History of the Greek Royal Family
By Lisa May Davidson
As King Constantine II once remarked,
"Exile is a Greek habit." His Majesty's point is well taken. The modern day
Kings of Greece have gone into exile numerous times, only to return to power years later.
The frequency of exile is but one of many interesting facets of this royal house. Another
distinction is the high degree to which this family rose to power from obscurity in a
single generation, and their continuing presence on the world's stage by their close
relationship to nearly all the major reigning European houses. Perhaps most remarkable of
all is the House of Oldenberg's devotion to Greece, because, with a single exception, no
Greek royal has a drop of Greek blood!
The Family Comes To Power
From the time of his marriage in 1842, Christian of Holstein-Sonderburg-Glucksburg
(1818-1906) had to struggle to support his family. A soldier by profession, Christian's
family with Louise of Hesse-Cassel (1817-1898) lived simply for many years in a house in
Copenhagen. Later, two of his daughters, who became royal consorts, would recall the
incredible frugality by which the family lived. Having mentioned the lack of Greek
ethnicity of their royal house, it is only fair to say that, while named heir to the
Danish throne, Christian and his wife were primarily of German ethnic descent.
It has long been remarked that the Royal Family of Denmark, of which Louise was a member
through a collateral branch, is one of the oldest and most fertile of all European
dynasties. However, by the mid-nineteenth century, the closest heir to the ancient dynasty
was Louises brother, Frederick (1814-1885). Not desiring this legacy, his claim came to
his sister. The later, in a move only understandable to the politics of its day, was
passed over in favor of her husband. Thus were the circumstances that raised the humble
soldier prince of the Duchy of Holstein from obscurity to the throne of Denmark in 1863.
What a year 1863 was for this family that had struggled for so many years! As King
Christian IX (1863-1906), he was faced with ruling a country reduced in size due to the
seizure by Prussia of the Duchies of Schleswig and Holstein, and a nation in great need of
reform. The second event of major significance in 1863 was the marriage of the Kings
oldest daughter, Alexandra, to Edward (known in the family as Bertie), the Prince of
Wales, later King Edward VII of Great Britain (b 1841, reigned 1901-1910). The third, and
the one pertinent to this discussion, was the offer of the crown of Greece to Christian's
second son William (known to history as George I of Greece), a seventeen year old prince,
born in 1845.
This family's meteoric rise was nothing short of
remarkable. While certainly luck and family position made this feat possible, attention
should be paid to the qualities that had nothing to do with these. Certainly, this was a
very good looking, photogenic, and attractive group of people. Alexandra's beauty made her
one of her times most coveted princesses. However, their intelligence, devotion to duty,
and ability to adapt to changing situations set them apart from others, including many
The House of Oldenberg Comes To Greece (1863-1924)
In twentieth century terms, it certainly seems strange that a mostly German Prince of
Denmark would be offered the throne of Greece. The event, of course, made sense in 19th
century Europe. Greece was a country that had fallen from its pre-Christian years of glory
to become an area to be annexed by successive empires. The last of these, the Ottoman
Turks, were overthrown through the combined efforts of Greek partisans, romantic
adventurers, such as Lord Byron, and intervention by the great powers of Europe. The Greek
war of independence was to the 19th what the Spanish Civil War was to the 20th century: a
great quest of interest to much of the world, with enormous appeal beyond its national
The Great Powers, in this case, Britain, France and Russia, decided in 1832 to offer the
newly created throne of Greece to yet another German Prince, Otto of Wittlesbach. Otto was
a very unfortunate selection, as he tried to rule autocratically, which made his
democratically minded subjects most unhappy. They had not thrown off the Ottoman yoke only
to take on yet more
oppression. The King was in any event, childless, and, having failed to found a dynasty,
or to govern Greece successfully, he abdicated in 1862.
The search for a new king spread over Europe. The throne was offered to, among others,
Victoria's son, Alfred of Edinburgh, but while he was a candidate popular with the Greeks,
the idea met with no favor at Windsor Castle. So, William of Denmark was something of a
compromise candidate. The soldier's son was not afraid of hard work, and with the
exuberance of youth, set off for Athens. Contemporaries noted he took his duties as King
most seriously, but himself, not at all. His accession was made more popular by the return
of the Ionian Islands by Britain to Greece.
As King George I, he brought stability to the battered country. The territories that
originally comprised modern Greece were much reduced from their current composition. Many
additional territories were acquired under King George: the Plain of Thessaly, 1881, Crete
and Macedonia in 1913. To bring lasting stability, however, required the King to found a
dynasty, and for this, naturally, a wife was required.
