Historically, members of the extended royal family were commonly known by their titles and ancestry, rather than by a conventional last name. This lack of a last name is troublesome for the younger generation of today’s royals, who have adopted different variations of a last name for their working identities. For example, when William and Harry are pictured in their flight suits, they use the surname “Wales”. Other younger royals, such as the children of Prince Michael of Kent, have adopted the last name “Windsor”, while the children of the Earl and Countess of Wessex are known as “Mountbatten-Windsor”, a nod to both the Queen and Prince Philip’s royal heritage.
When strictly following royal bloodlines, the British royals should be known by the distinctly German last name of “Saxe-Coburg-Gotha”, a legacy from Prince Albert. In the nationalistic climate of World War I, this Germanic name was causing the royal family and the government a bit of trouble. In April 1917, King George V received a report that a series of shocking letters had been received by No. 10 Downing Street, asking how the Prime Minister could expect to defeat Germany when the Sovereign he served and the Sovereign’s relations were all Germans?
At the same time, the King was coping with violent public unrest over high unemployment and living conditions, increasingly fueled by militant labor unions and socialists. The royal family faced rising criticism over their German ancestry, such as the editorial in The Times by author H.G. Wells, who remarked on the King’s “alien and uninspired court”. The King furiously and memorably responded, “I may be dull, but I’ll be damned if I’m an alien.” Public pressure became so intense that George was forced to remove the ancient ancestral banners of his German ancestors from St. George’s chapel at Windsor Castle. The furor also forced several of the King’s relatives to resign from their official posts due to their German lineage, despite many years of distinguished service. As a final blow, George received news in March 1917 that his cousin Nicholas II had been forced to abdicate due to disastrous events on the Russian front and the rise of the Bolsheviks to power. The abdication, followed by the news in July 1918 of the massacre of the Russian royal family, sent the King and British royals into a panic.
Faced with attacks from all sides, the King and Prime Minister David Lloyd George met to formulate a strategy. During this time of national despondency and unrest, the Prime Minister came up with a plan for the monarchy that would help raise the morale of the nation. By shedding their ancient German identities, the royal family could declare their loyalty and devotion to the nation in one of the most powerful ways possible: by changing their name.
But what should the royal family’s new name be? The College of Heralds suggested changing Coburg to “Wettin” or “Wipper”. Wipper was the district where the House of Coburg originated, to which the Saxe-Coburg family belonged. It is likely the King thought these names odd sounding and not British enough, so the search continued. Other ideas included a return to the past and use York, Lancaster or Plantagenet, while others offered the name of Tudor-Stewart. FitzRoy was another recommendation with a historical connotation, as Charles II used this for his illegitimate offspring, although the taint of illegitimacy associated with this name surely was not desirable.
Finally, one of the king’s advisers, Lord Stamfordham proposed “Windsor”. Despite being obviously British, the name had a historical precedent since “Edward of Windsor” had once been the title of King Edward III. In the minds of the British public, the name Windsor conjured up ancient images of Windsor Castle and its enduring place in history, which dated back to the Normans. In addition, in 1917, many thousands of people could still sentimentally recall the funerals at Windsor Castle of the two most recent monarchs, Queen Victoria, who passed away in 1901, and King Edward VII, who passed away in 1910.
The announcement of the name change was as popular as Prime Minister Lloyd George had hoped, and while the name change did not solve all of the monarchy’s problems, it was a sincere declaration by the royal family of their loyalty to the British people and the nation. Perhaps the success of the name change is best seen in the sour German reaction to the news. On hearing about the new name of his cousins, the German Kaiser remarked that he was going to see a performance of the play The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.