George VI (Albert Frederick Arthur George; 14 December 1895 – 6 February 1952) was King of the United Kingdom and the Dominions of the British Commonwealth from 11 December 1936 until his death. He was the last Emperor of India and the first Head of the Commonwealth.
As the second son of King George V, he was not expected to inherit the throne and spent his early life in the shadow of his elder brother, Edward. He served in the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force during the First World War, and afterwards took on the usual round of public engagements. He married Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon in 1923 and they had two daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret.
George’s elder brother ascended the throne as Edward VIII upon the death of their father in 1936. However, later that year Edward revealed his desire to marry the divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson. British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin advised Edward that for political and religious reasons he could not marry a divorced woman and remain king. Edward abdicated in order to marry, and George ascended the throne as the third monarch of the House of Windsor.
During George’s reign the break-up of the British Empire and its transition into the Commonwealth of Nations accelerated. The parliament of the Irish Free State removed direct mention of the monarch from the country’s constitution on the day of his accession. From 1939, the Empire and Commonwealth, except the Irish Free State, was at war with Nazi Germany. War with Italy and Japan followed in 1940 and 1941, respectively. Though Britain and its allies were ultimately victorious in 1945, the United States and the Soviet Union rose as pre-eminent world powers and the British Empire declined. After the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947, George remained as king of both countries, but the title Emperor of India was abandoned in June 1948. Ireland formally declared itself a republic and left the Commonwealth in 1949, and India became a republic within the Commonwealth the following year. George adopted the new title of Head of the Commonwealth. He was beset by health problems in the later years of his reign. His elder daughter, Elizabeth, succeeded him.
George VI was born at York Cottage, on the Sandringham Estate in Norfolk, during the reign of his great-grandmother Queen Victoria. His father was Prince George, Duke of York (later King George V), the second and eldest-surviving son of the Prince and Princess of Wales (later King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra). His mother was the Duchess of York (later Queen Mary), the eldest child and only daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Teck.
His birthday (14 December 1895) was the anniversary of the death of his great-grandfather, Prince Albert, the Prince Consort. Uncertain of how the Prince Consort’s widow, Queen Victoria, would take the news of the birth, the Prince of Wales wrote to the Duke of York that the Queen had been “rather distressed”. Two days later, he wrote again: “I really think it would gratify her if you yourself proposed the name Albert to her”.Queen Victoria was mollified by the proposal to name the new baby Albert, and wrote to the Duchess of York: “I am all impatience to see the new one, born on such a sad day but rather more dear to me, especially as he will be called by that dear name which is a byword for all that is great and good”.Consequently, he was baptised “Albert Frederick Arthur George” at St. Mary Magdalene’s Church near Sandringham three months later. As a great-grandson of Queen Victoria, he was known formally as His Highness Prince Albert of York from birth. Within the family, he was known informally as “Bertie”. His maternal grandmother, the Duchess of Teck, did not like the first name the baby had been given, and she wrote prophetically that she hoped the last name “may supplant the less favoured one”.
Albert, as he was known, was fourth in line to the throne at birth, after his grandfather, father and elder brother, Edward. In 1898, Queen Victoria issued Letters Patent that granted the children of the eldest son of the Prince of Wales the style Royal Highness, and at the age of two, Albert became His Royal Highness Prince Albert of York.
He often suffered from ill health and was described as “easily frightened and somewhat prone to tears”. His parents were generally removed from their children’s day-to-day upbringing, as was the norm in aristocratic families of that era. He had a stammer that lasted for many years, and was forced to write with his right hand although he was naturally left-handed. He suffered from chronic stomach problems as well as knock knees, for which he was forced to wear painful corrective splints.
Queen Victoria died on 22 January 1901, and the Prince of Wales succeeded her as King Edward VII. Prince Albert moved up to third-in-line to the throne, after his father and elder brother.
From 1909, Albert attended the Royal Naval College, Osborne, as a naval cadet. In 1911, he came bottom of the class in the final examination, but despite this he progressed to the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth. When Edward VII died in 1910, Albert’s father became King George V. Prince Edward was created Prince of Wales, and Albert was second in line to the throne.
