This article was first published in the January 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine
On 6 February 1952, King George VI died in his sleep at the age of 56. Greatly respected and admired by the vast majority of his subjects at the time of his death, his reputation has, if anything, been enhanced over the intervening 60 years. Recently it has received a boost through the huge public interest in the extraordinarily successful 2010 film The King’s Speech. Tackling directly the problem of the often crippling speech impediment that had dogged George VI for most of his life, the film concentrated upon his sometimes explosive interaction with the unorthodox speech therapist Lionel Logue.
Prince Albert, Duke of York (as George VI was known before he became king), had been bullied and undermined from childhood by his tyrannical father, George V, and kept at a distance by his cold mother, Queen Mary. Understandably, he grew up with a profound lack of self-confidence that not merely caused him to stammer so badly in public that he sometimes became incoherent, but also often tipped him into inarticulate and unpredictable rages.
As shown in The King’s Speech, however, salvation came not only through the skilful and therapeutic treatment he received from Lionel Logue but was also due to the loving common sense of his wife, the former Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon.
Interestingly, Lady Elizabeth, vivacious and attractive, took some persuading to marry Prince Albert in the first place. As Lady Airlie, who knew her well, wrote: “She was frankly doubtful, uncertain of her feelings, and afraid of the public life which would lie ahead of her.” But her suitor humbly persisted, and the wedding that resulted in 1923 provided Prince Albert with a deeply supportive wife who was at once at ease with an adoring public. She was also to bear him two greatly loved daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret Rose.
However, the trauma of the abdication of his brother, Edward VIII, in 1936, shattered the comfortable, almost low-key life that Prince Albert now enjoyed. There were some within the establishment who feared the new king might not be up to the job. More sensibly, the prime minister Stanley Baldwin realised that “there is a lot of prejudice against him. He’s had no chance to capture the popular imagination as his brother did. I’m afraid he won’t find it easy going for the first year or two.”
Despite George VI’s deep misgivings as he ascended the throne, the media, especially in Britain, was quick to come to the rescue, presenting a cosy, reassuring image of the new royal family. At its head was a monogamous and loving couple, with their two adored, demure and wholesome daughters, together in the garden, or perhaps perched round a roaring sitting-room fire while reading, chatting, stroking a dog and doing what millions of others might well be doing in countless semi-detached houses or country cottages.
The temptation to identify with what appeared, at first sight anyway, to be merely another comfortable, happy and unpretentious suburban nuclear family was irresistible.
Faced with his new role, George himself was to rise to the challenge of kingship with considerable success. Among his best qualities was his capacity to adapt to his dramatically changed circumstances after 1936 and to absorb what was required of him as monarch. No great scholar or bookworm in his early life, George proved a very quick learner indeed after his accession to the throne.
He also understood the limitations of his role and influence as a constitutional monarch. Not for him rhetorical flights and vivid verbal imagery addressing and swaying huge audiences, or demanding that he got his own way over policy, or obstructing, either overtly or covertly, developments of which he disapproved. This was not his function or his duty, and, in any event, between 1940 and 1945 he had a prime minister, Winston Churchill, who could do all of that, and often did.
In fact, he provided the perfect foil to his expansive, eloquent and larger-than-life wartime prime minister.
The king’s qualities of ordinariness, hard work and modesty were to stand him and his family in good stead, not only as the royal spin doctors hastened to refashion the monarchy’s image amid the ruins of the abdication crisis, but also as the nation and its empire faced a triumphant Nazi Germany after the rapid collapse of France in the summer of 1940.
As the British people braced themselves for the ordeal of ‘standing alone’, it seemed far better to be led jointly by a prime minister who exuded self-belief and who could conjure up support from past triumphs of national history, and by a monarch who refused to move out of London in daytime during the Blitz. This was a king who, in the interests of national economy, took the time earnestly to paint lines inside all the baths in Buckingham Palace to show how deep to make the hot water.
Nor was it forgotten amid the perils and anxieties of the Second World War that the future George VI had served on HMS Collingwood during the 1916 battle of Jutland, or that his daughter Princess Elizabeth joined the ATS during the Second World War, becoming a driver of army trucks and knowledgeable on the subject of sparking plugs. There was also a certain symmetry in the fact that Buckingham Palace was being bombed at the same time as terraced houses in Stepney and Coventry were being pulverised.
In the postwar period, George VI again showed just the right personal and constitutional touch in his dealings with the Labour government of 1945–51. Though a naturally conservative man, the king was determined to give the new administration, many of whose senior ministers he knew well from their roles in the wartime coalition, as much support as it needed. Nonetheless, he disliked strikes, once commenting that “the liberty of the subject was at stake if a strike interfered with home life”. He was also taken aback when the servants at Buckingham Palace organised a trade union, and could not understand Aneurin Bevan’s refusal to wear evening dress on the grounds “that it was an upper-class uniform”.
