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The Rise of the House of Oldenburg in Britain

Updated on September 22, 2017
Christian I, King of Denmark, Norway and Sweden
Christian I, King of Denmark, Norway and Sweden

Count Elimar of Oldenburg

Have you heard of Elimar of Oldenburg? Well he is a patrilineal ancestor of Queen Marathe II of Denmark, King Harald V of Norway and Charles, Prince of Wales. The latter-mentioned nobleman is of course heir to the British Crown. That means Elimar will be the progenitor to future monarchs of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Thus, somehow this 11th-Century German figure has managed to find himself at the head of no less than three of the seven monarchies still existing in Europe. And of those seven, only five hail from ancient medieval houses. In fact, even the murdered Czar Nicholas II of Russia was a direct-male-line descendant of Elimar of Oldenburg. We know royal pedigrees are almost endless when we factor in all male and female lineages. To do so would connect the monarchs to past rulers of many countries throughout Europe. Britain's royal family, for example, is connected to the nobility of Medieval Normandy, Germany, Britons, the ancient Saxons, the Franks and even ancient Roman senators. However, according to the custom of northern Europe and the British Isles, it tends to be the male surname that takes precedent and is given to legitimate children. Though this is not always the case. Before Europe had surnames as we know them today, a nobleman was typically identified by whatever fiefdom he controlled. Through primogeniture, the lands and titles of an aristocrat would pass to the eldest legitimate son. Younger sons who might receive other lands attached to a title might then add those new holdings to their names. Other times, titles or names would be altered to match the local language of the country in which a foreign nobleman may find himself residing. As it happens, the current monarch of Great Britain, through the insistence of Parliament, broke with tradition in the 1950s and allowed her heirs to be considered part of her ruling house: Windsor. In other words, her children in line to the throne would bear her surname. But had this not happened, Prince Charles and his children would be part of a house and name of mixed origins.

In this essay, I will briefly examine the direct-male line of the heirs to the British throne that goes back to a little-known 12th-Century nobleman in northern Germany.

House of Oldenburg

It probably isn't fair to go so far back as this to show a familial connection between the monarchies of Britain, Norway, Denmark and Russia. The latest common male-line ancestor to the three monarchies of Western Europe actually dates back to as recently as the early 20th Century. The male-line divergence between these groups and the last emperor of Russia (calling himself a Romanov by that point) occurred in the mid-16th Century. Nevertheless, it is interesting to go back to the beginning of it all.

Counts of Oldenburg (1101-1450)

In truth, the royal history of the House of Oldenburg is pretty dull. Prior to 1101, Elimar's ancestors were probably vassals to the dukes of Saxony. Around this time, Saxony was the most-important fiefdom within the Holy Roman Empire. In 1101, a the county of Oldenburg was carved out of Saxony and granted to Elimar. With the land, came the peerage title of count (less than a margrave and higher than a baron). For more than 300 years, Elimar and his noble descendants fought near-constant local and petty wars of the sort that dominated the principalities of feudal Germany in the Middle Ages. The direct male line never took part in the Crusades or fought the Mongols. The lords of Oldenburg defended their fiefdom, suppressed rebellions, fought civil wars, and expanded their domains. But most importantly in those days, they survived, they married well, and they sired male children. The first direct descendant of note appeared in the 15th Century. The family owes a great deal of its success to Count Dietrich "the Fortunate", who reunited all of the family's divided lands while still expanding his holdings.

Scandinavian Kings (1448-1559)

It was the son of Dietrich and heir to Oldenburg, Christian, who became King of Denmark, King of Sweden, and King of Norway--essentially master of all Scandinavia. Yet, the sudden rise to power by this "Charlemagne" of the Vikings is far less dramatic than one would suppose. In 1448, the King of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway died without an heir. Christian didn't become king through conquest. It's just that his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents had married well. On the female side, he was linked to the Danish royal family. So, Christian of the House of Oldenburg, was elected to succeed the dead king in Denmark by vote--that's it. Sure, he was the second choice after the first guy declined. But does that matter now?

Another guy was voted to be King of Sweden and Norway remained without a king. The Norwegian leaders argued back and forth for a while on whether their country should go to Denmark or Sweden. King Christian I sensibly settled the matter in 1450 by sailing a huge war fleet into Norway and parking it in Trondheim. There, the polite Norwegians happily crowned him King of Norway. So far so good for Christian I. This only left Sweden remaining for this benign conqueror. Sweden too proved an easy conquest. The king there was hated and driven into exile in 1457 and the Swedes elected Christian I as their monarch. Thus, Christian became master of the lands of Odin and Thor (who had long been replaced by the Christian Trinity). But in 1464, the fickle Swedes wanted nothing more to do with their new king and renounced his authority. This left him and his heirs with only Denmark and Norway to govern.

