Britain’s monarchy dates back to the 10th century, when the great Anglo-Saxon ruler Athelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great, defeated the last of the Viking invaders to consolidate control of the island nation. The last 12 centuries have seen more than 50 men and women assume the throne, but until the early 20th century not one of those individuals had a last name. As with other monarchies, the reigning sovereigns (and their relatives) have been referred to by their family or “house” names: Richard I (the Lionheart) was also Richard Plantagenet; Henry VIII and his three children were all Tudors and were followed by a series of Stuarts; and for nearly two centuries the monarchy of Great Britain was held by a seemingly endless line of men named George from the House of Hanover.
All that changed, however, with the onset of World War I. George V, Britain’s ruler at the time, was himself the head of the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, a title he and his family inherited not from his grandmother, Queen Victoria, but from his grandfather, the German-born Prince Albert. But in the midst of a war in which Germany was the chief enemy and when frequently violent anti-“Hun” sentiment was on the rise, putting a bit of distance between the British throne and their overseas relations was deemed both politically and personally prudent. George (and his advisors) finally found a solution: replace the “family” name with a modern, official (and English) surname. Seeking to play up the family’s “Britishness,” George took as his inspiration the name of the oldest inhabited castle in the world, Windsor Castle, first founded by William the Conqueror in the 11th century. A series of lesser royals were forced to give up their German names and titles, and thus, the House of Windsor was born, prompting George’s cousin, German Kaiser Wilhelm II, to reportedly joke he was looking forward to catching a performance of Shakespeare’s play “The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.”
George VI ruled under this new family name, but things got a bit trickier when his eldest daughter, Elizabeth, married in 1947. Her husband Philip was himself a member of a prominent royal family (in his case, the Greek and Danish branches of the House of Glücksburg), and as with most other European royals, carried no surname of his own. Months before his wedding, Philip (who had been raised primarily by English relatives) became a naturalized British citizen and adopted his mother’s family name, Mountbatten—which had itself been Anglicized during World War I from its original Germanic Battenberg. Upon her marriage to Philip, many assumed that Elizabeth would simply take on her husband’s family name (as Queen Victoria had done before her), but as with many royal sagas that’s not quite how things worked out.
Philip and his relatives lobbied for his wife and future children to carry the Mountbatten name, while the Windsors (aided by then-Prime Minister Winston Churchill) fought equally hard to preserve theirs. The situation remained unsettled even after the birth of Elizabeth and Philip’s first two children, Charles and Anne, in 1949 and 1950, respectively. In 1952, Elizabeth ascended to the throne following the death of her father, and soon announced that the royal family would continue to be known as the House of Windsor and the surname would remain that as well. Eight years later, however, Elizabeth (just days away from giving birth to her third child Andrew) reversed course, issuing a decree that her descendants with her husband (now styled Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh) would carry the surname Mountbatten-Windsor. The first official usage of the new name occurred 13 years later, when Philip and Elizabeth’s daughter, formally known as the Princess Royal but using her family name of Anne Mountbatten-Windsor, married Captain Mark Phillips in Westminster Abbey.
So Mountbatten-Windsor it is, right? Not so fast. Elizabeth’s 1960 decree also stated that the double barrel Mountbatten-Windsor surname could be superseded if the highest-ranking members of the family (those styled His or Her Royal Highness and Prince or Princess) chose to use their official titles instead. So, when Charles became Prince of Wales (the title traditionally granted to Britain’s heir apparent) in 1958, he could use that as a last name if he wished–which is how his sons with the late Diana, Princess of Wales, came to be known as William and Harry Wales when they attended school and later entered the military. The princes’ cousins, Eugenie and Beatrice, use their father Andrew’s titled name of York. For his part, Queen Elizabeth’s youngest son, Edward has used several surnames: Mountbatten-Windsor in his youth, Windsor in his professional career and his title of Wessex after he became an earl in 1999. His wife is informally known as Sophie Wessex, while his two children are known as Louise and James Mountbatten-Windsor—at least for now.
And that brings us to the latest addition to the British royal family. When William and Catherine married in 2011 they received the official titles of Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, throwing yet another possibility into the mix. The announcement of Catherine’s pregnancy in December of last year set off rampant speculation (and not a few monetary bets) regarding the child’s name and sex, especially in light of recently changed laws that would have allowed their firstborn child to assume the throne, regardless of whether it was male or female. When the eagerly awaited baby made its arrival earlier this week, palace officials announced that he would become Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge, but made no further mention of whether that would be the baby’s surname or if he will go by Mountbatten-Windsor (as many royal experts believe). If recent history is any indication, the future king of England may be known by any number of names by the time he assumes the throne.
As for the baby’s first and middle names, there’s already speculation about the possible significance of William and Catherine’s choices. Royal officials remain mum on the subject, but experts note that the selection of George pays tribute to the baby’s great-great and great-great-great grandfathers. Alexander may be a nod towards the queen (christened Elizabeth Alexandra Mary), while Louis may honor the baby’s other patrilineal roots: Prince Charles was exceptionally close to his great-uncle, Louis Mountbatten—the man who introduced Charles’ parents to each other and helped set off the great Windsor/Mountbatten-Windsor debate in the first place.