In this part . . .
In the 20th century, the British monarchy faced a number of crises. Some of these, such as the two World Wars, were devastating for everyone but posed a special challenge to the monarchy - what was the role for the ruler now that he was no longer his country’s military leader?
More personal crises became national ones, too, because the monarch is a public figure. The most famous crises were the abdication of King Edward VIII in 1936 and the death of Princess Diana in 1997. On both occasions, people questioned the future of the monarchy, but both times the institution survived - because of the dedication of the individual members of the royal family and because of the gradual adjustments they made to their outlook and role.
In This Chapter
● Investigating the first three kings of the House of Windsor
● Discovering how the monarchy coped with two World Wars
● Understanding the ‘abdication crisis’
● Watching the royal family become less remote and closer to the people
In the first half of the 20th century, two kings called George dominated the royal history of Britain. They were both shy, rather private men who were in many ways ill-suited to the public role of monarchy. But both George V and his son George VI managed to overcome their hang-ups to become leaders who were respected and, in the end, loved by their people.
Between the two Georges came Edward VIII, who reigned only for a few months, was never crowned, and gave up the throne in order to marry a woman whom the establishment deemed unacceptable to be queen.
These unlikely rulers presided over difficult times. George V led his country through World War I and the political upheavals that followed it. The Britain of George VI’s reign had to face the even greater devastation of World War II. In the 20th century, it was no longer acceptable for a king to be a military leader in any real sense, so both monarchs had to find ways of being a war leader without going into battle.
By the end of George VI’s reign, therefore, the monarchy had transformed itself. During World War II, the king met ordinary people regularly, developed a common touch, and was at the centre of a royal family that was featured widely in the press and on the news.
What's in a Name: George V
George V (1910-36) never expected to become king. He was the second son of Edward, Prince of Wales (later Edward VII - for more about him, see Chapter 15) and Queen Alexandra, but in 1892, his elder brother Albert Victor died.
Suddenly, George found himself next in line to the throne after his father. After the reign of Edward VII, George became king.
George V had expected to have a career in the Navy, and he spent about 15 years in the service, rising to the rank of Commander. On the death of his brother, George was forced to do extra studies in politics and languages to prepare himself for kingship, and he didn’t like these lessons. Neither was the prince very well suited to the public role of a monarch - he was shy and disliked parties and royal receptions. He preferred solitary pursuits, such as fishing and adding to his enormous stamp collection.
In his political and social outlook, George was a conservative. He rejected his father’s libertine lifestyle, preferring the high moral tone of his grandmother and grandfather, Victoria and Albert. He disliked new and showy fashions and turned his nose up at tarty makeup and the other trappings of the Jazz Age, which began in the 1920s, right in the middle of his reign.
As if coping with modern fashions and the role of king wasn’t enough, George was expected to marry his late brother’s fiancee, Princess May (also known as Mary) of Teck, which he did, with good grace. As an innately conservative character, George realised that he had to fit in with the demands of his new role.
In the end, George proved a competent monarch, who played his part in steering his country through the horrors of World War I and various political crises both before the war and in the decades afterwards.
Crisis in the Lords
George V came to the throne smack in the middle of a political crisis. In 1909, the governing Liberal Party had produced a budget that included a tax on the rich to pay for old-age pensions. The wealthy ranks of the House of Lords mounted a huge opposition to this measure, and the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, had asked King Edward VII to create lots of new peers who would approve of the tax and vote for it in the House of Lords. Edward died before making up his mind, so the problem was left with George.
George gave way to Asquith’s demands, and the situation was eased after a general election brought more Liberals into the Commons - making it more difficult for the Lords to defy them. George had got through his first political crisis by the end of 1910, some six months before he was even crowned king. But he didn’t like what he’d been expected to do. He said that if the king was meant to stay out of party politics, ‘it was equally the duty of politicians to avoid dragging him in’.
War and the monarchy
World War I lasted from 1914 to 1918 and was the most terrible human conflict to date. Britain and Germany were the key combatants, and since the royal family had close ties to both countries, they were deeply involved in the war and the suffering it caused. George V did not like war-mongering, but once Britain was at war, he supported the men who fought ‘for king and country’, making numerous visits to troops on the battlefield.