George I Takes A Wife and Founds A Dynasty (1867)
The political successes of the King's Danish family had continued after he left home. In
1866, his younger sister Dagmar married the Tsarevich of Russia, Alexander Alexandrovich
(born 1845, reigned as Alexander III 1881-1894), after first being engaged to Alexander's
older brother, who died before they could marry. This practice, of passing on the fiancee,
was to be repeated in Britain in 1894, when May (Mary) of Teck married her late fianciés
brother, George (later, George V, born 1865, r, 1910-1936). Alexander, known as Sacha, was
a giant bear of a man, and had planned to marry morganatically. He was able to set this
aside for duty upon his brother's death, honoring his sibling's death-bed request that he
marry Minnie, as Princess Dagmar was known to her family. The marriage between Sacha and
Minnie, was, to nearly everyone's surprise, a happy one, producing many children,
including the last Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II.
It was as both an Imperial brother-in-law and a king of a lesser allied state that George
was invited in 1867 to visit Russia.
George was known to be in the market for a wife, and the reigning Tsar, Alexander II (r.
1855-1881) had only one daughter, who had married the afore-mentioned Alfred of Edinburgh.
His younger brother Constantine, however, had several eligible daughters, and it was hoped
that a marital alliance could be formed between the new King of Greece and the collateral
Constantine branch of the Romanov family. While the Tsar wished George to select Vera
Constantinova, upon entering the Constantine's palace at Pavlovsk, outside St. Petersburg,
he saw Vera's sister, fifteen year old Grand Duchess Olga. It was reportedly love at first
sight for both. The couple married the same year.
Olga, who was so young she took her dolls with her to her new home, was an inspired choice
as Greece's new queen. She entered Athens wearing the Greek national colors and was wildly
cheered by the crowds lining the streets to greet her. A remarkable woman in any age,
Queen Olga had seven surviving children, and was particularly adept in what are now known
people skills." George and Olga were married 35 years, until her beloved husband was
assassinated in 1913.
With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the Dowager Queen returned to Russia to found
military hospitals. As noted below, three of her children married back into the Romanov
family, and she was most welcome to her family in Pavlovsk, where she remained through the
war and the Revolution. Two of Olga's brothers, four nephews, and two sons-in-law were
murdered by the Bolsheviks in a period of months. Through the intervention of the Danish
government, the Greek Queen left Russia in December 1918. She served briefly as Regent of
Greece in 1920, leaving her adopted homeland in the 1920's when a republic was instituted,
and died in Rome in 1926.
The two remarkable founders of the House of Oldenberg were as devoted to Greece as they
were to each other. The fact they had no Greek blood did not in any way tarnish their
devotion to their adopted homeland. Their seriousness about duty, but lack of seriousness
about themselves, a trait inherited by many of their descendants, endeared them to many.
George and Olga's
great grandchildren play roles today in world politics, in part due to the rich
inheritance of character from the dynasty's founders.
The Oldenbergs: The First Generation (Born 1868-1888)
Since it is difficult to track successive generations without the aid of genealogy charts,
the members of each generation of the dynasty will be listed. This listing is not intended
to be exhaustive, but to illustrate the character and achievements of each of the first
two generations after George and Olga. Comments regarding current descendants are added,
Constantine I, King of Greece (1868-1923, reigned 1913-1917, 1920-1922)
Constantine succeeded his father, George I, in 1913. A case of the wrong man at the wrong
time, Constantine, whose wife was Princess Sophia of Hohenzollern (1870-1932), was
pro-German at a time when the interests of Greece lay with the allies. For this reason, he
was deposed in favor of his second son, Alexander (r.1917-1920). Upon his son's death, he
throne. Military defeats to a newly energized Turkey caused him to abdicate the throne in
favor of his oldest son, George II, in 1922. The King died the same year, in exile.
Constantine and Sophia had six children, listed under the second generation. The present
royal families of Greece, Yugoslavia, and Romania are descended from Constantine and
Sophia. In addition, the current heir to King Juan Carlos to the Spanish throne will
descend from their line.
George, Prince of Greece (1869-1957)
The second son of George I and Olga was the longest-lived member of the House of Oldenberg
of his generation. His marriage
in 1907 to Princess Marie Bonaparte (1882-1962) brought the line of Napoleon's brother
Lucien into the Greek Royal family.
Their two children married morganatically. Peter (1908-1980) was an anthropologist, while
their daughter Eugenie (born 1910)
married Prince Dominic Radziwill.
