Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Monarch Profile: King George VI of Great Britain, Emperor of India

He was the man who was not supposed to be king, the second son, yet he was the monarch who would lead Great Britain and the British Empire through the greatest crisis they had faced in centuries. He would see his people through the crisis but would also then reign over the decline and dissolution of the once dominant British Empire. He was Britain’s last King-Emperor. He was born HRH Prince Albert Frederick Arthur George at Sandringham on December 14, 1895 during the reign of his great-grandmother Queen Victoria. As the second son of a second son there was not the slightest thought that he would ever be called upon to take the throne. As a small child, life was not easy for the little prince everyone called “Bertie”. Neglect by a nurse left with gastric trouble, he developed an embarrassing stammer as he grew older, was forced to wear splints to correct knock knees and endured the discomfort of being broken of his natural left-handedness on orders from his father. The pomp and ceremony of royal life held no romance for him, nor did it for his older brother Prince David. But, whereas Prince David was stylish and outgoing, Prince “Bertie” was rather shy and reserved. In 1909 he went with his brother to study at Osborne and then Dartmouth where he struggled as a student but was very good at athletics. He made close friendships even though some of his classmates pricked him with pins to see if his blood was really blue.

In 1913 Prince Albert joined the fleet as a midshipman but was kept out of combat due to repeated attacks of acute gastritis. However, he did finally recover sufficiently to serve in the Mediterranean Sea (an overlooked but extremely dangerous theatre of World War I) and he served in the great battle of the Jutland in 1916, the largest naval battle of the war and the largest clash of battleships in naval history. He was a turret officer during the battle and was mentioned in dispatches for his conduct on that occasion. However, it was finally decided that his health would not permit him to serve at sea and so the following year in 1917 he joined the Royal Naval Air Service, the Royal Air Force in 1918 and after the war he qualified as a pilot in 1919. Later, in 1920, Prince Albert went to Cambridge to study at Trinity College and was given the title Duke of York. It was also at that time that he began to undertake official royal duties for his aging father. As President of the Industrial Welfare Society he became known as the “Industrial Duke” for his many visits to the factories to talk to the workers, discuss their work conditions and so on. He was very interested in their circumstances and stood on no ceremony during such tours. In 1921 he also came up with the idea of starting summer camps where boys from all walks of life could come together and build strong friendships regardless of class background.

During this time romantic matters also consumed much time for the Duke as he pursued the hand of Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, daughter of the Earl of Strathmore. And quite a pursuit it was with the young Lady Elizabeth refusing the Duke’s proposals no less than twice because of concerns of the strict limitations on her life that would go with marrying in to the Royal Family. However, the couple genuinely loved each other and finally the lady consented and the two were married in 1923. The new Duchess of York was warmly welcomed by King George V and Queen Mary and the public adored her as well for her grace, charm, Scottish ancestry and so on. Over the years she would be a strong and unfailing support to her husband and also brought in a refined musical and artistic taste to the Royal Family. The marriage of the Duke of York to a commoner (as she was regarded despite being the daughter of an Earl) was also seen as being a modernizing step for the House of Windsor. In time she would give the Duke two lovely daughters; Princess Elizabeth in 1926 and Princess Margaret Rose in 1930. Especially in contrast to the ‘fast living’ Prince of Wales, the Duke and Duchess of York were a model of traditional domestic bliss.

With his marriage drawing more attention, the King sent the Duke and Duchess on a number of tours around the British Empire to encourage unity and goodwill such as to British East Africa, the Sudan, New Zealand and Australia. During this time, as he was called upon to make more and more public speeches, the Duke of York began to receive treatment for his speech impediment. With the help of speech therapist Lionel Logue and the patient assistance of his wife the Duke was finally able to speak fluidly with only short hesitations which, delivered at the right moments, became hardly noticeable at all. He opened the Australian Parliament in Canberra in 1927 and partnered with a black tennis player in Jamaica for a game of doubles as a way of setting an example for equality and friendship between the races. During his time off he most enjoyed being with his wife and daughters and tending to his garden at the Royal Lodge in Windsor Great Park, a summer residence provided by the King for the little York family. It was a calm, happy and mostly carefree life he had until he was suddenly thrust into the spotlight by the tumultuous events of 1936.

In January, King George V died and the Prince of Wales succeeded him as King Edward VIII. However, from the very start there were problems over the new King’s relationship with Wallis Simpson, a twice-divorced American. The government was against it, the Church of England was against it and most of the Royal Family never approved of the woman either. However, Edward VIII was determined to marry her and within a year this brought about his abdication and thrust the Duke of York onto the throne in his place. No other British monarch had ever taken on such a task with so little preparation. The Duke had only three weeks notice before he ascended the throne, taking the name King George VI to show continuity with the reign of his father. The date of the coronation was not changed but a different man would be crowned and, for the first time, the event was broadcast by radio, using modern technology to bring the British Empire together for such an occasion like never before. Within a very short time Britain also had a new Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, and the country faced the rising threat of Nazi Germany and the possibility of yet another world war.

