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King George I

1845 GEORGIOS_7King George I, the second son of King Christian IX of Denmark, born in Copenhagen on Christmas Eve 1845, was invited to become King of the Hellenes in 1863, after the Greek National Assembly voted unanimously for the restoration of Constitutional Monarchy. The agreement that King George I successfully negotiated was that Greece would acquire the Ionian Islands (Corfu, Kephalonia, Zakynthos, Ithaca), and Kythira, which had been British possessions for the previous 48 years. George I would remain on the throne for almost 50 years.

In his oath to the National Assembly on 31 October, 1863, he said

'In the name of the consubstantial and indivisible Trinity, I swear to protect the dominant religion of the Greeks, to maintain and defend the independence, the autonomy and the integrity of the Greek state, and to observe its laws'.

He rapidly became a popular and approachable monarch. An observer at the time said: 'He walks through the streets alone on foot with his young friends, saluting all, stopping to converse with people, visiting the vegetable market'. He attended church every Sunday. He respected his subjects' veneration of holy icons, and recognised that his heirs and successors must belong to the Greek Church.

In 1864, a year after his succession, the National Assembly agreed a new Constitution. The assurance of direct, secret and universal suffrage for a single chamber of parliament made Greece, on paper, one of the most democratic states in Europe. But there were problems in achieving stability. Between 1864 and 1911, there were 70 governments, with 21 elections.

In 1867, King George I married the Grand Duchess Olga of Russia. She was just 16 when her first son, Constantine, was born in August 1868.

In recognition of King George I's victory over the Ionian Protectorate, the municipality of Corfu gave him and his family a summer residence on the island, called 'Mon Repos'. He also bought with money he brought from Denmark an estate called Tatoi, 15 miles north of the capital. The family saw Tatoi as their 'real home'.

King George I had 8 children. His fourth son, Andrew, born in 1882, was the father of the Duke of Edinburgh (born in 1921) who married Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain. The Greek Royal Family motto on the Royal Coat of Arms reads 'My strength is the Love of the People'.

During the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, Greece intervened to free Thessaly, Epirus and Macedonia from the Turks. George I threatened a second mobilisation after the Treaty of Berlin halted the advance of his troops. In 1881, Thessaly and part of Epirus were added to his kingdom.

During King George's reign, the Corinth Canal was initiated and finally completed in August 1893. He also gave his patronage to the revival of the Olympic Games -backing the campaign of Baron de Coubertin. The first of the 'modern' Olympic Games took place in October 1896. In 1906, King George I supported the holding of a 10th Anniversary Games in the specially built Olympic Stadium near Athens. 54 years later, in 1960, King Constantine II, King George I's great grandson, won a Gold Medal in the Olympics, sailing for his country.

In 1896, a crisis arose between Greece and Turkey over Crete. Cretan revolutionaries declared Crete to be a part of the Kingdom of the Hellenes. As a result, Turkey declared war on Greece in April, 1896. The ensuing 'Thirty Days War' was almost disastrous for Greece and for George I. Turkey was supported by Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, brother of King George's daughter in law, Sophie of Prussia. As Greek troops retreated at Larissa, Queen Victoria asked Nicholas II of Russia to mediate. The Protecting Powers secured a peace treaty at Constantinople - which allowed Greece to retain Thessaly. But Greece also had to pay an indemnity to Turkey, which the Kingdom could hardly afford. Crete was to be policed by an international contingent - made up of British, French, Russian and Italian troops. The island remained autonomous within the Ottoman Empire - but linked with Greece through the King's second son Prince George, who became High Commissioner in Khania.

In 1906, Prince George resigned, having been regarded as a tolerant and understanding Governor. But politicians in Crete, such as Venizelos, wanted closer union with Greece. After the 'Young Turks' (Turkish army officers) seized power in Constantinople in 1908, the Cretan Assembly proclaimed itself united to Greece.

In this tense climate, dissident junior officers in the Greek army, led by Colonel Zorbas, established the Military League. They were anti-dynastic and complained that favourites of Crown Prince Constantine had been promoted in the army. To help diffuse the tension the Royal Princes resigned their commissions. George I called on Venizelos to form a government with his new Liberal Party and the Military League was disbanded. Crown Prince Constantine resumed his commission in the army. King George I's international stature grew as he coped skilfully with the range of recurring crises which challenged him.

After the sudden outbreak of war between Italy and Turkey in 1911 over Turkish possessions in Libya, Greece was dragged into the consequent unrest in the Balkans against Turkish rule and influence. Montenegro, Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece came together and declared war on the Ottoman Empire in October 1912. The decisive battle was fought between Greece and Turkey at Yiannitsa. After this triumph for Greece, Crown Prince Constantine then marched on Salonika, and liberated the city on 9 November 1912 -just forestalling their uneasy allies, the Bulgarians.

King George arrived in Salonika two days later to lead, with Crown Prince Costantine and the Royal Princes, the victorious troops into the city. For King George the entry into Thessaloniki was one of the proudest moments of his reign. Prince Nicholas, -King George's third son-, became military governor of the city.

Tragically, in March 1913 King George was assassinated by the famous White Tower of Salonika by a mentally disturbed Greek called Alexander Schinas, as he went for an afternoon stroll in the city. It was two months before the war temporarily ended. King George's State Funeral was held in Athens on 3 August 1913, and he was buried at the family graves at Tatoi.