"In a weird way it cheers everyone up," Boris Johnson remarked about the latest royal wedding. Few could doubt, as Kate Middleton and Prince William made their marriage vows in Westminster Abbey last spring, that their wedding was both a tonic to the nation and a boost to the royal family. Polling at the time confirmed what was clear from the thousands cheering on the wedding route to the street parties across the country – that the monarchy, despite the setbacks of recent years, was as strong as ever. For this the institution owed much to the Queen's grandfather King George V, a man who gave the appearance of steely inflexibility but in reality was a modernising reformer.


William and Kate’s marriage ceremony echoed that of George V’s second son, Prince Albert, Duke of York, to Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon in 1923. The future King George VI and Queen Elizabeth were, like William and Kate, married at the end of April at a time of economic gloom. Then, as now, the public nuptials were hugely popular: a million people lined the streets to watch the royal wedding procession. In an impulsive gesture, Elizabeth placed her bridal posy of white spring flowers on the tomb of the Unknown Warrior. The Duchess of Cambridge did the same. What was seen as a spontaneous tribute 88 years ago had become a royal tradition.

The royal wedding of 1923 was a ground-breaking departure from the old ways and symbolised the readiness of the royal family, under the stern guidance of King George V, to adapt to the modern world. At the command of the king, Prince Albert was the first son of a monarch to marry in public at Westminster Abbey and it was the first royal wedding to be filmed, so that millions at home and across the empire could enjoy the spectacle. Most importantly, at the king’s behest the marriage was the first union in modern times between a member of the royal family and a commoner, albeit an aristocratic one. No longer did the House of Windsor have to look to the narrow gene pool of German minor royals for fresh blood.

King George and his consort, Queen Mary, were the most unlikely modernisers. Both were ultraconservative. In their dress, manner and politics they shared a deep-seated mistrust of anything that might smack of radicalism or, just as bad, fashion.

According to their eldest son, David (the future Edward VIII), King George fought “a private war with the 20th century”. A former naval officer, George held fast to the values inculcated in him at Dartmouth: stern discipline, unquestioning obedience of superiors and, above all, doing one’s duty. He was equally conventional in his personal habits.

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George detested change, was rigidly punctual, and besotted with correct dress, even reprimanding government ministers if he considered them improperly turned out. His wife, Mary, while more cultured and intelligent, shared her husband’s rigid conservatism and absolute belief in duty; this was combined with an almost religious reverence for the throne. Out of loyalty to George, Mary buried her own lively mind and curious intellect under a carapace of iron conformity.

Such a pair of stick-in-the-muds would not see themselves and indeed were not considered as reformers, but reformers they were and – paradoxically – the impulse to modernise the British monarchy came from the arch-conservative king himself. With his passion for shooting and stamp collecting, he may have seemed more suited to being a Norfolk squire than a king-emperor but he was blessed with a gift that saved him and the monarchy from disaster: common sense. It was this above all that enabled him to shore up the throne at a time when as Churchill said, other empires “were falling like rain”.

Bent on survival

Like his son George VI, George was the second-in-line to the throne and, like his son, he did not expect or want to be king. But in 1892, when George was 26, his elder brother, the reprobate Eddy, Duke of Clarence, died of complications from a bout of ‘flu. George, the unassuming naval officer, was thrust into the undesired role of heir to the throne.

Prince Eddy had been betrothed to Princess Mary (known to all as ‘May’), the shy and undemonstrative daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Teck. With the characteristic expediency of a dynasty bent on its own survival, May – whom Queen Victoria regarded as level-headed and sound, despite her relatively lowly royal status – was encouraged to transfer her affections to George. After a decent interval of a year, George was told to do his duty, go into the garden with May and propose to her. He was accepted.

The arranged marriage quickly developed into a bond of real affection and mutual support. Though both found it almost impossible to openly express their intimate feelings, they made their love clear in touching letters to each other.

The marriage was not an equal partnership. It could not have been, given May’s reverence for her husband’s status and the subordinate role of women at the time; nevertheless the couple became a team. After George acceded to the throne in 1910 on the death his father, Edward VII, Queen Mary took on and actively developed the role of female consort. The new king and queen could not have been more different from the late monarch and his long-suffering wife, Alexandra. While the court of Edward VII had been colourful to say the least, with an aristocratic attitude to affairs (acceptable if kept quiet), George and Mary espoused the virtues of the middle classes: fidelity and family.

Britain at that time was changing. While the Liberal government’s reforms caused the deeply conservative King George grave concern, both he and his wife accepted that the monarchy had to be in step with a more democratic age. It was a steep learning curve. George came to the throne in the midst of the suffragette agitation for women’s votes, union militancy, Irish demands for home rule and a constitutional crisis over the power of the House of Lords. Under the tutelage of his first premier, the Liberal Herbert Asquith, George quickly learnt that the monarch’s duty, alongside Bagehot’s classic dictum of his right “to be consulted, to encourage, to warn”, was to do what he was told by the prime minister of the day, whether he approved or not.

