Edward died on 6 May 1910. He’d just returned from his annual spring visit to Biarritz with Alice Keppel, where his coughing and wheezing had been so bad he’d barely left the hotel in six weeks. Back in England he seemed to rally, playing bridge until midnight, managing five hours of Wagner at the opera, meeting various ministers. But on Sunday 1 May he went for a walk at Sandringham, stayed out in a cold wind and caught a chill. The following Friday, after a series of minor heart attacks, he lapsed into unconsciousness. It was somehow appropriate that the last thing George was able to tell him was that his horse, Witch of the Air,1 had won at Kempton Park.

In Britain Edward had made royalty visible, glamorous and enormously popular. The same papers that had covered his vices in salacious detail when he was Prince of Wales now extravagantly praised him. Hundreds of thousands of mourners filed past his coffin in Westminster Hall. From Europe came grandiloquent tributes. In Russia Novoe vremia wrote that Edward had “moulded the destinies of his realm.” A Viennese paper called him “The most influential man of the present day. His own foreign minister.” In Germany the Rheinisch-Westfälische Zeitung described him as “the great opponent … We stand at his bier as at that of a mighty and victorious antagonist.”2 “He might have been3 a Solon and Francis of Assisi combined if characters drawn of him were true,” the anti-imperialist poet and diplomat Wilfrid Scawen Blunt noted drily.

In some respects, however, Edward had failed to be what he had set out to be—a peacemaker. He had helped to put Britain back in Europe, he had encouraged the deals with France and Russia, but he had become the incarnation of Germany’s old fears of being trapped and surrounded by hostile forces—and though the accusation was ridiculous, he was unable to summon the energy or inclination to counter it. His association with the anti-German hawkish party in Britain and the very public failure of his relationship with Wilhelm had compounded this. A few months before he died, he had confidentially told a British journalist that in a European war Britain would be obliged, by “honour and interest,”4 to come to France’s aid against Germany.

Before he set out for the funeral, Wilhelm passed judgement on his uncle. “The scheming and intrigues … which for so long have caused unrest abroad and made Europe hold its breath, will hopefully come to a stop,” he told his new chancellor, Theodore von Bethmann-Hollweg. “All the Cabinet alliances and private coalitions will fall apart without a man at the top to bind them together.” Edward, he claimed, would be missed only by “the French and the Jews.” Europe would be “much calmer.”5 As for George, Wilhelm described him, unusually perceptively, as “An English country6 gentleman without political interests … whose sketchy linguistic abilities will incline him towards staying at home.” Finally, Wilhelm felt, he was the pre-eminent monarch in Europe. And relations with the British royal family would be more temperate since George was perfectly friendly. It was unlikely, however, that this would make any difference to the impacted nature of Anglo-German relations.

George was devastated by his father’s death—though the sheer dread of becoming king was inextricably enmeshed in his feelings of loss. “I have lost7 my best friend, and the best of fathers,” he wrote in his diary. “I never had a word with him in my life. I am heartbroken and overwhelmed with grief. I am quite stunned by this awful blow.” Nicholas wrote to him, “How deeply8 I feel for you; the terrible loss you and England have sustained. I know alas! By experience what it costs one. There you are with your heart bleeding and aching, but at the same time duty imposes itself and people and affairs come up and tear you away from your sorrow … How I would have liked to have come now and be near you!”

Even without Nicholas an embarrassment of European royalty turned up at the funeral: seven kings (of Belgium, Greece, Norway, Spain, Bulgaria, Denmark and Portugal), one emperor (Wilhelm), and thirty European princes and heirs, including Franz Ferdinand of Austria, Alix’s brother Ernst of Hesse, Nicholas’s younger brother Misha and their mother, Minny. The United States was represented by Theodore Roosevelt, who had recently, and rather reluctantly, stepped down from the presidency. The bill for feeding the kings alone was said to have come to £4,644 (around £325,0009 in today’s money). Nothing politically significant was said or suggested. The kings changed into their uniforms, waxed their impressive beards and moustaches, ate their dinners, posed for photographs. British guards regiments marched perfectly through the streets; the funeral was, as Minny wrote back to Nicholas, “beautifully arranged,10 all in perfect order, very touching and solemn. Poor Aunt Alix bore up wonderfully to the last. Georgie, too, behaved so well and with such calm.”

