Cat Flag Investigates: Are All European Royals Actually Related?

Crown of George XII of Georgia image by Fyodor Solntsev

Followers of the British royal family are already counting down to the birth of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s second child, and St. Mary’s hospital has already reserved a spot in its maternity ward for the expectant mother. The website for E! Online is asking its readers what they hope the new baby is named, though the current favorite of the gamblers is Princess Alice. Here on Cat Flag, I already covered the birth of the new royal’s older brother, Prince George. It seems the world is absolutely obsessed with this particular royal couple, and why not? It’s a romantic fairy-tale fantasy come to life – Kate Middleton, an ordinary woman from a working-class family that run a party supply business, falls in love with and marries Prince William, the charming young man who is second in line to the throne after his father.

It’s especially important that the Duchess is a commoner by birth, not just for PR reasons, but because Europe’s royal families are in desperate need of new blood, considering how badly inbred they all are. Over the centuries, Europe’s royal families all practiced arranged marriages to protect their dynastic claims and wealth, forge alliances, end wars, and ensure that royal princes only married people of equal class stature. However, this practice meant that royals would frequently be married off to their cousins, and the lack of genetic diversity helped lead to generations of kings and queens with health problems such as deformed jaws, mental illnesses, and hemophilia.

At least, that’s the story we’ve all been told. I started to wonder, are the various European royal families all as related to each other as we’ve been led to believe? I figured this would be an easy question to answer, since the family histories of Europe’s royals are both well-documented and public. So, I decided to take a closer look.

Family Tree image from Wikipedia

Let’s start with the current list of monarchies in Europe. They are:

  • The Principality of Andorra
  • The Kingdom of Belgium
  • The Kingdom of Denmark
  • The Principality of Liechtenstein
  • The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg
  • The Principality of Monaco
  • The Kingdom of the Netherlands
  • The Kingdom of Norway
  • The Kingdom of Spain
  • The Kingdom of Sweden
  • The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
  • Vatican City

We can ignore Vatican City, as its “king” is the Pope, who is elected to office by the College of Cardinals and prohibited from marrying. We can also ignore Andorra, as this tiny country’s two “co-princes” are the President of France and the Bishop of Urgell. This still leaves us with 10 hereditary royal families to sort through.

Let’s start with the United Kingdom, whose monarchy got this whole discussion started, and whose reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, is probably the most well-known of her peers. The royal dynasty that currently sits on the British throne is the House of Windsor. Seems like a perfectly British name… and that’s by design, because it is hiding something. Sort of.

George V cartoon from Punch magazine

During World War I, the Queen’s grandfather, King George V, issued a proclamation that renamed his family to “Windsor”. This was because his family’s actual name was the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, a German name. This was because his grandfather was Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, who was German. Not only that, but his grandmother, Queen Victoria, came from the House of Hanover, another royal house that originated in Germany. The fact that the British royal family were essentially German didn’t bother anyone until the United Kingdom went to war against Germany. Then, it became something of a royal embarrassment, and so King George V ditched all of his German titles and those of his relatives, replacing them with British titles.

So now we know that the British House of Windsor is really just a branch of the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. It turns out that this particular German family is really good at getting itself some crowns, since they also currently reign in Belgium. In 1830, after winning its independence from the Netherlands, Belgium decided to become a constitutional monarchy, and invited Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to be their new king. He accepted, and his descendants continue to reign over Belgium today.

So the same family reigns in both the United Kingdom and in Belgium. What about Queen Elizabeth II’s husband, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh? I’ve heard people in TV specials about the British royals that he was originally Greek. It turns out that, yes, he was a prince of Greece, but the Greek royal family was overthrown when he was still an infant, and Greece became a republic. Surely, Prince Philip’s family has a Greek name, right?

Actually, Prince Philip’s family is the House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg. That doesn’t sound very Greek to me. In fact, this is another royal house that originated in Germany and got itself put on the throne in several countries. In 1853, Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg was chosen as the heir to the throne of Denmark, as the king of Denmark at the time, Frederick VII, had no children. Christian was chosen because his family were relatives of Frederick VII’s family, and because Christian was married to Louise of Hesse-Kassel, the niece of Frederick VII’s father.

Just so we’re clear, that means that Prince Christian (the future Christian IX of Denmark) married his second cousin.

