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George I ( , Geórgios Αʹ, Vasiléfs ton Ellínon; 24 December 1845 – 18 March 1913) was King of the Hellenes from 1863 to 1913. Originally a Danish prince, George was only 17 years old when he was elected King by the Greek National Assembly, which had deposed the former King Otto. His nomination was both suggested and supported by the Great Powers (the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Irelandmarker, the Second French Empire and the Russian Empiremarker).

As the first monarch of the new Greek dynasty, his 50-year reign (the longest in modern Greek history) was characterized by territorial gains as Greecemarker established its place in pre-World War I Europe. Two weeks short of the fiftieth anniversary of his accession, and during the First Balkan War, he was assassinated. In sharp contrast to his own reign, the reigns of his successors would prove short and insecure.

Family and early life

George was born in Copenhagenmarker, and was the second son of Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg and Louise of Hesse-Kassel (or Hesse-Cassel). Although his full name was Prince Christian Wilhelm Ferdinand Adolf Georg of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg (Greek: Χριστιανός Γουλιέλμος Φερδινάδος Αδόλφος Γεώργιος), until his accession in Greece, he was known as Prince Vilhelm (William), the namesake of his paternal and maternal grandfathers, Friedrich Wilhelm, Duke of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, and Prince William of Hesse.

In 1852, George's father was designated the heir to the childless King of Denmark, and the family became Princes and Princesses of Denmark. George's siblings were Frederick (who succeeded their father as King of Denmark), Alexandra (who became queen consort of Edward VII of the United Kingdom), Dagmar (who, as Empress Maria Feodorovna, was consort of Alexander III of Russia), Thyra (who married Prince Ernest Augustus, 3rd Duke of Cumberland and Teviotdale) and Valdemar. Like many European royals, they were descended from several Byzantine Emperors.

George began his career in the Royal Danish Navy, but when only 17 he was elected King of the Hellenes on following the deposition of King Otto. Paradoxically, he ascended a royal throne before his father, who became King of Denmark on 15 November the same year.

Another candidate for the Crown

Prince Vilhelm of Denmark, later King George I of the Hellenes, in traditional Greek attire

George was not the first choice of the Greek people. Upon the overthrow of Otto, the Greek people had rejected Otto's brother Leopold, the heir presumptive, although they still favored a monarchy rather than a republic. Many Greeks, seeking closer ties to the pre-eminent world power, Great Britainmarker, rallied around Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, second son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. British Foreign Minister Henry Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, believed that the Greeks were "panting for increase in territory", hoping for a gift of the Ionian Islandsmarker, which were then a British protectorate. The London Conference of 1832, however, prohibited any of the Great Powers' ruling families from accepting the crown, and in any event, Queen Victoria was adamantly opposed to the idea. The Greeks nevertheless insisted on holding a plebiscite in which Prince Alfred received over 95% of the 240,000 votes cast. There were 93 votes for a Republic and 6 for a Greek. King Otto received one vote.

Eventually, the Greeks and Great Powers winnowed their choice to Prince William of Denmark. There were two significant differences from the elevation of his predecessor, Otto: he was elected unanimously by the Greek Assembly, rather than imposed on the people by foreign powers, and he was proclaimed "King of the Hellenes" instead of "King of Greece".

At his enthronement in Copenhagenmarker, attended by a delegation of Greeks led by First Admiral and Prime Minister Constantine Kanaris, it was announced that the British government would cede the Ionian Islands to Greece in honor of the new monarch.

Early reign (1863–1870)

King George in 1864

The new 17-year-old king arrived in Athensmarker on . He was determined not to make the mistakes of his predecessor, so he quickly learned Greek in addition to his native Danish. The new king was seen frequently and informally in the streets of Athens, where his predecessor had only appeared in pomp. King George found the palace in a state of disarray, after the hasty departure of King Otto, and took to putting it right and updating the 40-year-old building. He also sought to ensure that he was not seen as too influenced by his Danish advisers, ultimately sending his uncle Julius of Glücksburg back to Denmark with the words, "I will not allow any interference with the conduct of my government".

