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Eine kleine rent-a-king

German nobility has a history of spreading itself far and wide thanks to marriage alliances.

This St Valentine’s week is appropriately enough the 175th anniversary of the formalising of one of the most successful Anglo-German unions ever: the marriage of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of Saxe-Cobourg and Gotha. It was a marriage that produced nine children, launched several V&A institutions, and brought some subtle German influences into British life, most notably in our Christmas traditions.

That Victoria found a spouse amongst German nobility is of no surprise to historians: despite the fact that these days the German aristocracy is so understated as to be almost invisible, up until as recently as 100 years ago German nobles were pretty much rent-a-nob, particularly because the German nation was such a fragmented collection of electorates, principalities and duchys that there were a lot of them around. Usually, whilst the first son was in line to inherit the title and the property, the second, third etc had to go off and get married to someone of suitable status elsewhere.

Albert did particularly well in linking up with Victoria, because Saxe-Cobourg and Gotha was a fairly paltry place, about the size of Sussex. Previously, of course, the Hanoverian family had done well, too, with George of Hanover, whose home turf wasn’t much bigger than Saxe-Cobourg. George succeeded to the British throne in 1714 despite being a distant 52nd in line: crucially, he was a protestant.

The British have, however, missed out on plumbing into a couple of other Euro-crat dynasties, which could really have changed our historical trajectory: the Habsburgs, who have been more than occupied with the Austro-Hungarian empire and spread their wings into Spain, and the Hohenzollerns.

The latter, a princely family which rose to prominence in Swabia, was eventually the bloodline of the German kings, ending with Kaiser Wilhelm, who abdicated at the end of World War I. Meanwhile a subsidiary branch of the Hohenzollern family was asked to take over the stewardship of the newly-formed nation of Romania, back in 1866. That monarchy was abolished by the Communists at the end of World War II, although Hohenzollern-descended Prince Michael of Romania is still around.

So Germany, despite its modern image of a social democracy free of class-based hierarchies, is actually posher than us.

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