Childhood & Early Years
George I of Greece was born on 24 December 1845 in Copenhagen as Prince William of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg. Although his father, King Christian IX of Denmark, was not initially in the immediate line of succession, he ascended the Danish throne when King Frederick VII of Denmark died childless.
His mother, Queen Louise of Hesse-Kassel, was the daughter of Prince William of Hesse-Kassel and Princess Charlotte of Denmark. She was also a niece of King Christian VIII of Denmark.
William was born third of his parents’ six children. His elder brother Prince Frederick succeeded their father as King of Denmark, while his elder sister Princess Alexandra married King Edward VII of the United Kingdom, thus becoming Queen of the United Kingdom and the British Dominions and Empress of India.
William had two younger sisters and a younger brother. Among them, Princess Dagmar became known as Empress Maria Feodorovna of Russia, the consort of Emperor Alexander III of Russia, while Princess Thyra married Ernest Augustus, Crown Prince of Hanover. The youngest among them, Prince Valdema, joined the Royal Danish Navy.
Until 1952, the family led comparatively an obscure life at Yellow Palace, located next to Amalienborg Palace. It changed in 1953 when his father was declared heir-presumptive, and with that, William’s title changed to Prince of Denmark.
Like most royal children, Prince William and his siblings were taught at home under specialist tutors. He knew several languages. While his mother tongue was Danish, he learned English as his second language. He was also taught French and German. Other than that, little is known about his early education.
In 1960, Prince William enrolled at the Royal Danish Naval Academy as a naval cadet. But his life changed dramatically when the Bavarian-born King Otto of Greece was overthrown following a bloodless coup in October 1862, and a search for the new king began. Eventually, Greeks settled on Prince William of Denmark
Politically, it was a good choice. By then, his elder sister Princess Alexandra had married Prince Edward, the eldest son of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom, and so it was hoped that Greece would get stronger British protection. His cheerful disposition was an added attraction.
Although King Frederick VIII of Demark accepted the proposal, William’s father, Crown Prince Christian, who would shortly become King of Denmark, was not happy at all, mainly because of the volatile nature of the Greeks. He insisted on three conditions.
His first condition was that the three protecting powers of Greece, i.e. Great Britain, France and Russia, promise Prince William a compensation of £25,000 a year if he were ever deposed. Secondly, he wanted Great Britain to cede the Ionian Islands to Greece. Thirdly, he insisted that Bavaria should support Prince William’s election.
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King of the Hellenes
On 30 March (O.S. 18 March) 1863, 17 years old Prince William was unanimously elected as the King of the Hellenes by the Greek Assembly, a move that was also endorsed by Great Britain, France and Russia. Thereafter, he became known as King George I of the Hellenes.
His ceremonial enthronement took place in Copenhagen on 6 June 1863. It was attended by a Greek delegation led by Prime Minister Constantine Kanaris. To honor the occasion, King Frederick of Denmark awarded him the Order of Elephant and the British decided to cede Ionian Islands to Greece.
After his enthronement, King George I visited the heads of the three protecting powers at St Petersburg, London and Paris. Thereafter on 22 October 1863, he boarded the Greek flagship Hellas from France and reached Athens on 30 October 1863. According to Old Style, the date was October 18.
On his journey to Athens, he was accompanied by two Danish advisors. One of them was his uncle, Prince Julius of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, and the other was Wilhelm Carl Eppingen Sponneck, a Danish nobleman.
From the very start, King George I had made up his mind to avoid the mistakes of his predecessor. King Otto did not know Greek, so George I quickly learned the language. Secondly, unlike Otto, who never appeared in public without pomp, George I was often seen informally strolling down the streets of Athens.
He also started getting acquainted with his new country, undertaking a tour of the Peloponnese, through Corinth, Argos, Tripolitsa, Sparta, and Kalamata in May 1864. Later in June, he traveled to Corfu. It was part of the Ionian Islands which were ceremonially handed over to Greece, thus fulfilling a long outstanding Greek demand.
In October 1864, he took a decisive step to conclude a protracted constitutional consideration, demanding a new constitution by writing a letter to the Greek Assembly. In it, he had stated that if his hope was not fulfilled, he would take any step that he deemed fit.
Because of his ultimatum, the Greek Assembly quickly came to an agreement and framed a new constitution, creating a unicameral assembly, whose members would be elected by universal male suffrage. Eventually, on 28 November 1864, King George I took the oath to defend the new constitution.
His early reign saw constant upheaval, with 21 unstable governments forming between 1864 and 1874. Finally, in 1875, George I made it mandatory that only the leader of a majority party was appointed the prime-minister. As the smaller parties began to merge, more political stability was observed.
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While undertaking his official duties, George I made sure that his subjects did not feel that he was being influenced by his Danish advisors. In 1865, he sent his uncle Prince Julius back to Denmark, when he found him discussing the removal of Wilhelm Sponneck with seven of Otto’s ministers.