While we’re on that topic, Christian IX’s daughter, Princess Alexandra of Denmark, married King Edward VII of the United Kingdom, making her Queen Elizabeth II’s great-grandmother. So Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip were blood relatives before their marriage.

So how did the German house with a very long name end up on the throne of Greece? In 1862, the first King of Greece, King Otto, was deposed by a military coup, and the Greek National Assembly chose Christian IX’s second son to take the throne as King George I of Greece.

The royal family of Norway, another branch of this same family, has a very similar origin story. For generations, Norway and Sweden shared the same king. By the early 20th century, however, the Norwegians were demanding a separate king of their own. In 1905, the Norwegian government offered Prince Carl of Denmark the Norwegian throne. Prince Carl insisted that he would only accept if the Norwegian people wanted him as their king, so a referendum was held and 79% of Norwegian voters approved of their government’s plan. Thus, Prince Carl of Denmark became King Haakon VII of Norway. Unlike their Greek cousins, the Norwegian royals have managed to stay on the throne to this very day.

We’re not done with this family yet. We have to go back to Greece one more time.

Let me tell you how it is Greek...

Let me tell you how it is Greek…

In 1962, one of Prince Philip’s Greek relatives, Princess Sophia of Greece and Denmark, married a young Spaniard named Juan Carlos de Borbón. In 1975, Juan Carlos became king of Spain, and the Greek princess became Queen Sofía of Spain. Just last year, her son took the throne of Spain as King Felipe VI.

That House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg is one prolific family when it comes to getting on as many thrones as possible. Compare that to the House of Bernadotte, the royal family of Sweden. Unlike the other families we’ve talked about so far, the House of Bernadotte were originally French peasants, not German nobles. Their earliest known ancestors include shepherds, weavers, and tailors. However, things changed when one of the family’s sons, Jean Bernadotte, joined the French army in 1780. Jean Bernadotte had a long, successful career, and in 1804 Napolean made him a Marshal of France.

Like with Denmark, the Swedish royal family was about to become extinct – the reigning Swedish king had no heirs, and there were no obvious relatives that could succeed him. Since Napoleon was marching across Europe trying to conquer anything and everything at the time, it made sense for the Swedes to choose an heir that was agreeable to Napoleon so he didn’t invade them, too. Thus, the decision was made to invite Jean Bernadotte to come to Sweden. As soon as he arrived, he began assuming responsibility for important state affairs as the old king was too ill to handle these matters himself, and in 1818 he took the Swedish throne as King Charles XIV John.

Of course, once the House of Bernadotte was firmly established in Sweden, it began marrying itself into the more traditionally noble houses of Europe. That French peasant-soldier’s granddaughter, Louise of Sweden, married King Frederick VIII of Denmark – the son of Christian IX, whose dynasty with the long, hard-to-pronounce name we were just talking about. Remember the Danish prince who was elected king of Norway? He was Louise’s son.

Netherlands Landscape by David Mark

So that brings seven European monarchies together through blood relations. But what about the Netherlands? This country has an unusual situation among European monarchies in that it didn’t start out as a monarchy. In the late 16th century, the Netherlands declared its independence from Spain (yes, they were ruled by Spain at the time, it’s complicated) and became a republic. One of the main leaders of the Dutch rebellion was William the Silent, a German-born nobleman from the House of Orange-Nassau that had both French and German roots. Instead of becoming a king, William the Silent adopted the republican title of stadtholder, making him basically the equivalent of a president.

However, after William the Silent was assassinated, his son took over as stadtholder, and for centuries thereafter, the Netherlands was a Republic in name only, as the title of stadtholder was passed from father to son just like in a monarchy. Then Napoleon happened, and when that was over, the Congress of Vienna tasked with redrawing the maps of Europe decided to make the Netherlands a formal kingdom, with William I of Orange-Nassau as their king. Over the course of these centuries, there were several intermarriages between the House of Orange-Nassau and various other European royal families. The most recent of these was when King William III of the Netherlands married Sophie of Württemberg, granddaughter of Russian Tsar Paul I and cousin of Queen Victoria.

