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Following the overthrow of the Bavarian-born King Otto of Greece in October 1862, the Greek people had rejected Otto’s brother and designated successor Luitpold, although they still favored a monarchy rather than a republic.

Many Greeks, seeking closer ties to the pre-eminent world power, the United Kingdom, rallied around Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, second son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. British prime minister Lord Palmerston believed that the Greeks were “panting for increase in territory”, hoping for a gift of the Ionian Islands, 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. There were 93 votes for a Republic and six for a Greek national to be chosen as king. Former King Otto received one vote.

With Prince Alfred’s exclusion, the search began for an alternative candidate. The French favored Henri d’Orléans, duc d’Aumale, while the British proposed Queen Victoria’s brother-in-law Ernest II, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, her nephew Prince Leiningen, and Archduke Maximilian of Austria, among others.

Eventually, the Greeks and Great Powers winnowed their choice to Prince Wilhelm of Denmark, who had received six votes in the plebiscite. Aged only 17, he was elected King of the Hellenes on March 30, 1863 by the Greek National Assembly and he chose to reign under the regnal name of George I.

Prince Alfred of the United Kingdom

Paradoxically, he ascended a royal throne before his father, who became King Christian IX of Denmark on November 15 the same year. There were two significant differences between George’s elevation and that of his predecessor, Otto. First, he was acclaimed unanimously by the Greek Assembly, rather than imposed on the people by foreign powers. Second, he was proclaimed “King of the Hellenes” instead of “King of Greece”, which had been Otto’s style.

His ceremonial enthronement in Copenhagen on June 6 was attended by a delegation of Greeks led by First Admiral and Prime Minister Konstantinos Kanaris. At the ceremony, it was announced that the British government would cede the Ionian Islands to Greece in honor of the new monarch.

The new 17-year-old king toured Saint Petersburg, London and Paris before departing for Greece from the French port of Toulon on October 22, aboard the Greek flagship Hellas.

He arrived in Athens on October 30, 1863, after docking at Piraeus the previous day. He was determined not to make the mistakes of his predecessor, so he quickly learned Greek. 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 by mending 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, Prince Julius, back to Denmark with the words, “I will not allow any interference with the conduct of my government”. Another adviser, Count Wilhelm Sponneck, became unpopular for advocating a policy of disarmament and tactlessly questioning the descent of modern Greeks from classical antecedents. Like Julius, he was dispatched back to Denmark.

King George I of the Hellenes

From May 1864, George undertook a tour of the Peloponnese, through Corinth, Argos, Tripolitsa, Sparta, and Kalamata, where he embarked on the frigate Hellas. Proceeding northwards along the coast accompanied by British, French and Russian naval vessels, the Hellas reached Corfu on June 6 for the ceremonial handover of the Ionian Islands by the British High Commissioner, Sir Henry Storks.

Politically, the new king took steps to conclude the protracted constitutional deliberations of the Assembly. On October 19, 1864, he sent the Assembly a demand, countersigned by Konstantinos 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 November 28, 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 the Prince of Wales, who in 1901 became King Edward VII, and sought his help in defusing the recurring and contentious issue of Crete, an overwhelmingly Greek island that 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 Great Britain and France, which had embarrassed Otto by occupying the main Greek port of Piraeus to dissuade Greek irredentism during the Crimean War.

During the Cretan Revolt (1866–1869), the Prince of Wales unsuccessfully sought the support of the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Derby, to intervene in Crete on behalf of Greece. Ultimately, the Great Powers did not intervene, and the Ottomans put down the rebellion.