– George VI
A Nervous Child
Albert was born on the 34th anniversary of the death of his great-grandfather, Albert, Prince Consort, which caused his great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, great distress so his grandfather, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, suggested the boy be named Albert. When Queen Victoria was informed of the baby’s name, she was instantly gratified and eager to see her beloved husband’s namesake. The baby prince was duly christened at Sandringham three days later, however his maternal grandmother, Mary Adelaide, Duchess of Teck, expressed her dislike of the name and prophetically claimed his last name “may supplant the less favoured one”.
Albert was a nervous child who had a pronounced stutter and had to wear painful corrective splints on his knock knees, something that would also plague his younger brother, Henry. Albert and his siblings were raised by nannies and tutors as was common for the aristocracy at that time, and they barely saw their parents. George V was said to have been a strict disciplinarian and it has been suggested his children were afraid of him enough to cause their nervousness and speech impediments. However, there is no evidence to claim George V was unduly cruel and his supporters claim he was merely following the parenting style of the time.
When Queen Victoria died on 22 January 1901, the Prince of Wales succeeded her as Edward VII and Albert moved up to third in line of succession behind his father and elder brother, David. Albert attended the Royal Naval College, Osborne, where he came bottom of the class in the final examination, however he was still admitted to the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth. When his grandfather died in 1910, Albert’s father became George V and his older brother became Prince of Wales with Albert second in line.
Albert spent six months on the training ship HMS Cumberland in the West Indies and on the east coast of Canada and was rated as a midshipman aboard HMS Collingwood on 15 September 1913. When the First World War broke out, Albert saw some action onboard HMS Collingwood, however he had to leave the ship to have an operation on a duodenal ulcer in November 1917. In February 1918, he was appointed Officer in Charge of Boys at the Royal Naval Air Service’s training establishment at Cranwell and was transferred from the Royal Navy to the Royal Air Force. Albert was the first member of the British royal family to be certified as a fully qualified pilot and he spent the closing weeks of the war serving on the staff of the RAF’s Independent Air Force at its headquarters in Nancy, France.
In October 1919, Albert went to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied History, Economics and Civics for a year, although the king kept his son on a tight leash as he did not want him consorting with the wrong people. On 4 June 1920, Albert was created Duke of York, Earl of Inverness and Baron Killarney, and he began to take on more royal duties, representing his father at coal mines, factories, and rail yards. Albert was acutely embarrassed by his stammer and was so shy, he suffered in comparison to his older brother who was known for his charm.
Duke of York
In 1920, Albert met Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the youngest daughter of the Earl and Countess of Strathmore, and became determined to marry her. Albert proposed to her twice, in 1921 and 1922, but she turned him down as she did not want to become a member of the royal family. However, Albert refused to give up and he proposed a third time in January 1923 and this time Elizabeth accepted. The couple were married on 26 April 1923 in Westminster Abbey and it was hailed as a sign the royal family were modernising since it was more usual for princes to marry princesses.
The following year, the Duke and Duchess of York were sent overseas to Kenya, Uganda, and the Sudan, travelling via the Suez Canal, however the Duke’s dread of speaking in public due to his stammer was becoming ever more visible. Albert was persuaded to see Lionel Logue, an Australian-born speech therapist, who taught him breathing exercises which improved his speeches along with the patient help of the Duchess. The newly confident Duke successfully delivered a speech while opening the new Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, during a tour of the empire in 1927.
Albert and Elizabeth were soon joined by their two daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret, who were born in 1926 and 1930 respectively. The family were favourites of George V who didn’t hide the fact he wanted the throne to go to Albert instead of David whose love affair with Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee, was becoming ever more alarming. When George V died on 20 January 1936, he was succeeded by his eldest son as Edward VIII with Albert as heir presumptive.
David was told he could not remain king if he chose to marry a twice-divorced woman and in the end, he chose to abandon his duty to marry the woman he loved. David abdicated on 11 December 1936 and a reluctant Albert was proclaimed king. Albert chose the regnal name of George VI to maintain ties with his father and to restore confidence in the monarchy. George VI’s first act as king was to give his brother the title of Duke of Windsor with the style of Royal Highness, but the letters patent prevented any wife or children from bearing royal styles.
George VI was crowned at Westminster Abbey on 12 May 1937, the same date planned for David’s coronation, but there was no Durbar held in Delhi as it would put too much of a burden on the Indian government. With war looming ever closer in Europe, George and Elizabeth undertook tours to France, Canada and the United States to strengthen ties with Britain’s allies. The tours were hailed as a great success and the royal couple formed a strong friendship with President Franklin D. Roosevelt which would reap dividends during the war years.
When the Second World War broke out in September 1939, the royal family were urged to leave London for their own safety but the king refused to leave. While the family were still officially staying at Buckingham Palace, they would secretly leave at night for Windsor Castle which had been strengthened against possible bombing. The King and Queen were still in Buckingham Palace when the courtyard was hit, but Elizabeth shrugged and said it meant they had more in common with the East End which had been hit badly. The King and Queen also observed rationing at the Palace while most of the place was boarded up and had no heating.
When Winston Churchill became Prime Minister in 1940, he developed a strong friendship with the King and they met weekly to discuss the war. The King and Queen continued to visit parts of the country that had been badly bombed, as well as going abroad to boost the morale of the troops. In fact the war effort from the royal family led Hitler himself to declare Queen Elizabeth the most dangerous woman in Europe. When the war ended, the King appeared on the balcony at Buckingham Palace along with Churchill to the delight of the public.
During the reign of George VI, the British Empire continued to fragment and he lost his title of Emperor of India when British India declared independence and partitioned into the separate states of India and Pakistan in 1947. The British Commonwealth of Nations had actually been founded in 1926 and it consisted of mainly former territories of the British Empire, however the British part of the name was dropped in 1949 and it became the Commonwealth of Nations or simply the Commonwealth. The expansion of the Commonwealth gathered pace after the war and King George was given the title of title of Head of the Commonwealth which is currently held by his daughter, Elizabeth II, who has become the most widely travelled monarch in British history.
The stress of the war took its toll on George’s health though and Elizabeth, as heir presumptive, had to take over many of his duties, including a tour to Australia and Canada which had been postponed when it was discovered the King was suffering from lung cancer. The King, a heavy smoker all his life, had his left lung removed after a malignant tumour was found on 23 September 1951 and he was unable to read his speech at the State Opening of Parliament in November.
On 6 February 1952, George VI was found dead in bed at Sandringham House after suffering from a coronary thrombosis in his sleep. He was succeeded by his daughter, Elizabeth, who was visiting Kenya with her husband and had to return quickly to London. George VI’s funeral took place at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, on the 15 February after lying in state at Sandringham and Westminster Hall. He was interred in the Royal Vault until he was transferred to the King George VI Memorial Chapel inside St. George’s on 26 March 1969.