In 1523, Frederick became the fourth member of our line of the House of Oldenburg to ascend to the Danish/Norwegian throne. Being one of the more progressive types, he helped facilitate peace between the Roman Catholics and the Lutherans in Denmark. His reign occurred in the middle of the highly-contentious Protestant Reformation. Nevertheless, without radical changes, he slowly eased Norway and Sweden into Protestantism without much trouble. Things just seemed to work out for the Oldenburgs.

Fredrick's son, Christian III, was the first official Protestant King of Norway and Denmark.

House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Beck

Dukes of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Beck (1559-1646)

The next descendent of the male line leading to the current Prince of Wales was not the heir to the Danish throne. This was due to his birth order. Instead, he received the provinces of Schleswig, Holstein and Sonderburg. With these lands came the lofty title of duke (less than a king and greater than a margrave). A "surname" change was in order to make a distinction between the main line of the Oldenburgs and the new cadet line of dukes. They were all acknowledged cousins of course. This cadet line participated in civil government, married well and had many children. The estate of Beck was added to the list of lands and titles in 1646.

In 1671, the Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Becks sired a prestigious military family for the first time in hundreds of years. Frederick Louis of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Beck brought this into his being and pursued a career under Frederick the Great. He was eventually commanding general of the Duchy of Prussia and he fought in a number of battles and campaigns as a professional soldier. His son was likewise a field marshal in the Imperial Russian Army. His grandson was killed on a Polish battlefield in 1759. And the ducal great-grandson was yet another military aristocrat who attained the rank of lieutenant general.

House of etc,, etc...Glucksburg

Dukes of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glucksburg (1825-1831)

Kings of Denmark and the Hellenes (1863-1924)

While President Lincoln was only a few days from delivering his Gettysburg address, something rather strange was happening in Europe. A member of the House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Gl├╝cksburg and his son were each given a kingdom over which to reign. The elder, named Christian, became the next King of Denmark. How, you might ask? Was it though political treachery or military conquest?--no. The previous king simply died childless. Christian, being one of the last males in line to the throne of Christian III (and being connected to the right female lines through marriage), was selected by the UK, Prussia, Russia, France, and Austria as successor. So things just sort of worked out for the former House of Oldenburg yet again. Unfortunately, because Christian IX also held title over some German provinces, there was a brief war between Denmark and Austria/Prussia over who should keep these borderlands. By 1865, Christian IX lost these two provinces to Prussia. On the upside, Christian IX did institute several long-overdue social reforms in the archaic Kingdom of Denmark. This was a tremendously big deal at the time. Denmark had still been an absolute monarchy in a post-Enlightenment Europe. Christian was also pressured by Denmark's distant province, Iceland, to grant the island self-governance. On the downside (according to some), Christian IX suppressed Danish movements promoting democracy. But, by virtual accident, he managed to create a parliament that acted as a separate government and which greatly diminished the power of the monarch. In effect, Christian was responsible for bringing Denmark into the 19th Century. He reigned until his death in 1903.

Several months before Christian became King of Denmark, because the major European powers could not agree on a successor to the unpopular Hellenic monarch, it was decided that Christian IX's younger son would be accepted to rule to the Greeks. He was actually the fourth or fifth choice. In a sense, he was like a "dark horse" compromise to a presidential nomination. He was the "Franklin Pierce" of the Greeks. Thus, in 1863, without the shedding of blood or much of a stir, George, Prince of Denmark, who was neither Greek nor spoke the language of Greece, became the reigning monarch over the Greek people. Luckily, he did eventually learn the language. But, I suppose to further prove how much he cared about the Greeks (?), he married a Russian aristocrat. In fact, none of his successors over the next 60 years deemed any Greek woman of noble birth to be an acceptable consort.

Royals in Exile (1924-1947)

King George of the Hellenes' fourth son was named Andrew. Prince Andrew lived in Greece, embraced much of the culture, and then married a German princess. In 1921, they had one son to whom they gave the ancient Greek name of Philip. During one of Greece's many wars against Turkey, Greece suffered some devastating defeats. This resulted in political turmoil at home where the government was overthrown. A number of politicians and generals were executed in the coup. Prince Andrew was briefly held prisoner until the monarchy was dissolved. The Glucksburg House was now without substantive titles, holdings or even a country of their own.

