George VI was born Albert Frederick Arthur George Windsor in 1895 at York Cottage, Sandringham, Norfolk. He was called Bertie in the family. Albert was never intended to be king. A biographer calls him, the reluctant king. It was his older
brother who was to be king. But Albert rose to the occassion and it was his qualities, rather than those of his popular but
undiscplined older brother, that reflected the needs of the British people in perhaps their darkest hour.He was the son of King George V and Mary of Teck (Queen Mary). George was known as "Bertie" to the family, was never intended to be king. In fact he stammered and public appearances were a terrible ordeal for him. Many thought him unsuited to be king. It was his older brother who was destined from the beginning to be king. But he proved his detractors wrong, cotrageosly leading his embattled nation through the dark days of World War II.
Albert's mother is often criticised for being cold and indifferent to her children. This is an harsh assessment, but she clearly was not affectionate
with her children. There were times, especially when her husband was not present that she played a more maternal role.
His father, who also was not expected to be king, was a harsh disciplinarian who because of his naval background was fanatically punctual. He was particularly severe with his two oldest sons, David (Edward VIII) and Albert. Some have even used the term cruel. Many assessments of his father unfairly assess him in modern
terms and not in comparison to other turn of the century fathers. Even so, he does seem to have been unduly harsh and always formal with the children.
Albert came into the world on the worst possible day--Mausoleum Day December 14. 1895. The date was virtually held sacred by Queen Victoria and her family because it was the day Prince Albert died and susequently his aunt, Princess Alice. Albert of course could not have chosen a worse day. It was always a dark day of nourning. His father, Prince George, was concerned about his formidable grandmother Queen Victoria would react. His Aunt Victoria wrote from Berlin suggesting that this ray of sunlight should be allowed to brighten this dark day. His grandfather the Prince of Wales also hoped this would be the case. And indeed Queen Victoria did seem to share this view. His father had reprtedly wanted a girl, but Albert was a welcome back up for his older brother in dynastic terms. Albert came into the world at the peak of England's imperial power. England had the world'd largest empire. British school children were taught how the "pink" on the map streached around the globe, at the fact that the sun never set on the British empire was drilled into them. France had been humbled. Germany was on the rise, but was just beginning to build a major fleet. Austria was declining. The power of Russia without a majpr industrial base was receding. American strength was not fully recognized. It was into the royal family of the world's most powerful country that the young prince began his life.
George V and Queen Mary had 6 children, 5 boys and a girl. They were presented as the model British family. Certainly they did not have the problems the modern English press likes to report with the current royals. They did, of course, have their problems with Edward--eventually resulting in the greatest modern crisis in the monarch. Edward became famous for renouncing the throne to mary a divorced American. His brother Albert who had never been raised to be king, not only inherited the crown, but the great task of leading Britain through the trials of World War II.
Alfred was a shy, sensitive boy. He was prone to melancholy. He was diffident to his older brother. He was hesitant, a reserve of fortitude, highly strung, and easily rebuffed. He was slow as a child and subject to sudden outbursts of temper. He also developed a severe stammer. Some have blamed this on his father the King. He was almost the opposit of his self assured oldr brother who at ease in public and efforlessly delivered polished speeches. Bertie interestingly was perhaps the most athletic of George V's children. He was a good enough tennis player, for example, to play at Wimbeldon.
Quite detailed information is available on Albert's boyhood clothes. This is in part due to the extensive photographic record. Albert and his brothers course wore dresses as younger boys, but after breeching they mostly wore sailor suits and kilts, inpart because his father, GeogeV, felt these were the only two clothes suitable for boys. The first information we have on Albert's clothing is details on his christening gown. Albert was christened at a chapel in his grandfather's home, Sandrinham. Albert was outfitted in a Honitron lace gown that the family had used since the birth of Victoria and Albert's forst child, the Princess Victoria. After his christening, Prince Albert cried all night in the nursery and his brother David soon joined in crying. George VI and his older brother David (Edward VIII) wore white lacy dresses, although not at such advanced ages as there father. One picture shows George the VI in a carriage wearing a long lacy dress at 2 years of age. An older boy (probably his brother Bertie--Edward VIII), also in a lacy dress, is standing beside him. The dresses look to be identical to what a girl might have worn. One aspect of Albert's and his brother's childhood that HBC has been totally unavle to obtain informatiin on was breeching. How did Queen Mary decide it was time to breech the boys? Was there a specified age or was it a more subjective judgement? Did King George play a role here? Was there a ceremony? Perhaps it was done at a birthday party. One question HBC can not yet answer is whthervthe boys wore smocks. We believe that they probably did in the nursery. We have not yet noted any photographs of the boys wearing smocks. Perhaps it was not considered appropriate to photograph the boys in such infprmal garments. We have, however, noted their sister Princess Mary wearing smocks when playing with the boys. After breeching Albert and his brothers almost always wore sailor suits, These were the only clothes their father felt suitable for boys. George V was quite strict with the boys and could give them a thorough dressing down if any of the accesories were the least bit out of place. (For a fuller discussion of this, see the Edward VIII.) The boys became afraid of him. His brother Albert eventually became very resentful of how they were treated as childern. Albert seems to have adjusted better to it or at least did not complain as publically as his brother. The only important alternative to the boys' sailor suits were Scottish kilts. These were worn for special ocasions or on trips to Scotland where they wore their kilts. There they wore kilts both for dress and for casual wear. Each boy had several kilt outfits. It was not just the Queen who decided what they wore. The King would give very specific instructions as to what kilt shoul be worn on which occasion. He also constantly instrcted them to take better care of theur kilts.
