By Matthew Kilburn
It’s not been easy to avoid news that the duke and duchess of Cambridge have had their first child, that the baby is a boy, and that he’s been named George Alexander Louis. The media have hailed this choice as ‘traditional’. Tradition in this case is the Oxford English Dictionary’s fourth sense: ‘fact of being handed down, from one to another, or from generation to generation.’ When, and with whom, did that tradition begin? The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography can help identify the origins and the nature of what may be being communicated with those three names. In doing so, it also reminds us of some unexpected associations with historical forebears who answered to George, Alexander, or Louis.
George …Contrary to popular expectations, the use of the name George by six British kings can’t be attributed directly to St George’s position as England’s patron saint. Rather, the prominence of the name among British royalty derives from its popularity among German ruling families. August 2014 will see the 300th anniversary of the accession of the first King George as monarch of a recently created ‘Great Britain’. The names given this week to the infant prince appear to commemorate this, George I’s forenames being George Louis. In his native German he was Georg Ludwig, and the usual English form in the king’s lifetime was George Lewis. In the early eighteenth century, the name Louis was associated in Britain with the country’s recent enemy, Louis XIV of France, and was suppressed at George I’s accession.
George I was the first of four successive monarchs with this name: eighteenth-century Britain is, of course ‘Georgian’ (or sometimes Hanoverian) Britain. He and his son George II epitomized a practical form of kingship, proud of its background in efficient soldiering. George III and George IV are often remembered negatively but both were patrons of science and the arts with influence over agriculture, architecture, and painting. Much of the prospective built inheritance of the infant Prince George—notably at Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace—is the legacy of these two monarchs. All four Georges exercised substantial political influence. By contrast, their descendants, George V and George VI—monarchs from the early to mid-twentieth century—experienced the limits of a parliamentary monarchy in the age of universal suffrage. These diminishing political responsibilities were largely established through the responses of Georges V and VI to political and dynastic crises in this period.
Georges III and IV never saw military service, whereas V and VI were both active naval officers. From the mid-eighteenth to the early nineteenth century, the British monarchy’s role as military leader was delegated to members of the family outside the direct line of succession. Most prominent of these was the first Prince George of Cambridge (1819-1904), now better remembered as the second duke of Cambridge. He was a grandson of George III, served in the Crimean war, and became the army’s commander-in-chief in 1856. The duke’s own reforms and personal popularity were overtaken by political demands; from 1870 his position became subordinate to the Secretary of State for War, a shift indicative of the weakening of the crown’s independence. The second duke’s public and private life expressed a duality of a kind that today’s Prince George of Cambridge is very unlikely to experience. While a defender of royal authority, the second duke was one of many princes in the period to marry someone who was not his social equal creating a union of which Queen Victoria could not approve; consequently the duke’s marriage to the actress Louisa Fairbrother was declared void by the terms of the 1772 Royal Marriages Act.
All the British kings names George have reigned over multiple territories and united several crowns in one person. It is impossible to establish what form late twenty-first century kingship will take, but it’s very likely that the Commonwealth of Nations, successor of the British empire, will continue to play a part in the formation of Prince George’s sense of royal duty. It seems probable that the number of Commonwealth countries which retain the British monarch as head of state will diminish, but the prince has namesakes in the history of one of the other Commonwealth monarchies. Siaosi, the Tongan form of George, appears frequently among the names of the Tongan royal family, beginning with the first king of Tonga, Siaosi Taufa’ahau Tupou I.
Alexander …The royal use of Alexander falls into two phases—the first being its use by medieval Scottish kings. The naming of Alexander I was perhaps intended to associate Scottish kingship with mainstream western European Christendom, commemorating Pope Alexander II, pontiff between 1061 and 1073. As a consolidator of royal authority in Scotland, Alexander I was overshadowed by his successor David I, but he was remembered in the names of his thirteenth-century descendants Alexander II and Alexander III—both astute protectors of the Scottish kingdom against English claims to overlordship.
Under the House of Stewart, the name Alexander was borne by younger sons whose record as servants of the king was erratic at best. Alexander Stewart, earl of Buchan, ‘the Wolf of Badenoch’, ruled much of northern Scotland notionally under his father Robert II in the 1370s and ‘80s. A century later, Alexander Stewart, duke of Albany, sought to dominate affairs either through his elder brother, James III, or in opposition to him; for a period in 1482 he called himself ‘Allexander, king of Scotlande’. The name Alexander might have been redeemed by James IV’s illegitimate son Alexander Stewart, archbishop-designate of St Andrews, had he not been killed alongside his father at Flodden in 1513.
The name resurfaced in the nineteenth century in part to honour Tsar Alexander I of Russia, as in the case of Queen Victoria’s first name, Alexandrina. More obviously her daughter-in-law Alexandra, consort of Edward VII, established Alexandra and by extension Alexander as part of modern royal naming patterns. Alexandra is also the middle name of Elizabeth II who was born a year after Queen Alexandra’s death. The conventional military career for male members of the extended royal family (as experienced by Georges V and VI) was also followed by Prince Alexander of Teck, nephew of George, second duke of Cambridge. After the First World War (during which, in 1917, he became Alexander Cambridge, earl of Athlone) the prince became known for his philanthropic work and also served as governor-general of South Africa (1924-39) and Canada (1940-6).
The conjunction of the names Alexander and Louis takes us back to thirteenth century, and seems to commemorate an almost-successful change of dynasty in England in 1215-16. King John’s repudiation of Magna Carta led his opponents to offer the throne to Louis, son of Philippe II of France. The strength of the opposition to John was such that Alexander II of Scotland was able to proceed to Canterbury to swear homage to Louis for his English territories. John’s death in 1216 made it easier for loyalists to the Angevin dynasty to secure their position and that of John’s son Henry III, then still a child. But the alliance of (the Scottish) Alexander and (the French) Louis is a reminder that the narrative of nation-building—often conveyed through the medium of royal history—was not inevitable and obscures telling realities.
As already seen with George I, ‘Louis’ had currency in the Hanoverian dynasty. When George I was named it had solid protestant associations through his maternal uncle Charles Lewis, elector palatine of the Rhine, though the ‘universal monarchy’ of the Catholic Louis XIV also loomed large. After George II’s daughter Louisa the name did not appear again until the mid-nineteenth century: Princess Louise, duchess of Argyll being one such example. A century on, the greatest influence on the modern revival of the name Louis was Louis Mountbatten, first Earl Mountbatten of Burma, ‘honorary grandfather’ to the baby’s grandfather Prince Charles and indefatigable manager of imperial twilight in India and at home. His name came, in turn, from his father, Prince Louis of Battenberg (Louis Mountbatten, first marquess of Milford Haven)—for whom it served to advertise his kinship to the grand dukes of Hesse and by Rhine.
George Alexander Louis might seem a modest selection of names compared to the seven forenames given in 1894 to the future Edward VIII (Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David; plus the boyhood nickname ‘Sardine’). The choice made for the young Prince George connects him to royal forebears who began the monarchy’s transition from late imperialism to the modern United Kingdom. Yet it also brings reminders of aspects of medieval kingship, and the long close association of British monarchs with continental Europe. How these ideas inform the life of the young Prince George of Cambridge is for him to experience and for us—as far as we are allowed—to observe.
Dr Matthew Kilburn is an associate research editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. In addition to writing and lecturing on the history of the British monarchy, he is also a contributor to the forthcoming History of Oxford University Press.
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Image credits: All images public domain via Wikimedia Commons: (1) George I, (2) Alexander I, (3) Lord Mountbatten.