GreekEnglish (United Kingdom)
King Constantine I

kingconstantinKing Constantine I was born on 2 August 1868 -the eldest son of King George I and Queen Olga. He was named after his mother's father, the Grand Duke Constantine of Russia. It was also a name of great significance for the Greeks and those patriots who had espoused the Great Idea (the Megali Idea) of a united Greek people led from Constantinople. Between 1884 and 1887, Constantine studied at Heidelberg. His father, King George I, had given him the title of Duke of Sparta. This title was given at the request of the town of Sparta, but as the Greek constitution does not allow titles, it was only to be used outside the country.

On the 22nd anniversary of his parents' marriage, Constantine married Sophie of Prussia on 27 October, 1889. Their first son, the future King George II, was born at Tatoi, the family home near Athens, on 19 July 1890 (Queen Victoria of Great Britain was one of his Godparents). Their second son, the future King Alexander I of Greece, was born in August 1893. Their third son, the future King Paul I of Greece, was born in December 1901. Princess Helen, who married King Carol II of Rumania, was born in May 1896.

As Crown Prince, Constantine had admired German military training. The Greek army had divided into factions for and against him. In 1908, after the 'Young Turk' seizure of power in Constantinople, dissident Greek army officers overthrew the Athens government. They set up the Military League and a central feature of their concerns was what they saw as favouritism in army promotion showed to the Crown Prince and his brothers. The Royal Princes resigned their commissions rather than see their father, King George I, having to dismiss them from the army.

When Venizelos formed his government after the collapse of the Military League, he expressed his great admiration for Crown Prince Constantine. Constantine was appointed Inspector General of the Greek army. He took Salonika from the Turks in the Balkan War of 1912 after leading the Greek troops at the Battle of Yiannitsa on 1 November 1912. A year later, his father, King George I, was tragically assassinated in Salonika and Constantine succeeded to the throne, only months before the First World War engulfed the continent.

Soon after the outbreak of war in August 1914, French and Allied propaganda consistently attacked Constantine as a Germanophile and 'the Kaiser's friend and brother in law'. These antagonisms were based on the fact that he had spent some of his formative years in Germany, and that in the Autumn of 1913 he had attended German army manoeuvres with Kaiser Wilhelm II and had tried to negotiate loans from Germany.

When war broke out, King Constantine I was asked by the Kaiser to enter the conflict on the side of Germany and Austria 'in a united crusade against Slav domination of the Balkans'. Greece stayed neutral. But when it became clear that Turkey would ally with Germany, many Greeks wished to assist the Entente Powers (Great Britain, France and Russia). King Constantine came close to helping Britain in the Dardanelles Campaign in February/March 1915. But he was warned not to enter the war by Joannis Metaxas, the acting Chief of the General Staff. Venizelos, his Prime Minister, resigned.

In June 1915, before elections could take place, King Constantine's health gave way. He contracted pneumonia and pleurisy. He was close to death and had received the last rites when the holy ikon of the Virgin and Child from the shrine of Panayia Evanghelistria was brought to his bedside from Tinos in the Cyclades. Miraculously, he recovered, and his wife, Queen Sophie, presented a large sapphire to enrich the ikon.

Venizelos won the election in June and, in September, there were growing threats of a Bulgarian attack on Salonika. Venizelos invited the British and French to send troops to Salonika (without King Constantine's consent). The King eventually agreed to call up 18,000 reservists as a precaution against Bulgarian attack.

Overall command of French and British forces in Salonika was held by the French General Sarrail, who was a radical republican. King Constantine did not like Sarrail's style. 'I will not be treated as if I were a native chieftain', he complained. Sarrail aggregated to himself some of the authority that was vested in the King - and stretched Greek neutrality by encouraging the recruitment of a Greek 'national army' to fight the Bulgarians, who had occupied eastern Macedonia.

In this tense period, the King's estate outside Athens, at Tatoi, was attacked by arsonists - causing great damage and the loss of 18 lives. King Constantine and Queen Sophie and their family escaped the flames by knowing the safe pathways through the forest.

On 1 December 1916, an outbreak of violence involving French seamen and British marines (which resulted in the shelling of the Royal Palace in Athens) completed the breach between King Constantine and the Entente Powers. Greek ports were blockaded. The French, with the connivance of the new British Prime Minister, Lloyd George, gave the King notice to quit his throne - if the blockade was to be lifted.

Because the King's eldest son, Crown Prince George, had served with the German army, he was unacceptable as a successor. So King Constantine stepped aside for his second son, Alexander. King Constantine I did not formally abdicate. Power became closely vested in the Prime Minister, Venizelos. In July 1917, Greece declared war on Germany, Austria Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria. Greek troops fought courageously with British troops at Lake Doiran in Macedonia, and contributed to the eventual victory of the Entente Powers. On account of Greece's entry into the war, Venizelos argued for territorial claims at the Paris Peace Conference at Versailles - including Smyrna.

After the ending of the Great War, fighting continued between Greece and Turkey into 1920. In October of that year, Venizelos sought British support for an offensive against Ankara, to attack the Turkish resistance movement led by General Mustafa Kemal. While the international political manoeuvring developed, King Alexander of Greece suffered an improbable accident at the royal estate at Tatoi. While he tried to separate his pet dog from a fight with two pet monkeys at the Royal Estate, he was bitten on the leg by one of the monkeys. The bite turned septic and he died on a month later, aged only 27. He left a wife, Princess Aspasia, whom he had married in November 1919. She was 3 months pregnant when Alexander died.

At the General Election of 14 November 1920, Venizelos lost and left the country. On 5 December, 1920, the Greek people, in a plebiscite, voted by 1,010,783 votes to 10,883 votes for the restoration of King Constantine I. He returned in triumph a fortnight later.

King Constantine continued the conflict with Turkey. In May 1921, he set off for Asia Minor to take command of his army. He was accompanied by his brother, Prince Andrew (father of the Duke of Edinburgh) and Prince Nicholas, his eldest son. In August, 1922 the Greek army was defeated by the Turks. On 9 September, 1922, Turkey entered Smyrna and sacked it with great brutality (Prince Paul, the future King Paul I, was a sub lieutenant on board the cruiser 'Elli' and saw the evacuation of Smyrna - which was assisted by British and French warships).

During the last days of the conflict with Turkey, a group of Greek colonels called for King Constantine's abdication. His health was failing, and, with the advice of Colonel Metaxas, he abdicated -avoiding the risk of Civil War. On 27 September 1922, the throne passed to his eldest son Crown Prince George,- who became George II. Four months later, on 11 January 1923, in a hotel in Palermo, Sicily, King Constantine I died.