War with Germany produced a wave of anti-German feeling in Britain. This sentiment went to absurd extremes, and anyone with a German-sounding name was apt to be treated as an enemy. This prejudice put the royal family, with their German roots, in a tough position. King George had inherited the family name of Saxe-Coburg from his father, and the name reminded everyone of the royal family’s Germanic roots. The writer H G Wells criticised George for heading a court that was ‘uninspiring’ and ‘alien’. George, who regarded himself as British through and through, responded that he may be uninspiring, but ‘I’ll be damned if I’m an alien’.
But the government put George under pressure to do something, and in 1917, he changed his family name to Windsor. The king’s secretary suggested the new name, which was also taken by the rest of the king’s family. With its links to the ancient castle where the royal family had lived since the Middle Ages, Windsor seemed the quintessence of Britishness.
The name change was a success. It seemed to signal to the people that the royal family were solidly behind Britain. And when other branches of the royal family also changed their names (the Battenbergs, for example, became the Mountbattens), the impression was reinforced. The British royal family really were British.
George had never liked the aggressive military stance of his cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. He warned the Kaiser several times that if Germany invaded France or Russia, Britain would come to the aid of the country that Germany attacked.
But the Germans thought they knew better and that, when push came to shove, Britain would stay neutral. In the summer of 1914, Germany declared war on Russia and France - and marched through Belgium on the way to attack France. As a result, Britain declared war on Germany.
British monarchs were no longer expected to lead their troops into battle - the last ruler to do that had been George II in 1743. The monarch was still the leader of the armed forces, but only nominally - the generals and admirals were the real leaders. However, George V used the symbolic power of the monarchy to help the war effort. He raised morale by making frequent visits to the troops - he averaged more than 100 visits per year during the four years of the war - and by handing out medals for bravery.
The royal family also refused to be treated specially. When food was rationed, they kept to their share of the rationed items along with everyone else. When hostilities ended, the king took a leading role in commemorating those who had been killed, beginning in 1920 the tradition of remembering the dead on 11 November, the day on which the armistice was signed.
While the fighting went on in mainland Europe, there was trouble at home, too. A rebellion in Ireland was followed by a clutch of political crises involving the monarch. George V had a hard time, but his popularity didn’t suffer in these turbulent times.
The Easter Rising
In the famous Irish Easter Rising of 1916, a group of nationalists seized the General Post Office and other buildings in Dublin and proclaimed an Irish Republic. For five days, heavy fighting occurred before British troops captured the leaders and put an end to the rising.
Quickly 14 of the leaders of the rising were tried and executed. This retaliation proved a bad move on the part of the British, because it rallied support for the nationalists, who before had not been widely popular. King George was on the side of conciliation, and a Government of Ireland Act in 1920 introduced new parliaments for Northern and Southern Ireland in Belfast and Dublin respectively.
The Northern Irish parliament went ahead, but Republicans objected to the proposals for a Dublin parliament, holding out for a completely independent southern Ireland. Their ambitions were realised in 1921, with the foundation of the Irish Free State, covering all of Ireland except for Ulster. The Free State had Dominion status - in other words, it was a kind of halfway house toward independence, a separate state that still owed allegiance to the British crown. Southern Ireland would not be totally independent until the 1930s.
George continued to try to stay out of politics, but he was forced to intervene on several further occasions. The 1920s and early 1930s were a time of political change. For decades, the British political system had been dominated by two parties, the Liberals and Conservatives. But in this period, a new party was increasing in strength. The Labour Party was a party of the left, eager to improve the lives of ordinary working people. Its rise created political uncertainty and made conservatives like the king anxious. Meanwhile, George had to negotiate his way through three political crises:
● 1923, The PM resigns: Prime Minister Andrew Bonar Law delivered his resignation, and George had to ask a new Conservative Minister to form a government. Faced with the choice between two main candidates, Lord Curzon and Stanley Baldwin, the king chose Baldwin.
● 1923, Hung Parliament: A general election at the end of the year delivered a Parliament in which there was no overall majority. Labour was the largest party, but the Liberals and Conservatives together had more MPs, but wouldn’t work together. George invited Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald to form a government.
● 1931, National Government: Ramsay MacDonald resigned, but the king persuaded him to form a National Government, a coalition between Labour, Conservative, and Liberal politicians that many members of his own Labour Party opposed.
