Fans of ancestry media such as the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? may be interested to explore the highlights of King Charles III’s claim to the throne. Beyond debates on whether or not, and how the monarchy should continue, Charles and his siblings clearly have an enormous genetic claim to the British throne, equally cemented by not only their mother, Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, but also by their father, Philip, Prince of Greece, Denmark and the United Kingdom.
The role of primogeniture
The fact that Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark arrived in England in 1930, lacking riches or inheritance, to be placed in the care of his maternal grandmother, is due to the fact that most of his direct royal descent is through women. And although Queen Elizabeth II’s descent on her mother’s side was aristocratic with ancient royal connections, it is solely the fact that she descended as the eldest Windsor daughter through a sequence of eldest sons that gave her the right to ascend to the British throne, and only then due to the fact that she had no brothers.
This is the legacy of male primogeniture – the tradition of father passing his title to eldest son; the system traditionally used by the British monarchy. The male element was recently removed from the ‘rules’ of the British succession, meaning that Princess Charlotte now comes after her elder brother George in the line of succession and before younger brother Louis.
Prince Philip renounced his title as Prince of Greece and Denmark when he became a naturalised British citizen in early 1947. He was created HRH Duke of Edinburgh by his father-in-law King George VI when he married the then Princess Elizabeth later that year. Ten years after that, Philip’s wife, by then Queen Elizabeth II, created him Prince of the United Kingdom.
And if we study his lineage, it does seem quite fair, given the royal genes he inherited from both sides of his family, that his Princely title was re-bestowed.
Ancestry of Prince Philip
Both Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth II were great-great grandchildren of Queen Victoria, Queen Elizabeth through her well-known descent from great grandfather Edward VII, grandfather George V and father George VI. Philip’s descent is, however through women: Princess Alice the daughter of Queen Victoria, Princess Victoria, the daughter of Princess Alice, and finally his mother, another Princess Alice, daughter of Princess Victoria. This repetition of names confuses on all sides of the Royal family (as, indeed, in many others!)
But this is not Philip’s only connection with the Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (restyled ‘Windsor’) House that currently sits on the throne of the United Kingdom. His great aunt, Princess Alexandra of Denmark married King Edward VII, the Queen’s great grandfather, and was therefore also the Queen’s great grandmother.
There are connections to the Saxe-Coburg and Gotha lineage on both sides of Philip’s family, but only on one side of Elizabeth’s. Elizabeth II’s mother’s family descended from Scottish aristocracy, not royalty. Her family, the Bowes-Lyons, could claim only very distant royal ancestry, dating back to Robert II of Scotland who died in 1390.
Philip therefore had a genetic claim to be inherently more royal than Elizabeth, even though she was the Queen, and he the consort. Now, all these bloodlines come together in King Charles III.
Paternal ancestry of King Charles III
Prince Philip’s recent ancestry contains a range of close familial connections to wider European Royalty. Through this lineage, King Charles’ great grandfather is George I of Greece and Denmark, added to the fact that he is also a great-great grandfather through the Windsor lineage as the father of Queen Alexandra, wife of Edward VII.
And the lineage of George I of Greece and Denmark makes some other fascinating connections for Charles III. Both Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip were consequently distantly related to Queen Alexandra’s sister, Dagmar, who became Maria Fyodorovna Romanov on her marriage to Alexander III of Russia. She later became the mother of Nicholas II – the last Tsar, who was executed by Bolsheviks in 1918.
The subsequent generation of Prince Philip’s family were additionally related to the Tsars along a more recent connection: Princess Victoria, the maternal grandmother who took over Philip’s care in 1930, was the sister of Alexandra of Russia, the wife of Nicholas II, who was executed alongside him.
The bones of the Russian Royal family were found in 1991, and those who carried out the eventual DNA examination used biological samples from Prince Philip in their investigations, due to his relationship to both Tsar Nicholas and Tsarina Alexandra.
The King, as Prince Charles, has shown interest in this side of his ancestry and has in the past visited Russia to discover more about it.
So, does the King have any claim to the Greek or Russian thrones (should they be re-established)? The answer is not really. There are many descendants of male heirs who stand before him in the succession. His paternal grandfather Prince Andrew of Greece was the fourth son of King George I of Greece, and there were many sons from his older brothers. The Russian descent is even more indirect, with many heirs who have a much stronger claim.
Ancestry of William, Prince of Wales
So, could there be anyone even more secure in their British royal ancestry than King Charles III? Well, yes, surprisingly, his two sons, William Prince of Wales and Prince Henry (Harry) Duke of Sussex.
It is well known that there was a discontinuity in the monarchy when James II (James Stuart) was removed from the thrones of England and Scotland. James converted to Roman Catholicism in 1669, but parliament accepted his right to succeed his brother Charles II as King in 1685, due to the fact that Charles II had no legitimate children and James’ daughters, who would be the subsequent heirs, had been raised as Protestants under the direction of their Uncle.
However, James’ first wife died, and three years into his reign he remarried and produced a male heir, whom parliament feared, in the absence of Charles II’s influence, would be raised Roman Catholic. In the ensuing unrest James and his family fled to France, which parliament recorded as an effective abdication.
James’ two daughters then ascended the throne in succession as Mary II and Anne I. But neither produced any surviving children.
James II’s son (‘the old pretender’) was still alive, and living in exile when Queen Anne died, but he was passed over for the Protestant German aristocrat who subsequently became George I of Great Britain, his qualification being that he was the great-great grandson of James II and Charles II’s father, James I, having descended down a female line.
In this sense then, George I of Great Britain could be argued to have had a similar or even weaker claim to the British throne as Prince Philip, who ended up as a consort. Such vagaries of fate have been a feature of the British monarchy going back into antiquity.
And, through yet another one of these vagaries, William Prince of Wales and Henry Duke of Sussex find themselves connected to the Stuart monarchy more directly than any royal heirs since the 17th century.
Despite not producing any legitimate heirs, Charles II had at least 14 Illegitimate children with several mistresses, many of whom were acknowledged and given titles. Two of these were Henry Fitzroy (meaning ‘son of the King’), first Duke of Grafton and Charles Lennox, first Duke of Richmond. Both of these men were direct ancestors of Lady Diana Spencer.
So, if and when William V takes the throne, he adds direct descent from the Stuart Kings to the Windsor lineage.
Who do you think you are?
When I was studying the history of my own family I was inspired by my research to stringently question the ‘Who do you think you are’ tendency to dig deeply for famous, aristocratic and heroic ancestors.
We all have an enormous number of direct ancestors as we move beyond our eight great-grandparents; for example, at the four times great grandparent level we find 126 direct ancestors. So while we contemplate one family’s compelling connections to many different royal lineages, we also have to recognise that these will exist for many other people with European and British ancestry, who have not had the benefit of having their genealogy painstakingly unravelled and recorded by Burke’s Peerage.
The bottom line is that royal ancestry is not that unusual amongst people of English heritage, however sensationalised it has become through recent media productions such as ‘Who do you think you are.’ What ancestry research demonstrates that those currently at the top of the royal line of succession are there not only through the genes they inherit from their parents, but through innumerable twists of fate over many centuries.
Will this later become a source of challenge in the ongoing debate over the shape and future of a hereditary monarchy? The start of a reign is maybe not the time to ask. But it is still useful to reflect upon Shakespeare’s ‘slings and arrows of… fortune’ when it comes to ancestral inheritance, as we arrive at this historic ending and beginning in the procession of monarchy.