Politically, the new king took steps to conclude the protracted constitutional deliberations of the Assembly. On 19 October 1864, he sent the Assembly a demand, countersigned by Constantine Kanaris, explaining that he had accepted the crown on the understanding that a new constitution would be finalized, and that if it was not he would feel himself at "perfect liberty to adopt such measures as the disappointment of my hopes may suggest". It was unclear from the wording whether he meant to return to Denmark or impose a constitution, but as either event was undesirable the Assembly soon came to an agreement.

On 28 November 1864, he took the oath to defend the new Constitution, which created a unicameral Assembly (Vouli) with representatives elected by direct, secret, universal male suffrage, a first in modern Europe. A constitutional monarchy was set up with George deferring to the legitimate authority of the elected officials, although he was aware of the corruption present in elections and the difficulty of ruling a mostly illiterate population. Between 1864 and 1910, there were 21 general elections and 70 different governments.

Internationally, George maintained a strong relationship with his brother-in-law, Edward, Prince of Wales (eventually King Edward VII of the United Kingdom), and sought his help in defusing the recurring issue of Cretemarker, an overwhelmingly Greek island which remained under Ottoman Turk control. Since the reign of Otto, the Greek desire to unite Greek lands in one nation had been a sore spot with the United Kingdom and France, which had embarrassed Otto by occupying the main port Piraeusmarker to dissuade Greek irredentism during the Crimean War. When the Cretans rose in rebellion in 1866, the Prince of Wales sought the support of Foreign Secretary Edward Stanley, 15th Earl of Derby, to intervene in Crete on behalf of Greece. Ultimately, the Great Powers did not intervene and the Ottomans put down the rebellion.

Establishing a dynasty

Greek Royal Family, circa 1892

During a trip to the Russian Empiremarker to meet with his sister Dagmar, who had married into the Russian imperial family, he met Olga Constantinovna of Russia, a direct matrilineal descendant of the Byzantine Empress Euphrosyne Doukaina Kamatera. Olga was just 16 when she married George on 27 October 1867 (Gregorian calendar), in Saint Petersburgmarker. They had eight children:

When alone with his wife, George usually conversed in German. Their children were taught English by their nannies, and when talking with his children he therefore spoke mainly English. Intent on not letting his subjects know that he missed Denmark, he discreetly maintained a dairy at his palace at Tatoimarker, which was managed by native Danes and served as a bucolic reminder of his homeland. Queen Olga was far less careful in hiding her nostalgia for her native Russia, often visiting Russian ships at Piraeusmarker two or three times before they weighed anchor.

The king was related by marriage to the rulers of Great Britain, Russia and Prussiamarker, maintaining a particularly strong attachment to the Prince and Princess of Wales, who visited Athens in 1869. Their visit occurred despite continued lawlessness which culminated in the murder of a party of British and Italian tourists, which comprised British diplomat E. H. C. Herbert (the first cousin of Henry Herbert, 4th Earl of Carnarvon), Frederick Vyner (the brother-in-law of George Robinson, 1st Marquess of Ripon, Lord President of the Council), Italian diplomat Count de Boyl, and Mr. Lloyd (an engineer). George's relationships with other ruling houses would assist the king and his small country but also often put them at the center of national political struggles in Europe.

Territorial expansion (1871–1881)

Map showing the expansion of Greece from 1832 to 1947: the Plain of Thessaly transferred from Ottoman to Greek sovereignty in 1881.

From 1864 to 1874, Greece had 21 governments, the longest of which lasted a year and a half. In July 1874, Charilaos Trikoupis wrote an anonymous article in the newspaper Kairoi blaming King George and his advisors for the continuing political crisis caused by the lack of stable governments. In the article, he accused the King of acting like an absolute monarch by imposing minority governments on the people. If the King insisted, he argued, that only a politician commanding a majority in the Vouli could be appointed Prime Minister, then politicians would be forced to work together more harmoniously in order to construct a coalition government. Such a plan, he wrote, would end the political instability and reduce the large number of smaller parties. Trikoupis admitted to writing the article after the supposed author was arrested, whereupon he himself was taken into custody. After a public outcry, he was released and subsequently acquitted of the charge of "undermining the constitutional order". The following year, the King asked Trikoupis to form a government (without a majority) and then read a speech from the throne declaring that in future the leader of the majority party in parliament would be appointed Prime Minister.