Albert spent the first six months of 1913 on the training ship HMS Cumberland in the West Indies and on the east coast of Canada. He was rated as a midshipman aboard HMS Collingwood on 15 September 1913, and spent three months in the Mediterranean. His fellow officers gave him the nickname “Mr. Johnson”. One year after his commission, he began service in the First World War. He was mentioned in despatches for his action as a turret officer aboard Collingwood in the Battle of Jutland (31 May – 1 June 1916), an indecisive engagement with the German navy that was the largest naval action of the war. He did not see further combat, largely because of ill health caused by a duodenal ulcer, for which he had an operation 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. With the establishment of the Royal Air Force two months later and the transfer of Cranwell from Navy to Air Force control, he transferred from the Royal Navy to the Royal Air Force. He was appointed Officer Commanding Number 4 Squadron of the Boys’ Wing at Cranwell until August 1918, before reporting to the RAF’s Cadet School at St Leonards-on-Sea where he completed a fortnight’s training and took command of a squadron on the Cadet Wing. He was the first member of the royal family to be certified as a fully qualified pilot. During the closing weeks of the war, he served on the staff of the RAF’s Independent Air Force at its headquarters in Nancy, France.Following the disbanding of the Independent Air Force in November 1918, he remained on the Continent for two months as a staff officer with the Royal Air Force until posted back to Britain.
In October 1919, Albert went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied history, economics and civics for a year.On 4 June 1920, he was created Duke of York, Earl of Inverness and Baron Killarney. He began to take on more royal duties. He represented his father, and toured coal mines, factories, and railyards. Through such visits he acquired the nickname of the “Industrial Prince”. His stammer, and his embarrassment over it, together with his tendency to shyness, caused him to appear much less impressive than his older brother, Edward. However, he was physically active and enjoyed playing tennis. He played at Wimbledon in the Men’s Doubles with Louis Greig in 1926, losing in the first round. He developed an interest in working conditions, and was President of the Industrial Welfare Society. His series of annual summer camps for boys between 1921 and 1939 brought together boys from different social backgrounds.
In a time when royals were expected to marry fellow royals, it was unusual that Albert had a great deal of freedom in choosing a prospective wife. An infatuation with the already-married Australian socialite Sheila, Lady Loughborough, came to an end in April 1920 when the King, with the promise of the dukedom of York, persuaded Albert to stop seeing her. That year, he met for the first time since childhood Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the youngest daughter of the Earl and Countess of Strathmore and Kinghorne. He became determined to marry her. She rejected his proposal twice, in 1921 and 1922, reportedly because she was reluctant to make the sacrifices necessary to become a member of the royal family. In the words of Lady Elizabeth’s mother, Albert would be “made or marred” by his choice of wife. After a protracted courtship, Elizabeth agreed to marry him.
They were married on 26 April 1923 in Westminster Abbey. Albert’s marriage to someone not of royal birth was considered a modernising gesture. The newly formed British Broadcasting Company wished to record and broadcast the event on radio, but the Abbey Chapter vetoed the idea (although the Dean, Herbert Edward Ryle, was in favour). Lady Elizabeth was styled “Her Royal Highness The Duchess of York” after their marriage.
From December 1924 to April 1925, the Duke and Duchess toured Kenya, Uganda, and the Sudan, travelling via the Suez Canal and Aden. During the trip, they both went big game hunting.
Because of his stammer, Albert dreaded public speaking. After his closing speech at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley on 31 October 1925, one which was an ordeal for both him and his listeners, he began to see Lionel Logue, an Australian-born speech therapist. The Duke and Logue practised breathing exercises, and the Duchess rehearsed with him patiently. Subsequently, he was able to speak with less hesitation. With his delivery improved, the Duke opened the new Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, during a tour of the empire in 1927. His journey by sea to Australia, New Zealand and Fiji took him via Jamaica, where Albert played doubles tennis partnered with a black man, which was unusual at the time and taken locally as a display of equality between races.
The Duke and Duchess of York had two children: Elizabeth (called “Lilibet” by the family), and Margaret. The Duke and Duchess and their two daughters lived a relatively sheltered life at their London residence, 145 Piccadilly. They were a close and loving family. One of the few stirs arose when the Canadian Prime Minister, R. B. Bennett, considered the Duke for Governor General of Canada in 1931—a proposal that King George V rejected on the advice of the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, J. H. Thomas
King George V had severe reservations about Prince Edward, saying, “I pray God that my eldest son will never marry and that nothing will come between Bertie and Lilibet and the throne.” On 20 January 1936, George V died and Edward ascended the throne as Edward VIII. In the Vigil of the Princes, Prince Albert and his three brothers took a shift standing guard over their father’s body as it lay in state, in a closed casket, in Westminster Hall.
As Edward was unmarried and had no children, Albert was the heir presumptive to the throne. Less than a year later, on 11 December 1936, Edward VIII abdicated in order to marry his mistress, Wallis Simpson, who was divorced from her first husband and divorcing her second. Edward had been advised by British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin that he could not remain king and marry a divorced woman with two living ex-husbands. Edward chose abdication in preference to abandoning his marriage plans. Thus Albert became king, a position he was reluctant to accept. The day before the abdication, he went to London to see his mother, Queen Mary. He wrote in his diary, “When I told her what had happened, I broke down and sobbed like a child.”