It wasn’t just the Netherlands that the Congress of Vienna handed to the House of Orange-Nassau, though. The Congress also gave them the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, a small country tucked away between France, Germany and Belgium. From 1815 to 1890, the King of the Netherlands was also Grand Duke of Luxembourg. Then in 1890, a woman, Queen Wilhelmina, succeeded to the Dutch throne. This was a problem for Luxembourg, as at the time only men could inherit their crown. Thus, it was decided that the throne of Luxembourg should be given to Wilhelmina’s nearest male relative, Adolphe of Nassau-Weilburg. His descendants continue to reign there to this day.

Don't worry, we're almost done.

Don’t worry, we’re almost done.

Now that just leaves Monaco and Liechtenstein. Monaco’s royal family, the House of Grimaldi, has its roots in Italy. The family is probably most famous for bringing in American actress Grace Kelly through marriage; she is the mother of the current Prince of Monaco. Having said that, I did find a link between the House of Grimaldi and the other European royal houses, thanks to a Scottish woman named Lady Mary Hamilton. Lady Hamilton married Prince Albert I of Monaco, making her the current prince’s great-great-grandmother. Lady Hamilton’s cousin married into the Belgian royal family.

Liechtenstein, meanwhile, has a very interesting history. The land was purchased by the Liechtenstein family in 1719, and became independent by accident when both the Holy Roman Empire and the later Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed. The family has familial ties to the House of Hapsburg, an Austrian family that once dominated Europe but has been out of power since 1918. The House of Hapsburg, meanwhile, has familial ties to the Spanish and Belgian royal families.

In conclusion

Yes, all of Europe’s royal families are related to each other, though some less so than others. Liechtenstein’s royal family, in particular, seems to barely qualify as being “related” to the others, but the ties are there if you look deep enough into history.

Still, there were some surprises that came up during this research. Who would have guessed that so many European royal families came from Germany? Who would have guessed that the Swedish royal family descends from French peasants? Who would have guessed that so many of these dynasties are so very young, most of them taking power in the 19th or 20th centuries? Or that, in many cases, they were invited by the people of those countries to assume the crown?

I suppose, then, that the increasingly common practice of European royals marrying commoners is probably a pretty good thing, as almost any royal-to-royal match these days would practically be guaranteed to cause more inbreeding.

Best wishes to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on their new baby!

Behind the Headline: California’s Record Drought

Lake Oroville as it appeared in 2011 - before the drought -  and in 2014. (2011 image by Paul Hames, 2014 image by Justin Sullican, both for Getty Images)

Lake Oroville as it appeared in 2011 – before the drought – and in 2014. (2011 image by Paul Hames, 2014 image by Justin Sullican, both for Getty Images)

Today it rained on California’s Central Coast. In San Luis Obispo, I was holed up in a library while there was a heavy downpour at about 10:00 in the morning. To us Californians, any rain of any kind is an answer to prayer right now, as our state is currently suffering from what is being called the worst drought in recorded history.

Already, Gov. Jerry Brown has ordered the state’s first ever mandatory cuts to water usage with the aim of reducing California’s water usage by 25%. The measures he enacted include:

  • Replacing water-hungry grass lawns with more drought-tolerant landscaping options across California, through local government programs encouraging residents to make the switch-over.
  • Requiring cut-backs on water use at colleges and universities, golf courses, cemeteries, and public roads. The little decorative grassy bits in the concrete meridians of some roads? Those will not get any more water at all.
  • Creating a rebate program for people to trade in old appliances for new, more water-efficient models.
  • Restricting water usage at newly-built residential neighborhoods, such as requiring the use of drip irrigation systems, and cracking down on anyone living in established residential areas who are in violation of rules regarding sinks, toilets, and landscaping.
  • Providing assistance for families that need to relocate from areas that have run out of water completely, such as might happen if an area dependent on well-water runs dry.

Further details of how the plan will work are to be announced by the State Water Resources Control Board at some point this week. Already, there are criticisms of the current water conservation plan. This editorial suggests that instead of laying down the hammer on water use, the state could make it more expensive to use too much water with higher taxes. Still others say the restrictions don’t go far enough, arguing that the state’s 26 million acres of farmland should be forced to restrict their water use, too.

Why is this happening? How is it going to affect you? It’s time once again to go Behind the Headline.

So, is this California’s worst drought ever?

California Drought Map by the United States government


This is the worst drought in California’s recorded history, and that’s an important caveat to keep in mind. Of all the indigenous civilizations that existed in California prior to European contact, none of them developed a system of writing, so the oldest historical records we have about the state were written by the Spanish in the 18th century.

