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The Reluctant King: The life of King George VI

King George VI
Image: Public Domain

Known as the ‘Reluctant King’, George VI is universally recognised as the father of the late Queen Elizabeth II and for his pronounced stammer, which was the focus of the Oscar-winning British movie The King’s Speech. But as notable as George VI was as the brother of the king who abdicated, the man himself is still an enigma when it comes to his personality and upbringing.

The man who would be king

George VI was born Albert Frederick Arthur George and often went by his nickname ‘Bertie’. He didn’t want to be king and was originally never meant to ascend the throne. As a boy and youth, he was shy and as the years passed by the chance of George becoming king dwindled. He was happily married to Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon and had two young daughters, the future Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret.

However, his life changed and he had no choice but to take the throne after his older brother, Edward VIII, abdicated to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. Although officially named Arthur, the new king decided then to use his last name George as a way to create continuity with the reign of his father, George V.


A wartime hero

George VI had proven to be a brave man during World War I when he helped to defend British naval forces. During World War II, he and his wife refused to leave England when the country was under attack from the German Luftwaffe. Despite being under pressure to take safety out of Britain, the young royals stayed put, even after Buckingham Palace was bombed. The couple’s determination to see the war through with their subjects endeared them to the nation.

Sins of the father

George VI was a shy boy who grew up with a stammer that stayed with him into adulthood. It became an obvious challenge as king when he was expected to make countless public speeches. It is believed that his strict upbringing, where he was often punished by his authoritarian and pathological disciplinarian father George V, contributed to his nervousness.

One documented story is that George V would display his wrath for the most trivial of reasons, particularly around clothing errors. One such time was when the young Prince George wore a kilt with the wrong jacket. Bertie’s stammer is attributed to fearing his father, a priggish man obsessed with formality, order and fearful of scandal after the salacious reputation of his own father, Edward VII.


Hot dog monarch

George VI was the first reigning monarch of Great Britain to set foot on American soil, a tactic designed to help boost his popularity as Europe was on the brink of war in 1939. Former US President Franklin D Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor offered the king a hot dog as a snack when he met them for a social event. Roosevelt had planned every detail to ensure the visit was a success to gain sympathy and support for the war effort.

Speech therapy

Because of his stammer since childhood, King George VI dreaded public speaking. His speech at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in October 1925 when he was Duke of York had been particularly traumatic for him. The embarrassment prompted his wife to seek help from Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue.

Through breathing exercises, George’s speech improved. This was essential because he had planned tours of Australia, New Zealand and Fiji which would expose him to international scrutiny.


The most unconstitutional king

Shortly after becoming king in 1937, the developing crisis in Europe forced King George VI to support Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler, which was controversial with some politicians and the public.

After Chamberlain’s return from Munich, where he had negotiated terms with Hitler (later to be seen as a grave mistake and failure), he was invited to appear on the balcony of Buckingham Palace with King George and Queen Consort Elizabeth. Both the appeasement policy and the king’s impartial association with Chamberlain led his behaviour to be described by historian John Grigg as ‘the most unconstitutional act by a British sovereign in the present century’.

A king for all seasons

Despite criticisms at the beginning of the war, King George VI proved to be one of the most popular monarchs of the 20th century, not only because of his image as a loving father but also as a war hero. He was a man of principle as he tried to modernise the royal family at a time of shifting attitudes.

A heavy smoker from his youth, George VI was diagnosed with lung cancer and died from a coronary thrombosis in his sleep on 6th February 1952.


6 facts about King George VI

From his dramatic wartime experiences to the time he appeared in a major sporting tournament, we delve into some fascinating facts about the reluctant king.

1. His name was inspired by his birthday

Prince Albert, the future George VI, was born on 14 December 1895. This was an inconvenient coincidence for the royal family, since 14 December was the date on which his great-grandfather and namesake Prince Albert had died decades before. Queen Victoria was still mourning her beloved husband to an obsessive degree, and 14 December had even been decreed ‘Mausoleum Day’ by the family.

