George VI 1895-1952, King of Great Britain, Ireland, and the British Dominions beyond the seas, was born at York Cottage, Sandringham, 14 December 1895, the second of the five sons of the Duke and Duchess of York, afterwards King George V and Queen Mary [qv.]. A notice of the latter appears in this Supplement. His birth on the anniversary of the deaths of the Prince Consort (1861) and Princess Alice (1878) was an occasion for apprehensive apology, but Queen Victoria was gratified to become the child's godmother and presented him with a bust of the Prince Consort as a christening present. He was baptized at Sandringham 17 February 1896, receiving the names Albert Frederick Arthur George, and was known thereafter to the family as Bertie.
A shy and sensitive child, Prince Albert tended to be overshadowed by his elder brother, Prince Edward, and his younger sister Princess Mary. A stammer, developed in his seventh or eighth year, inhibited him still further, and of all the children it was probably he who found it least easy to withstand his father's bluff chaffing or irascibility. The boy withdrew into himself, compensating with outbursts of high spirits or weeping.
Nevertheless life passed evenly enough in the glum little villa of York Cottage and in the other residences to which the migrations of the court took them, interrupted by such events as the funeral of Queen Victoria or the coronation of King Edward VII. By 1902 Prince Albert and his elder brother had graduated to the schoolroom under the care of Henry Peter Hansell, an Oxford graduate, formerly tutor to Prince Arthur of Connaught [qv.]. Although he gained the affection of his pupils, Hansell was not the man to inspire small boys with a desire for learning. He himself thought they should have been at school; but his earnest attempt to create the illusion that they were was not convincing. In the spring of 1907 Prince Edward departed for Osborne and Prince Albert, now head boy with Prince Henry in second place, was left to struggle with the mathematics which seemed likely to prevent him from following suit. But here he showed that ability to face up to and overcome difficulties which was to be the marked characteristic of his career. When he passed into Osborne his oral French, despite his stammer, was almost perfect, and his mathematics very fair indeed.
At Osborne and Dartmouth (1909-12), years which saw his father's accession to the throne, Prince Albert was never very far from the bottom of the class; but he was popular as a trier and a good comrade, and there was a steady development of both character and ability. He was confirmed at Sandringham on 18 April 1912, a day he remembered as one on which he took a great step in life.
After a training cruise in the Cumberland, during which he visited the West Indies and Canada, Prince Albert was posted in September 1913 as a midshipman to the Collingwood in the Home Fleet. To his great satisfaction he was able to see active service in her as a sub-lieutenant at the battle of Jutland, 31 May 1916. But the war years were in the main frustrating. Always a poor sailor, he was now suffering almost continuously from gastric trouble. An operation for appendicitis, performed in Aberdeen 9 September 1914, brought only temporary relief and there followed three years of misery before on 29 November 1917 an operation for duodenal ulcer proved more successful. The subsequent great improvement in the Prince's health was marked in 1920 by his winning the Royal Air Force tennis doubles with his comptroller, who had long been his mentor and friend, (Sir) Louis Greig. That he lost to Greig in the semi-finals of the singles did not surprise him.
Meantime the Prince had been forced to admit that life at sea was too much for him and in November 1917 he transferred to the Royal Naval Air Service and on 1 April 1918 was gazetted flight lieutenant in the new Royal Air Force. It was now that his interest in physical fitness was aroused through his work in the training of boys and cadets. He was in France when the war ended and was asked by his father to represent him when the King of the Belgians made his official entry into Brussels on 22 November: the first state occasion on which he acted for the King.
Returning to England in the following February, Prince Albert, disregarding his dislike of flying, became a fully qualified pilot, 31 July 1919, and received his commission as a squadron leader on the following day. But the time had come for him to leave Service life and take his share of the burden of public duties which falls to a royal family. As further preparation, in company with Prince Henry, he spent a year at Trinity College, Cambridge, which might have been more fruitful had they lived in college. He studied history, economics, and civics, and in particular the development of the Constitution; and tackled an increasing number of public engagements, each one an ordeal by reason of the stammer for which he had so far found no cure. He became president of the Industrial Welfare Society and thereafter until he came to the throne made it his special interest to visit industrial areas and seek to make contact with the people as informally as possible. His own personal contribution towards better relations between management and workers took the form of what became the famous Duke of York's camps for boys from public schools and industry which were held annually, with one exception, from 1921 until 1939. He remained keenly interested in them to the end and delighted in the informality of his visits to the camps when he always joined vigorously in singing the camp song Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree.