In the second and third of these crises, George had to go against his innate conservatism and invite the Labour leader to become Prime Minister. It went against the grain, but in the end, the two men got on well.
All in the family
In spite of the fact that George’s marriage to Princess May of Teck was an arranged one over which the couple had no control, the king and his queen - who became known as Queen Mary - got on well and became genuinely affectionate.
The royal couple had a large brood of six children and, like the family of Queen Victoria (see Chapter 15), were the image of an ideal first family. But the reality wasn’t as happy as it seemed. George, stiff, shy, and morally strict, didn’t get on well with his offspring. He was very critical of their failings and rather fearsome.
Things changed, though, when the boys got married, because the king warmed to his various daughters-in-law and the grandchildren they produced. George’s children were:
● David, who, after becoming Prince of Wales, was later briefly king as Edward VIII. Edward upset his father because of his private life, especially when he fell in love with a twice-divorced American, Mrs Wallis Simpson. A divorcee was then held to be an unsuitable partner for a future king and head of the Church of England.
● Albert, later king as George VI. Shy like his father, Albert felt himself poorly suited for public life, but later had to adapt to the demands of kingship.
● Victoria Alexandra Alice, known as Mary. Mary married an English earl and was given the title Princess Royal.
● Henry, Duke of Gloucester, who was briefly Governor-General of Australia.
● George, Duke of Kent, the husband of Princess Marina of Greece. He was the only one of George’s children to wed a member of a foreign royal family.
● John, who suffered from epilepsy. He was kept out of the public eye and died in his teens.
In 1928, George V fell ill - very publicly in front of an audience at Buckingham Palace. When the royal doctors diagnosed septicaemia on one of the king’s lungs, things looked grim. The Prince of Wales was called home from a trip to Africa, and an operation followed to remove the infected blood from the king’s lung.
The operation was successful, but the king was still weak - for several days, it looked as if he may die. But George V pulled through, even though he needed a lengthy period of convalescence to get over the illness and the operation. The convalescence began with several months in a house in Bognor on England’s south coast.
The Wider World
George inherited the vast empire built up under the Hanoverian rulers of the past two centuries (see Chapter 15). Like Queen Victoria and Edward VII before him, he took the title Emperor of India, and at the beginning of his reign, he showed how important the title was to him by being crowned twice - once in Westminster Abbey and once, as emperor, in Delhi.
George’s reign also saw the beginning of the end of the vast British empire.
In 1931, Parliament formulated the Statute of Westminster, which created the idea of a Commonwealth of Nations - a network of countries that could talk to each other as equals. It was not the end of the empire, of course. However, it paved the way for the period in the 1940s when many nations of the empire were granted independence while still keeping a special relationship with Britain through the Commonwealth.
George wasn't fond of his convalescent home in Bognor and went back to Windsor Castle in May 1929. During the following months, his health deteriorated on a couple of occasions and his doctors suggested a return to Bognor. 'Bugger Bognor!' was the king's spirited reply. He stayed at Windsor and was better by the autumn of 1929.
King on the air
In spite of George’s traditional outlook, he took the monarchy into the modern world in one important way. George V was the first British ruler to make regular broadcasts. By doing so, he brought the royal family into people’s homes in a way that hadn’t happened in the past and paved the way for today’s modern media-conscious monarchy.
The royal broadcasts began at Christmas 1932 and, because television was in its infancy at this time, took place on the radio. The king’s first broadcast was scripted by the famous writer Rudyard Kipling. The king expressed the desire that the communication offered by the radio (or the wireless, as it was then known) would bring the empire closer together and explained that his task, as he saw it, was ‘to arrive at a reasoned tranquillity within our borders, to regain prosperity without self-seeking, and to carry with us those whom the burden of past years has disheartened or overbore.’
The royal talk was very successful and was even available as a recording. George - and his writer Kipling - realised the power of broadcasting to enhance understanding and communication between the diverse nations of the British empire. Ever since, British rulers have broadcast to the nation at Christmas, although today the sovereign appears on television, as well as radio.
A popular king
The good feeling encouraged by the radio broadcasts was enhanced in 1935 when George celebrated 25 years on the throne with his Silver Jubilee. The Silver Jubilee was a hugely popular event, and evidence indicates that even George himself was surprised at how well it went. He never deliberately sought popularity, and when he saw the people’s loyalty and enthusiasm expressed at the Jubilee he’s reported to have said, ‘I never knew they felt like that about me’.
