Monday, September 17, 2012

Monarch Profile: King George V of Great Britain and Ireland

When one thinks of King George V, it is usual to think of a man who was stern, reliable, methodical and a creature of habit. Devoted to duty, upright but not extremely interesting. He was certainly unlike his colorful and flamboyant father; King Edward VII. Yet, not many take the time to realize that it was during the reign of King George V that the British Empire reached its peak in term of the sheer area of the earth under the British Crown. He had seen the British Empire through the greatest military threat it had faced since the Napoleonic Wars and it emerged from the conflict, World War I, in dire economic trouble but larger than ever before. Thanks to the acquisition of the largest part of the former German colonial empire, the British Empire had reached a point where even “colonies” like South Africa and Australia had “colonies” of their own in what is now New Guinea and Namibia. It was also during the reign of George V that the British monarchy underwent a dramatic cosmetic makeover; when the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha became the House of Windsor as we all know it today.

The future King-Emperor was born HRH Prince George Frederick Ernest Albert in London on June 3, 1865 to the Prince and Princess of Wales; he being their second son. He spent most of his childhood at Sandringham along with his older brother Prince Albert (better known as “Eddy”) and in 1877 both boys were sent as naval cadets to train on the Britannia. Queen Victoria was dubious of this “nautical education” but it worked out well. As Prince George was a younger son and only third in the line of succession, there was no thought of him ever becoming King and so he was being groomed for a career in the Royal Navy. His training progressed, along with his elder brother, and they sailed all around the British Empire as well as stopping in at foreign ports. The young Prince George even got a tattoo on his arm of a dragon during a visit to the island Empire of Japan. Queen Victoria, who was famously hard to please, was rather disappointed that her grandsons seemed to have trouble speaking anything other than English. This was a time when it seemed that half the British Royal Family were married to Germans, all thanks to the influence of the German Prince consort Albert whose memory Queen Victoria cherished endlessly. Eventually the brothers were split up when Prince George was 18. “Eddy” went into the army while George continued with the navy as his expected profession.

As a young man Prince George displayed the qualities that would characterize him for the rest of his life. He was not terribly intellectual, possessed a bit of a temper and was almost obsessive in his need to record things in detail. His personal writings contain little to no personal information but an extremely detailed description of the weather conditions he took each and every morning. He also eventually became an extremely accomplished philatelist (or what regular people call a stamp collector). By 1889 the Prince was given command of his own torpedo boat and was justifiably proud of himself when he was promoted to commander in 1891 though an attack of typhoid took some of the wind out of his sails. He was further depressed when his older brother died the following year, while he himself was still recovering. The two had been very close and it was devastating for Prince George, who nonetheless had to pull himself up and take on the duties that would have went to his brother. He was created Duke of York, introduced to the House of Lords, started on a study program to learn statecraft and, finally, to speak German, though he famously described it as a “rotten language”. After the death of Queen Victoria, and the accession of King Edward VII, British foreign policy took a distinctly different direction in that regard, viewing Germany as a potential rival rather than a potential ally.

Without pausing for breath, in 1893 Prince George was engaged to the former fiancĂ© of his late brother, Princess Mary of Teck, and the two were married. Within a year their first son was born (the future King Edward VIII) with five siblings following after him. George, from 1901 the Prince of Wales, was a stern father, supposedly saying that, “My father was frightened of his mother. I was frightened of my father and I am damned well going to see to it that my children are frightened of me.” However, he was an attentive parent and if Edward VII had been afraid of Queen Victoria, he certainly didn’t let it show. Furthermore, Edward VII and the Prince of Wales had a very close relationship with the King determined to keep his son and heir informed about what was going on and allowing him to gather experience of the job he would one day inherit. This had not been the case with King Edward and he was determined that things would be different for his own son and they worked side by side. As Prince of Wales he also toured the Empire and the Dominions, gave speeches (sounding a bit harsh but doing the job adequately) and he was genuinely concerned about the welfare of his subjects all around the world.

Nonetheless, he was “stunned” in 1910 when his father passed away and he became King George V of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Emperor of India and etc. He inherited an empire but also a political headache as the Prime Minister urged him to create sufficient liberal peers to pass a reform of the House of Lords. The King disliked the monarchy being used to make a political threat but, in any event, it worked for the liberals and after obtaining a majority in the next elections the House of Lords passed the bill and the King signed it into law. It was one of those acts that many, probably most, at the time thought to be perfectly reasonable but, in the long-term, it was the first step toward drastically changing the very nature of the House of Lords and the British Parliamentary system as a whole. The King was glad to put it behind him and go to his coronation Durbar as Emperor of India, which was his own idea, and a tremendous success. Back at home, his chief concern was the peace of Ireland where support was achieved for Home Rule but which was blocked by the Unionists of Ulster who recoiled at coming under the administration of a majority-Catholic government. The King brought all sides together and there was frank, open dialogue for a change but no compromise was reached. Further action on Ireland then had to be postponed following the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand in Sarajevo and the outbreak of World War I in 1914.