Throughout the 1870s, Greece kept pressure on the Ottoman Empire, seeking territorial expansion into Epirus and Thessaly. The Russo-Turkish War of 1877–1878 provided the first potential alliance for the Greek kingdom. George's sister Dagmar was the daughter-in-law of Alexander II of Russia, and she sought to have Greece join the war. The French and British refused to countenance such an act, and Greece remained neutral. At the Congress of Berlin convened in 1878 to determine peace terms for the Russo-Turkish War, Greece staked a claim to Crete, Epirus and Thessaly.

The borders were still not finalized in June 1880 when a proposal very favorable to Greece which included Mount Olympusmarker and Ioanninamarker was offered by the British and French. When the Ottoman Turks strenuously objected, Prime Minister Trikoupis made the mistake of threatening a mobilization of the Hellenic Army. A coincident change of government in France, the resignation of Charles de Freycinet and his replacement with Jules Ferry, led to disputes amongst the Great Powers and, despite British support for a more pro-Greek settlement, the Turks subsequently granted Greece all of Thessaly but only the part of Epirus around Artamarker. When the government of Trikoupis fell, the new Prime Minister, Alexandros Koumoundouros, reluctantly accepted the new boundaries.

National progress (1882–1900)

While Trikoupis followed a policy of retrenchment within the established borders of the Greek state, having learned a valuable lesson about the vicissitudes of the Great Powers, his main opponents, the Nationalist Party led by Theodoros Deligiannis, sought to inflame the anti-Turkish feelings of the Greeks at every opportunity. The next opportunity arose in 1885 when Bulgariansmarker rose in revolt of their Turkish overlords and declared themselves independent. Deligiannis rode to victory over Trikoupis in elections that year saying that if the Bulgarians could defy the Treaty of Berlin, so should the Greeks.

Deligiannis mobilized the Hellenic Army, and the British Royal Navy blockaded Greece. The Admiral in charge of the blockade was Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, who had been the first choice of the Greeks to be their king in 1863, and the First Lord of the Admiralty at the time was George Robinson, 1st Marquess of Ripon, whose brother-in-law had been murdered in Greece 16 years before. This was not the last time that King George would discover that his family ties would not always be to his advantage. Deligiannis was forced to demobilize and Trikoupis regained the premiership. Between 1882 and 1897, Trikoupis and Deligiannis would alternate the premiership as their fortunes rose and fell.

Greece in the last decades of the 19th century was increasingly prosperous and was developing a sense of its role on the European stage. In 1893, the Corinth Canalmarker was built by a French company cutting the sea journey from the Adriatic to Piraeusmarker by . In 1896, the Olympic Games were revived in Athens, and the Opening Ceremony of the 1896 Summer Olympics was presided over by the King. When Spiridon Louis, a shepherd from just outside Athens, ran into the Panathinaiko Stadiummarker to win the Marathon event, the Crown Prince ran down onto the field to run the last thousand yards beside the Greek gold medalist, while the King stood and applauded.

The popular desire to unite all Greeks within a single territory (Megali Idea) was never far below the surface and another revolt against Turkish rule erupted in Crete. In February 1897, King George sent his son, Prince George, to take possession of the island. The Greeks refused an Ottoman offer of an autonomous administration, and Deligiannis mobilized for war. The Great Powers refused to allow the expansion of Greece, and on 25 February 1897 announced that Crete would be under an autonomous administration and ordered the Greek and Ottoman Turk militias to withdraw.

