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!

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