Albert and his older brother Bertie wore natuaral curls as little boys. But they never wore it over the ears or in ringlets, even while still wearing dresses. Well before breecching, their hair was cut short. As younger boys they wore their hair long, but not so long that it covered their ears.
HBC has no information yet on what Bertie thought of the clothes he wore as a child, either as a boy or as an adult looking back. We do know, however, that like his grandfather Edward VII that he was as an adult, a stickler for proper attire. [Bradford, 1989, p. 4.]
Albert and his older brother David, as well as their sister Mary, were born into rather startlingly different circustance. More children were to come, but these three older children grew up in the nursery together and were very close to each other. Their great grandmother Queen Victioria was still alived and continued to live in an evironment of mourning and gloom. This could not have been more drasticalyy different than the world of their grand parents the Prince and Princess of Wales who lived in a world of lights and spcial elegance. Both, but especially the Princess of Wales loved to spoil and dote on the children. Than their was their own parents, Prince George and Princess Mary. Their father believed in a rather plain life and insisted on strict discipline for the children,
KIng George was especially severe with his two oldet sons, David and Bertie. The King appears to have had no sympathy with weakness and imperfection. He wanted nothing to do, fo example, with his handicapped son John. He was epecilly irritated with Berie's stammering and would often mock him, thinking this the best way of curing him. Of course this treatment may have well made it worse. He did express concern as to how Bertie would do at Osborne, in part because of his stammering. His son appears to have earned the Kings's respect. In the end the KIng is known to have said that Bertie has "more guts" than all the others. I am not sure he ver told Bertie that. Queen Mary was of course more understnding, but unwilling to inerpose hrself betwwn her husband and the children. We have not yet developed informatin abouther relationship with Bertie
Bertie was of course very close as child with his older brother David. As older boys they drifted apart. This was in part because as an older boy he refused to always defer to David. It is notable, for example, when David as Prince of Wales made trips around the Empire to help popularize the monarchy and relations wth the mother country, the future Lord Mounbattn was chosen as a comanion and not Bertie. He was, howver, a frequent visitor to Berie's home after Bertie mairred. He was the Princess Elizabeth's fvorite uncle. He would play games with her. Then one day she was to later write, "He stopped coming." We have no information at this time on David's relations with his sistervand other brothers.
George VI, like his brother David, was educated at the Royal Naval School. Interestingly his dormitories were his great-grandmother's old stables. Like his brother, Albert had a rough time at Osborne. It was the first school the boys ever attended and neither was prepared academically. Mathematics was a special problem for Albert. His stuttering created many additional difficulties. He does not seem to have resented it, however, as much as his older brother and in fact came to feel at home in the Navy, assuming that it would be his life's calling.
Bertie served in the Navy during Word War I. As a sub-lieutenant, he participated in the Battle of Jutland in May 1916, the decisive naval battle of the war. He was happy in the Navy and assumed that the Navy was going to be his career until his brother shocked him and the nation by abdicating.
George married Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother) in 1923 at Westminster Abbey. At the time no one expected Bertie to be king and Elizabeth had no inlking she would become queen. The relationship between the Queen Mother and and her husband has not been well studied. Actually historians know very little about her influence on her husband. She become perhaps the best loved peson on the British Isles and was still going strong at age 100! She died in 2002 at the venerable age of 101. Elizabeth had a bumpy start in that she was born in an ambulance. The Queen Mother was born Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon on August, 4 1900, the ninth of 10 children. She had a wonderful childhood. She grew up on the family estate in Scotland and enjoyed an open and active childhood. She was not particularly well educated and saw little need for formal education--especially for girls. Being born an aristocrat rather than a royal she was free from the constraints of royal children. Lady Elizabeth was, however, no stranger to royalty and after a long courtship married Prince Bertie. Their children were Queen Elizabeth II and Margaret Windsor (Princess Margaret). Queen Elizabeth was totally at ease in virtually any company. She is unselfconcious and always flashing a ready smile. She was dispairaged as dowdy by her sister-in-law the Duchess of Windsor. She was reportedly one of the most opposed to the Duchesses' acceptance in England. She was perhaps most admired for remaining in London wih her children and husband during the World War II Blitz. She has tremendous charm. She remained by far the most admired British royal, lovingly referred to as the Queen Mum. Their children were Queen Elizabeth II and Margaret Windsor (Princess Margaret).