People liked George because he managed to combine the virtues of an upright moral figurehead with the image of a family man, while also making genuine efforts to understand the needs of his country and his empire. He
tried to be a safe pair of hands as a king, and most people were sad when he died in 1936. Little did they know how hard his doctors had worked to ensure that the king died during the night. That way, the news first appeared in the ‘quality’ newspapers that came out the following morning, rather than in the more downmarket evening newspapers.
George had been deeply worried in his last years that his eldest son and heir, the glamorous but vulnerable Edward, Prince of Wales, would not make a good king. ‘After I am dead the boy will ruin himself in 12 months’, the king said to Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. And he was right.
Love or Monarchy: Edward VIII
Edward VIII, eldest son of George V and Queen Mary, reigned between January and December 1936. He is famous as the king who gave up his throne for love. Edward wanted to marry an American woman, Wallis Simpson, who was twice divorced, whereas the British establishment (that’s Parliament, mainly) couldn’t stomach a king - who would also be leader of the Church of England - married to a divorced woman.
A long apprenticeship
George and Mary’s eldest son was called Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David. His last four names were those of the patron saints of the four nations of Britain (England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales respectively), while his first three names were those of other members of the Windsor family. At home, he was called David.
At the beginning of his life, David didn’t expect to become king - his father was a younger son and only inherited the crown because of the death of his elder brother. David’s early life was typical for a son of his family - he was brought up by a nanny, educated at home by a private tutor, and then went to naval college as preparation for a career at sea.
This upbringing was a mess. The nanny abused her royal charges, treating them sadistically, but, of course, hiding the fact. This abuse went on for three years until David’s parents found out. The tutor was dull and put David off academic work for life. The naval college was better, but he had to leave when his father became king, and David became heir to the throne.
Prince of Wales
When George V became king in 1910, David was made Prince of Wales in a ceremony in Caernarfon Castle that was meant to look medieval, even though it wasn’t. The ceremony, called an investiture, was actually an elaborate piece of play-acting that was meant to conjure up the rituals of the medieval royal family. Amongst the stone ruins of the great North Welsh castle, David had to do homage and swear loyalty to his father the king. From now on, he took his official name - he was known as Prince Edward.
Edward was fairly scathing about the mock-medieval ceremony. He had to wear a surcoat made of purple velvet, which didn’t go down very well with a young man who liked the latest modern fashions. Even so, he was a handsome young man who played his part well, and he won the hearts of the public. It seemed as if Edward was going to be the glamorous member of the royal family.
But the reality of Edward’s life was far from glamorous. He was made to travel to Europe to improve his French and learn some German. A spell as a student at Magdalen College, Oxford, left him decidedly underwhelmed. He thought things were looking up when World War I began in1914, and he went into the army. But as heir to the throne, Edward wasn’t allowed to actually fight. Edward had to be content with a desk job - though at least that job was near the front, not back home in England, a fact that helped the prince’s credibility with the troops.
Trouble and strife
Things looked good for Edward after the war. In the 1920s, he was allowed to pursue the glamorous lifestyle he liked so much, indulging his love of everything modern, from learning to fly an aeroplane to drinking the latest cocktails and wearing the most fashionable clothes. The up-to-the-minute pattern on his suits soon spawned imitators, and ‘Prince of Wales check’ became popular. Edward was good-looking, fashionable, and young, and seemed to represent a new direction for the monarchy.
But the prince also had his problems. Edward found getting along with his father difficult. His father criticised him over his modern dress and his modern ideas. This rebellion, if that’s what it was, went deeper - Edward began to neglect his royal duties, skipping engagements and ignoring palace procedures. People close to the royal family feared that he would make a poor king if he did not pull himself together.
More seriously still, the prince showed no inclination to marry. Marrying a suitable partner was something that was expected of the heir to the throne, because it was still his duty to produce heirs for the future. Edward, by contrast, was regularly seen in the company of other men’s wives.
The British royal family had a long history of adultery, and mistresses had been a fact of life for centuries. Probably if Edward had kept his sex life and his married life separate, like so many of his ancestors, he would have had little trouble. But Edward found himself in love with one of these unsuitable partners, the American divorcee Wallis Simpson.
Edward met Wallis when another of the prince’s women friends, Thelma Furness, introduced them. Wallis had one divorce under her belt when she met the prince and was on her way to a second, but at this point, she was still married to British shipping broker Ernest Simpson. Edward and Wallis were soon in love, and the British establishment was seriously worried.
The abdication crisis
In January 1936, George V died, and the Prince of Wales became king as Edward VIII. It didn’t take long for people to realise that the new king’s heart was not in his job. Dispatch boxes full of official papers lay around unopened, and it was clear that Wallis Simpson was taking up much of the king’s attention.
Edward wanted Wallis to become his queen. But the establishment - the archbishop of Canterbury, the Prime Minister, much of Parliament, and Edward’s mother - thought that a royal marriage to a twice-divorced American was unconstitutional, especially because as king, Edward was Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Nevertheless, Edward, whose success with the media as Prince of Wales made him feel that the public would accept his actions, carried on seeing Wallis. The controversy came to a head in the late summer of 1936:
● In August, the couple went for a cruise. The newspapers in America and Continental Europe ran articles about their holiday, but the British press suppressed the fact that the couple were travelling together, for fear of a scandal.
● In September, Wallis stayed with the king at the royal Scottish home, Balmoral.
● In October, Wallis’s divorce came through. The court granted her a degree nisi, which meant that she would be free to marry Edward the following April, shortly before the coronation was planned.
● On 16 November, the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, told the king that his proposed marriage to Wallis would not be acceptable to the government. The king responded that he would abdicate if he was not allowed to marry Wallis.
● On 1 December, the Bishop of Bradford gave a speech in which news of the planned abdication was made public for the first time.
● On 10 December, Edward signed the instrument of abdication, a document in which he gave up the throne and renounced any claim to the throne on the part of any of his future heirs.
Looking back, the abdication seems inevitable: Edward and the authorities were on a collision course, and neither side seemed able to move. But the abdication wasn’t the only possible outcome. More than one compromise had been discussed. Wallis could have continued as the king’s mistress, living with him unofficially, but neither of them were keen on this arrangement. A morganatic marriage, in which Wallis married Edward but did not become queen, could have taken place, but the government did not like this solution and the governments of Britain’s dominions made it clear that they wouldn’t accept it. But Edward held out for kingship on his terms, with the woman he loved at his side, and in 1936, this love was simply unacceptable to the establishment.
The day after Edward signed the instrument of abdication, he made a now-famous broadcast to the nation, explaining that, because he had not been able to be king with Wallis beside him, he had decided to stand down. The country was stunned - especially as the public had been shielded from many of the details of Edward’s relationship with Wallis because they’d been reported only in the foreign press, not in Britain.
Aftermath of abdication
Edward’s brother, Albert, became king as George VI on 11 December 1936, the day after the instrument of abdication was signed. Edward, meanwhile, crossed the English Channel to France, where he married Wallis the following year. For Edward, it was the beginning of decades of isolation from his family and his country.
Edward had assumed that the abdication would be the start of a new chapter in his life as a member of the royal family who could still take part in royal occasions and royal duties. But it didn’t turn out like that. He soon realised that the other royals resented what he had done, and that all kinds of restrictions were put on his life. For example:
● When Edward and Wallis got married in 1937, no member of the royal family came to the wedding. It was a clear signal that the couple were on their own as far as the royal family went.
● Edward was given a title, Duke of Windsor, and Wallis therefore became Duchess of Windsor. But although Edward, as a senior royal, was allowed to be called His Royal Highness the Duke of Windsor, Wallis was not supposed to use the style Her Royal Highness. It was a signal that Wallis would never be accepted as a member of the royal family.
● Edward was paid a financial allowance, but the payment was made on the condition that he would not return to Britain without permission.
In effect, the couple were isolated from the royal family. Although they had many society friends and a big house in Paris, they must have felt out on a limb.
The Duke of Windsor was probably treated poorly for several reasons. For one thing, the new queen, George VI’s wife, Elizabeth, knew how much her shy, withdrawn husband hated the idea of becoming king. She greatly resented the way in which, as she saw it, his brother had forced the issue and left George with a job he profoundly disliked.
Another reason was that Edward was a loose cannon. The authorities felt he had already brought the royal family into disrepute and didn’t want him to be closely associated with them. And you can see their point when it emerged that the Duke had decided in October 1937 to go to Germany and visit the country’s Nazi leaders. This was the period of the gathering storm before World War II. It’s likely that the Duke’s main reason for his German visit was to try to stave off war, but ever since, it’s been hinted that the former king had Nazi sympathies.