Even more than reforming Liberals, King George feared socialism. He believed – wrongly as it turned out – that the rise of the Labour party and the growth of trades unions posed a direct threat to the survival of the monarchy.

Yet there was a contradiction at the heart of the king’s character. His reactionary side was dead set against the changes that were enfranchising working people and women at the time. But his common sense told him that he – and his wife – had to adapt. As a first step, in 1912 George and Mary – following the advice of the king’s advisor, Lord Esher – decided on a series of novel visits to industrial regions.

Royals had been visiting the poor for many years; what made George and Mary different was that they did so as a team and that they engaged in a very public way with the trials and tribulations of the industrial workers whom they visited. On a three-day trip to south Wales in June 1912, they were photographed together visiting the pit-heads. Queen Mary insisted on visiting an ordinary miner’s cottage where she perched on a kitchen stool and drank a cup of tea. “Keir Hardie (the republican founder of Labour) will not have liked it!” she remarked – only half in jest – afterwards.

A month later Mary visited the scene of a mining disaster in Yorkshire and was seen to have tears streaming down her cheeks as she spoke to the bereaved – a sign of a heart beating under the outwardly cold mask of royal rectitude. Such acts, it was hoped, would serve to make the monarchy appear more in tune with a more democratic society.

Royal visits, however, weren’t enough to quell the concerns of the king and his advisers that the institution of monarchy was in peril. The First World War exacerbated these fears. The conflict brought about the downfall of many of the crowned heads of Europe; it led to revolution in Russia; it exposed the inescapable fact that the British royal family was almost 100 per cent German by descent. There were murmurings in the press and elsewhere that the monarchy was out of touch and out of tune with the feelings of the country. In 1917, three years into the war, there was a sense of crisis at court.

In secret the king and his private secretary, Lord Stamfordham, consulted leading opinion formers of the time as to how they might modernise and adapt. Stamfordham opened a file, Unrest in the Country (now held in the Royal Archives), in which he collected advice on how the monarchy might better engage with the people at a time of change. The king himself was at the forefront of these moves.

When in March 1917 his first cousin, the Russian tsar Nicholas II abdicated, the British government agreed to requests for his asylum. At first, George went along with this. But he soon realised that it would be disastrous for the British royal family to beseen publicly to be emphasising its links with one of Europe’s more antiquatedand autocratic imperial dynasties. At the king’s own initiative and against the advice of his ministers, the invitation was rescinded. Nicholas and his family suffered an awful death at the hands of the Bolsheviks one year later. Although George and Mary were horrified by the assassinations, they never doubted the wisdom of the decision to keep their cousin out.

The same year King George boldly moved to anglicise his name and remove the Teutonic taint that was damaging the royal family at a time of rabid anti-German feeling. The novelist HG Wells had sneered that the king’s court was alien and uninspiring; the king, who considered himself British to the backbone, responded robustly: “I may be uninspiring, but I’ll be damned if I am alien.” He ordered Lord Stamfordham to find a dynastic name more suitable than the distinctly alien ‘Saxe-Coburg-Gotha’, which some genealogists believed to be his surname. The private secretary, after much consideration, came up with ‘Windsor’. This was a masterstroke epitomising, in its association with the ancient castle, solid unchanging virtues, and with its link to a nourishing brown ‘Windsor soup’ popular at the time, a certain hearty dullness.

At the same time as changing his name, George created the Order of the British Empire. The new honour proved immensely popular, allowing for the first time ordinary people to be recognised for their good works. Such commitments to improving the public image of the royal family were further underlined by the appointment of Buckingham Palace’s first full-time press secretary, in 1918.

The end of the First World War in November that year brought further change. The franchise was extended to women and, with working people’s growing sense of entitlement after the sacrifices of the First World War, a Labour government became inevitable. The king, who associated the Labour party with republicanism, was deeply fearful, not least as to whether the neophyte statesmen could afford proper court dress. Jeeves-like, Lord Stamfordham had the answer: “Messrs Moss Bros, Your Majesty, which is I believe a well known and dependable firm.”

Open hostility

More importantly, having declared his hostility to socialism, a Labour government would test King George’s duty of impartiality to the limit. In the event, when the first Labour government was elected in 1924, fears on both sides were allayed. The socialist politicians not only dressed properly but treated their monarch with, if anything, deeper respect than did the more familiar Liberal and Conservative statesmenof the time. The king responded in kind and formeda bond with the Labour leader, Ramsay MacDonald, which developed into a deep friendship. MacDonald, the illegitimate son of a farm labourer and a servant girl, turned out to share many of the deep-seated conservative values of his sovereign.

In 1931, when the country faced financial turmoil over a budget deficit which threatened to undermine the banking system, King George played a central role in the crisis. MacDonald’s cabinet was split over the way to handle the budget crisis, refusing to implement cuts in unemployment benefits. The king twice refused his prime minister’s resignation and persuaded MacDonald to remain in charge of a coalition National Government of Conservatives and Liberals, with only a token rump of Labour members.