The royals were so concerned about Victoria’s negative reaction to the birth impinging on this sacred day that they decided to call him Albert to ‘gratify her’. The tactic worked, with Victoria writing: ‘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.’


2. He fought at one of the greatest naval battles of all time

On 31 May 1916, Britain and Germany clashed at the Battle of Jutland, the largest naval battle of the Great War. It was an inferno of fire and blood where thousands of British seamen died, and right there in the thick of battle was the future George VI.

The prince served on the dreadnought battleship the HMS Collingwood, and recounted his dramatic experiences in a letter. ‘We opened fire at 5.37 p.m. on some German light cruisers,’ he wrote. ‘The Collingwood’s second salvo hit one of them which set her on fire, and sank after two more salvoes were fired into her.’

Watching the action from a gun turret, the prince had a ‘very good view of the proceedings’, but had to think fast when the enemy fired back. ‘I was up there during a lull when a German ship started firing at us,’ he wrote. ‘We at once returned the fire. I was distinctly startled and jumped down the hole in the top of the turret like a shot rabbit!!’

In a later letter he summed up his experience of war: ‘I am quite all right and feel very different now that I have seen a German ship filled with Germans and have seen it fired at with our guns. It was a great experience to have gone through and one not easily forgotten.’


3. The Queen Mother turned him down

The course of British history would have turned out very differently if the young Albert didn’t attend a party thrown by a certain Lord and Lady Farquhar in 1920. It was here that he met Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the popular socialite who would become enshrined in the national consciousness as the Queen Mother.

But, while Bertie was besotted from the start, Elizabeth had her reservations about the romance. Although she was an aristocrat, she wasn’t quite a royal, and she was wary of the weighty responsibilities of being thrust into the public eye and not being able ‘to think, speak and act as I feel I really ought to.’

In fact, she would turn down at least two marriage proposals before finally agreeing to tie the knot. They were married in 1923, and she gave birth to the future Queen Elizabeth II three years later.

The Roosevelts with the King and Queen of England sailing from Washington, DC to Mt. Vernon
The Roosevelts with the King and Queen of England sailing from Washington, DC to Mt. Vernon | Public Domain

4. He played at Wimbledon

An avid tennis player, George VI has the distinction of being the only member of the royal family to play at Wimbledon. It happened in 1926, when the then-prince competed in the doubles tournament alongside his friend and equerry Louis Greig.

It wasn’t an auspicious appearance, however, with Albert and Louis thrashed in straight sets by their opponents (and fellow Brits) Herbert Roper Barrett and Arthur Gore.


5. His coronation was the first to be televised

So much has been made of the impact of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation on the mass media, that it’s easy to forget that her father George VI’s coronation in 1937 was in fact the first to be televised.

It was a milestone moment for the BBC Television Service, which had only come into existence the year before, and three cameras (half of the BBC’s total number) were positioned at Hyde Park Corner to capture the King and Queen Consort’s procession. As the Daily Mail wrote, ‘When the King and Queen appeared the picture was so vivid that one felt that this magical television is going to be one of the greatest of all modern inventions.’

6. He was almost killed during World War Two

George VI and Queen Elizabeth decided to stay in London during World War Two, despite German bombing raids. Their resolve in the face of danger almost cost them their lives on 13 September 1940, when bombs hit the courtyard at Buckingham Palace.

The Queen was at that very moment trying to remove an eyelash from the King’s eye. As she later described in a letter, they suddenly ‘heard the unmistaken whirr-whirr of a German plane… then the scream of a bomb’, giving them no time to do anything except ‘look foolishly at each other’.

The couple then saw ‘a great column of smoke and earth thrown up into the air’, and took shelter for fear of flying glass. While it was a terrifying experience, it also forged a new connection between the royals and their Blitz-hit subjects, with the Queen famously remarking ‘I'm glad we've been bombed. It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face.’