Only five months later the first of the royal guests would lose his throne: Manuel of Portugal, deposed by a country tired of his attachment to the extreme Right. He escaped to Gibraltar and was brought to exile in England on George’s yacht the Victoria and Albert. In 1912 the Italian king Vittorio Emmanuele, whose father had been assassinated, would narrowly avoid the same fate. George’s uncle George of Greece would fall victim to an attack at Salonika in 1913. Franz Ferdinand would die in Sarajevo in 1914. Misha would be murdered the day after his brother in 1918. Kings were parting company with history.

Once again the London crowds cheered Wilhelm—but then the London crowds cheered almost anyone; pageantry was entertainment. In Germany, the endless displays, the reviews, the monuments unveiled, the processions and the speeches that had become so much a feature of the Wilhelmine era, had gradually bored the public into apathy or derision, but in Britain Wilhelm was still good value. Alongside the antagonism so vividly expressed in the press, his appearances in England triggered a yearning that the tensions in Europe would simply go away. He looked so forceful and effective in his spiked helmet, so pleased to see his English relatives, surely it all must count for something? The Telegraph piously expressed the wish that Wilhelm, “the great arbiter11 of peace and war,” would take up Edward’s mantle as international peacemaker: “if the German Emperor takes up decisively the moral role in international affairs,”12 he might be “the world’s new hope.” He accompanied George to Westminster Hall, “where we put13 wreaths on dear Papa’s coffin, most touching to see the thousands of people passing in absolute silence.” The kaiser had always had an instinct for a public gesture—though never for its consequences. He clasped the king’s hand across the coffin. The press seized on it as “a symbol,”14 as the Daily Chronicle said, “of the friendship that should ever unite the two great Empires they represent in the bonds of peace.” “None who saw15 it was unaffected by this display of simple affection between the cousins,” gushed the Daily Mail; the gesture would “never be forgotten.”

Wilhelm wrote home to his chancellor that being at Windsor16 again revived all his happy childhood memories, and even though the intervening years had been “particularly hard to take,” he was “proud to call this place my second homeland and to be a member of its royal family.” Within days he was very much at home. When Alexandra, a widow of two weeks, showed no sign of wanting to move out of Buckingham Palace or of relinquishing the trappings of her position, and George seemed reluctant to raise the matter, the kaiser decided to tackle it himself. “Willie dear,”17Alexandra said to the nephew she had disliked for thirty years, “you know that you always speak rather indistinctly, I am afraid that I have not heard a single word that you were saying.”

It was all rather different from Germany, where half the country now despised Wilhelm’s gaffes, his unsteadiness, his triviality, his slavish identification with the army and the Prussian Junker class, and at least half the press treated him as a bad joke. The notion of “personal rule,” moreover, had evaporated with Bülow’s retirement. Wilhelm’s relationship with his new chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, was quite different. He had not been Wilhelm’s first or even second choice and regarded himself as a professional administrator and servant of the state, not a courtier. He was thoroughly “Prussian” in his outlook—anti-democratic, anti-Socialist, pro-agrarian, nationalistic—but he did not flatter or kowtow, and the kaiser now more or less allowed him to pursue his policies and appoint ministers as he thought best. Archaeology was the kaiser’s new passion. Each spring he would disappear off to Corfu, where the disgruntled entourage were forced to dig for hours. “Let him get18 on with it,” Bethmann-Hollweg told a colleague, “for as long as he is digging, he does not send telegrams and interfere with politics.” Not that Wilhelm had stopped making speeches or trying to keep up the public fiction that he was still in control. Nor would he—despite all the fond memories—allow Bethmann-Hollweg to meddle at all with the naval programme. On becoming chancellor in 1909 the latter had tried to tackle what he saw as Germany’s worrying international isolation. He had proposed Anglo-German talks on the navy, but had immediately come up against Wilhelm and Tirpitz’s stubbornness. Bethmann-Hollweg regarded Tirpitz’s naval policy as the “unending screw” preventing a rapprochement with Britain. But he could offer only a slowdown in construction, not an acknowledgement of the Royal Navy’s numerical superiority, and in return he wanted a diplomatic treaty by which Britain promised not to interfere in Europe in the event of a European war, a gesture he insisted was vital in order to secure the approval of the kaiser and the German public. Unsurprisingly, the British response had been tepid and the talks had lapsed.