The Turks agreed, but Prime Minister Deligiannis refused and dispatched 1400 troops to Crete under the command of Colonel Timoleon Vassos. While the Great Powers announced a blockade, Greek troops crossed the Macedonianmarker border and Abdul Hamid II declared war. The announcement that Greece was finally at war with the Turks was greeted by delirious displays of patriotism and spontaneous parades in honor of the King in Athens. Volunteers by the thousands streamed north to join the forces under the command of Crown Prince Constantine.

The war went badly for the ill-prepared Greeks; the only saving grace was the swiftness with which the Hellenic Army was overrun. By the end of April 1897, the war was lost. The worst consequences of defeat for the Greeks were mitigated by the intervention of the King's relatives in Britain and Russia; nevertheless, the Greeks were forced to give up Crete to international administration, and agree to minor territorial concessions in favor of the Turks and an indemnity of 4,000,000 Turkish pounds.

The jubilation with which Greeks had hailed their king at the beginning of the war was reversed in defeat. For a time, he considered abdication. It was not until the King faced down an assassination attempt in February 1898 with great bravery that his subjects again held their monarch in high esteem.

Later that year, after continued unrest in Crete, which included the murder of the British vice-consul, Prince George of Greece was made the Governor-General of Crete under the suzerainty of the Sultan, after the proposal was put forward by the Great Powers. Greece was effectively in day-to-day control of Crete for the first time in modern history.

Later reign (1901–1913)

King George and Queen Olga in 1903

The death of Britain's Queen Victoria on 22 January 1901 left King George as the second-longest-reigning monarch in Europe. His always cordial relations with his brother-in-law, the new King Edward VII, continued to tie Greece to Britain. This was abundantly important in Britain's support of the King's son George as Governor-General of Crete. Nevertheless, George resigned in 1906 after a leader in the Cretan Assembly, Eleftherios Venizelos, campaigned to have him removed.

As a response to the Young Turk Revolution of 1908, Venizelos' power base was further strengthened, and on 8 October 1908 the Cretan Assembly passed a resolution in favour of union despite both the reservations of the Athens government under Georgios Theotokis and the objections of the Great Powers. The muted reaction of the Athens Government to the news from Crete led to an unsettled state of affairs on the mainland.

Official Portrait 1910 (Μουσείο Ιστορικής και Εθνολογικής Εταιρίας της Ελλάδας)
A group of military officers formed a military league, Stratiotikos Syndesmos, that demanded that the Royal family be stripped of their military commissions. To save the King the embarrassment of removing his sons from their commissions, they resigned them. The military league attempted a coup d'état called the Goudi Pronunciamento, and the King insisted on supporting the duly elected Hellenic Parliament in response. Eventually, the military league joined forces with Venizelos in calling for a National Assembly to revise the constitution. King George gave way, and new elections to the revising assembly were held. After some political maneuvering, Venizelos became Prime Minister of a minority government. Just a month later, Venizelos called new elections at which he won a colossal majority after most of the opposition parties declined to take part.

Venizelos and the King were united in their belief that the nation required a strong army to repair the damage of the humiliating defeat of 1897. Crown Prince Constantine was reinstated as Inspector-General of the army, and later Commander-in-Chief. Under his and Venizelos' close supervision the military was retrained and equipped with French and British help, and new ships were ordered for the Hellenic Navy. Meanwhile, through diplomatic means, Venizelos had united the Christian countries of the Balkans in opposition to the ailing Ottoman Empire.

When Montenegromarker declared war on Turkey on 8 October 1912, it was joined quickly, after ultimata, by Serbiamarker, Bulgariamarker and Greece in what is known as the First Balkan War. The results of this campaign differed radically from the Greek experience at the hands of the Turks in 1897. The well-trained Greek forces, 200,000 strong, won victory after victory. On 9 November 1912, Greek forces rode into Salonikamarker, just a few hours ahead of a Bulgarian division. Followed by the Crown Prince and Venizelos in a parade a few days later, King George rode in triumph through the streets of the second-largest Greek city.

