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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 other royals.

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 borders.

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 as
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, where appropriate.

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 resumed the
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 marriage.

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 both of
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 very well.

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 poisoning.

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 in 1945.

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 (1917-1981).

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 and Elizabeth.

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.

Author's Notes:

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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