Though his father had tried to prepare him for kingship, George felt utterly unready. At Sandringham and among the shooting aristocracy he had kept himself insulated from the twentieth century, public attention and the messy world of politics. Becoming king thrust him into a scary and foreign world. He confided to Esher that he found himself at five in the19 morning scribbling anxious notes to himself. He described meeting his father’s privy councillors the day after his father’s death, as “the most trying20 ordeal I ever had to go through.” Appearing in public was excruciating. Reading his speech to open Parliament—“a terrible ordeal”—made his hands shake so hard the text had to be set in extra large type. His coronation in June 1911 was quite as bad. His anxiety was obvious. The society wit and satirist Max Beerbohm, watching him at the opening of Parliament, felt a stab of pity for him, “The little King,21 with the great diamonded crown that covered his eyebrows, and with the eyes that showed so tragically much of effort, of the will to please … the will to be all that he isn’t and that his Papa was … Oh such a piteous, good, feeble, heroic little figure.”

For all his anxieties about becoming king, and his innocence when it came to politics, George possessed—not unlike his cousins—very conservative views and a fierce sense of entitlement. The narrowness of his naval education and his almost pathological aversion to change put him on the side of reaction. The new Edwardian world left him bewildered and alarmed. If he’d had the chance, he would have capsized all the policy decisions the ruling Liberal Party made in his first years as king: he would have kept the House of Lords just as it was, prevented Irish Home Rule and sponsored anti–trade union legislation—though he would have agonized over each decision. He viewed socialists and the radical wing of the Liberal Party as the enemy, and construed everything they did as an assault on him and his world. He found strikes and trade unions incomprehensible. In 1912 he asked Asquith to come up with a law to stop peaceful picketing, which he considered disgraceful; during the 1926 General Strike he would suggest that the government arrest union leaders. He even disapproved of the Royal Navy reforms which his father had backed, particularly the redeploying of the Mediterranean fleet to the North Sea; he especially disliked Admiral Fisher, whom he regarded as devious.

Where George did have control—over the court and his household—he was an autocrat. What he wanted he got. With her husband’s accession, May resolved that she must be even more deferential and acquiescent to him; she never contradicted him over anything now, even within the family. The cost, her old friends noticed, was high. Her friend Mabell, Countess of Airlie, wrote that “Her devotion22 to the Monarchy demanded the sacrifice of much of her personal happiness.” She encouraged everyone else to defer too. Fritz Ponsonby, whom George took against for a while because he disagreed with him too often and too directly, felt that George’s household indulged him appallingly. He described once beating the king at tennis. George sulked and refused “to try.” He was used to being allowed to win. “He told us we didn’t understand the game and we ought to send easy ones. I was furious as pat ball is such rot.”23 It was a small example, but the lack of challenge meant that there was nothing to check his bad temper and resistance to new ideas.

