Born a Danish Prince in Copenhagen’s royal Yellow Palace, King George I of the Hellenes (1845-1913) was seventeen when he was elected to establish a new dynasty of kings by the Greek National Assembly who had deposed Bavarian-born King Otto and the unpopular Queen Amalia in 1862. King George had the distinction of taking the Greek throne before his father who was to become King Christian IX of Denmark. His nomination was supported by the Great Powers of Russia, France and Great Britain. The Greek government held a plebiscite and the British Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh was awarded 95% of the vote but his mother Queen Victoria was adamant that the Prince would not leave England so Prince George took the prize.
When King George I sailed into Athens in 1863, he said ‘my strength is in the love of my people’. In his accession speech, the King declared ‘in these modern days, Princes must strive to be superior in intellect, knowledge and goodness to those around them’. A born democrat, King George supported the constitutional monarchy and swiftly mastered Greek as well as national sports such as wrestling and running. He established the modern Olympic Games in Athens and opened the summer games in 1896. His endeavors to endear himself to his people earned him the moniker ‘Father of the Nation’ and King George reigned for almost fifty-years.
The King’s siblings connected him to the most powerful royal families in the world. His sister Princess Alexandra married the British Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII) and his brother Prince Frederick became King of Denmark. His sister Dagmar became the Empress Marie, consort to Emperor Alexander III of Russia. While visiting the Empress Marie at the Russian court of St Petersburg, King George met and married Grand Duchess Olga Constantinova who became known to her Greek people as ‘Queen of the Poor’. Her assimilation to her adopted nation was as swift as her husband’s and her charitable work strengthened her husband’s rule. Queen Olga was the only female Admiral of the Fleet in Europe: a title conferred on her by Tsar Alexander III.
Of the King and Queen’s seven surviving children, three married into the doomed Russian Romanov dynasty. The heir, Prince Constantine, married Princess Sophie of Prussia who was the sister of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Their younger son Prince Andrew married Princess Alice of Battenberg. Prince Andrew’s son Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, was born in the palace of Mon Repos on the island of Corfu and would become consort to Queen Elizabeth II.
Under King George, Greece prospered and enjoyed a unique position in Europe thanks largely to the spider’s web of royal relations. In 1888 the king celebrated his Silver Jubilee with a thanksgiving service at the Metropolitan Cathedral of Athens and a tented lunch for 500 on the Acropolis attended by the Prince and Princess of Wales, the Crown Prince of Denmark, the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh and the Grand Dukes Sergei and Paul of Russia.
For the duration of King George’s reign, Greece was formally or informally at war with Turkey over sovereignty of the isle of Crete. When Greece did declare war, the Great Powers sided with the Turks and King George considered abdication. It was only after a foiled assassination attempt in 1898 that he regained the affection of his people. The King had always made a point of walking freely amongst his people without bodyguards. After the assassination attempt, the king continued to do so earning the respect of the Greek nation.
The King decided to abdicate in favour of his heir Constantine in 1913 after celebrating his Golden Jubilee. Tragically, on a visit to Greece’s second city, Thessaloniki, in March 1913 he was shot through the heart at point blank by a Socialist anarchist called Alexandros Schinas. The killer was tortured and fell out of a police station window before being convicted of regicide.
After the king’s death, Queen Olga returned to St Petersburg at the onset of World War I and set up a military hospital in her brother’s Pavlovsk palace. When the Russian Revolution erupted in 1917, Queen Olga was placed under house arrest but the intervention of the Danish Embassy facilitated her escape to Switzerland. She returned to Athens in 1920 on the death of her grandson King Alexander and briefly served as regent until her son King Constantine I was restored to the throne.
Listed as King of the Greeks in Henry Poole & Co’s customer ledgers, George I placed his first order at the firm in 1865. His orders were parsimonious though possibly led by the widowhood of his friend the Prince of Wales’s mother Queen Victoria and included a number of black drill lounging coats lined with silk and with silk facings. The Queen ordered only once in 1871: a checkered buckskin Ulster, overcoat and hood. Her orders were dispatched to a Miss Jones at Clarence House who would ship the garments to the palace of Tatoi in Athens.