After the Napoleonic Wars, Britain was determined to ensure that no one power could threaten to dominate Europe. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert saw royal marriages as a way to maintain peace, marrying their eldest daughter Princess Victoria to Prince Frederick, the heir to the Prussian throne. Five more of their children married into German royal houses, whilst their eldest son ‘Bertie’, the future Edward VII, married Princess Alexandra of Denmark. Despite these family ties, by the time Victoria and Albert’s grandchildren came of age, Europe was at war again. On the eve of the First World War, royal cousins King George V, Tsar Nicholas II and Kaiser Wilhelm II ruled over more than half the world’s population but as events overtook them, the last vestiges of their power were swept away.
A Dangerous Path
Desperate to conceal his damaged left arm and distant from his mother who felt she failed in her primary duty to produce a suitable heir, Wilhelm carried the emotional damage of his childhood into adult life. Overbearing and manipulative, both his Russian and British relatives found him difficult, and George in particular dreaded his cousin’s visits. Wilhelm led Germany down a dangerous path and, throwing his weight around in a bid for British respect, the expansion of the German navy prompted Britain to look for alliances against this new threat to its maritime power, whilst his bellicosity caused alarm to other European powers.
To the East in Russia, his cousin Nicholas II wielded absolute power. However, as a dedicated family man who found happiness in his private life, this did not come naturally to him. Believing he had a holy duty to maintain his grip on power, Nicholas lacked the courage of his convictions and was unable to recognise the desire of his people for change.
An Accidental Heir
Like Nicholas, George was close to his mother and lived in the shadow of his father. George was a quiet man who liked order and control, and became heir after his older brother ‘Eddy’ died. Ill-suited and underprepared for the throne, the prospect of being king terrified him. Trained as a naval officer, George’s education was limited, which led his cousin Wilhelm to dismiss him as a country gentleman who couldn’t speak any foreign languages.
Abdication and Exile
During the war, Wilhelm was sidelined by his generals and restricted to ceremonial duties. As the tide turned and enemy troops advanced, he saw it all in very personal terms, suffering nightmares of his relatives mocking him. With defeat looming, Germany teetered on the brink of revolution. To help restore order, Wilhelm was forced to abdicate. He spent the rest of his life living in exile in Holland, where he died in 1941.
Revolution and Retribution
Unlike Wilhelm, Nicholas assumed full command of his army and was held personally responsible for Russian defeats. The mood in his army soured and in 1917, bread riots turned into an uprising as Bolshevik revolutionaries seized power. Nicholas and his family were kept under house arrest at one of their palaces before being moved to a house in the Urals, where they were executed by a firing squad in July 1918. David Lloyd George, Britain’s prime minister, was prepared to grant the Imperial family refuge in Britain but the king intervened. Socialism was on the rise in Britain and George feared his cousin’s presence would undermine his own position.
A Dutiful King
Partly through luck and partly through his own judgement, George, the least powerful of the three cousins, was the only one to maintain his position. Careful to distance the British royal family from their German relatives, he changed their name from ‘Saxe-Coburg and Gotha’ to ‘Windsor’. Little more than a figurehead, George spent the war inspecting the troops and making morale-boosting visits to factories. This played to his advantage and George was able to establish the template for modern monarchy, dutiful but essentially powerless, which ensured its survival.