Gotha vs Saxe-Coburg-Gotha

On 17 July 1917, the London Gazette published a proclamation by George V:

We, out of Our Royal Will and Authority, do hereby declare and announce that as from the date of this Our Royal Proclamation Our House and Family shall be styled and known as the House and Family of Windsor, and that all the descendants in the male line of Our said Grandmother Queen Victoria who are subjects of these Realms, other than female descendants who may marry or may have married, shall bear the said Name of Windsor.1

Now, this was only ten days after the second Gotha raid on London, and just over a month after the first Gotha raid.2 These air raids took place in broad daylight with little interference from British air defences, and between them killed more than two hundred people, including eighteen children at the Poplar Infants School. One result, eventually, was the Royal Air Force; a more immediate one was anti-German rioting in several London suburbs. What I've often wondered is whether the House of Windsor was another result, because before the proclamation of 17 July it used to be known as the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.3 Did the Gothas kill the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas?

The Wikipedia article on the House of Windsor does seem to imply that this was the case, but we can do better than Wikipedia. Ian Castle says:

The [7 July] raid brought a wide variety of reactions. Sections of the bombed population turned against immigrants in their midst, considering many with foreign names to be 'Germans'. Riots broke out in Hackney and Tottenham where mobs wrecked immigrant houses and shops. Moreover, such was the anti-German feeling that four days later King George V (of the Royal House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha) issued a proclamation announcing that the Royal family name had changed to Windsor.4

Similarly, A. D. Harvey writes:

Ten days after the air raid King George V changed the family name of the royal dynasty from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor -- the fact that German heavy bombers were also called Gotha was an unfortunate coincidence which obviously could not be allowed to persist [...]5

And likewise Ian Beckett:

[After the Gotha raids] There were riotous assaults on allegedly German-owned property in the East End and the affair not only played decisive role [sic] in the establishment of the Smuts Committee -- and, therefore, the ultimate creation of the Royal Air Force in April 1918 -- but also persuaded King George V to change his dynastic name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor.6

So there are histories which claim that the Gotha raids played a significant and perhaps decisive role in convincing the monarchy to drop the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha name. But all of these discussions are quite general, and none quote any primary sources on this point. Moreover, they are all by military historians, for whom (like me) it might be obvious to look for such a connection. Unfortunately, more detailed accounts, written by historians of the monarchy, do not seem to back them up. In particular, it looks like the search for a new name for the Royal Family began before the Gotha raids took place.

For example, in an article on George V and republicanism, Frank Prochaska says nothing about bombers and air raids, but instead argues that the King was worried about reports of increasing republican sentiment in early 1917. These were being aired by people with as little in common as H. G. Wells ('our spirit is warmly and entirely against the dynastic system that has so long divided, embittered, and wasted the spirit of mankind') and Derbyshire miners ('until there is a Republic all the Kings will stand together').7 Getting rid of the German name would help by defusing suspicions that the Royal Family owed its first loyalty to its relations overseas and not to country it ruled:

It was the sort of intelligence that made the King nervous about the 'visible' German titles borne by members of the Royal Family who lived in Britain and eventually encouraged him to make inquiries about his Teutonic background. It was, in fact, the issue of finding British titles for the Tecks and the Battenbergs that triggered an independent search for a new family name for the King.8

Prochaska unfortunately doesn't give many dates here, but Windsor must have been chosen by June 1917 at the latest, because in that month Lord Rosebery wrote to Lord Stamfordham, the King's private secretary who came up with Windsor, to say 'do you realize that you have christened a dynasty?'9 Moreover, as Prochaska says the question of finding British surnames for the Tecks and Battenbergs, who were also members of the Royal Family, had already come up. That they would relinquish their German names, titles and styles was announced on 20 June, nearly a month before the equivalent move for the inner royals was announced.10 That is still a week after the first Gotha raid on London, but as the Tecks and the Battenbergs didn't have Gotha in their surnames, and the name of the Royal House was not yet at issue here, it's difficult to see how that could be directly relevant. Anyway, it was perhaps the logical followup to the decision to strip German nobles like the Duke of Cumberland of their British titles. This was a much more democratic process: the necessary legislation was debated by and passed in Parliament during 1917, after being heralded in February and introduced in the House of Lords on 13 March.11 So this whole process of separating out the British and German nobility was already in train well before the Gothas came along.