Bertie preformed many official duties as Duke of York besides his responsibilities as a naval officer. He took an interest in industrial tecology and provided patronage to many technical and industrial associations. Perhaps his most well known activity, however, was his founding of the Duke of York summer camps. These camps brought boys of widely different social backgrounds, including working-class boys from the large cities, together to enjoy heathful summer activities. It should be remembered that this is what the Hitler Youth was doing in the 1930s, but in England before World War II, there was realtively little such opportunities for boys to associate accross class lines. The British Boy Scouts, for example, was a largely middle-class movement.
Albert became king after the abdication of his brother Edward VIII. It all came as a great surprise to Albert and the family. Albert was never intended to be king and never raised to be king. A biographer calls him, the reluctant king. It was his older brother who was to be king. In fact his older brother was emensely popular as few prince of Wales had ever been. David's easy social grace were a contrast to his younger brother's shy more reserved personality. In fact he had a terrible stutter that made the simplist of public speaking engagements a terrible ordeal for him. He had a speeche therapist and developed a unique style of speaking with long pauses designed to minimize the stuttering problem. Albert apparently broke down and cried the day that his brother abdicated, realizing for the first time that he would be king.
Albert was crowned in 1937 as King George VI at Westminster Abbey. King George was styled as "By the Grace of God, of Great Britain and Ireland and the British Dominions Beyond the Seas, King, Defender of the Faith, Emperor of India". He was crowned as Geotge VI because Albert was deemed as sounding too German. When George came to the throne he worked with a speech coach to help him overcome his stammer.
Albert andd Edward, growing up together, were very close as boys. The abdication and aftermath caused George and his brother Edward to become embroiled in a lengthy and bitter feud. First, it was the decision that the royal family would not attend his wedding, then it was the refusal to allow his new wife to be entitled Her Royal Highness, then the long-running saga of whether or not they could return to England.
There was the extended disagreement over a financial settlement and a major hurt over not being invited to the unveiling of their father's tomb in St. George's Chapel in Windsor Castle. Each time it was
either King George passing on the bad news to his Brother or who the Duke of Windsor blamed for failing to support him. The effect on Edward was devastating and reportedly reduced him to tears. He could neither
believe nor understand it. He had generally deffered to by his brothers and sister. Who were sumpethetic with many minor problems, not the least of which were unpleasant sessions with his father. Edwards
could thus mot understand their failure to support him after abdication. He had no perception of the depth of public feeling, not so much against him but against his wife. The feud became more bitter over time and any semblance of trust disappeared between the two once-close brothers. When the Duke of Windsor was posted to the British Military Mission in Paris, just after the outbreak of war in 1939, he blamed the King for a "network of intrigue" against him and for his "efforts to humiliate me".
But Albert rose to the occassion and it was his qualities, rather than those of his popular but undiscplined older brother, that reflected the needs of the British people in perhaps their darkest hour. King George VI reigned during World War II, one of the greatest crisis in the history of the British people. The King and Queen's grace and courage was aan inspiration to the British people. They stayed in London during the blitz even after Buckingham Palace was hit my bombs. It was considered a tragedy when Edward abdicated. But given George VI's performance as king and the Duke of Windsor's behavior during and after the War, one wonders if the better person didn't become king.
When Indian independence was granted in 1947, George relinquished the title "Emperor of India", making him the last British monarch to be thus styled. Actually only four other British monarchs held that title (Victoria, Edward VII, George V, and Edward VIII). It was created at Disreali's insistence as part of his efforts to keep the Queen interested in his efforts to expand the Empire. Victoria for her part appreciated the gesture. She was interested in India and some what piqued that the Prussian kings since the unification of Germany had become kaissers or "emperors". The new title had given her the right to style herself "emperess" as well.
King George VI died in 1952 at Sandringham, Norfolk of cancer. Smoking and the stress of World War II had left their mark on him. A card was attatched to the wreath the British government sent to George's funeral, on which Sir Winston Churchill wrote the same words as those inscribed on the Victoria Cross, "For Valour". He died at the tragically early age of 57.
George VI was not one of the most forceful or dynamic soverigns. But he can not be dismissed. The French Ambassador to Britain, René Massigli, perhaps summed up the reign of George VI the best. He wrote, "If the `greatness' of a King can be measured by the extent to which his qualities correspond to the needs of a nation at a given moment in his history, then George was a great king." King George reigned through one of the most turbulent periods of the 20th Century and, despite being unprepared for the job, proved himself to be one of Britain's most able monarchs. He was a truely kind and gracious man. He had never been a strong man in terms of health and undoubtedly the strains of kingship, for which he was never prepared, had taken their toll.
Bradford, Sarah. The Reluctant King: The Life and Reign of George VI, 1995-1952 (New York: St. Marin's Press, 1989), 506p.
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