Despite that disagreement, the king got on well with the loquacious left-winger Bevan, perhaps partly because both men suffered from stammers, and he had considerable regard for the taciturn, plain-speaking prime minister Clement Attlee. In fact the only Labour minister whom the king found irksome was the pompous, booming and tactless Hugh Dalton, the son of his father George V’s much-disliked former tutor, Canon Dalton.
Especially after 1945, George VI presided over a number of major national transformations, from the introduction of the welfare state to the beginning of the end of Britain’s capacity to ‘go it alone’ in foreign policy; from the nationalisation of key parts of British industry and the British economy to the postwar decline in deference and the stifling effects of inhibition – both in public and private; from the waning of church attendance to the rapid growth of the modern media; from the fundamental homogeneity of the British population to the start of mass ‘non-white’ immigration and settlement.
George VI was the monarch who also saw the beginning of the huge process of decolonisation, fretting over the loss of ‘Emperor of India’ from the royal style and titles, concerned as to the implications of republican status requested by Nehru’s India in 1949, anxious to see the conflicts in territories like Cyprus, Kenya, Malaya, even Egypt, speedily resolved. After George’s death in 1952, the new queen, his daughter Elizabeth, assumed the title Head of the Commonwealth and devoted herself to the rapidly changing organisation.
In many ways, George VI seems almost impossibly dutiful, hard-working and ordinary – ridiculous though that last word might seem when applied to one of Queen Victoria’s great-grandsons and the king-emperor of a Commonwealth and empire that comprised nearly one third of humanity. But the standards he set in both his public and his private life were staggeringly high, providing an invaluable template for his equally dutiful elder daughter – even though they seem almost millennia away from the deportment of many of today’s members of the House of Windsor.
Ten key moments in George VI’s life
The birth of Prince Albert (14 December 1895)
Queen Mary gave birth to the future George VI on one of the gloomiest dates in the royal calendar: Queen Victoria’s beloved consort, Albert, had died on 14 December 34 years earlier.
Baby Albert in 1896. (W&D Downey/Getty Images)
Serving his country (1913-1917)
The prince serves in the Royal Navy, eventually seeing action manning a gun turret aboard HMS Collingwood at the battle of Jutland in 1916.
Albert serving as a midshipman during the First World War. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Speech therapy (1926)
Prince Albert begins his ultimately successful course of speech therapy with Lionel Logue in Harley Street.
The birth of a daughter (21 April 1926)
Birth of the future Queen Elizabeth II, followed by, in 1930, that of Princess Margaret Rose. The nuclear royal family is complete.
A royal wedding (26 April 1923)
Prince Albert marries Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon at Westminster Abbey to much public rejoicing. The press describes the bride as “the smiling Duchess”.
George becomes king (11 December 1936)
George ascends the throne with some reluctance after the abdication of his brother, Edward VIII, and amid some establishment worries that he may not be capable of undertaking the role. He was crowned on 12 May 1937.
A king at war (3 September 1939)
Outbreak of the Second World War. May 1940 marks the beginning of George VI’s close and extremely successful working relationship with the new prime minister, Winston Churchill.
Attlee triumphs (26 July 1945)
Labour wins a landslide election victory. After the king’s initial regret at Churchill’s defeat, a cordial working relationship develops with the incoming prime minister, Clement Attlee.
George’s daughter weds (20 November 1947)
The wedding of Princess Elizabeth to Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten. The king’s first grandchild, Prince Charles, is born in 1948 and Princess Anne in 1950.
The king breathes his last (6 February 1952)
George dies in his sleep at Sandringham after a day spent shooting hares. Next day the Daily Mirror wrote: “This was by any standards, anywhere, a good man.”
Lionel Logue and ‘the Royal Stutter’
Lionel Logue was an Australian, who, having contemplated becoming a doctor, had instead become a successful speech therapist, eventually opening a practice in London in 1924. Hearing the Duke of York’s stumbling, painful speech at the closing ceremony of the British Empire Exhibition in 1925, Logue was convinced that he could at least help bring about a substantial improvement. From 1926, Prince Albert began regularly to visit Logue at his Harley Street practice.
In addition to teaching his patient to breathe differently, and to work at difficult vowels, Logue also strove to address the Duke of York’s deep-seated insecurities. He focused on significant past traumas, and, in effect, offered the future king a broader therapy based on convincing him that he could, with help, cure himself.
A warm, mutual regard was quickly established, and Logue aimed at creating a relationship where the traditional deference owed to royalty was much diminished. Within a year Prince Albert was telling Logue: “I have ever so much more confidence in myself, and don’t brood over a speech as in the old days.”
Although George VI never quite lost his speech impediment, the tremendous improvement that occurred made the duties of broadcasting and speech-making – especially as monarch – much more manageable, even on occasion enjoyable. Logue considered him “the pluckiest and the most determined patient I ever had”. Strangely, Logue was not knighted for his work.
Professor Denis Judd’s biography, George VI, was republished in a revised edition in 2012