A further ruffle of official feathers occurred when the Duke and Duchess left Paris (travelling to Spain and Portugal) just when France was on the point of falling in May 1940. This departure was in huge contrast to the courage of King George and Queen Elizabeth, who stayed bravely in London during the bombing. People felt that the Duke of Windsor simply was not ‘sound’.
In the end, the Duke was spirited away from Europe and given the job of Governor of the Bahamas until the end of the war in 1945. He then returned to Paris where he lived with Wallis until he died in 1972. Queen Elizabeth II, no doubt keen to bring reconciliation, visited him shortly before his death. Wallis lived on until 1986.
Reluctant King: George VI
When King Edward VIII gave up the throne before even being crowned, his brother Albert took over and ruled as George VI (1936-52). His brother’s swift abdication meant that he was ill-prepared for the job, and, as a man who deeply disliked appearing in public, he did not want to be king. But George had a strong sense of duty and so stepped into his brother’s shoes.
From these unlikely beginnings, George VI became one of the most popular monarchs in British history. In this achievement, he was helped by his wife, Queen Elizabeth, who stood by him, helped him overcome his shyness when appearing in public, and radiated a personal charm that helped the image of the monarchy to no end. The couple needed all the strength they could muster, because the terrible years of World War II and its aftermath dominated virtually the entire reign.
A personal problem
King George VI was christened Albert Frederick Arthur George. His parents were the Duke and Duchess of York, who later became George V and Queen Mary, and at home, the boy was known as Albert or Bertie. Like his elder brother David, who later became Edward VIII, Bertie had a distant relationship with his parents and was brought up by a nanny who treated him cruelly.
In the royal nursery, the princes were treated affectionately one moment and cruelly the next, and the meals were as irregular as the affection. As a result, young Bertie developed digestive problems that were to stay with him for the rest of his life.
Bertie’s father added to the prince’s problems by insisting that his legs were fitted with splints every night in an attempt to cure his knock-knees. In addition, like many left-handed children in the early 20th century, Bertie was forced to write with his right hand. This catalogue of emotional and physical problems must have caused deep psychological damage, and the damage was revealed in one striking outward symptom. From the age of eight, Bertie had a marked stammer, and, like his gastritis, it lasted into adulthood.
A prince at war
Like many royal sons before him, Bertie headed for a career in the Royal Navy. When he took his exams at the Royal Naval College, Osborne, he came in at the bottom of the class, but he went on to the next stage of his naval career anyway, eventually becoming a midshipman on HMS Collingwood. Although not an academic, the prince at least shone athletically as a good rider and talented tennis player. At last, Bertie had found things he was good at - and, as an extra bonus, his left-handedness was accepted on the tennis court, too.
But the prince’s naval career was cut short by illness. His stomach problems had flared up, and his doctors ordered an operation for appendicitis. Sadly, however, this surgery didn’t cure his problems, and he spent most of the next three years in medical care - which still didn’t improve his health.
May 1916 saw Prince Albert back on board his ship, eager to play his part in World War I. He was still suffering bouts of sickness, but at the end of the month, HMS Collingwood took part in the Battle of Jutland, and the prince took his place at one of the gun turrets.
The following year saw an upturn in the prince’s health after another operation, this time for a duodenal ulcer. He transferred to the airborne branch of the armed forces (first the Royal Naval Air Service and then the Royal Air Service) and learned to fly. He was the first member of the royal family to do so.
Finding a rote
After the war, the prince continued in what became the Royal Air Force.
He honed his tennis skills as well, becoming RAF doubles champion with his partner Louis Greig. In 1920, he was made Duke of York, and the thoughts of the royal family and its advisers turned to the question of the role of the second in line to the throne.
What was a prince for in the early 20th century? Albert’s elder brother David, the future King Edward VIII, had his own answer - having a good time, mostly. But Albert was made of sterner stuff. His strong sense of duty - and no doubt the realization that he would never cut such a dashing figure as his brother - made him convinced that he should do something more worthwhile. As a result, he travelled the country and made it his mission to seek out ordinary people and try to understand their lives.
