Forgotten tales

stories of my family

What’s in a name?

When the First World War broke out it became unpopular in England or Australia to have a German name. Germans were seen as the enemy. But it had not always been so. Up until then the English got on pretty well with the Germans, not least because the royal family had such close German connections. Queen Victoria had a German mother and married her first cousin, Albert, who was also German. Together they became known as “the Father and Mother of Europe” and throughout the 1800s Germany and England were close in many ways, despite the competition between their respective global empires.

Queen Victoria’s family therefore came from of the aristocratic German houses of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha-Hanover-Teck. Even her father, Edward Duke of Kent was of German extraction, of the House of Hanover, though his ancestors had lived in Britain for a hundred years. The royal families of Europe – Russian, German, Belgian, Greek, Romanian, Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Spanish, as well as the British – in the second half of the nineteenth century were all entwined in a fascinating web of relationships. The Great War was therefore a huge blow to these aristocrats who suddenly found themselves on opposing sides of the conflict.

Queen Victoria’s favorite granddaughter, Victoria of Hesse, was married to a particular Count Louis Battenberg (1854-1921) who was cousin to the Duke of Edinburgh as well as Tsar Alexander III of Russia. Count Battenburg joined the Royal Navy as a cadet and worked his way up to becoming Admiral, Director of Naval Intelligence, and at the outbreak of war in 1914 was Britain’s First Sea Lord. Unfortunately, he was German, so he was forced to immediately retire. It would not do to have a German admiral commanding the British Navy. Louis Battenberg had two daughters, the first of whom became Queen of Sweden, and the second a Princess of Greece. His son, also Louis (1900-79), also joined the navy, following his father into the British Admiralty.

However, thankfully for Louis Battenberg junior, the family name was changed when he was 17 years old from Battenberg to Mountbatten. Louis junior, later known as “Dickie,” became Earl of Burma. Meanwhile, his relatives in the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha-Hanover-Teck were hurriedly renaming themselves “Windsor”. My great grandfather’s decision to change his name was understandable and had a royal precedent. If it was good enough for the Battenbergs (the Mountbattens) then it was good enough for the Holdorfs (the Holfords).

So Britain’s current monarch, Elizabeth, is about as much English as I am Australian, but way back we are Germans. Funny thought really. Oddly enough, her husband, Philip, a Prince of Greece, is really of the German House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Gluecksburg. His forbears come from the same part of Germany as my forbears, Schleswig-Holstein, up north close to Denmark.

My other great grandfather’s decision to change his name from Lilley to Simmonds no doubt has equally good reasoning behind it, though I will perhaps never know exactly what that reasoning was (see the previous blog). He was certainly not German and the war played no part in it. Unfortunately his family history is not quite as well mapped out as the royal families of Europe, so the story behind it may never become clear.

Maria, my wife, had the surname Berggren before we married. Berg = mountain. Gren = branch. Change it around and it loses its Swedish sound and becomes Grenberg, which could also be German, or Greenberg, which sounds almost English. But her forbears, at least some of them, were from Belgium.

But that is another story.

(Reference: Europe A History, by Norman Davies, pp.808-810)

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2 thoughts on “What’s in a name?

  1. Peter on said:

    The part about how close England and Germany were reminded me of a book I read last year: ‘Bomber Boys’. It spoke of children from England going on a school trip to Hanover in the mid-1930s. One group returned home with lapel badges from their German host families which their parents were able to identify as swastikas. This from a boy that went on the trip and later was a bomber pilot tasked with attacking Hanover. Curious twist of history.

    • It’s hard for us, after the wars of the last century, to understand just how close together England and Germany have been. Of course the Europeans have been fighting each other since time immemorial, but the two world wars made them realise just how close they came in their bickering to destroying everything once and for all. For all the problems of the European Union it seems to have at least made the likelihood of another European war much more remote. If we hurt each other we will hurt ourselves!

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