Prince George was never meant to be king. Born on 3 June 1865, he was the second son of Edward, Prince of Wales (who was the eldest son of Queen Victoria), and Princess Alexandra of Denmark. His elder brother, Prince Albert Victor (known as ‘Eddy’ to his family), was one day destined to sit on the throne, perhaps as King Albert I.
And yet from early childhood, it was ‘Georgie’ who was the brighter of the brothers. He was no genius, but he was a satisfying enough pupil, if inclined to be boisterous. Various attempts were made to see if George could draw his brother out of his apathetic stupor; when it was decided that George would pursue a naval career, the heir to the throne went, too. The two brothers tackled the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth together, before taking a three-year cruise around the world to hone their seamanship skills. Then their paths diverged. Eddy had to be prepared for the throne, though he was still distinctly unpromising. Until 1892, Prince George would sail the world as a budding naval officer, and this was how he expected his life to continue. But in that year, events took an unexpected turn.
George V: quick facts
Born: 3 June 1865
Parents: Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) and Princess Alexandra of Denmark
Death: 20 January 1936
Spouse: Princess Mary of Teck, m1893
Children: Edward VIII; George VI; Mary, Princess Royal; Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester; Prince George, Duke of Kent; Prince John of the United Kingdom
Grandchildren: Nine, including Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret
At the beginning of 1892, Eddy had been looking forward to getting married and settling down. It was hoped that his bride, Princess Mary of Teck (also known as ‘May’), would ‘knock him into shape’ and get him ready for the throne. But a flu epidemic was sweeping the globe, and after attending a funeral in London, the family adjourned to Sandringham to celebrate Eddy’s birthday – taking the illness with them. He was dead within a week. The nation was in shock and George, who had barely survived his own battle with typhoid, was looking at an entirely different future, for which he was completely unprepared.
An unprepared heir?
Prince George took it well, though his life was irrevocably changed, and not through his own choice. In 1893, after a period of reflection on the part of both, he married his brother’s fiancée, Mary. It made sense, all things considered; after all, it wasn’t easy to find and assess a royal bride. But the beginning of the marriage was rocky. It was with the arrival of their first child (christened Edward though known to the family as David), that love finally began to bloom. At short intervals, more children followed: Albert (Bertie to the family, and later George VI) in 1895; Mary in 1897; Harry in 1900; George in 1902; and finally, John in 1905. The duke would have liked more girls, but was proud of the responsibility of having five sons. Yet the idea of George V as a Dickensian villain in respect of his children has persisted for decades, and is patently unsupported by the evidence available in the Royal Archives. In fact, George V was more of a hands-on dad than his contemporaries and if anything, he was a bit too clingy as a parent.
Crash courses in languages, the succession and constitutional monarchy were embarked upon to prepare him to reign. Unlike George’s grandmother, Queen Victoria, had done, his father, the Prince of Wales, did not jealously guard his access to royal responsibility. He introduced George, now Duke of York, to anyone he could think of: politicians, dignitaries, naval and military men. In 1901, the end of an era came with the passing of the old queen – George’s ‘Grandmama’. His father acceded to the throne as Edward VII and George became the Prince of Wales.
The notable aspects of George V’s time as both the Duke of York and Prince of Wales were his colonial tours. If his father was a Europhile, the prince reserved that affection for the British empire. In 1901, leaving the children at home, he and his wife embarked on an exhausting tour that included Egypt, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Mauritius, South Africa, Canada and Newfoundland. After the birth of their youngest child in 1905, they departed again, this time for an extended period in India. It left a lasting impression on them both. While he was devoted to the empire, the prince was always forward-thinking when it came to the idea of its future. Of course, he always had to balance his personal opinion with his constitutional duty, but he morally supported both Indian independence and Irish Home Rule in some measure, among other developments; not just maintaining the status quo.
Early reign and the First World War
On 6 May 1910, Edward VII died. George was devastated, both on a personal level and because he was terrified of ascending the throne. Amidst the pomp and ceremony, the new king had to contend with domestic issues that threatened to completely undermine the monarchy, including a crisis in the House of Lords that revolved around the liberals being unable to get any legislation past overwhelming numbers of their political opponents. The House was stacked against them. He was ultimately railroaded by his prime minister, Herbert Asquith, and though he respected Asquith very much, thinking him highly capable, he vowed never to be strong-armed like this again.