The Labour party never forgave their leader for his betrayal, but the king’s intervention was widely regarded as having steadied the ship of state with a crucial balancing act between right and left. As one historian put it, he was “possessed with a kind of sublime common sense. He knew what to do and he did it.”

Four years later, on 6 May 1935, the king and queen drove to St Paul’s to celebrate their silver jubilee. George described the crowds as “the greatest number of people in the streets I have ever seen in my life”. While he would have been personally appalled at the idea of seeking popularity, he had, under the guidance of his private secretaries, adapted the monarchy to the modern age while giving the appearance of rock-like security. In the process he had become deeply loved, to his great surprise: “I did not realise they felt like this,” he said, astonished and moved by the rapturous reception.

The king’s popularity was increased by the most successful innovation in later life: the radio speech at Christmas, which he first broadcast in 1932. His gravelly voice, as if pickled in whisky, was beamed directly into the nation’s homes with an intimacy previously unthinkable.

Only a few months after the jubilee celebrations, on 20 January 1936, King George died at Sandringham. He was 70 years old. His death, at a time of international uncertainty and growing threat of war, came as a terrible shock to the nation. George’s reign, epitomised by unchanging routine and solid virtue, harked back to the certainties of the Victorian age. His – and his wife’s – achievement had been to give the appearance of absolute solidity while flexibly responding to changing circumstances.

Queen Mary, who had shared his commitment to duty and mirrored his rigid rectitude, lived on to see her granddaughter Elizabeth accede to the throne, dying in 1953. In recognition of King George’s reign, millions from all backgrounds lined the streets at his funeral to pay their respects to a simple man whose very ordinariness and adaptability had made him fatherof the nation.

Denys Blakeway is a television producer and author who specialises in contemporary history. His films about the royal family include King George VI: The Reluctant King and Edward VII: Prince of Pleasure. His books include The Last Dance, (John Murray 2010).

Timeline: 10 key moments in George V’s reign

22 June 1911: Crowning moment

Coronation of King George and Queen Mary after the death of Edward VII the previous year. The king's new reign begins amid a constitutional crisis

June 1912: Public relations

The king and queen begin a series of visits to industrial regions to examine living conditions of working people for themselves. It is the beginning of a subtle programme of modernisation

4 August 1914: Fearing the worst

Outbreak of the First World War. King George and Queen Mary appear on the balcony of Buckingham Palace to rapturous crowds. In private they are incredulous and fearful

15 March 1917: Refused entry

The Russian tsar Nicholas II abdicates. King George refuses to allow him exile in Britain, fearful that his presence in Britain will embarrass the royal family

June 1917: A royal makeover

King George implements a series of modernising reforms. Members of the royal family can marry British commoners; the honours system is widened with the OBE; the surname 'Windsor' is adopted

11 November 1918: Winning the peace

The end of the First World War. Victory cements King George and Queen Mary's popularity. Behind the scenes, reforms continue with the appointment of the first royal press secretary

22 January 1924: An unlikely ally

The first Labour government. Despite the king's misgivings, he forms a close and lasting bond with the Labour prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald (pictured)

23 August 1931: Divide and rule

After direct intervention by King George, Ramsay MacDonald forms a National government. The Labour party is split with few supporting the new coalition

25 December 1932: The king's speech

The first royal Christmas broadcast from Sandringham. The king's address is written by poet Rudyard Kipling and is heard across the British empire

20 January 1936: His final journey

Only months after celebrating his silver jubilee, King George dies, aged 70. Millions line the streets of London to pay their respects as his coffin is taken for burial at Windsor

The monarchy after George

Edward VIII (reigned 1936) was the polar opposite of his father, George V. He loved the modern world, wanted urgent reform of the monarchy rather than gradual change and regarded his private life as his own affair. His determination to wed a twice-married American, Wallis Simpson, ran counter to everything George V stood for and led to Edward’s abdication. He failed to grasp what was fundamental to his father – that the British prefer a dull and virtuous monarch to a racy moderniser.

George VI (reigned 1936–52), the reluctant and stammering king, announced on his accession after the abdication crisis that he would follow in the footsteps of his father. Duty was his watchword and he returned the monarchy to the values personified by George and Mary. During the Second World War, George VI was a focus of patriotic feeling in the face of the Nazis. The strain of conflict and the burden of kingship hastened his death.

Elizabeth II (reigned 1952–) was the beloved granddaughter of George V. The old king had been a stern father to his own children but was an indulgent grandfather to Elizabeth. He recognised her potential early, saying: "Pray God that nothing will come between Bertie and Lilibet and the throne." Elizabeth has continued the traditions of duty and service established by George V. She has brought about reform, but most of her changes, as those of her grandfather, have been evolutionary.


This article was first published in the Christmas 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine