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George I of Greece (1863-1913) was originally a Danish prince, the second son and third child of Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg (future King Christian IX of Denmark) and Princess Louise of Hesse-Kassel. George was born on December 24, 1845 at the Yellow Palace, an 18th-century town house at 18 Amaliegade, right next to the Amalienborg Palace complex in Copenhagen.

King George I of the Hellenes

Until his accession in Greece, he was known as Prince Wilhelm, the namesake of his grandfathers Wilhelm, Duke of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, and Prince Wilhelm of Hesse-Kassel. George was destined for a career in the Royal Danish Navy. He was only 17 years old when he was elected king by the Greek National Assembly, which had deposed the unpopular former king Otto (second son of King Ludwig I of Bavaria and Therese of Saxe-Hildburghause).

Otto, King of Greece

His nomination was both suggested and supported by the Great Powers: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, the Second French Empire and the Russian Empire. He married the Russian grand duchess Olga Constantinovna of Russia, and became the first monarch of a new Greek dynasty.

George and his family, 1862: (back row left to right) Crown Prince Frederick, Christian IX, George; (front row left to right) Dagmar, Valdemar, Queen Louise, Thyra, Alexandra

The death of Britain’s Queen Victoria on January 22, 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 King George’s second son Prince George as Governor-General of Crete. Nevertheless, Prince 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’s power base was further strengthened, and on October 8, 1908 the Cretan Assembly passed a resolution in favor of union despite both the reservations of the Athens government under Georgios Theotokis and the objections of the Great Power. The muted reaction of the Athens Government to the news from Crete led to an unsettled state of affairs on the mainland.

King George I of the Hellenes

In August 1909, a group of army officers that had formed a military league, Stratiotikos Syndesmos, demanded, among other things, 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, 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 in August 1910. After some political maneuvering, Venizelos became prime minister of a minority government. Just a month later, Venizelos called new elections for December 11, 1910, at which he won an overwhelming 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’s 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 the Kingdom of Montenegro declared war on Turkey on October 8, 1912, it was joined quickly by Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece in what is known as the First Balkan War. George was on vacation in Denmark, so he immediately returned to Greece via Vienna, arriving in Athens to be met by a large and enthusiastic crowd on the evening of 9 October. 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 November 9, 1912, Greek forces commanded by Crown Prince Constantine rode into Thessaloniki, just a few hours ahead of a Bulgarian division. Three days later King George rode in triumph through the streets of Thessaloniki, the second-largest Greek city, accompanied by the Crown Prince and Venizelos.

Assassination of George I by Alexandros Schinas as depicted in a contemporary lithograph

As he approached the fiftieth anniversary of his accession, the King made plans to abdicate in favor of his son Constantine immediately after the celebration of his golden jubilee in October 1913. Just as he did in Athens, George went about Thessaloniki without any meaningful protection force. While out on an afternoon walk near the White Tower on March 18, 1913, he was shot at close range in the back by Alexandros Schinas, who was “said to belong to a Socialist organization” and “declared when arrested that he had killed the King because he refused to give him money.” George died instantly, the bullet having penetrated his heart. 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.

The King’s body was taken to Athens on the Amphitrite, escorted by a flotilla of naval vessels. For three days the coffin of the King, draped in the Danish and Greek flags, lay in the Metropolitan Cathedral in Athens before his body was committed to a tomb at his palace in Tatoi. Crown Prince Constantine succeeded his father as the new king of the Hellenes.