Nicholas, Prince Of Greece (1872-1938)
As a third son of a well established, albeit new dynasty, Prince Nicholas of Greece was
able to pursue his considerable talents as an artist without interference. He was the
third of Olga and George's children to marry into the Romanov family, taking as his wife
Grand Duchess Helen Vladimirovna (1882-1957) in 1902. The couple had three daughters.
While their middle daughter, Elizabeth (1904-1955) married a nobleman, their two remaining
daughters married into the royal mob." In 1923, their eldest, Princess Olga (born
1903) married Prince Paul of Yugoslavia (1893-1976). This branch survives to this day, and
includes Princess Elizabeth and her daughter, actress Catherine Oxenberg. The youngest,
Marina (1906-1968), married the Duke of Kent, and is the mother of the present Duke.
Tragically, Marina's husband was killed in action in 1942, after only six years of
Andrew, Prince of Greece (1882-1944)
If Nicholas's royal prospects seemed slim, Andrew's as the fourth son would seem to be
none. Yet, this prince, who married Alice of Battenberg (1885-1969) in 1903, became the
father of Prince Philip (b. 1921), consort to Queen Elizabeth II, and is thus the
grandfather of Charles, Prince of Wales, and great-grandfather of Charles' sons, William
and Henry. While the British
royal family plays down this Greek connection," referring to Prince Philip as Lt.
Philip Mountbatten before his marriage (obviously his mothers altered family name), Philip
Mountbatten is, in reality, Prince Philip of Greece. Thus, upon the accession of either
Charles or William to the British throne, the Greek Royal family will reach, arguably, the
pinnacle of European royalty.
Andrew and Alice's other children married into German noble families, including two
daughters, Cecily and Sophia, who married into the House of Hesse.
Christopher, Prince of Greece (1883-1940)
Christopher married an American, Anastasia Stewart (1883-1923), and renounced his title in
1920. His second marriage, to Frances of Guise, in 1929, produced one son, the present
Prince Michael of Greece (b. 1939). Since Frances descended from the House of Bourbon, he
and his brother George have the distinction of being the only brothers who married into
France's royal families. Prince Michael is a well-respected writer of both fiction and
non-fiction. Among his better-know works is the Romanov Family Album.
Alexandra, Princess of Greece (1870-1891)
Olga and George's eldest daughter had a brief life due to her death in childbirth at the
age of 21. A beautiful, accomplished young woman, she married Grand Duke Paul
Alexandrovich of Russia (1860-1919) in 1889. They had a daughter, Grand Duchess Maria
Pavlovna (1890-1958), who married into the Swedish royal family, through which Alexandra
is the grandmother to the present Count Lennert Bernadotte (b.1909). Alexandra died giving
birth to their son Grand Duke Dmitri (1891-1942) at the estate of Grand Duke Serge in
Ilyinskoe, outside Moscow.
Dmitri was involved in the successful plot to kill Rasputin, for which he was exiled, an
action that saved his life. Dmitri also married an American, Audrey Emery. Their son, and
Alexandra's grandson, Prince Paul Ilyinsky (born 1928) was sent to safety in America
during World War II, where the Prince is now mayor of the Town of Palm Beach, Florida.
Grand Duke Paul, Olga and George's son-in-law, was taken, ill and shirtless, and executed
by order of the Bolsheviks at the Fortress of Peter and Paul in January 1919, one month
after Queen Olga left Russia.
Marie, Princess Of Greece (1876-1940)
Olga and George's second daughter also married into the Romanov dynasty, in 1900, becoming
the wife of Grand Duke George Mikhailovich (1863-1919). The marriage was not a happy one,
but it did produce two daughters, Nina (1901-1974) and Xenia (1903-1965). The couple
inadvertently became permanently separated upon the outbreak of World War I, because
Marie and their daughters were in London at the time. This proved to be fortunate, because
her husband was one of four Grand Dukes, and the second of King George's sons-in-law,
murdered together in 1919.
Grand Duchess George, as she was known, was the first Greek royal to publish memoirs. Her
daughter, Princess Xenia, married two American tycoons, one of who was the son of the
first husband of Anastasia Stewart, first wife of Prince Christopher of Greece. Xenia
gained considerable notoriety during the 1920s by entertaining Anna Anderson, the false
Grand Duchess Anastasia, at her Long Island, New York, estate. Princess Nina married a
Georgian, Prince Paul Chavchavadze (1889-1971). Their son, Prince David Chavchavadze (born
1924), is author of The Grand Dukes, a group biography of the Grand Dukes of Russia, and
also served the government of the United States with great distinction.