Just as he did in Athens, the King went about Salonika without any meaningful protection force. While out on an afternoon walk near the White Tower of Thessalonikimarker on 18 March 1913, he was shot at close range in the back by Alexandros Schinas, who was "said to belong to a Socialist organisation" and "declared when arrested that he had killed the King because he refused to give him money". The Greek government denied any political motive for the assassination, saying that Schinas was an alcoholic vagrant. Schinas was tortured in prison and six weeks later fell to his death from a police station window.

For five days the coffin of the King, draped in the Danish and Greek flags, lay in the Metropolismarker in Athens before his body was committed to the tomb at his palace in Tatoimarker. Unlike his father, the new King Constantine was to prove less willing to accept the advice of ministers, or that of the three protecting powers (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Irelandmarker, the French Third Republic and the Russian Empiremarker).

Titles, styles and arms

Titles from birth to death

  • 1845–1852: His Serene Highness Prince Wilhelm of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg
  • 1852–1858: His Highness Prince Vilhelm of Denmark
  • 1858–1863: His Royal Highness Prince Vilhelm of Denmark
  • 1863–1913: His Majesty The King of the Hellenes, Prince of Denmark


The distinctive Greek flag of blue and white cross was first hoisted during the Greek War of Independence in March 1822. This was later modified so that the shade of blue matched that of the Bavarianmarker coat of arms of the first King Otto. The shield is emblazoned with the coat of arms of the Danish Royal Family, and the supporters on either side are also adopted from the Danish coat of arms. Beneath the shield is the motto in Greek, Ἰσχύς μου ἡ ἀγάπη τοῦ λαοῦ ("The people's love, my strength"). Beneath the motto dangles the Grand Cross of the Order of the Redeemer, Greece's premier decoration of honor.


Notes and sources

  1. Van der Kiste, p. 6
  2. Van der Kiste, pp. 6–8
  3. Van der Kiste, pp. 6–11
  4. Van der Kiste, p. 4
  5. Clogg, p. 82
  6. Forster, p. 17
  7. Van der Kiste, p. 5
  8. Woodhouse, p. 170
  9. The Times 8 June 1863 p. 12 col. C
  10. Forster, p. 18
  11. The Times (London) 14 February 1865 p. 10 col. C
  12. Royal Message to the National Assembly, 6 October 1864 quoted in The Times (London) Monday, 31 October 1864 p. 9 col. E
  13. Campbell and Sherrard, p. 99
  14. Woodhouse, p. 172
  15. Woodhouse, p. 167
  16. Van der Kiste, p. 23
  17. Clogg, p. 87
  18. Forster, p. 74
  19. Van der Kiste, p. 37
  20. Van der Kiste, p. 39
  21. The King of the Hellenes to the Prince of Wales, April 1870. In: Letters of Queen Victoria 1870–1878 (1926) London: John Murray, vol. II p. 16
  22. The ministry of Epameinontas Deligeorgis, (20 July 1872 – 21 February 1874)
  23. Clogg, p. 86
  24. Clogg, p. 89
  25. Woodhouse, p. 181
  26. Van der Kiste, p. 35
  27. Clogg, pp. 90–92
  28. Van der Kiste, pp. 54–55
  29. Woodhouse, p. 182
  30. The Times (London) 12 February 1897 p. 9 col. E
  31. Clogg, p. 93
  32. The Times (London) 25 February 1897 p. 5 col. A
  33. Clogg, p. 94
  34. The Times (London) 28 February 1898 p. 7 col. A
  35. Forster, p. 33
  36. Van der Kiste, p. 63
  37. Woodhouse, p. 186
  38. Campbell and Sherrard, pp. 109–110
  39. Forster, p. 44
  40. Clogg, pp. 97–99
  41. Clogg, p. 100
  42. Clogg, pp. 101–102
  43. The Times (London) 26 November 1912 p. 11 col. C
  44. The Times (London) 19 March 1913 p. 6
  45. The Times (London) 20 March 1913 p. 6
  46. The New York Times 20 March 1913 p. 3
  47. The New York Times 7 May 1913 p. 3
  48. Maclagan and Louda, p. 285


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