Monday, September 17, 2012
Monarch Profile: King George V of Great Britain and Ireland
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.
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.
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.
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.