The first generation of the Oldenberg dynasty, while suffering the difficulties brought on
by wars, revolutions, and exile, nonetheless persevered. Their talents extended beyond
governance, into art and literature. The strength of character required to cope with their
tragedies as the world around them was turned upside down, served the second generation
The Oldenbergs: The Second Generation (born 1890-1913)
George II, King of Greece (1890-1947, r. 1922-1924 and 1935-1947)
George was originally passed over for the throne by Greek politicians in 1917 in favor of
his younger brother, Alexander, but gained it upon his father, Constantine I's abdication
in 1922. It was a very shaky throne at best, and George had to leave in 1923, though he
was not formally out of office until a plebiscite in 1924 ousted the monarchy. For 11
years, the King lived in
exile, mostly in Romania, home country of his wife, born Princess Elizabeth (1894-1956),
daughter of King Ferdinand and the immensely popular Queen Marie. George and Elizabeth had
a very unhappy marriage, and produced no children, and finally divorced in 1935.
Ironically, that year brought King George back to the throne, the result of yet another
plebiscite, this time in favor of the monarchy. While this King was democratic in
governing, Greece did not escape the wave of dictatorship sweeping Europe at the time, nor
the brutal attack of the Nazis in 1941. He took his government into exile, and was
restored a second time to the
Greek throne in 1946, again by the people's request. As a result of Italy's defeat as an
Axis power, the Dodecanese Islands, including the Isle of Rhodes, were reclaimed by Greece
after the war.
While personally unhappy, George II succeeded in stabilizing the throne for his brother,
Paul, who gained the throne upon the death of George in 1947.
Alexander, King of Greece (1893-1920, r. 1917-1920)
When his pro-German father was deposed in 1917, Greek politicians altered the line of
succession, naming young prince Alexander king in his stead, rather than his older
brother, George. Arguably the best looking prince of his generation, Alexander's reign saw
the addition of most of European Turkey to Greek possession, excluding the coveted
Constantinople. Alexander proved his independence in his choice of a wife. He had known
lovely Aspasia Manos (1896-1972), daughter of an aide to his father, since childhood. In
1919, defying tradition, they were married by a very nervous Greek Orthodox priest.
Neither Alexander's family, the Church, nor the Greek populace favored the marriage;
nonetheless, the couple was happy during their short time together. In 1920, the young
King was bitten by a pet monkey and died what must have been a painful death from blood
In 1921, Aspasia, who was denied the title of Queen, much less Princess of Greece, had the
final word when she gave birth to Alexander's posthumous daughter, Alexandra, who was
accorded the designation Princess of Greece. This Princess Alexandra was thus the only
member of the House to have Greek blood. Following the government into exile in 1941,
Alexandra met the
also-exiled King Peter II of Yugoslavia (1923-1970, r. 1934-1945), and they married in
London in 1944. Their only child is the present Crown Prince Alexander of Yugoslavia, born
Paul, King of Greece (1901-1964, r.1947-1964)
To Paul fell the task of rebuilding Greece after the ravages of the Nazi invasion and the
civil war that followed, an effort to which he was equal. Paul, like his older brother,
Alexander, had the distinction of never being exiled while King, although he did follow
the Greek government into exile in 1941 as George II's heir. Paul's occasional
unpopularity stemmed largely from his 1938 marriage to Princess Frederika of Hanover
Like other 20th century German princesses, such as Alexandra and Elizabeth of Hesse (who
were, upon marriage, Tsarina and Grand Duchess of Russia, respectively), Frederika was
made to suffer for German military aggression against her adopted country. These were
decisions in which she, or the other princesses for that matter, had no part. Lacking
other tangible symbols
of the German nation, Greeks vented their rage about their country's against Queen
Frederika, albeit not as directly or murderously as Russians retaliated against Alexandra
Actually, Frederika re-introduced the line of Christian IX of Denmark into the House of
Oldenberg. Her grandmother, Crown Princess Thyra of Hanover (1853-1933), was the sister of
the Greek dynasty's founder, George I, making her Paul's second cousin. Paul and Frederika
had three children, Constantine II (born 1940), the present King, and Irene (born 1942,
Crown Princess 1964-65) were the middle and youngest children. In 1962, their eldest
child, daughter Sophia, married Prince Juan Carlos (born 1938, as was Sophia) of Spain.