The 1920s were a time of social and industrial unrest. Bosses were cutting wages, and many people were out of work. And there was a huge social and economic gulf between rich and poor, upper and working classes. The prince tried to bridge this gap by becoming patron of the Industrial Welfare Society and by setting up the Duke of York’s camps, which were meeting places for boys from the working classes and from Britain’s upper-class fee-paying schools.
The prince’s activities were small beer by modern standards. British society needed more than boys’ camps, where the main event was sitting around the fire singing songs, to make life fairer and more equal. But the camps proved popular and carried on until the beginning of World War II in 1939. They also helped the image of the monarchy. The royal family was starting to become less remote and more interested in the lives of ordinary people. It was an indication of how the monarchy would develop in the future.
In 1923, Prince Albert took the most important step in his life when he married Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. Elizabeth was born in England, but was the daughter of Scottish aristocrats who could trace their lineage back to the 14th-century Scottish king, Robert Bruce (see Chapter 11). She spent much of her early life at one of her family’s Scottish homes, Glamis Castle, where she developed a lasting love of the countryside and of outdoor pursuits such as fishing.
The ideal couple
The prince and Elizabeth met and courted much like most couples - theirs was not an old-fashioned arranged royal marriage. And the pair had a lot in common. They were both devoted to country pursuits, and they shared common values. But they were very different characters. Whereas Albert was shy and withdrawn, Elizabeth was outgoing and vivacious. But these differences made her an ideal partner for the prince, because she was able to help him through the difficulties of public appearances and the horrors of speech-making.
The partnership gave the public something, too. With its history of arranged marriages and extramarital affairs, the royal family hadn’t been very good at romantic love. And in the king’s eldest son David, who had a preference for seemingly unsuitable partners, married women especially, this tradition seemed set to continued.
With Albert and Elizabeth, the people got a genuine royal romance, a couple who were both devoted to each other and made a good working partnership. And the marriage was an all-British romance, too, in contrast to those of past generations, when there had been a tradition of British royals marrying members of overseas royal families.
World War I had shown the dangers of marrying members of a foreign royal family. You could very easily end up fighting the family you’d married into. A thoroughly British marriage seemed the best solution - and helped bolster patriotism, too.
The perfect family
This loving relationship soon produced children, two daughters - Elizabeth, the future queen, who was born in 1926, and Margaret Rose, born in 1930. Now the House of Windsor had a perfect royal family. Not since the heyday of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and their brood had the royals produced such an obviously happy and loving family that people were encouraged to look up to (see Chapter 15). But whereas Victoria’s family had been large and, well, Victorian, the family of Albert and Elizabeth was small, like the nuclear families that would become the norm in the mid-to late 20th century. It wasn’t just in flying aeroplanes that the royal family were moving with the times.
This royal good news story went down very well with the media, and it wasn’t long before the royal family was defining itself in terms of family values. It gave the monarchy a strong, positive image. But it also made the royal family vulnerable, because when later generations suffered broken marriages, the public were more surprised than they should have been. But that was in the future.
Adjusting to kingship
Prince Albert became King George VI when his brother, Edward VIII, abdicated in 1936. The abdication was a blow to the royal family and a profound shock to the prince, who had no time to prepare himself. He felt unsuited to be king, but also felt that it was his duty to do the job his brother had given up.
King George had to steel himself for a number of tough tasks:
● He had to gather his strength to play a public role that he disliked.
● He had to decide what his relationship would be with his brother Edward and with Edward’s wife, Wallis, who, in the eyes of the royal family, had caused all the trouble.
● He had to try to restore some of the prestige of the monarchy, which everyone felt had been thoroughly tarnished by the abdication episode.
● He had to hastily prepare for a coronation for which the date was already set.
The king would have found all these tasks virtually impossible without the support of his wife. But in some ways, Elizabeth was part of the problem.
She was deeply critical of Edward for giving up the throne and of Wallis for coming between Edward and his duty. She insisted that Wallis not be allowed the prestigious title Her Royal Highness and encouraged the rest of the royals to keep their distance from the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Queen Mary, the widow of George V and the mother of Edward and the new king, encouraged this line, too. And so George VI faced a further challenge: to live his life cut off from the brother who’d been so close to him and whom he’d looked up to.