Thanks to the hard work of archaeologists and paleontologists who have studied tree rings and other evidence, we now know that there have been far worse droughts in California’s history. They have learned that California has experienced a number of “megadroughts” that have lasted as long as 10-20 years. In 850 A.D., a drought began that lasted 240 years, and in 1140 A.D., another drought struck that lasted 180 years!

Even within recorded history, California has had worse droughts if all you are going by is annual rainfall. A 30-year drought, lasting roughly from 1910 to 1940, saw many years of very low rainfall, including the driest on record so far, 1924, when the entire state saw only 9.23 inches of precipitation.

What makes the current drought so bad isn’t the weather, it’s the people. When those ancient megadroughts hit the state, the only people in California were societies that survived on hunting and gathering. There were 2.3 million Californians in 1910, and there were 6.9 million in 1940. Today, there are nearly 39 million of us, according to the U.S. Census Bureau! That’s 12% of the entire population of the United States.

That’s 39 million people drawing on the same water supply, and that means when a drought hits, that water supply is depleted very quickly. Hence, we are seeing proposals for more desalinization plants that would extract drinkable water from the vast Pacific Ocean right off our coast. Desalinization is an expensive option, but if this drought lasts as long as some of the droughts in California’s history, it might end up as an option many coastal communities pursue.

So California just needs more rain?

Rain alone is not enough to break this drought. What California needs is SNOW.

You're... joking, right? Right?

You’re… joking, right? Right?

I know, California is known for year-round sunshine, beaches, and not having a true winter, but up in the Sierra Nevada mountains, feet of snow can accumulate. These mountains hold the national record for most snow in one month (390 inches, or 32.5 feet) and greatest snow depth recorded (451 inches, or 37.6 feet), as well as second-most snowfall in a single day (67 inches, or 5.6 feet). As winter turns to spring, all of that mountain snow will melt and feed the state’s rivers and lakes.

That’s why it’s so significant that California’s snowfall this year was only 6% of what we normally get. That is the biggest cause of the drought, and the biggest reason all of the state’s lakes and rivers are drying up.

Well, at least this is as bad as it gets, right?

I hate to be a pessimist, but this actually could get worse, at least according to this article from National Geographic. To quench California’s mighty thirst, the state is drawing more and more of its water from underground pockets of water called “aquifers” that emerge in gravelly and sandy soil. Aquifers close to the surface get replenished with runoff from lakes and streams, but the deeper you dig for water, the less likely that the water you pump going to be replaced. Some of the deepest aquifers can’t be refilled at all, so when that water runs out, it’s gone forever.

Yet, in response to the drought, groundwater from these aquifers now makes up 60% of the water Californians are consuming. There are almost no restrictions in California law on sucking up this water and selling it. Not only that, but as the water is used up, the ground above it sinks, since there is less mass supporting it. All of this has the potential to radically reshape California’s landscape, both in the figurative sense of people abandoning areas dependent on dried-up aquifers, and in the literal sense of sinking land.

I don’t live in California. Why should I care?

One word: Agriculture.

Tractor image by Thomas McSparron

Did you eat a salad today? Odds are pretty strong that the lettuce you ate came from California. The cheese on your pizza could easily have come from a California dairy. California olives, grapes, and citrus are eaten nationwide, and we produce 90% of all American wines. California is the second-largest rice-growing state in the U.S., and exports a third of its crop to Japan. Yes, you read that right, California supplies rice to Japan.

Agriculture is responsible for 80% of California’s water consumption. That means California’s water crisis could easily lead to higher prices on your groceries. As the water supply dwindles, it gets more expensive, and farmers have to raise their prices. Even worse, many farms will simply get so water-starved that they have to shut down, reducing the supply of many crops and making the remaining farms’ crops more expensive because global demand for food won’t have changed. Already, some California rice farms are closing. As the drought wears on, the price you pay at the grocery store for your food will get higher and higher.

What can I do about this?

If you live in California, you can visit this website with more than 100 tips and tricks to saving water. You can find even more tips here. The less water we all use, the longer the water supply we have will last us.

For those of you not in California, it couldn’t hurt to write your local representatives in Congress and ask what they plan to do about the water crisis. Even if all you do is keep us in your prayers, we would very much appreciate it.