Thus, the Oldenberg line will also be perpetuated in the royal house of Spain, a ruling
house again since their 1975 restoration.
Helen, Princess of Greece (born 1896)
Few European princesses have had to endure the humiliations visited upon this lovely
princess. Like her brother, George II, Princess Helen married into the Romanian royal
family in 1921, and like her brother, the results were unhappy. Sadly, her union with
Prince Carol began as a love match.
What her prince lacked was character. By the time they married, Carol had previously
renounced his rights to the throne to marry commoner Zizi Lambrino, by whom he had a son.
When that marriage was annulled, Carol was reinstated in the family and as heir. It was
during the festivities surrounding his sister, Elizabeth's marriage to George II, that
Carol and Helen fell in love.
The Romanian royals, especially Queen Marie, looked upon the Greek princess as their son's
salvation, and celebrated the quick birth of their son, Michael, in 1921. Michael is the
current, albeit non-reigning, King of Romania. By 1925, the love match had soured
completely due to Carol's aforementioned character flaws. He had met and fell in love with
yet another commoner, a woman so lacking in class she made Zizi Lambrino look like a
duchess by comparison. Madga Wolf, often misidentified as Lupescu, led Carol around by the
nose for the rest of his sorry life, alienating Carol from his entire family,
including the unfortunate woman who was his wife. Mercifully, perhaps, they divorced in
1928. Princess Helen lived the rest of her life graciously, mainly in an Italian villa.
The second generation of the Oldenberg dynasty had several distinctions. First, all three
of King Constantine I's sons succeeded to the throne, unlike the first generation, in
which the younger sons had to pursue other endeavors. Second, all had to deal with the
increasingly unstable politics of the Balkans during their lifetimes in very tangible
ways, often as exiles, an originally Greek invention. Last, the uncertainties of the
second generation faced were and are still not resolved, to the detriment of the third
generation of the dynasty, which finds itself yet again in exile.
The soldier prince Christian of Denmark was surely amazed at the strides made by his once
humble family in the span of a few years. When he died in 1906, the thrones of his
children and grandchildren appeared secure, and the future promising. The people of Greece
were certainly well served by the House of Oldenberg, then, and now.
What has changed since King Christian's death is not the character or quality of Greece's
royal house but the complexion of world politics. The idea of placing a foreign prince on
the throne of an emerging country, or any country for that matter, seems very strange by
our century's point of view. Monarchy itself has been under attack for most of the
century, and the idea of the sanctity of the King's person was shattered, in part, by all the rulers assassinated in
this century, of whom King George I was one of the first.
Its first modern Olympic champion is no commoner. King Constantine II holds that
distinction. Greece was gifted, by 19th century geopolitics, with a royal family that is
good looking, intelligent, able to adapt to changing situations, and most importantly, one
that has a strong sense of duty to their country. While, with one exception, not Greek by
ethnicity, no one can responsibly argue that the House of Oldenberg is not Greek in every
other way. That they either cannot or do not live in Greece and participate in a Greek
revival of world-class excellence is no fault of its ruling house. As both its fourth
generation and the world enter a new millennium, it can be hoped that this situation will
be changed for the better.
I have used anglicized spellings of most names
due to writing in English for the most part, unless the English version of a name sounds
stranger than the native language. As an example, I refer to King Paul, as opposed to his
Greek name, Pavlos. On the other hand, as the English version of the patronymic
Michaelovich sounds so strange to me, I have used the Slavic Mikhailovich instead.
I have studied royal history for many years, and
thus do not cite all my sources, as this would be too exhaustive for the purposes of this
piece. Nonetheless, two published sources were of particular use in preparing this
article. Heraldry of the Royal Families of Europe contains very clear, precise
genealogical tables, as well as an excellent history of each royal house. For my opening
quotation from His Majesty King Constantine II, I must cite Splendor In Exile, a volume I
was lucky to find at a used book store. On the internet, I found the Royal and Noble
Genealogies to be very useful, as well as more up to date than other published sources.
Other than any errors that may not have been detected in these sources, all errors are the
responsibility of the writer alone.
I owe many thanks for this article. My husband,
Jeff Davidson, provided the time I needed to research and write by watching our children
and providing other support as needed. Our daughters, Erika and Alexis, are proud to have
a mommy who writes, so kept as quiet as they could. They interrupted me less frequently
than usual, even though Lexi, at 3, is not quite sure what an author does. I must also
thank the Greek Royal Website's author, Christine Kersten, for providing the space to
publish this article and her patience in waiting for it.
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