George’s dislike of what his wife’s biographer has described as “everything complex”24 led him to insist that May must choose only one of her two given names, Victoria Mary, as queen. She chose Mary. He dressed insistently in the style of the late 1890s and demanded that Mary, who secretly would have liked to wear more fashionable clothes, do so too, so she would remain for ever in the constricting toques and bustles and corsets of a late-Victorian lady. Longing for the certainties of his grandmother’s world, he returned the court to the staidnesses of the 1890s. “We are back25 in Victorian times,” Viscount Esher wrote in his diary. The more open, less orthodox style of Edward’s court and social life disappeared almost overnight. The new king’s court was cloistered and irreproachably correct. (“We have seen26 enough of the intrigue and meddling of certain ladies, I’m not interested in any wife but my own,” George said. It was the closest he ever came to criticism of his father.) It was also crashingly dull. Even Lord Esher, lover of all things royal, began to bemoan the loss of “that curious27 electric current which pervaded the surroundings of King Edward.”

Like many anxious men, George felt put upon, the more so because “duty” was his guiding mantra. The result was a tendency to—often inappropriate—self-pity, indulged by the culture of deference of his wife and household. “Is it not hard28 on me?” he complained when mistakes were found in the ceremonial orders written up for Edward’s funeral—though there was a courtier and four clerks ready to spend the day fixing them. In 1914, when the conference on Home Rule, convened at Buckingham Palace to resolve the conflict between the Irish nationalists and the Ulster loyalists, failed, he wrote, “I want sympathy29 in these days and I can’t help thinking I am being badly treated.”

From the start it was clear George wasn’t going to engineer an active role for himself in the way that his father and grandmother had. He had neither the drive, imagination or charm to do so. Nor was he a very effective intervener because—just like his cousins—he could not distinguish between the trivial and the important. Like his father he was obsessed with correct dress, and would fire off pages of complaints—or rather his private secretary, Bigge, would—about an MP’s failure to appear in Parliament in the right frock coat or the correct hat, or about some minister’s phrase that had offended him. When Winston Churchill wrote a report for him about a day’s debate in the House of Commons and added, apropos a piece of employment legislation, that there were as many “idlers and wastrels” at the top of the social ladder as at the bottom, George complained furiously to Asquith, and anyone else who would listen, that Churchill’s phrase had been “very socialistic and utterly uncalled for.”30 No one corrected his own moments of tactlessness. He excoriated Lloyd George in front of the chancellor’s own staff and colleagues: on one occasion because he’d made another speech attacking big landowners who kept vast uncultivated estates. What had really angered George was that Lloyd George had claimed that pheasants ate whole fields of “mangold-wurzels,”31 and pheasants couldn’t eat mangold-wurzels.

He didn’t like it when it was too clearly spelled out that his role was purely symbolic. In 1914 Viscount Esher described his outrage at “the extraordinary32 assumption of his ministers that he would agree with any proposal they might make.” He felt both intimidated by his ministers and entitled to lecture them—which he did, often at length. During audiences, ministers would find themselves barely able to get a word in, while George gave them his opinions. They in turn found him a bit of a joke. “The King is33 a very jolly chap,” Lloyd George wrote after meeting George and Mary for the first time in the autumn of 1910, “but thank God there’s not much in his head. They are simple, very, very ordinary people, and perhaps on the whole that’s how it should be.” “I understand that34 it is your turn to go to Balmoral next week,” the prime minister, Asquith, wrote to Winston Churchill. “So I send you a word of friendly warning. You will find the Royal mind obsessed and the Royal tongue exceptionally fluid and voluble.” “He is a nice35 little man with a good heart and tries hard to be just and open-minded. It is a pity he were not better educated,” Asquith told his confidante Venetia Stanley. “The King talked more stupidly about the Navy than I have ever heard him before,” Churchill wrote in 1912. “Really it is36 disheartening to hear this cheap and silly drivel with which he lets himself be filled up.”

