Wednesday, June 13, 2012
Monarch Profile: King George VI of Great Britain, Emperor of India
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.
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.
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).
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.