son was the late Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. George and Louis of Battenberg, who resided in England, were given an anglicized version of Battenberg for a surname – Mountbatten.

In 1947, when George VI’s heir, Princess Elizabeth, married Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark, something had to be done about how foreign he sounded in the aftermath of World War II, which had done nothing to help anti-German sentiment. He renounced his claims to foreign thrones and adopted the surname of his uncles, becoming Prince Philip Mountbatten. He was then given the title, Duke of Edinburgh.

In 1952, when Princess Elizabeth became Elizabeth II there was discussion of whether the House of Windsor needed to be changed to House of Mountbatten. Now, technically, Elizabeth would have served as the last monarch of the House of Windsor, however it was argued in some corners that, unlike Queen Victoria, since Elizabeth was already married, it should change with her. In the end, it was decided the House of Windsor was the permanent name of the royal line. And this would remain so even with the accession of Prince Charles – now Charles III.

However, there are some that like to snidely point out how German the Royal Family’s heritage is – or just show off – by reminding everyone that the Windsors have really been the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas since 1901.

Until September 8, 2022, that is – at which point, technically, the House assumes Prince Philip’s lineage and could be styled the House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glucksburg, which wraps up his history and association with the Greek and Danish Royal Families.

But let’s stick to Windsor, shall we?

8 thoughts on “An Explanation of the Windsor Name

  1. denjdel

    Thank you for the interesting post and for all the updates of the funeral progress.. I’ve heard this story over the years and it’s always bugged me that there was never an argument for changing the name to the House of Edinburgh, since Phillip was made Duke of Edinburgh before he married Princess Elizabeth. That’s probably what would have happened in years past. Do you know any expert who can answer that question?

    1. Mountbatten is the family name, not Edinburgh. Much like when Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond became Henry VII the House became Tudor, not Richmond. The Hanoverians didn’t really have a family name – it would have been a strange amalgam, overly complicated, and simply not in use. Hanover itself was a simplification in pre-unified Germany.

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