As for foreign affairs, it never occurred to Grey that the new king would try to play the role his father had. George hated going abroad; he spoke no languages; he had no real interest in foreign affairs and sometimes expressed nostalgia for “splendid isolation.”37 Moreover, the international situation had changed so much since 1901; it seemed impossible that the relationship between two people could have an effect on the relationship between two countries. The situation with Germany was impacted by vivid, deep-seated nationwide hostilities and the navy impasse. George regarded the French as effeminate, and deliberately pronounced French words incorrectly. He disapproved of republicanism and claimed to dislike Paris—which might have been because it had been the location for some of his father’s most famous misdemeanours. As for Russia, George’s relationship with Nicholas seemed one of the most warm and uncomplicated among the extended European royal families, but it had always been strictly apolitical. Now international affairs began to steal into the kindly, banal expressions of fondness, and the correspondence took on a slightly awkward, euphemistic, official tone. The king’s letters also became more frequent, perhaps four or five a year rather than the desultory one or two. “I hope we shall38 always continue our old friendship to one another,” he wrote after Edward’s funeral. “You know I never change and I have always been very fond of you … you may be sure I shall show the same interest in Russia that He did … there may be difficulties with Germany, but I think they can be overcome, if only England, Russia and France stick together the peace in Europe is assured. God bless you, my dear old Nicky and remember, you can always count on me as your friend.” And in March 1911, “I rather fear39 at the present moment that Germany is trying to isolate France, I may be wrong but that is what I think. No doubt Germany rather resents the friendly understanding which exists between England, Russia and France.”

George did have an ambition, however. A few months after his accession he told Lord Esher he wanted “to do for the Empire40 what King Edward did for the peace of Europe.” Arthur Balfour had argued in 1901 that the British monarch was the one symbol with which the whole disparate, rambling empire identified. George fancied himself as the glue that bound it together—glue much needed, given new demands for self-government in Ireland and India. In the autumn of 1905 he had visited India and had loved it: the grand ceremonial gatherings; the opulence of the maharajahs who paid court with jewel-encrusted swords; the tiger-and elephant-hunting; the vast, bobbing, endlessly cheering crowds; and the sense that India, with its education system, universities and bureaucrats, was proof that the empire civilized and improved the lives of its subject peoples. The place moved him to uncharacteristic superlatives: he told Nicholas it was a “wonderful country.” In fact, at the time of George’s visit, the country had been in the aftermath of the disastrous partition of Bengal. He had taken against its author, the imperious outgoing viceroy, Lord Curzon. The Raj’s officials assured him that the anger over partition, and the desire for self-government incarnated in the new Congress Party, had been terribly overstated. He very much wanted to believe them. “I understand the look in the eyes of the Indians,” George had told Gokhale, the head of the Indian Congress Party, with breathtaking presumption. “Would the peoples of India be happier if you ran the country?” Gokhale answered: “I do not say they would be happier, but they would have more self-respect.” George had returned home convinced that a closer union between “the Mother Country and her Indian Empire”41 would heal everything. Being Emperor of India excited George as little else about his new role did. It was so different from the limited, hemmed-in role he played in Britain. It conjured a less complicated and circumscribed idea of kingship, where subjects were simply and smilingly loyal.

Shortly after his accession George expressed his desire to return to India, to crown himself emperor at a durbar, the old mughal celebration adopted by the British. The cabinet was sceptical, wondering where the money to pay for a coronation extravaganza was going to come from. “I think it a42 grand idea,” Nicholas wrote. “… I do not doubt that it will produce a tremendous impression in the whole world!” George was persistent, and no one had a better idea about how to counter the Indian independence movement. A gesture of confidence from the mother country in the shape of a visit from its monarch, combined with some reforms, might help. It was planned that the king would have his durbar and announce the end of the partition of Bengal and the moving of the capital from Calcutta to Delhi. George was, however, discouraged from his Napoleonic self-coronation—the idea was tactfully scuttled by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who suggested it might be out of place in a non-Christian country.

