King George I of the Hellenes first met Grand Duchess Olga Constantinovna of Russia in 1863, when she was 12 years old, on a visit to the court of Emperor Alexander II of Russia between his election to the Greek throne and his arrival in Athens.
They met for a second time in April 1867, when George went to the Russian Empire to visit his sister Dagmar, who had married into the Russian imperial family. While George was privately a Lutheran, the Romanovs were Orthodox Christians like the majority of Greeks, and George thought a marriage with a Russian Grand Duchess would re-assure his subjects on the question of his future children’s religion.
Olga Constantinovna of Russia, Queen of the Hellenes
Olga was born at Pavlovsk Palace near Saint Petersburg on September 3, 1851. She was the second child and elder daughter of Grand Duke Constantine Nikolaievich and his wife Princess Alexandra of Saxe-Altenburg (Grand Duchess Alexandra Iosifovna of Russia). Through her father, Olga was a granddaughter of Emperor Nicholas I, a niece of Emperor Alexander II and first cousin of Emperor Alexander III.
Olga fell in love with George, but she was nevertheless anxious and distraught at the thought of leaving Russia. Her father was initially reluctant to agree to their marriage, thinking that at the age of fifteen she was too young and, being close to his daughter, concerned by the distance between Greece and Russia.
Olga was just 16 years old when she married George at the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg on October 27, 1867. After a brief honeymoon at Tsarskoye Selo, the couple left Russia for Greece on November 9.
From 1864 to 1874, Greece had 21 governments, the longest of which lasted a year and a half. In July 1874, Charilaos Trikoupis, a member of the Greek Parliament, 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 to construct a coalition government. Such a plan, he wrote, would end the political instability and reduce the large number of smaller parties.
Grand Duchess Alexandra Iosifovna of Russia, mother of Olga Constantinovna of Russia
Trikoupis admitted to writing the article after a man supposed by the authorities to be the author was arrested, whereupon he was taken into custody himself. 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.
King George’s silver jubilee in 1888 was celebrated throughout the Hellenic world, and Athens was decorated with garlands for the anniversary of his accession on October 30.
Visitors included the Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark (the King’s brother) the Prince and Princess of Wales (the Princess of Wales was the King’s sister) the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh, Grand Dukes Sergei and Paul of Russia, and Djevad Pasha from the Ottoman Empire, who presented the King with two Arabian horses as gifts.
Jubilee events in the week of October 30th included balls, galas, parades, a thanksgiving service at the Metropolitan Cathedral of Athens, and a lunch for 500 invited guests in a blue and white tent on the Acropolis.
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 Canal was built by a French company cutting the sea journey from the Adriatic Sea to Piraeus by 150 miles (241 km).
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 Stadium 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 February 25, 1897 announced that Crete would be under an autonomous administration and ordered the Greek and Ottoman Turk militias to withdraw.
The death of Britain’s Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom 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 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 Powers. The muted reaction of the Athens Government to the news from Crete led to an unsettled state of affairs on the mainland.
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.
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.
King George I 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 October 9. 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 Prime Minster Venizelos.
As he approached the fiftieth anniversary of his accession, the King made plans to abdicate in favor of his son Crown Prince 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, the King 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”.
King 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 fell to his death from a police station window six weeks later.
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.
His eldest son became King Constantine I of the Hellenes.