On the day of the abdication, the Oireachtas, the parliament of the Irish Free State, removed all direct mention of the monarch from the Irish constitution. The next day, it passed the External Relations Act, which made provision for the monarch to act as the state’s representative in foreign affairs. The two acts made the Irish Free State a republic in essence without removing its links to the Commonwealth.
Courtier and journalist Dermot Morrah alleged that there was brief speculation as to the desirability of bypassing Albert (and his children) and his brother, Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, in favour of their younger brother Prince George, Duke of Kent. This seems to have been suggested on the grounds that Prince George was at that time the only brother with a son,
Albert assumed the regnal name “George VI” to emphasise continuity with his father and restore confidence in the monarchy. The beginning of George VI’s reign was taken up by questions surrounding his predecessor and brother, whose titles, style and position were uncertain. He had been introduced as “His Royal Highness Prince Edward” for the abdication broadcast, but George VI felt that by abdicating and renouncing the succession Edward had lost the right to bear royal titles, including “Royal Highness”. In settling the issue, George’s first act as king was to confer upon his brother the title and style “His Royal Highness The Duke of Windsor”, but the Letters Patent creating the dukedom prevented any wife or children from bearing royal styles. George VI was also forced to buy from Edward the royal residences of Balmoral Castle and Sandringham House, as these were private properties and did not pass to George VI automatically.Three days after his accession, on his 41st birthday, he invested his wife, the new queen consort, with the Order of the Garter.
George VI’s coronation took place on 12 May 1937, the date previously intended for Edward’s coronation. In a break with tradition, Queen Mary attended the ceremony in a show of support for her son. There was no Durbar held in Delhi for George VI, as had occurred for his father, as the cost would have been a burden to the government of India. Rising Indian nationalism made the welcome that the royal couple would have received likely to be muted at best, and a prolonged absence from Britain would have been undesirable in the tense period before the Second World War. Two overseas tours were undertaken, to France and to North America, both of which promised greater strategic advantages in the event of war.
The growing likelihood of war in Europe dominated the early reign of George VI. The King was constitutionally bound to support Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler. However, when the King and Queen greeted Chamberlain on his return from negotiating the Munich Agreement in 1938, they invited him to appear on the balcony of Buckingham Palace with them. This public association of the monarchy with a politician was exceptional, as balcony appearances were traditionally restricted to the royal family.While broadly popular among the general public, Chamberlain’s policy towards Hitler was the subject of some opposition in the House of Commons, which led historian John Grigg to describe the King’s behaviour in associating himself so prominently with a politician as “the most unconstitutional act by a British sovereign in the present century.
In May and June 1939, the King and Queen toured Canada and the United States. From Ottawa, the royal couple were accompanied throughout by Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, to present themselves in North America as King and Queen of Canada. George was the first reigning monarch of Canada to visit North America, although he had been to Canada previously as Prince Albert and as Duke of York. Both Governor General of Canada Lord Tweedsmuir and Mackenzie King hoped that the King’s presence in Canada would demonstrate the principles of the Statute of Westminster 1931, which gave full sovereignty to the British Dominions. On 19 May, George VI personally accepted and approved the Letter of Credence of the new U.S. Ambassador to Canada, Daniel Calhoun Roper; gave Royal Assent to nine parliamentary bills; and ratified two international treaties with the Great Seal of Canada. The official royal tour historian, Gustave Lanctot, wrote “the Statute of Westminster had assumed full reality” and George gave a speech emphasising “the free and equal association of the nations of the Commonwealth”.
The trip was intended to soften the strong isolationist tendencies among the North American public with regard to the developing tensions in Europe. Although the aim of the tour was mainly political, to shore up Atlantic support for the United Kingdom in any future war, the King and Queen were enthusiastically received by the public. The fear that George would be compared unfavourably to his predecessor, Edward VIII, was dispelled. They visited the 1939 New York World’s Fair and stayed with President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the White House and at his private estate at Hyde Park, New York. A strong bond of friendship was forged between the King and Queen and the President during the tour, which had major significance in the relations between the United States and the United Kingdom through the ensuing war years.”.
In September 1939, Britain and the self-governing Dominions, but not Ireland, declared war on Nazi Germany.George VI and his wife resolved to stay in London, despite German bombing raids. They officially stayed in Buckingham Palace throughout the war, although they usually spent nights at Windsor Castle. The first German raid on London, on 7 September 1940, killed about one thousand civilians, mostly in the East End. On 13 September, the King and Queen narrowly avoided death when two German bombs exploded in a courtyard at Buckingham Palace while they were there. In defiance, the Queen famously declared: “I am glad we have been bombed. It makes me feel we can look the East End in the face”. The royal family were portrayed as sharing the same dangers and deprivations as the rest of the country. They were subject to rationing restrictions, and U.S. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt remarked on the rationed food served and the limited bathwater that was permitted during a stay at the unheated and boarded-up Palace. In August 1942, the King’s brother, Prince George, Duke of Kent, was killed on active service.