King George V blamed the conflict on his cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm II, on the grounds that he had made it perfectly clear that Britain would go to war alongside France and Imperial Russia. The Kaiser, of course, blamed his cousins, King George V and Nicholas II of Russia, accusing them of conspiring against him. In truth, particularly when compared to Germany or Russia, King George V could hardly bend the government to his will and when war came, he did his duty and marched forward. From 1914 to 1918 nothing else really occupied King George V other than the war. He spent his time meeting with generals and officials, going over plans, visiting military installations, factories, port facilities, making donations from his private fund for the war effort and showed that Buckingham Palace was sharing the hardship of the regular people from the German submarine blockade by boycotting alcohol and strictly adhering to rationing. The threat of the war was real and immediate. German airships bombed London (though the Kaiser forbid targeting palaces, monuments and the like) and in 1916 German support was intercepted for a rebellion in Ireland. The Easter Uprising broke out in any event, which was swiftly and brutally crushed by the British army. At the time, most of the Irish people saw the uprising as a foolish gesture and blamed the rebels for the destruction it caused. However, when the ringleaders were all swiftly executed by firing squad, public sentiment turned against Britain and the rebels instantly became national martyrs. King George V had feared that very thing and had urged against the use of the death penalty for that reason but, sadly, he was ignored.

In Great Britain, anti-German hatred had become almost hysterical. Shops with German names were vandalized, people of German descent (no matter how distant) were often assaulted and even dachshunds were kicked to death in the streets. This hatred of all things German eventually caused some ignorant types to glare menacingly at the Royal Family; the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha after all. The author H.G. Wells referred to the “alien and uninspiring court” in London to which George V allegedly replied, “I may be uninspiring, but I’ll be damned if I’m alien”. The use of German titles was banned and in 1917 the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was officially renamed the House of Windsor. When the news reached Germany the Kaiser mockingly wondered when he might attend a performance of “The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha”. It was the most dramatic re-branding ever undertaken in the history of the British or English monarchy to please public opinion. For the most part though, it seemed to work, though the U.K. and British institutions were not immune to the socialist and revolutionary movements that were sweeping Europe. King George V was sufficiently alarmed by the prospect that, after the Russian Revolution, he refused to grant sanctuary to the Russian Imperial Family, all of whom were later massacred by the Bolsheviks.

After the end of the war, the King turned his attentions back to Ireland where the situation was quickly escalating toward all out war. The King played an important but little known part in bringing both sides together to make peace. Neither side was totally happy with the result but it was momentarily successful at least and when the peace broke down, it ended with the Irish fighting each other rather than the British. Few know of his efforts but throughout his entire reign, the situation in Ireland was probably the one concern most consistently on the King’s mind. Britain was also troubled by the rise of the trade union movement and a government already indebted by the world war was faced by strikes and demands for more spending on more benefits for more people. It troubled the King greatly as did the activities of the Prince of Wales which he strongly disapproved of. Unlike his own father, George V had been a faithful husband and a man of impeccable moral integrity. His health grew increasingly frail and he seemed more and more bewildered by the troubled world around him with everything so different than it had been before 1914. He was proud of his second son, the Duke of York, who had settled down and started a family. He enjoyed seeing his little granddaughter (the future Queen Elizabeth II) who called him “Grandpa England”.

King George V died on January 20, 1936 and was succeeded by his son, the brief King Edward VIII. However, it was King George VI who was to better carry on the legacy of his father. Like King George V he was a solid, reliable, dutiful monarch, a faithful husband and also a constant smoker which cut short both their lives. He too would also lead the British Empire through a world war, though unlike the first, the empire would not long survive it. King George V had been a model constitutional monarch as most today would expect one to be. He took the advice of his ministers, he gave advice (though it was seldom heeded) and he set a good example for the public in his private life. Unfortunately, his reign saw some terrible mistakes, the most glaring being the failure to come to the rescue of the Romanovs, who were family as well as wartime allies. There was also the First World War as a whole, which was a terrible disaster for all and the 1911 act which effectively abolished the veto power of the House of Lords, the repercussions of which are still felt today.

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