The House of Windsor: George VI (1936-1952)

Stuttering and shy, Prince Albert Frederick Arthur George “Bertie” was named after his great-grandfather, Prince Albert. As a child, he was nervous and sickly, facing numerous physical limitations. The one thing he longed for was affection from his stoic, and emotionally distant parents. In 1913, Bertie began serving in Royal Navy, even serving at the Battle of Jutland (the largest naval engagement in World War I), but chronic gastric troubles and a painful ulcer sent Bertie home where he became bedridden in Buckingham Palace. Despite the pain, the on-call doctor was dismayed to find minimal affection from Bertie’s parents toward their suffering son.

After the war, Bertie spent a year studying at Cambridge University. He then fell into an affair with a married Australian socialite, Lady Loughborough, but his father persuaded him against pursuing marriage with this mistress (any more affairs with married women would surely bring scandal upon the House of Windsor). He promised his son a title, the Duke of York, if he would simply choose a more suitable mate. Unlike Bertie’s older brother, Bertie accepted his father’s offer and chose patriotic duty over the whims of his heart. Since Bertie was never truly expected to assume the throne, he was free to marry any woman he desired regardless of royal lineage (especially when considering most of the royal families of Europe had been overthrows, as in Austria, Germany, and Russia). Bertie soon set his sights on Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the vivacious daughter of a Scottish aristocrat. It took three separate proposals before Elizabeth finally acquiesced to marriage (at the time she was being courted by a British noblemen named James Stewart, but he was suddenly sent away to America under suspicious circumstances which were likely orchestrated by the royal family). Bertie and Elizabeth were married in an extravagant ceremony at Westminster Abbey in 1923. For the rest of Bertie’s life, Elizabeth served as a critical wellspring of emotional support for her husband, a man who was often neglected by his parents, overshadowed by his brother, and who was never meant to be king. Bertie and Elizabeth welcomed two daughters into the world: Princess Elizabeth “Lilibet” in 1926 (the future Queen Elizabeth II) and Princess Margaret in 1930. By all accounts, Bertie was a loving father to his daughters –he made strong efforts to provide the kind of love and care he so rarely received from his own parents.

In 1936, George V passed away and Bertie’s older brother “David” was named King Edward VIII but his kingship was short-lived. Edward VIII quickly resigned in order to pursue his love for a twice-divorced American social climber named Wallis Simpson, causing the greatest scandal of the 20th century for the royal family. And so the future of the monarchy reluctantly fell to diffident, stammering Bertie. Nevertheless, he poured himself into his new duty. He assumed the regnal name George VI and was crowned King at Westminster Abbey in 1937. George VI spent considerable efforts attempting to salvage the royal family in the eyes of the public after his brother’s reckless abandon, though in truth the crown never sat easily upon his head.

However, the drama concerning the royal family was soon distracted by storm clouds over Europe –Nazi Germany’s rising militarism on the Continent culminated with the invasion of Poland in 1939, leading the United Kingdom and its self-governing dominions (aside from Ireland) to declare war. Throughout the long and brutal fighting of World War II, the King and his family defiantly remained in London at Buckingham Palace, hoping to serve as a symbol of strength and resolve, they survived the Blitz in 1940 though the same could not be said for the king’s brother Prince George, Duke of Kent who was killed in action. In 1940, the king’s hopes for appeasement with Germany ended when Winston Churchill was elected Prime Minister, sweeping Neville Chamberlain out of power. Needless to say, the relationship between King and Prime Minister was uneasy –the King was suspicious of Churchill’s relationship with the former King Edward VIII as well as Churchill’s celebrity as a war leader had often overshadowed the King’s intended image as a quiet but stoic monarch. The confrontation between the two men came to a head on D-Day as they both made separate attempts at publicity when visiting Normandy. However, by VE Day in 1945 both Churchill and George VI forgave old grudges and made public appearances together waving from the balcony of Buckingham Palace.

Within a matter of months, Churchill’s government faced a crushing electoral defeat and a new Labour government rose to power under the leadership of a more demure Prime Minister, Clement Atlee, which promised plans of socialist reforms for the working classes. As it turns out, George VI maintained a productive working relationship with the new government, but the King only outlived Prime Minister Atlee’s tenure by a few months.

George VI, a lifelong chain-smoker, died at the age of 57 in 1952. In later years, his health had rapidly deteriorated as he embarked on numerous tours throughout the Commonwealth and other ceremonial obligations. Here was a man who sought everything in his power to stabilize a thousand year-old institution after his brother’s shocking abdication nearly ended the House of Windsor. George VI sought an opportunity for the monarchy to maintain its relevance amidst the ashes of a fracturing empire. By now, Ireland had mostly broken away. Notably, George VI was the last Emperor of India when in 1947 the British Raj was abolished, India and Pakistan soon established self-governance. George VI’s last years were spent in exasperated fits of strenuous engagements rife with unfond memories of British colonialism, many of the touring responsibilities were assumed by his daughter and son-in-law, Elizabeth “Lilibet” and Philip. When the King’s lungs and heart finally gave out in February 1952, the Crown fell to his eminently competent and impressive daughter, Elizabeth. At the time, she and Philip were away on royal tour in a semi-remote location in Kenya when informal news of the King’s passing finally reached the future Queen’s ears.

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 should also be noted that Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples ended its chronology with the death of Victoria.

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