Friday, July 16, 2010

The House of Windsor is born

On July 17, 1917, King George V of the United Kingdom issued a royal decree announcing that the name of the British royal family would henceforth be known as Windsor.

1917 was a critical year for the Allied powers in World War I. That summer, it appeared as if the German forces would punch through and overrun the Allies. With anti-German feelings running rampant throughout Britain, the King grew anxious about his own position.

King George belonged to the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, which came to the British throne with his father, Edward VII, whose father was Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. George's wife, Queen Mary, was a princess of Teck by birth, a morganatic branch of the royal house of the German kingdom of Wurttemburg. Summing up the suspicions of many Britons, novelist H.G. Wells declared that King George reigned over "an alien and uninspiring court", to which the king retorted "I may be uninspiring, but I'm damned if I'm an alien".

It became clear that the royal family would have to discard their German ties if they were to retain the support of the British people. In a stroke of political genius, George V's advisers suggested he change the name of the royal house from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor. Thus, on July 17 it was declared by order of the King that all male-line descendants of Queen Victoria would henceforth belong to the House of Windsor.

Anniversary of the Romanov Family Executions


92 years ago, on July 17, 1918, the last Russian tsar was murdered with his wife and children on the orders of the Russian Bolshevik government.

Nicholas II, the last emperor of the imperial Romanov dynasty, abdicated in March 1917 in the midst of political and social turmoil. Since then, his family had been placed under house arrest by the new republican government, first at their primary home, the Alexander Palace, and then in a mansion in the Siberian province of Tobolsk. Though they faced occasional jeering and gruff behavior from disgruntled soldiers, the imperial family's captivity was initially bearable. But in October 1917, a second revolution led by the Bolsheviks and Vladimir Lenin seized Russia practically overnight, and suddenly the position of the former tsar turned delicate.

In April 1918, the family was transferred to Yekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains - where the local Soviet was known to harbor fierce Bolshevism - and held inside a local merchant's house. The two months they spent in Yekaterinburg were enough to crush the family's spirits. The guards were lecherous and frequently insulted the family, and their windows were white-washed with paint and had prison-styled iron bars installed on the outside.

Shortly after midnight on July 17, Yakov Yurovksy, the commandant of the Romanovs' guard, awoke the family's physician, Dr. Eugene Botkin, who had joined the tsar's family in captivity. Dr. Botkin was instructed to rouse the family, dress and report downstairs.

The tsar, his wife, Empress Alexandra, their four daughters- Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Marie and Anastasia- and their only son, Tsarevitch Alexei, along with Dr. Botkin, the family's cook, the empress' maid and the emperor's valet, emerged from their rooms and were led into the cellar of the house. There, Yurovsky told them to wait momentarily. He returned a few minutes later with a group of his guards, and read the following statement aloud:

"Your relatives have tried to save you. They have failed, and we are now obliged to shoot you all."

Nicholas II stood up, bewildered, and asked "What?" Yurovsky then pulled out a pistol and shot the former emperor point-blank in the head. The rest of the guards followed suit and began firing at the family. The tsar and his wife were both killed instantly from the initial volley of bullets, but their children did not die so easily. Alexei had fallen to the ground from the force of his father collapsing backwards onto him, and he was silenced with a bullet straight into the ear. The four sisters suffered the most. For weeks, they had been sewing jewels into their corsets to use for money in case they should escape. Their bejeweled corsets acted as bulletproof vests against their assassins' gunfire, and they were finished off brutally with the dull bayonets from some of the guards' Winchester rifles.

When the massacre had ceased, the seven imperial corpses and the bodies of their four faithful retainers were hauled into a truck and taken into the woods outside Yekaterinburg. They were dismembered, partially burned, and thrown into a shallow pit near a spot known as the Four Brothers, where they remained undiscovered until the 1970s.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the scientists who discovered the burial ground were able to publicly reveal its location. They were exhumed and sent to laboratories in Moscow and London for DNA analysis. The remains were compared with DNA samples from a number of the family's royal relatives, both living and deceased. These included DNA samples from Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (whose maternal grandmother was Empress Alexandra's sister) and the remains of the tsar's brother, Grand Duke George, who was interred in St. Petersburg. The results proved a match, although the remains of Alexei and one of his sisters- disputed to be either Anastasia or Marie- were not found.

On July 17, 1998, exactly 80 years to the day of their murder, the last Russian imperial family and their retinue were interred in an official ceremony presided over by President Boris Yeltsin in St. Petersburg's Cathedral of Peter and Paul. Nine years later, in 2007, scientists discovered remains near the original burial site outside Yekaterinburg, and DNA testing further confirmed that they belonged to the two missing Romanov children.

Below is a dramatization of the execution as shown in the British television miniseries, The Lost Prince. In this scene, the tsar and empress' first cousin, King George V of Britain, is told of the murders by his private secretary. George V had asked his secretary to convince the prime minister to deny asylum for the Romanov family, fearing their appearance in England would ignite a left-wing protest against the monarchy. Many historians believe that the king's rejection of his Russian cousins shut the door on their chance of escape and sealed their doom.