The king’s other advisor, Wilhelm Sponneck, remained in Greece until 1877. He was sent back to Denmark when he became unpopular for questioning the connection between modern-day Greeks and their classical background as well as for advocating the policy of disarmament.
Unification of Greece
The Greeks had long been demanding unification of their territories, a large part of which was being held by the Ottoman Empire. Although King George I’s administration kept the Empire under pressure all through the 1870s, nothing came out of it until the Convention of Constantinople was signed on 2 July 1881.
As a result of the Convention of Constantinople between Greece and the Ottoman Empire, most of Thessaly, except Elassona, and the part of Epirus around Arta were given to Greece. In return, Greece promised to respect the religious autonomy and the properties of the Muslims living in Thessaly.
The period also witnessed constant political turmoil, with Charilaos Trikoupis and Theodoros Deligiannis forming alternate governments. Around 1885, when Deligiannis was in power, he tried to mobilize the Hellenic Army to snatch away the whole of Epirus. But the move was blocked by the three Great Powers.
Blockade by the Great Powers once again taught the young king that he could not fully depend on his family ties. Earlier, he had sought the help of the British Crown Prince in resolving the contentious issue of Crete, but nothing came of it.
In 1988, the silver jubilee of his accession was celebrated with pomp and grandeur all over Greece, with several international dignitaries attending the ceremony. By then, the economy of the country had started reviving, and George I had been accepted as an ideal monarch.
In 1896, he presided over the opening ceremony of the newly revived Summer Olympics in Athens. Three of his sons, Prince Constantine, Prince George and Prince Nicolas, were involved in the organization of the event.
In early 1897, the predominantly Greek population of Crete rose in revolt against its Turkish rulers in order to join Greece. In response, Greece dispatched troops to annex the island. The nation greeted the announcement of war with great enthusiasm, taking out processions in honor of their king.
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Unfortunately for Greece, the Great Powers acted swiftly, occupying the island and dividing it into British, French, Russian and Italian areas of control. By April 1897, Greece was forced to give up Crete to international administration and cede minor territory to Turkey.
The great popularity George I enjoyed at the beginning of war was reversed in defeat. Although Greece was saved from worse consequences by the intervention of George’s relatives in England and Russia, the Greeks blamed him for their loss. Consequently, George started thinking of abdication.
On 27 February 1898, George I faced an assassination attempt while traveling in an open carriage with his daughter Princess Maria. As two gunman opened fire, the king tried to shield the princess. However, both of them were saved. As the news spread, his popularity soared once again.
In late 1898, a decision to grant autonomy to Crete was declared by the Great Powers. In December, George’s second son, Prince George of Greece and Denmark, moved to Crete as its Governor General. With that, Crete came effectively under the day-to-day control of Greece.
In 20th Century
The new century came with its own share of turmoil for the royal family. In 1906, Prince George resigned as the Governor General of Crete when Cretan leader Eleftherios Venizelos campaigned to have him removed.
In 1909, the king’s other sons resigned from their military commissions in response to a demand from the military league, Stratiotikos Syndesmos. Later that year, the military league joined forces with Eleftherios Venizelos to call for the revision of the constitution, to which the king agreed.
After Eleftherios Venizelos became the prime minister of Greece in 1910, he had Crown Prince Constantine reinstated as Inspector-General of the Army, and later as the Commander-in-Chief. They worked together to establish the Hellenic army and navy, as a result of which, Greece triumphed in the Balkan War in 1912.
Greece’s victory in the Balkan War once again bolstered the king’s popularity. Nonetheless, he decided to abdicate in favor of Crown Prince Constantine after the golden jubilee celebration of his accession in October 1913. But he was assassinated before that.
Family & Personal Life
On 27 October 1867, King George I married Grand Duchess Olga Constantinovna of Russia at the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg. They had eight children, the eldest among whom was Prince Constantine, who eventually succeeded King George I.
Their other children were Prince George, Princess Alexandra, Prince Nicholas, Princess Maria, Princess Olga, Prince Andrew and Prince Christopher. Among them, Princess Olga died when she was only seven months old; all others reached adulthood.
Death & Legacy
In early 1913, as per his routine, King George I went to Thessaloniki without significant protection. There, on March 18, he went out on his usual afternoon walk, accompanied only by army officer Ioannis Frangoudis. Two gendarmerie police officers followed them at a distance.
While walking near the White Tower, he was shot from a point-blank range by one Alexandros Schinas, who reportedly was an anarchist while other sources describe him as a madman. The bullet entered below the king’s shoulder blade, piercing his heart and lungs.
The king collapsed immediately, dying on the way to the hospital. His body was taken to Athens, where it lay in the Metropolitan Cathedral for three days, draped in Geek and Danish flags. Later, he was buried in his summer palace in Tatoi.
Today, he is remembered as one of the most successful constitutional monarchs in Europe. A wise and prudent king, he always refrained from interfering in the prerogatives of the national assembly.