by Claudia Willetts
The Kings of the Hellenes, six monarchs who reigned over Greece between 1863 and the declaration of a republic a century later, have been the subject of curiously little attention, laments author John Van der Kiste in Kings of the Hellenes: The Greek Kings 1863-1974. The prince from Denmark who was chosen to wear the Greek crown in 1863 as King George I, and the Russian Grand Duchess whom he married, founded a dynasty whose princes and princesses married into European royal houses. None did so more notably than the Prince who was born at the nadir of his parents’ and his family’s fortunes, and at the time of his birth was regarded as having few prospects . This grandson of the patriarch of the dynasty married the heir apparent to the Throne of the United Kingdom and Canada, and subsequently became the consort of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. He is now known as His Royal Highness Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh.
But to begin at the beginning: following the conquests of Alexander the Great, there emerged the Hellenistic world which was then swept away by the Roman empire. This evolved into the empire of Byzantium. After more conquests, Greece lay under the yoke of the Ottoman empire for six hundred years until the 1820s, when Greeks rose up and defeated the Turks, according to Nicholas Tantzos in The Inheritors of Alexander the Great. Since the Greeks could not agree among themselves on a leader, a German prince was first chosen to rule. The peaceful overthrow of King Otho in 1863 after thirty years on the throne, coincided with the search by Queen Victoria of Great Britain for a bride for her son Edward, the Prince of Wales. The Queen selected Princess Alexandra of Denmark who brought her younger brother with her to England for the wedding. Queen Victoria approved of him, and suggested him as a solution to the problem of a replacement king for Greece. Upon the acceptance of the Greek National Assembly, the eighteen-year-old Danish Prince William became George I, King of the Hellenes. In so doing, the young man abandoned his family, his country, and his beloved career in the navy, to ascend a throne that was widely considered the least stable in Europe. Though many predicted the shortest of reigns, he ruled for half a century. Recovery of the “lost empire” from the Turks was one of the king’s ambitions that he pursued with diplomatic and military skill. The expansion of Greece continued successfully throughout the late nineteenth century into the 1912-1913 Balkan War, when King George triumphantly entered the ancient Byzantine capital of Thessaloniki ( Salonika). Shortly after, he was assassinated while walking in a street of that city, his fifty-year reign ending at the moment of its greatest success.
The Crown Prince ascended the throne as King Constantine I. His reign was greatly disturbed by the need for Greece to remain neutral during World War I, 1914-1918. The situation was complicated by his marriage to Princess Sophia of Hohenzollern, sister of Kaiser Wilhem II of Germany who reigned during the war. A Greek politician M. Venizelos, persuaded the Allies that both the King and Crown Prince George were pro-German, forcing the abdication of the King in 1917. King Constantine I then named his second son Prince Alexander as his heir, as told by EE Tisdall in Royal Destiny. King Alexander I’s reign however was cut short three years after, when he died at age twenty-seven of infection after being bitten by a pet monkey. His elder brother who had been previously by-passed, then became King George II and reigned intermittently until his death in 1947.
The next king of Greece was Constantine I’s youngest son King Paul I, who reigned from 1947 until his death in 1964. King Paul was married to Princess Frederica daughter of the Duke of Brunswick, a great-great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Queen Frederica was of immense assistance to her husband King Paul in the Greek civil war following the Second World War. For her solo visit to the war-ravaged town of Konitsa under extremely dangerous conditions, King Paul conferred on Frederica the Greek Military Cross, according to Stelio Hourmouzios in No Ordinary Crown. Emotionally heartsick at the death and destruction caused by the civil war, the Queen established a relief organisation, the Royal Welfare Fund which for many years was her main occupation. It was also during this terrible period that Queen Frederica became interested in nuclear physics as a mental distraction. Her investigations led her to become an amateur expert on the subject, and she found that her scientific studies provided a spiritual outlet which restored her peace of mind in times of distress.
In the summer of 1960 during the reign of King Paul, his eldest son Crown Prince Constantine took part in the Rome Olympic Games as a yachtsman, as described by Queen Frederica in her memoirs, A Measure of Understanding. Over seven days Prince Constantine showed a consistently good performance, with the result that for the first time in fifty years, Greece was awarded a Gold Medal. Later on the death of his father, he reigned as King Constantine II from 1964-1967, when he was exiled after a coup.