When George was born, his father was still Prince of Wales and there was little expectation George would ever become king as he had an older brother, Albert Victor, who was only 17 months older. Being so close in age, the two princes were educated together but neither of them excelled academically as their father didn’t put much store in education. When George was just 12 years old, he and his brother joined the cadet training ship HMS Britannia at Dartmouth and then spent three years on HMS Bacchante.
When the brothers returned to Britain, they were sent to Lausanne for six months to learn French and German, however it was not very successful. Afterwards, Albert Victor attended Trinity College, Cambridge, to prepare for his future role as king, however George continued in the Royal Navy where he came under the command of his uncle, Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, who was stationed in Malta. George spent a lot of time with Alfred’s family and expressed a desire to marry his cousin, Marie. While Queen Victoria was in favour of the match, as well as their respective fathers, the marriage was opposed by the Princess of Wales and the Duchess of Edinburgh who had long held a grudge against each other. As a result, George’s proposal to Marie was rejected and she ended up unhappily married to the future King of Romania.
In November 1891, Albert Victor became engaged to Mary of Teck, known as May, but he died of pneumonia on 14 January 1892 just six weeks later. George, now second in the line of succession, faced increasing pressure from his grandmother to marry May himself as she believed the young woman would make an excellent queen. After spending time together over the period of mourning, George and May grew closer and were married on 6 July 1893 at the Chapel Royal in St. James’s Palace, London.
The death of his older brother also brought an end to George’s naval career and he was created Duke of York by Queen Victoria on 24 May 1892. The Duke and Duchess of York moved into York Cottage on the Sandringham Estate where they lived a simpler life than the rest of the royal family. George and May had five sons and a daughter so it soon became rather cramped in the cottage, but the children spent most of the time with their nanny as was normal for the times.
On the death of Queen Victoria on 22 January 1901, George’s father ascended the throne as Edward VII and George became the new heir apparent. George and May had been undertaking royal duties since their marriage, however they were now representing the king and they began a tour of the British Empire in 1901 which took them to Gibraltar, Malta, Port Said, Aden, Ceylon, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Mauritius, South Africa, Canada, and Newfoundland.
On 9 November 1901, George was created Prince of Wales and his father gave him access to state documents to prepare him for his future role as king, something Queen Victoria had failed to do for her son. George allowed May access to the papers, valuing her insight, and she often helped him with his speeches. In November 1905, George and May visited India where he was disgusted by the racial discrimination he witnessed and campaigned for greater involvement of Indians in the government.
On 6 May 1910, George ascended the throne as George V with May dropping her first name of Victoria to become simply Queen Mary. George and Mary’s coronation took place at Westminster Abbey on 22 June 1911 and later that year they travelled to India for the Delhi Durbar where they were presented to an assembled audience of Indian dignitaries and princes as the Emperor and Empress of India.
On 4 August 1914, the First World War broke out and George found himself at war with his first cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm II, the son of Victoria, Princess Royal. With anti-German feeling at an all time high, George issued a royal proclamation changing the name of the British royal house from the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to the House of Windsor. George also made his British relatives relinquish their German titles and styles, and to adopt British-sounding surnames in exchange for being made British peers. As a result, Queen Mary’s brothers became Adolphus Cambridge, 1st Marquess of Cambridge, and Alexander Cambridge, 1st Earl of Athlone.
On 11 December 1917, George restricted the style of Royal Highness and the titles of Prince or Princess of Great Britain and Ireland to the children of the Sovereign, the children of the sons of the Sovereign, and the eldest living son of the eldest living son of a Prince of Wales. George’s relatives on the German side had their British peerages suspended by a 1919 Order in Council under the provisions of the Titles Deprivation Act 1917.
The First World War took its toll on the other European monarchies and it was a turbulent time on the Continent as the monarchies of Austria, Germany, Greece, and Spain, like Russia, fell to revolution and war. When Tsar Nicholas II was overthrown in the Russian Revolution of 1917, the British government offered his family asylum in Britain but George V, fearing the spread of socialism in his own country, withdrew the offer. Nicholas and his family were murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918, however the Dowager Empress, Maria Feodorovna, was rescued from the Crimea by a British warship the following year. Maria Feodorovna, formerly Dagmar of Denmark, was the sister of George’s mother, Alexandra.
Two months after the end of the war, the king’s youngest son, John, who had been suffering from epileptic seizures for most of his young life, died at Wood Farm, a private retreat at Sandringham. George and May were both devastated at his loss but there was also a great deal of relief his suffering had finally come to an end as his seizures had been frightening to witness. Their second youngest son, George, Duke of Kent, would be killed in a plane crash during the Second World War.
George’s relationship with his eldest son, David, also began to deteriorate as his behaviour was a growing cause for concern. David had already had affairs with numerous married women, but he had recently become infatuated with the American socialite, Wallis Simpson. In contrast, David’s younger brother, Albert, had settled into married life with Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon and the king couldn’t help wishing the throne could be passed to them.
The king’s health began to decline after the war and he developed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and pleurisy caused by years of heavy smoking. In November 1928, he became seriously ill with septicaemia and David took over many of his duties while the king recuperated at Craigweil House, Aldwick, in the seaside resort of Bognor, Sussex. However, George never fully recovered and he retired to his room on 15 January 1936 where he spent his remaining days.
George V died on the evening of the 20 January 1936 and it was later revealed his physician, Bertrand Dawson, 1st Viscount Dawson of Penn, had administered two consecutive lethal injections so the king’s death could be announced in the morning edition of The Times newspaper rather than the evening tabloids. Dawson’s actions were not sanctioned by the royal family and they were appalled when the truth was revealed.
During the funeral procession to Westminster Hall, part of the Imperial State Crown fell from the top of the coffin and landed in the gutter as the cortège turned into New Palace Yard and the new king, Edward VIII, wondered whether it was a bad omen for his new reign. As a mark of respect, George’s four surviving sons, Edward, Albert, Henry, and George, mounted the guard, known as the Vigil of the Princes, at the catafalque on the night before the funeral. George V was then interred at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, on 28 January 1936. Edward VIII abdicated before the year was out, leaving his brother to ascend the throne as George VI.