One hundred thousand people came to the durbar. It was, George told Nicholas, “a magnificent43 sight and practically every Maharajah in India was present.” He and Mary sat under a golden dome on silver thrones in glittering coronation robes, while bejewelled Indian maharajahs came to offer homage. George wore a new crown made for the event, covered in 6,170 cut diamonds, sapphires, emeralds and rubies and costing £60,000. Forty thousand tents were pitched on the hills around to accommodate the throng who came to see the new emperor. Afterwards he went to Nepal for two weeks, where, with the local maharajah, 600 elephants and 1,400 beaters, he personally shot twenty-one tigers, eight rhinos and one bear. He was convinced his presence in India had made a difference. But the effects of such spectacles were never long-lived, and as an effective and unifying symbol of empire George was at least a decade too late. A year later a member of the Indian independence movement dressed as a woman threw a bomb at Sir Charles Hardinge, who was now Viceroy of India, as he entered Delhi on an elephant, killing his servant and wounding him seriously. The cabinet would not be persuaded to repeat the exercise—royal trips to the far-flung empire were expensive and took months. When George began talking about a trip to South Africa, one minister remarked, “We decided he44 had much better stay at home and not teach people how easily the machine worked without a king.”

Edward’s death would have been traumatic for George at any time. Coming as it did in May 1910, it plunged him into the middle of the most serious constitutional crisis in British politics for decades, one that had parallels with the constitutional struggles in Germany and Russia. The House of Commons was attempting to abolish the House of Lords’ veto, the weapon the Conservative aristocracy—who sat in the Lords by virtue of its hereditary titles—had been using to block Liberal legislation and reforms already passed in the Commons. The matter had reached crisis point in late 1909 when the Lords threw out David Lloyd George’s Budget, which, because it extended death duties and land taxes, they saw as an attack on them. The Conservative aristocracy did itself no favours with public opinion by reacting with almost comic hysteria—even though, as both sides suspected, the actual amounts raised would be pretty modest. The Duke of Buccleuch,45 who owned among other things a large collection of Poussins, claimed he couldn’t afford the guinea for the subscription to Dumfries Football Club. The Earl of Onslow put large parts of Surrey up for sale, and the Duke of Rutland, who like many Tories seemed to think that radical Liberals and Labour Party members were the same thing, said that all Labour MPs should be gagged. As Prince of Wales, George’s sympathies had been with the Lords. The much-loathed Lloyd George had drafted his Budget and launched it with speeches which cheerily and baldly pointed out the gap between rich and poor in a way that no British statesman ever had, and with great panache and humour. “A fully equipped46 Duke costs as much to keep as two Dreadnoughts and is more difficult to scrap,” he said. The House of Lords was “five hundred ordinary men chosen at random from among the unemployed.” In the Conservative press he was portrayed as a bomb-throwing anarchist or a highwayman—which he loved.

The House of Lords’ rejection of Lloyd George’s Budget had forced a general election in early 1910. The Liberals, who won only a couple more seats than the Conservatives, kept power in a coalition with the Irish nationalists and the Labour Party, giving them a 113-seat majority. For different reasons each party was raring to destroy the Lords’ veto, and the Commons put forward a bill to do just that. Everyone knew the Lords would reject it. Prime Minister Asquith’s solution was to threaten to flood the Lords with new Liberal peers, created by the king. Edward had hated being placed in such a position. An attack on the Lords, he and his advisers felt, was perilously close to an attack on the monarchy. He’d died furious with both Asquith and the Conservative Lords for having refused to compromise. Some of the more extreme Tories went so far as to claim that the prime minister’s threats had killed the king.

