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Portrait of Prince Albert by John Partridge

The German kings and queens of England

Portrait of Prince Albert by John Partridge

So, why DOES everyone hate the English? It’s not a rhetorical question – Al Murray genuinely wants to find out in his Sky HISTORY series. And, while the rivalries with neighbouring nations like Scotland can get rather… heated… there’s something special about English people’s attitude towards Germany. By 'special' we mean 'absurd'. By 'attitude' we mean 'rampantly childish mockery'.

Yes, a bit of mutual snootiness is bound to be there – a couple of catastrophic world wars will do that. But England and Germany have more in common than not. Both peoples are fond of a good sausage, for example. Oh, and there’s the small matter of how the British Royal Family is basically as German as Kraftwerk. A fact that’s caused no small amount of awkwardness over the centuries.

The story stems right back to 1714. This was the year that Britain’s Queen Anne died, after a literally painful reign during which she was crippled by gout and suffered 17 or 18 failed pregnancies. Historians quibble on the exact number, but the upshot is the last Stuart monarch – described by one onlooker as “gross and corpulent” from illness and inactivity – did not have an easy time of it, and died without an heir.

This was an era of intense religious tensions. Anne’s Catholic father, James II, had been kicked off the throne by the “Glorious Revolution”, which saw the Protestant hero William of Orange and his wife, Anne’s sister Mary, installed in his place. Anne had inherited the crown after William died in 1702, and her own death in 1714 meant a new Protestant monarch was required. That meant ignoring the dozens of Catholic contenders with much stronger claims to the throne and plucking the nearest viable Protestant instead: a man called Georg Ludwig, who was every bit as German as he sounds.

The Prince-Elector of Hanover became George I of Great Britain – despite barely being able to speak English. It’s fair to say many in Blighty were less than impressed by the idea of some obscure aristocrat from a continental backwater putting his backside down on the throne. At his coronation, spectators called out 'Down with the German!', and many dismissed him as a country bumpkin, even dubbing him the 'Turnip King'. The runaway xenophobia also led to his carnal appetites being lambasted – as one local gossip put it, the new king 'rejects no woman so long as she is very willing, very fat, and has great breasts'.

George’s heart lay in Hanover – a fact that became literal when he died and was buried in his homeland, the last British monarch laid to rest abroad. His son, George II, at least had the advantage of being able to speak English properly, but it took George III to really make an effort to be less flagrantly German. On becoming king, he famously declared that “Born and educated in this country, I glory in the name of Britain' – a conscious attempt to reassure everyone that he was over the whole Hanover thing.

A few monarchs later, it was the turn of Queen Victoria. Despite being an icon of Britishness to this very day, she was – by blood – just as German as her Hanoverian predecessors. Her first language was German, and she ended up having a legendarily passionate marriage with her German cousin, Albert.

Their German heritage directly shaped aspects of British culture, most notably the way we celebrate Christmas. Prince Albert’s fondness for German festive traditions kickstarted something of a Christmas craze throughout the nation, especially when a newspaper published an illustration of the royals gathered around a Christmas tree. Soon, everyone wanted a tree of their own, come Christmastime.

The close ties between the British royals and their continental counterparts had thorny ramifications in the 20th Century. Kaiser Wilhelm II, the great German villain of World War One, happened to be Queen Victoria’s grandson, and the first cousin of Britain’s George V. Indeed, it’s even been speculated that the Kaiser’s tortured, somewhat Freudian fixation with his mother – Queen Victoria’s daughter – triggered an innate and ultimately apocalyptic hostility against Britain.

George V, meanwhile, felt the pressure of anti-German sentiment during the carnage of the Great War, even going so far as to change the name of the royal household from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to the reassuringly English 'Windsor'. Over in Germany, the Kaiser took a wry swipe at his cousin negating his German heritage, quipping that he looked forward to seeing Shakespeare’s play, 'The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha'.

Of course, the Germanic roots of the House of Windsor are rarely remembered these days, especially in an era when the royals have moved beyond the old traditions of marrying the “right” people, whether in terms of culture, class or religion. Really, in the age of Meghan Markle, it all seems rather quaint and irrelevant. Except when English people start yammering on about the Germans, in which case the story of George I and his many descendants becomes just far too brilliantly ironic to ignore…