In 1940, Winston Churchill replaced Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister, though personally George would have preferred to appoint Lord Halifax.After the King’s initial dismay over Churchill’s appointment of Lord Beaverbrook to the Cabinet, he and Churchill developed “the closest personal relationship in modern British history between a monarch and a Prime Minister”. Every Tuesday for four and a half years from September 1940, the two men met privately for lunch to discuss the war in secret and with frankness.
Throughout the war, the King and Queen provided morale-boosting visits throughout the United Kingdom, visiting bomb sites, munitions factories, and troops. The King visited military forces abroad in France in December 1939, North Africa and Malta in June 1943, Normandy in June 1944, southern Italy in July 1944, and the Low Countries in October 1944. Their high public profile and apparently indefatigable determination secured their place as symbols of national resistance. At a social function in 1944, Chief of the Imperial General Staff Sir Alan Brooke, revealed that every time he met Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery he thought he was after his job. The King replied: “You should worry, when I meet him, I always think he’s after mine!”
In 1945, crowds shouted “We want the King!” in front of Buckingham Palace during the Victory in Europe Day celebrations. In an echo of Chamberlain’s appearance, the King invited Churchill to appear with the royal family on the balcony to public acclaim.
In January 1946, George addressed the United Nations at their first assembly, which was held in London, and reaffirmed “our faith in the equal rights of men and women and of nations great and small”.
George VI’s reign saw the acceleration of the dissolution of the British Empire. The Statute of Westminster 1931 had already acknowledged the evolution of the Dominions into separate sovereign states. The process of transformation from an empire to a voluntary association of independent states, known as the Commonwealth, gathered pace after the Second World War, especially during the ministry of Clement Attlee. British India became the two independent dominions of India and Pakistan in 1947. George relinquished the title of Emperor of India, and became King of India and King of Pakistan instead. In 1950 he ceased to be King of India when it became a republic within the Commonwealth of Nations, but he remained King of Pakistan until his death and India recognised his new title of Head of the Commonwealth. Other countries left the Commonwealth, such as Burma in January 1948, Palestine (divided between Israel and the Arab states) in May 1948 and the Republic of Ireland in 1949.
In 1947, the King and his family toured Southern Africa. The Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa, Jan Smuts, was facing an election and hoped to make political capital out of the visit. George was appalled, however, when instructed by the South African government to shake hands only with whites, and referred to his South African bodyguards as “the Gestapo”. Despite the tour, Smuts lost the election the following year, and the new government instituted a strict policy of racial segregation.
The stress of the war had taken its toll on the King’s health, exacerbated by his heavy smoking and subsequent development of lung cancer among other ailments, including arteriosclerosis and thromboangiitis obliterans. A planned tour of Australia and New Zealand was postponed after the King suffered an arterial blockage in his right leg, which threatened the loss of the leg and was treated with a right lumbar sympathectomy in March 1949. Princess Elizabeth, the heir presumptive, took on more royal duties as her father’s health deteriorated. The delayed tour was re-organised, with Elizabeth and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, taking the place of the King and Queen. The King was well enough to open the Festival of Britain in May 1951, but on 23 September 1951, his left lung was removed by Clement Price Thomas after a malignant tumour was found. In October 1951, Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh went on a month-long tour of Canada; the trip had been delayed for a week due to the King’s illness. At the State Opening of Parliament in November, the King’s speech from the throne was read for him by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Simonds. His Christmas broadcast of 1951 was recorded in sections, and then edited together.
On 31 January 1952, despite advice from those close to him, the King went to London Airport to see off Princess Elizabeth, who was going on her tour of Australia via Kenya. On the morning of 6 February, George VI was found dead in bed at Sandringham House in Norfolk. He had died from a coronary thrombosis in his sleep at the age of 56. His daughter Elizabeth flew back to Britain from Kenya as Queen Elizabeth II.
From 9 February for two days his coffin rested in St. Mary Magdalene Church, Sandringham, before lying in state at Westminster Hall from 11 February. His funeral took place at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, on the 15th. He was interred initially in the Royal Vault until he was transferred to the King George VI Memorial Chapel inside St. George’s on 26 March 1969. In 2002, fifty years after his death, the remains of his widow, Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, and the ashes of his younger daughter Princess Margaret, who both died that year, were interred in the chapel alongside him.