George VI’s coronation was, of course, a big state occasion - if anything, even bigger than usual, with leaders from all the countries of the British empire filling Westminster Abbey. Afterwards, the press wrote nearly as much about the royal princesses as about the king and queen, as if to remind everyone that a proper family now resided in Buckingham Palace, not a playboy prince and some American divorcee as so nearly might have been the case.
Once crowned, George and Elizabeth set off on a series of visits abroad. This trip was no holiday. Britain’s allies - France, Canada, and the United States - were targeted. George, as much as anyone, knew that these friendly nations had to be cultivated, because Hitler was already in power in Germany, and the threat of war was looming large.
George VI was a former naval officer who had fought bravely in World War I. But he did not like war and did not want another world conflict. He supported Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who attempted to secure peace by making concessions to Hitler, and George offered to make a personal appeal to the German leader. But the foreign office, well aware that such appeals could land the king in hot water, quashed the idea.
War broke out between Britain and Germany in 1939, and by the following year, Hitler had invaded France, and Neville Chamberlain had resigned as Prime Minister. His replacement was Winston Churchill. George didn’t get on well with Churchill, mainly because the new leader had been a supporter of his brother. But both men knew that the current crisis was deeper than the one surrounding the abdication - they had to work together, and they did. Soon, Churchill’s flair as a wartime leader impressed the king, just as it won over most Britons.
The year of 1940 was also the year of the Blitz, the ruthless German bombing campaign that devastated many British cities, London above all. The king and queen went to visit bombed-out working-class communities in London’s East End (especially badly hit because of the nearby docks). Although they went to sympathise and raise morale, the royal couple were greeted with boos and jeers.
What had happened? From the royal point of view, the king and queen were trying to help by raising morale on the streets of London. But the Londoners’ attitude seemed to be that it was easy for a king and queen to go slumming it in the East End when they could retreat at a moment’s notice to the safety of their palatial homes. The princesses had already been sent off to the relative safety of Windsor Castle.
However, the royals didn’t make the war years as easy for themselves as they could have done. As the Blitz continued, it became clear that the king and queen were determined to stay in London, bombers or no bombers. Then Buckingham Palace itself was struck, and the royals narrowly escaped death. They came out fighting, and the queen said defiantly, ‘I’m glad we’ve been bombed. Now we can look the East End in the face.’
In the end, their dogged refusal not to retreat to the safety of the country or abroad did the king and queen a favour. They gradually won the respect of their people, and George’s popularity as a ruler went from strength to strength. Even though he was not allowed to see active service as he had done in World War I, George could visit troops and bombed-out civilians, and his visits began to raise morale, not to destroy it.
Helping Britain recover
When World War II ended in 1945, Britain had to recover both from the damage caused by the enemy and six years in which every aspect of life - politics, industry, home life, the lot - had been dedicated to winning the war. In the July 1945 general election, Britons voted out the wartime leader Winston Churchill, the Conservative who had led Britain’s politically multicoloured wartime government of national unity.
The election brought a new Labour government to power under Prime Minister Clement Atlee. The new government unfolded a programme of change with huge improvements in a range of services, from education and the health service to the pensions system, all run by the state.
George VI was shocked and disappointed by the way in which the people booted out Churchill, the man who had led the country to victory in the war. For the royals, the Labour government was hard to cope with in a number of ways:
● With its policy of redistribution of wealth, the Labour party seemed to attack the system of property and privilege, which the monarchy headed up.
● The monarchy was simply on a different wavelength than the socialists - George was a conservative character who couldn’t understand why people should be given their false teeth for free.
● With their notion that the state should provide, the Labour government seemed to threaten even the tradition of charity and good works that the royal family stood for.
The king and queen buckled down and worked with the Labour Prime Minister as best they could. The royal family carried on its charitable work, for it was soon clear that there was still a need for it - the state couldn’t do everything. They supported events such as the Festival of Britain, the national celebration of all that was best about Britain that took place in 1951. And they came to respect the members of the government as individuals.
For seven years after 1945, George VI and Queen Elizabeth played their full part in helping Britain recover from the horrors of World War II. But the king’s postwar years were dogged with poor health. He had treatment for circulation problems, and then lung cancer was diagnosed in 1951. George survived an operation to remove his left lung, but was weakened. In February 1952, the king died in his sleep. His eldest daughter, Elizabeth, who had already been carrying out some of her father’s work because of his ill-health, became queen.