Just how British are Britain’s royals?
Family affairs can be complicated, and the British royal family is no exception. Mo Rocca has been examining their genealogy:
Now that Meghan Markle has married Prince Harry, she has, as the saying goes, not just married the man, she’s married the whole family. But just who is this family?
A DNA test of Britain’s royals would find “a family history that would be European, not purely English,” said professor Alastair Bellany, who teaches British history at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
He says if you look at the progression of royal houses, or family names, you’ll see that the British monarchy isn’t all that British. Take the early House of Denmark, at the beginning of the 11th century, when a Norse-speaking Dane, Canute, became king.
“I think people would be surprised to know that there was a King Canute of England,” said Rocca. “Was he basically a Viking?”
“Yeah. He was a Viking king.”
“Did he wear a Viking hat?”
“I’m not entirely sure that Vikings actually wore Viking hats!” Bellany laughed.
The House of Normandy kicks off in the year 1066, when William the Conqueror sails over from France and takes control of the throne. And he doesn’t even speak English.
“So, if we were having a royal wedding during the House of Normandy, everybody would be speaking French at the reception?” asked Rocca.
“And French will remain the language of the monarchy and the court deep into the 13th, even to the 14th Century,” said Bellany.
Now, if you’re looking for drama – if you’re producing, say, the “Real Houses of the English Monarchy” – you’d find it at the House of Tudor.
“Henry VIII is massively significant in lots of ways,” said Bellany. “Everyone wants to hear about the six wives. But he’s more significant for what he does in building up the English government and in breaking the English church from Rome.”
His daughter, Elizabeth I, helped establish Protestantism as the religion of England. For good measure, she has her Catholic cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, beheaded.
By now it all seems very English, right? I mean, this is when Shakespeare was writing … in English!
But wait! In 1689 William III (also known as William of Orange) becomes king. He’s Dutch!
He’s followed by Anne, who has no children, and so the crown goes to the closest living Protestant relative, who happens to be a German guy. Like, really German. George I doesn’t even speak English beyond “a few little words,” Bellany said.
And the monarchy’s German roots continued. George’s House of Hanover is followed by the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gothe: “Its German-ness is perhaps most famously made apparent during World War I, when they changed the name to the House of Windsor as a kind of PR exercise,” said Bellany. “Britain is fighting Germany; the Saxe-Coburg name doesn’t sound right.”
Elizabeth “Windsor” is, of course, married to Prince Philip, who happens to be Danish, Greek and German. He’s kind of a mutt.
And so, the British royal family isn’t so British after all. And Alastair Bellany says, with the additions of the non-aristocratic Kate Middleton and American Meghan Markle, it’s also less royal.
“What I think the monarchy appear to have done is say, ‘What can we take from the Diana way of doing things?'” Bellany said. “Inoculate ourselves a bit from the criticism of being cold and distant and fuddy-duddy and backward. Because the monarchy claims to be the symbol of Britain and Britishness. And Britain and Britishness are not stable things; they change over time.”
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Story produced by Mary Raffalli.