House Mountbatten

Duke of Edinburgh

Luckily for the Gluckburgs, they had close cousins in Great Britain. Another cadet line of the house had married into the Germanic line of Battenburg and adopted that name. It had been the custom in Britain since the turn of the century for the foreign nobility in England to Anglicize their names into something more palatable to the British people. Hence, the former House of Witten had become "Windsor". The Battenburgs likewise changed their names to Mountbatten. Sadly, the names Mountbatten or Battenburg were not at all in true patrilineal descent from the original counts of Oldenburg. It was simply a newly-adopted, yet no-less prestigious name from a great-grandmother.

Young Prince Philip of Greece (who was essentially Danish) was smuggled out of the country and arrived in Britain as a child. He was raised by his uncle Mountbatten and grew up on his estate without any substantive title. In a sense, he was forced to "start over" in bringing his line back into prominence. Like his uncle, Philip entered into a military career in the British navy. He served as a junior officer in World War II. His uncle commanded all allied forces in the frustrating Burmese theatre. As luck (always luck for the Oldenburgs) would have it, the British monarch was forced to abdicate in 1936, leaving the king's younger brother to ascend to the throne. This made his eldest daughter, Elizabeth, the heir apparent. Encouraged by his uncle, Philip courted the princess and in 1947 was granted permission by George VI to marry. It was at this time that he formally dropped his foreign Glucksburg surname and took on the name Mountbatten. He was also granted the appropriate title of Duke of Edinburgh. I say "appropriate", not because he was Scottish but because he needed to at least be a duke if he were to marry the future queen. But his was a Pyrrhic victory in the end. Both the conservative faction in parliament and the royal family saw the Mountbattens as unworthy upstarts. Lord Mountmatten himself appeared to be a "parvenu" who openly bragged about being the head of the future ruling dynasty of Britain. Thus, it was decreed that the "higher" name Windsor would continue to be used by the children of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. Lord Mountbatten was crushed and Philip was humiliated and embittered. Besides not having much interest in a public life, he was forced to put his successful military career permanently on hold.

However, time heals all wounds and facilitates compromise. It was later allowed that those decedents of the Queen and Prince Philip not directly in line to the throne would be permitted to hyphenate their names as Mountbatten-Windsor. In fact, to this day, Mountbatten-Windsor is often used in correspondence even by the direct-line heirs to the throne. I might suspect that, in the end, the younger generations might prefer the Mountbatten name. Their grandparents had been under tremendous pressure in their time to do away with it.

Conclusions

So in summary, what can we conclude from the British line of the House of Oldenburg? For one, I think it confirms more than anything that the most-important decision in which anyone can make is whom they choose to marry. This applies to the titled nobility, the untitled tycoons of great wealth, the politically ambitious or simply anyone of a good name and family background. Hypergamy has become a lost art, particular in self-determined egalitarian societies such as the United States. In the past, a suitably-matched couple did not necessarily need to be two like-minded individuals of equal education, social standing and finances. On the contrary, things seemed to work well as long as each party brought something unique the table. Sometimes women of wealth would marry a man with some foreign social rank and a landed estate. In America, a good match was wealth in exchange for one with a capable mind, a heroic past and political ambitions. These formulas need not be lost entirely on the new rich or the middle class.

Another conclusion to be drawn is an analysis of the benevolent and reasonable temperament of the Oldenburgs throughout history. And just because one has two parental lineages with two subsets of genetic predispositions does not mean the patrilineal characteristics are negated. On the contrary, throughout western history it is most often the father who sets the moral, cultural, religious and political tone of a household. A bad dad creates a bad family. A good dad creates a good family. Hence, we see a long line of Odenburgs who are practical, diplomatic and entirely without bellicosity. And military duty in war should not be mistaken for warmongering. Certainly some of the men may be irritable or even offensive at times. But these words never translate to malevolent actions.

Moving forward, I think everyone will be more pleased than not by the serenity and reasonableness of future monarchs.

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      S Maree 7 months ago

      Thank you for this interesting family history. Social progress seems best nurtured by slow, thoughtful, and peaceful means.

      War may bring progress through science and technology, but countries can come out viciously hacked, like a capable soldier who comes out minus limbs, vision, or other wounds. He may be a victor, but at an awful cost. If he's on the losing side, it may be catastrophic.

      Queen Victoria's huge brood had the potential to nurture peaceful progress in Europe, but once power fell into the hands of the more belligerent grandchildren any restraining tendencies went out the window.

      Kaiser Wilhelm was her most bellicose grandbrat. Once his uncle, King Edward VII, died, the gloves were off. It became cousins against cousins in WWI, the devil take the commoners, and the world paid dearly for their royal feuds.

      Yes, the Oldenburgs had the mix of good fortune and good governance to keep the line going until today, making an end-run play around their more "notable" kin. It often pays to be low-key but steady. Fascinating!

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