King George VI, from the very beginning, despised the Nazi regime and all it stood for but he also had very vibrant memories of the horrors of World War I and was as anxious as anyone to avoid conflict if at all possible and he supported, along with the vast majority of his people, the efforts by Chamberlain to keep peace in Europe. However, by 1939, confrontation had replaced appeasement as the order of the day and the King did his best to prepare for the coming conflict such as by strengthening ties with the other major English-speaking power with his visit to North America and the United States in May and June. Only a short time after his return to London the Germans had invaded Poland and King George VI took to the airwaves announcing that the British Empire was at war. The King developed a close relationship with the new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, and took on the role of keeping the people of the empire and commonwealth united, keeping the British public calm and determined and ensuring that the war effort ran smoothly. It was a great deal to put on the shoulders of one man considering that so much of it was intangible.

The King visited the front frequently, kept himself informed and was closely involved in the planning and prosecution of the war, taking his duties as commander-in-chief very seriously. When London came under intense air attack he refused to evacuate and the Queen likewise would not leave his side and both were nearly killed during a daylight air raid when Buckingham Palace was bombed. It was not until much later that the public learned how very close the King and Queen had come to losing their lives on that occasion. However, the presence of the King in London gave the people courage and a greater sense of solidarity; that they were all “in it” together and when the King visited areas devastated by the bombing he was always well received and was much encouraged by his people as his people were encouraged by him. He visited the factories, visited Egypt to meet with Field Marshal Montgomery where the Axis tide had been turned and he visited the bombed out island of Malta and awarded the island as a whole the George Cross for their heroic endurance (an honor the Maltese still proudly display on their flag).

King George VI saw his people through the darkest days in their recent history. Axis forces came within a breath of taking Alexandria, Italy overran British Somalia, Germany captured the Channel islands, Britain was bombed heavily and in the Far East Japanese forces captured Hong Kong, Burma, Malaysia, Singapore and bombed Australia. He was present at the planning of the D-Day operation (and disagreed with Churchill who favored a landing from the Atlantic) and he was quick to visit the troops after the beachhead was secured. From their darkest days to their finest hour, the King kept his people calm, united and focused on the goal of final victory and when that day came Buckingham Palace was the focal point of national celebration. After the war, the British economy was in ruins and the Empire heavily indebted to the United States. The King was rather surprised when Churchill was voted out in favor of Clement Attlee who embarked on a rapid program of nationalization and de-colonization. His relations with the King were rather cold at first though they ultimately managed to work together. To pay for his new socialist welfare state Attlee made the decision that the British Empire would have to go and in quick succession India, Pakistan, Burma, Ceylon and Jordan were granted independence with the British Mandate of Palestine becoming the State of Israel.

Some historians have remarked that, because of this, one could view the reign of King George VI as one of the most disastrous in British royal history. Certainly no other monarch had lost so much territory and so many subjects so quickly. Yet, no one would think of attributing this to George VI himself, the last British King-Emperor. He had acted, from start to finish, as a proper constitutional monarch, doing his duty, taking advice and accepting the wishes of his peoples. Today, many people would probably be put off by him. He was a stickler for details, a man who did things ‘by the book’ and beneath his calm exterior he had a fiery temper. However, his public image was always one of solid dignity, inspiring resolve and cool courageousness. He was exactly the right monarch at the right time for the English-speaking world. However, his health, which had never been robust, suffered a great deal from the stress of the war, the abrupt way the Crown was thrust on his head and the rapid changes in the aftermath of the conflict. He had also long been a heavy smoker and that took its toll as well. Still, despite his declining health he still appeared whenever possible, saw Churchill return to power and even corrected the famous statesmen on the constitutionality of his proposal for a deputy PM.

HRH Princess Elizabeth had already taken over many royal duties but most did not know just how seriously ill the King was until the end came. He died in his sleep at Sandringham on the morning of February 6, 1952 after a day out hunting rabbits. The Princess had to be recalled from an African visit where she had first learned of the death of her father and that she was then Queen. Despite seeming rather distant and aloof to some people, King George VI was simply a formal man, a dedicated and dutiful monarch and much more warm-hearted than many realized. He so loved his daughter and successor, for instance, that he could hardly speak about her without tears coming to his eyes and he was even known to pull a prank or two. Especially in the aftermath of the Edward VIII fiasco, King George VI set just the right tone for the monarchy and just the right time. He was the very image of a solid, constitutional monarch. He projected an aura of strength, stability and calm assurance. During the greatest crisis in living memory for the British people and those of the Commonwealth, during the twilight of the empire, King George VI gave everyone the sense that he was with them, that he would endure and they would endure and that they would survive the ultimate test. As Britain’s last King-Emperor he made the monarchy just what was required for the times he lived in and ensured that the dissolution of the empire, though not attributable at all to him, was handled in a dignified, orderly and noble way. He was, “every inch a king”.

2 comments:

  1. Do you think that Charles will ever be King...or will the crown pass to William when HRH Queen Elizabeth II dies?

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    1. I think he will. He will reign as King George VII, his reign will likely be rather short but it will happen. I doubt it's possible that he will have the same level of respect as the Queen, he's got alot of 'history' behind him that the Queen didn't have. Since she came to the throne so young she had a clean slate and did not have the same intrusive media to deal with that the Prince of Wales has had. But the law is the law, monarchy is not a popularity contest and when the time comes Charles will be King.

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