In the birthday honours of June 1920 the King created his second son Baron Killarney, Earl of Inverness, and Duke of York. He had already conferred the Garter upon him in 1916 on the occasion of his twenty-first birthday and was to confer the Order of the Thistle on him on his wedding day. The Duke went on his father's behalf to Brussels in 1921 and twice in 1922 to the Balkans where his bearing during elaborate state occasions earned the highest praise.
On 26 April 1923 in Westminster Abbey the Duke married Lady Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon, youngest daughter of the fourteenth Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne [qv.], and together they entered upon that path of domestic happiness and devotion to public duty which was to earn them the nation's gratitude. They made their home first at White Lodge in Richmond Park which had been Queen Mary's childhood home; then from 1927 at 145 Piccadilly, with, later, the Royal Lodge, Windsor Great Park, as their country residence. Two daughters were born to them: Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary (21 April 1926) and Princess Margaret Rose (21 August 1930).
Official visits to the Balkans (1923) and Northern Ireland (1924) and many public engagements at home were followed by a tour of East Africa and the Sudan in the winter of 1924-5 which gave the Duke and Duchess a welcome holiday and the opportunity for big-game hunting. On his return the Duke presided over the second year of the British Empire exhibition at Wembley. Public speaking was still an ordeal for him but in 1926 he first consulted the speech therapist, Lionel Logue, who over the years was able to help him to overcome his stammer so that speech came much more easily to him and the listener was aware of little more than an occasional hesitation. It was therefore with a lighter heart that he left with the Duchess in 1927 for a strenuous tour of New Zealand and Australia, the highlight of which was the opening on 9 May of the first meeting of Parliament at the new capital city of Canberra. The natural sincerity of the Duke and the radiance of the Duchess evoked an enthusiastic response throughout the tour. On their return to London they were met at Victoria Station by the King and Queen, the Duke having been forewarned by his father: We will not embrace at the station before so many people. When you kiss Mama take yr. hat off: attention to detail inherited by the Duke who was in many ways his father's son.
During the King's illness of 1928-9 the Duke, who had been introduced into the Privy Council in 1925, was one of the counsellors of State. In May 1929 he was lord high commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and, as his father was not sufficiently recovered to visit Scotland, he returned to Edinburgh in October to represent the King as lord high commissioner of the historic first Assembly of the two reunited Scottish Churches.
These were quiet years of home-making and of public duties faithfully performed, overshadowed perhaps by the King's failing health but with no realization of what was to come. With the death of King George V on 20 January 1936 and the abdication of his successor in the following December all this was changed. The Duke and his elder brother had always been on good terms, but after the latter's accession the Duke found himself increasingly excluded from the new King's confidence. It was with the utmost reluctance that he finally brought himself to accept the fact that the King was determined to marry Mrs. Simpson even at the cost of the throne. Of this resolve the King informed him on 17 November. The days which followed were filled with the awful & ghastly suspense of waiting until on 7 December the King told the Duke of his decision to abdicate. Two days later the Duke had a long talk with his brother but could do nothing to alter his decision and so informing his mother later in the day broke down & sobbed like a child. On 12 December 1936 he was proclaimed King, choosing George VI as his style and title. His brother he created H.R.H. the Duke of Windsor.
Thus there came to the throne a man who had never even seen a State Paper, at a time when the monarchy had suffered the successive blows of death and abdication. I am new to the job, the King wrote to Stanley Baldwin at the end of the year, but I hope that time will be allowed to me to make amends for what has happened. To this task he brought his own innate good sense and courage in adversity, disciplined by his naval training and sustained by the strength which he drew from his marriage, the sterling qualities of his mother, and the goodwill of the nation. The King had the same simple religious faith as his father and the coronation which took place in Westminster Abbey on 12 May 1937 was a genuine act of dedication on the part of the new King and Queen. It was shared by millions of their people, for the service was broadcast by the B.B.C., an arrangement which had the full support of the King against considerable opposition
The brilliance of a state visit to France in July 1938 brought a momentary gleam of light in a darkening international situation. The King had full confidence in his prime minister and like Neville Chamberlain believed that every effort must be made to avoid a war. Final disillusionment came in March 1939 when the Munich agreement was swept aside and the Germans finally destroyed Czechoslovakia. Shortly after the return visit to Great Britain by President and Mme Lebrun later in the month there was announced the Anglo-French guarantee of Polish independence against aggression. Two months later came the first occasion on which a reigning British monarch had entered the United States. The visit of the King and Queen to North America in May-June 1939 was a resounding success and gave them an increase of confidence. In Canada the King addressed the members of the Senate and the House of Commons and gave the royal assent to bills passed by the Canadian Parliament. At Hyde Park he was able to discuss with President Roosevelt the help which might be expected from the United States in the event of a European war. The warm regard which the two men felt for one another was thereafter maintained by correspondence. Nevertheless the King chafed in these years at his inability to influence the course of events. His successive suggestions of personal communications to Hitler, to King Victor Emmanuel, to the Emperor of Japan, were felt to be inadvisable by a Government which did not share his belief in communications between heads of State.