The other aspect to this question is: did anyone at the time actually linguistically connect the Gothas and the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas? It seems obvious that this would have happened, but I can't find any evidence that it did. Not in the press, anyway. Censorship might account for this; perhaps a more likely reason is the then-traditional reticence of the press in discussing matters regal. At any rate I've found no articles connecting the two issues. The closest is the Western Daily Press, which had one leading article, entitled 'Is the aeroplane is to decide?' (i.e., the outcome of the war), note that 'German machines seem be able to invade the metropolis with comparative impunity', followed immediately by another on the name change:

Ever since the elimination of foreign titles from amongst the distinguished families in this country it has been expected that King George would make some alteration in the name of his own Royal House, which has been successively in modern times, the 'House of Hanover' and the 'House of Saxe-Coburg Gotha,' [...] for his Majesty is anxious that this country should be, as far as possible, purged of all that savours of Germany and its now unenviable associations.12

Maybe this juxtaposition is a pointed one, but I don't think so, because the first leading article only mentions the Gothas in passing (and not by name); apart from that it is mostly positive in tone, for example predicting that 'the "Rhine frontier" of Germany will have become no more than a meaningless phrase, in the same way that the "sea frontier" of Great Britain has ceased to possess any real defensive strength'.13

Anyway, at the moment I see no evidence that the Gotha raids had anything to do with the Royal Family's switch from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor.


  1. London Gazette, 17 July 1917, 7119

  2. There were also two heavy Gotha raids on Folkestone and Sheerness in late May and early June. 

  3. The question of the King's surname is a slightly different one: nobody was sure if he even had one. If he did it could have been Brunswick, Hanover, Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Wettin, or even, for some strange reason, Guelph

  4. Ian Castle, London 1917-18: The Bomber Blitz (Oxford and Long Island City: Osprey Publishing, 2010), 33. 

  5. A. D. Harvey, Collision of Empires: Britain in Three World Wars, 1793-1945 (London: Hambledon, 1992), 397. 

  6. Ian F. W. Beckett, 'Introduction', in Ian F. W. Beckett, ed., 1917: Beyond the Western Front (Leiden: Brill, 2009), xiv-xv. 

  7. Frank Prochaska, 'George V and republicanism, 1917-1919', Twentieth Century British History 10 (1999), 37. 

  8. Ibid., 37-8. 

  9. Ibid., 38. 

  10. The Times, 20 June 1917, 7. 

  11. It has been argued that it was Roger Casement's treason which inspired this movement, as it highlighted the question of dual loyalties: Ann Lyon, 'A reaction to popular hysteria: the Titles Deprivation Act of 1917', Liverpool Law Review 22 (2000), 173-200. 

  12. Western Daily Press (Bristol), 18 July 1917, 4. 

  13. Ibid. 

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5 thoughts on “Gotha vs Saxe-Coburg-Gotha

  1. Neil Datson

    It is easy to lose sight of to what extent the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas/Windsors feared they were skating on thin ice, on account of socialist republican as well as anti-German sentiment. That is always cited as the reason that George V was dissuaded from granting asylum to Nicholas II and his family.

    Had it been down to the names of a few bombers, the Germans could have named their next model the Windsor and led them on a merry dance.

  2. As the Vickers Armstrong Windsor turned up a war later and was ‘one of ours’ that was likely to be more dangerous to us than to them (something about the wings flapping and the control column ‘stirring’) you may have something there!

  3. That’s the plane where they upgraded the geodetic-plus-fabric with some kind of structuralised steel wool, right? Stiffer skin meant higher speeds, albeit at the expense of being a completely crazy essay into a novel manufacturing method. Certainly not the kind of wild experiments that you expect of a firm like Vickers.

  4. Post author

    Neil:

    Yes, quite so! It seems hard to believe that republicanism was ever such a worry but that’s hindsight for you. See footnote 7.

    Erik:

    Well, it’s not so surprising when you consider that Barnes Wallis was one of the Windsor’s designers… Vickers must have known his form by then!

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