George’s unease and lack of experience were so palpable that Asquith promised him six months’ grace, in which he tried and failed to reach a compromise with the Lords. But in December 1910 he was obliged to call another election, and came to see the king to ask him for a guarantee that he would create the peers if the Liberals won. Their interaction was a comedy of errors which painfully demonstrated how little George understood politics. Asquith, aware that the king hated the idea, asked for his guarantee in such overly delicate, allusive language that George thought he’d been let off the hook, realizing the truth only three days later. When Asquith returned to ask for the guarantee in plainer terms, he brought with him another minister, Lord Crewe. Just as George had misunderstood Asquith’s previous attempts at delicacy and tact, so he now thought Crewe was there because Asquith didn’t trust his word—whereas Asquith meant it as a courtesy to George. Then when the prime minister suggested that the guarantee be kept secret until it was actually needed, George assumed he was being asked to do something underhand. “I have never in my life47done anything I was ashamed to confess, and I have been accustomed to conceal nothing.” He failed to understand that the prime minister was trying to keep him out of the controversy unless it was entirely necessary. George later claimed Asquith had bullied the assurance out of him by threatening to resign and call a new election on the issue of the king and the peers against the people. He obsessed over it for years, imagining there might have been an alternative. When he found out in 1913 that Arthur Balfour, leader of the Lords’ opposition, had offered at that moment to form a Conservative government and he hadn’t been told, he fumed that he could have invited Balfour to form an administration and saved the Lords’ veto. But this would have been potentially far more partisan and interventionist than what Asquith asked him to do. Balfour would automatically have lost his first Commons vote, which would have triggered yet another election on a subject the country was sick of. That election would have been a vote of confidence on the king’s decision to back the Conservatives—dragging the Crown into politics as it had not been for over a century.

The abolition of the veto—and the power of the Lords—was eventually, and with much bitterness, passed in July 1911, and without George having to create the extra peers, but he worried about the process all the way through, relieving his feelings by bombarding Asquith with memos, and daily summoning ministers and Lords to air his worries.

One of Nicholas’s biographers has written that “In England where a sovereign48 needed only to be a good man in order to be a good king, Nicholas II would have made an admirable monarch.” Perhaps it was truer to say that in Russia George might well have been just as disastrous as Nicholas and that in Britain it didn’t matter what the sovereign was like as long as he was sober and followed the rules. The Lords débâcle was an inauspicious beginning to George’s reign; but he would be, as it turned out, a good king. The system would make him effective almost despite himself, compelling him to do things he would never have chosen to do, for example meeting and being polite to the man he loathed, Lloyd George (and forcing the radical chancellor to do likewise). Eventually, Lloyd George would become his prime minister. It wasn’t quite as if Nicholas had been forced to meet, say, Lenin, or Wilhelm had socialized with the German Marxist Rosa Luxemburg, but, in George’s head at least, it wasn’t far off. In September 1911 Lloyd George went to stay at Balmoral for several days. Both sides were obliged to be on their best behaviour. Lloyd George went on picnics with the royal family, and George presented him with one of his father’s walking sticks. After a few days Lloyd George had had enough. “I am not cut49 out for Court life,” he wrote to his wife. “I detest it. The whole atmosphere reeks with Toryism. I can breathe it and it depresses and sickens me. Everybody is very civil to me as they would be to a dangerous wild animal whom they fear and perhaps just a little admire for its suppleness and strength.” He was far from the only one to find the royal way of life—not just the opinions, but the arbitrary rules and rituals, the obligatory changes of clothes (at least four a day) and the hours of shooting—anachronistic and irritating. The next leader of the Conservative Party, Andrew Bonar Law, an austere Scottish businessman with nothing in common with the old aristocratic grandees, would find his obligatory weekends with the royal family at Balmoral “unendurable.”50

It took the country a while to get the hang of George. With his melancholy direct stare and unflinchingly upright deportment, a fresh white gardenia eternally in his buttonhole, a hat (a homburg or a top hat—he would sooner have left his home naked than without one) and his immaculate old-fashioned tailoring, his deliberate, elegant figure communicated respectability, decency, steadiness and old-fashioned values. In a world that seemed to be getting faster, more confusing and more dangerous, there was something very reassuring about that. As king he would be a layer of foundation stones, a visitor of schools, mining towns, railway works and occasionally workers’ cottages, though his diaries reveal nothing of what he made of these places. His was an unflashy, domestic kind of monarchy—one that seemed concerned to operate with the support of its subjects and to want to be in touch with them. Under George the British monarchy really would become, as Walter Bagehot had described it in his book The English Constitution, “dignified” and “symbolic.”

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