When, inevitably, war with Germany came, the King broadcast to the Empire on the evening of Sunday, 3 September 1939, a simple call to his people to fight for the freedom of the world. Of the issue he was never in doubt and it was no small part of his contribution in the years to come that he was able to transmit this unclouded confidence to more complex and fearful minds.
In October the King visited the Fleet at Invergordon and Scapa Flow and in December he spent some days with the British Expeditionary Force in France. At Christmas he resumed his father's tradition of broadcasting a personal message to the Empire, a custom maintained for the rest of his life despite his dislike of the microphone. When Chamberlain resigned the premiership in May 1940 the King was distressed to see him go and would have liked Lord Halifax [q.v.] to succeed him. But Chamberlain informed him that Halifax, being in the Lords, was ‘not enthusiastic’ and the King accordingly accepted the advice to send for (Sir) Winston Churchill. By September formal audiences had given way to a weekly informal luncheon and a somewhat guarded relationship had warmed into genuine friendship.
Throughout the war the King and Queen remained in London, sleeping at Windsor during the bombing. Buckingham Palace was hit nine times: in September 1940 it was bombed twice within three days. On the second occasion six bombs were dropped over the Palace by day and the King and Queen had a narrow escape¾even the prime minister was not told how narrow. ‘A magnificent piece of bombing’, remarked a police constable to the Queen; but a tactical error. Prompt and indefatigable in their visits to bombed areas throughout the country the royal pair knew that it was realized that they too had suffered; it was now that they entered into the hearts of their people in a very personal way. It was the King's idea in 1940 to create the George Cross and Medal, primarily for civilian gallantry; and his idea two years later to award the Cross to Malta for heroism under siege. In that year of successive disasters to the Allies the tragedy of war touched the King more closely when his younger brother the Duke of Kent [q.v.] was killed on 25 August 1942 in a flying accident while on active service.
By 1943 the tide of the war had turned and in June the King visited his troops in North Africa where the Axis forces had surrendered. In two weeks he covered some 6,700 miles and although it involved some risk the tour included a visit to Malta, on which he was determined in recognition of the island's gallantry. After the surrender of Italy in September 1943 the King shared with J. C. Smuts [q.v.] some doubts about the wisdom of opening up a second front in France; they communicated their misgivings to Churchill who made it clear, however, that it was too late to change plans which were already well advanced. On 15 May 1944 the King attended the conference at St. Paul's School at which the preparations for invasion were expounded. Before D-Day (6 June) he had visited all the forces bound for Normandy. Both he and Churchill wanted to witness the assault from one of the ships taking part. The King, on reflection, was able with his usual common sense to see the unwisdom of this course; it was not without difficulty that he prevailed upon Churchill to abandon the idea on his own count. Only ten days after D-Day the King had the satisfaction of visiting General Montgomery's headquarters in Normandy. For eleven days in July-August he was with his armies in Italy, and in October he again visited the 21st Army Group. When the European war ended on 8 May 1945, Londoners crowded towards Buckingham Palace in their rejoicing as they had done on 11 November 1918. In the evening the King broadcast a call to thanksgiving and to work towards a better world. There followed an exhausting fortnight of celebration which left the popularity of the monarchy in no doubt. There were state drives through London and services of thanksgiving at St. Paul's Cathedral (13 May) and at St. Giles' Cathedral, Edinburgh (16 May). On the 17th the King received addresses from both Houses of Parliament in the Great Hall of Westminster. Labour having withdrawn from the coalition, Churchill formed his ‘caretaker’ government and in July came the first general election of the King's reign. It proved a victory for Labour and, accepting Churchill's resignation, the King invited C. R. (later Earl) Attlee to form a government. When Attlee replied to the King's inquiry that he was thinking of Hugh (later Lord) Dalton as foreign secretary the King suggested that Ernest Bevin [q.v.] might be a better choice. This had indeed been Attlee's first thought but he had allowed himself to be influenced by Bevin's own desire for the Treasury. In the event it was Bevin who went to the Foreign Office.
