House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha/Windsor: George V (1910-1936)

Prince George Frederick Ernest Albert was distinct in nearly every way from his wayward, philandering father. He was a slim man –shy, and abstemious– and he often wore the same elegant clothes to public events (despising most newfangled trends). Moral strength was paramount for George. A former navy man, Prince George was accustomed to unchanging daily routines and the peace of mind that came with country life. He was a luddite who refused to be driven in a car above 30 miles an hour and he despised trains and airplanes, but loved hunting and stamp collecting. In all things, he was an orderly and disciplined man with an unassuming nature.

In 1892, Prince George’s erratic and apparently perverted older brother Eddy died and thus George found himself in the unexpected position of inheriting the crown’s succession. He quickly left the Navy and began preparations to one day become king. Unlike his father, Edward VII, George was given a role as ambassador prior to his kingship. For the first time in two centuries, a Hanoverian-descending monarch would inherit the throne from a father whom he both loved and respected. Now, he needed a wife. After a brief infatuation with his cousin Marie –the future Marie of Romania– George found a suitable spouse in his more distant cousin, Mary of Teck (who was previously engaged to George’s older brother Eddy). Together they had six children, including the future Edward VIII and George VI. One of their offspring, Prince John, was a restless, epileptic child who was often uncouth and ill-spoken. He caused his parents considerable consternation until he died at the age of 13 in 1919 following a cloistered and troublesome life. Sadly Queen Mary was never truly welcomed into the royal family, and so George and Mary remained largely secluded at York Cottage on the family estate at Sandringham until George became King when Edward VII died in 1910.

After being crowned King at Westminster Abbey in June 1911, George V made several minor changes from his father’s royal machinations. He removed the shameful Anglican anti-Catholic rhetoric from the coronation ceremony which stood for centuries, and also in his early years as King George traveled throughout the Commonwealth where he grew increasingly concerned about growing racism toward India. He took certain labors to pursue a moderate and humane path forward in this respect, but it earned him a certain degree of ire from the British aristocracy who were already skeptical because he chose not to continue the many grand social events and pageantry of his father, instead preferring to maintain a glum disposition in total obligation to royal duty. Here was a man who wanted nothing more than to shoot game in the English countryside and pursue his quiet hobbies.

However, the quiet life was not to be. George V came to the throne during the most significant crisis since the Reform Act of 1832. The Liberal Party had swept to power over promises of social reforms, raising taxes on the wealthy, and a universal pension program for the elderly. The conservatives naturally resisted these efforts with every opportunity and the resulting crisis threatened the establishment decorum when the House of Lords refused to pass a budget. The disagreement led to a new election that pushed Irish nationalism again to center of the national conversation –Ireland sought to finally rid itself of the English yoke. George V attempted to cut a middle path through the escalating conflict by inviting opposing parties to convene at Buckingham Palace but a solution was tragically elusive. By the time a summit was arranged, the intricate labyrinth of Continental alliances in Europe had unraveled and World War I had begun. Suddenly the war abroad overtook the war at home. In this moment the King’s distant stoicism finally found its purpose.

During the war, George V assumed a particularly stone-faced visage –in true Victorian fashion– he hoped to appear as a moral figurehead for the troops. He wanted to be seen as the face of fortitude and determination in the face of adversity, even though he was never actually allowed to visit the frontlines for fear of being captured or killed. During the war, the monarchy continued its trend toward becoming a mere moralistic, performative relic focused on public service, philanthropy, and above all its own self-preservation and survival. George V hoped to keep up morale by revising the honors system including with the creation of the Order of the British Empire which was to be openly distributed in broad daylight rather than in the secretive inner-workings of the Order of the Garter. However, the King also faced criticism for possessing a perceived neutrality toward Germany due to his familial ties (his cousin was Kaiser Wilhelm II). H.G. Wells once famously criticized the court of George V for being “alien and uninspiring,” to which George V responded, “I may be uninspiring but I’ll be damned if I’m an alien!” He was desperate to appear native and natural in Britain. Thus George V changed his family’s name from “Saxe-Coburg and Gotha” to the “House of Windsor” (named after Windsor castle). To this day, Windsor remains the British ruling family’s house. In response to his change of name, George’s cousin’s Kaiser Wilhelm II amusingly proclaimed he would attend a performance of Shakespeare’s play, “The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.” Other elite family names were also changed in Britain at the time to appear less German, such as the House of Battenberg which became the House of Mountbatten.

Through all the barbarism of the Great War, George V blamed his pompous cousin Kaiser Wilhelm II for the carnage. He wrote scornfully and lamentably about the rows upon rows of young men’s graves who fought and died with little to show for it. When the war finally ended in 1918, the map of Europe had changed dramatically. Germany and Austria were transformed into republics, Greece and Spain fell to revolutions, and Russia had descended into civil war which only concluded when the Bolsheviks seized power and formed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. George V and other lingering European monarchs fearfully watched as Tsar Nicholas II of Russia (cousin of George V) was brutally assassinated alongside his family before being tossed down a well. In addition to the revolutionary spirit abroad, there was also a growing movement at home which took hold among trade unionists and suffragettes, but perhaps nowhere stronger than in the Easter Rising in Ireland. The unrest led to a civil war lasting until 1926 when Ireland was finally partitioned. In this conflict, George V viewed himself as a conciliatory peacemaker. As in Ireland, the push for greater regional independence challenged the established order of the British Empire, particularly in India. During this period, the common allegiance of the commonwealth was gradually disempowered leading to the eventual decline of the British Empire, but George V had little power or desire to reverse the decline.

As time passed, the King’s 26 year reign took its toll. In 1935, the King barely survived his Silver Jubilee, an occasion of great public rejoicing. After years of smoking, George V’s health was significantly hampered and the King’s lungs began to fail him. He retired to his family home at Sandringham where he died in January 1936. The final blow came when his doctor made the fateful decision to pump George full of a lethal dose of morphine and cocaine so that the King’s death could make the morning news. It has remained a controversial event to this day. On his deathbed, here lay a curmudgeonly traditionalist king who nevertheless held a ceremonial throne during a period of grand socialist transformations which took place across his country. To his last he remained concerned about his wild partying son Edward (the future Edward VIII), while maintaining a certain personal favoritism for his son George (the future George VI) and granddaughter “Lilibet” (the future Queen Elizabeth II).

For this reading I used David Starkey’s Crown and Country, and Ian Crofton’s referential writings on the Kings and Queens of England. Peter Ackroyd’s Dominion: The History of England From The Battle of Waterloo concluded with the death of Queen Victoria and I have not yet read his next installment entitled Innovation: The History of England Volume VI (published in September 2021). It also should be noted that Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples ended its chronology with the death of Victoria.

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