Early in his reign, George V also had to contend with strikes and industrial unrest, but it was the issue of Home Rule in Ireland that kept him awake at night during the run up to the First World War. Yet however complex and incendiary this issue was, it paled in comparison to the July Crisis of 1914 that followed the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo. It has been claimed that King George neglected the oncoming disaster, but this is incorrect. He was as aware as his ministers in June and July in terms of what was transpiring in the Balkans. The situation took a crucial turn at the end of July, and in fact, evidence suggests that the king referenced it before the cabinet did. He did not want war. He did everything in his limited, constitutional power to try and avert disaster, but once it became clear that war was unavoidable, he was determined that Britain would be on the winning side.
George V and the House of Windsor
The First World War proved to be not only the making of King George, who went from inexperienced monarch to national symbol, but of the House of Windsor. The name ‘Windsor’, was adopted in 1917 as a response to republicanism running rampant in Russia and the persistent question of whom the king’s children would marry (if German princes and princesses were suddenly persona non grata). None of them were yet ready to wed, and so the name change from ‘Saxe-Coburg-Gotha’ to ‘Windsor’ was a powerful message to the country. But this overhaul is true of the whole set-up of the monarchy going forward. The Press Office at Buckingham Palace is also a product of the First World War, as is the structure of public engagements and the monarchy’s determination to get among the people. Thanks to the war, and the arrival of the popular press, by the end of the war in 1918 King George V was the most accessible monarch in British history.
Life did not get any easier in the 1920s. The world was reduced to rubble and it would take time to rebuild. Added to that, seismic social changes had been accelerated by the conflict. Women over 30 who met certain property qualifications had the vote as of 1918. By the end of 1922, Ireland had been partitioned, and in 1924 the king appointed James Ramsay MacDonald, Britain’s first Labour prime minister. In 1926, post-war industrial unrest culminated in a General Strike. In evidence of his empathy, when it was suggested that those out on strike were revolutionaries, His Majesty retorted that perhaps their accusers should try living on their wages before they passed judgement.
For a man of King George’s generation, born at the height of the Victorian era, the pace of life in the early years of the 20th century and the changes it ushered in were staggering. And the tremors just kept coming. The onset of the 1930s saw the world plunged into a financial crisis, and George V promoted the idea of a national government to see the country through it. He was also markedly suspicious of Adolf Hitler and the rise of the Nazi Party in 1930s Germany. He had long believed that there would be another war; in 1920, when Prime Minister David Lloyd George had questioned the idea of a two-minute silence in the wake of the First World War, saying that nobody would remember what they were observing in the years to come, the king said that they would. Not only that, but there would have been another war since. A century on, his prediction has proved accurate in both respects.
And yet, for a man bewildered (like many of his generation) by the new world that was so rapidly being ushered in, the king kept up to date with developments. He could fix a car, and knew how a radio worked. In 1932, he became the first monarch in British history to have his voice beamed into people’s houses, when he broadcast the first Christmas speech. The British people felt like they knew him more than they had ever known a sovereign.
How did George V die?
King George V had a brush with death in 1928 when he developed septicaemia, which markedly affected his health for the rest of his life. His last years were marked not only by turmoil both domestic and foreign, but by a declining relationship with his eldest son and heir, Edward, Prince of Wales. By the beginning of the 1930s, ‘David’ had taken up with Wallis Simpson, and for the entirety of his adult life he had demonstrated a strong reluctance to take up his future role as king. George V predicted that when he was gone, his son would ‘ruin himself’ within a year. Once again, he proved astute.
In 1935, the king was stunned by the outpouring of love and affection demonstrated on the occasion of his Silver Jubilee. It reduced him to tears. The man who had been totally unprepared for his role, had become a father figure to the nation. He had gone so far, with his trusted and long-serving advisors, as to rebrand the monarchy, strengthen it and bring it into the 20th century. The blueprint he left endures to this day.
At the beginning of 1936, King George V fell ill at Sandringham. His condition worsened, and he died on 20 January, aged 70. In her diary, Queen Mary wrote: “My heart is broken.” His body was taken by train to London and 800,000 of his subjects queued upwards of nine hours through the night to witness his lying in state. King George V was laid to rest at St George’s Chapel, Windsor.
Alexandra Churchill is a historian of the First World War and author of In the Eye of the Storm: George V and the Great War (2018)