The King opened Parliament on 15 August 1945, the day of the Japanese surrender, and ten days later he and the Queen left for Balmoral for a much needed rest. On his return to London in October he found that the advent of peace had done little to lighten his, or the nation's, burden. Great Britain, although still beset by austerity, was moving forward into the welfare State; the British Empire was evolving into the British Commonwealth of Nations; and Russian imperialism was on the march. Some of the new ministers lacked experience; while not out of sympathy with Labour there were occasions when the King felt that they were going ahead too fast and that he should exercise the right of the monarch to advise and even to warn. This he was able to do the more easily in that he now had a width of experience and a maturity of judgement which made it natural for people to turn to him for guidance.
In 1947 the King and Queen and the two princesses paid an extensive visit to Southern Africa where the King opened Parliament at Cape Town 21 February, and in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia, 7 April, and where, also at Cape Town, the Princess Elizabeth celebrated her twenty-first birthday. It was always a matter of regret to the King that he was never able to visit India. The dissolution of the Indian Empire and the emergence of India as a sovereign independent republic within the British Commonwealth brought problems in the relation of the Sovereign to the Commonwealth in which he took great interest; but the necessary legislation had not been completed before he died.
On 20 November 1947 the Princess Elizabeth married Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, R.N., son of the late Prince Andrew of Greece, whose elevation to the peerage as Duke of Edinburgh was announced on that day. Five months later, 26 April 1948, the King and Queen celebrated their silver wedding and drove in state to St. Paul's Cathedral for a service of thanksgiving. In the following October, for the first time since the war, the King opened Parliament in full state. He had, as usual, a heavy programme of engagements which included a visit to Australia and New Zealand in the spring of 1949. But symptoms of early arteriosclerosis had been apparent for some time and it now seemed that his right leg might have to be amputated. The first announcement of his condition was made on 23 November 1948 when the Australian tour was cancelled. A right lumbar sympathectomy operation was performed at Buckingham Palace 12 March 1949, from which the King made a good recovery although he was not restored to complete activity.
At the general election of February 1950 Labour was returned with but a narrow majority, and to anxiety at home over the uncertainty of government and a precarious economic situation was added anxiety over the outbreak of the Korean war. Both continued into the following year and even the Festival of Britain, opened by the King from the steps of St. Paul's on 3 May 1951, could not dispel the gloom. Towards the end of the month the King succumbed to influenza. There followed convalescence at Sandringham and Balmoral; but he was found to have a malignant growth and on 23 September underwent an operation for the removal of his left lung. Attlee had already asked for a dissolution of Parliament and on 5 October the King was able to give his approval to the act of dissolution. With the return of the Conservatives with a small majority Churchill once more became his prime minister. From the list of government appointments the post of deputy prime minister, which had crept in during the war, was deleted on the King's instructions as being unconstitutional. As he did not fail to observe, it would have restricted his freedom of choice in the event of the death or resignation of the prime minister.
A day of national thanksgiving for the King's recovery was observed on 2 December and there followed a family Christmas at his beloved Sandringham. On the last day of January 1952 the King went to London Airport to see the Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh off on a visit to East Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. But their tour was perforce curtailed for after a happy day's shooting the King died in his sleep at Sandringham early on the morning of 6 February 1952. After lying in state in Westminster Hall he was buried on the 15th in St. George's Chapel, Windsor, where a memorial chapel was built and dedicated in 1969.
Trained to service, although not to the throne, the King had served to the limits of his strength and of the confines of monarchy. Scrupulous in observing his constitutional position, he was nevertheless determined to exercise the role of monarch to the full in the service of his people. It was always an underlying frustration that he could not do more; and a mark of his modest diffidence that he failed to appreciate how much he did by being what he was. The whole of his reign was overshadowed by war and the fears and changes brought about by war. At such a time a nation needs not only the warrior leader which it found in Churchill but also the image of the way of life for which it fights, and this it found in the King. Lithe and handsome, good at sports, an excellent shot and a skilled horseman, he was the country squire, the racehorse owner, the freemason, and above all the family man. His approach to life was one of common sense and humour. He made no claims to brilliance of intellect yet had a questing mind for which the twentieth century held no fears; his keenness of observation and determination to get to the heart of the matter could open up new lines of thought in others. He had few hobbies but was well versed in all that concerned his métier as monarch. He was the King malgré lui whom the nation had watched grow into kingship with a steadfast courage which had earned him their respect, their gratitude, and their affection.
The King was painted by many of the leading artists of the day, the state portrait of him in his coronation robes being by Sir Gerald Kelly in 1938. There was, in addition, the statue in the Mall by William McMillan which was unveiled by the Queen on 21 October 1955.
John W. Wheeler-Bennett, King George VI, 1958.
Contributor: Helen M. Palmer.