George VI became King of the United Kingdom and the dominions of the British Commonwealth in December 1936 when his elder brother abdicated after only 326 days on the throne. He became known as the reluctant king. Never primed for the ‘top job’, it wasn’t certain that he would excel in the role and there was a suggestion that the crown should bypass him and land on the head of his younger brother.
Born Prince Albert Frederick Arthur George and known as Bertie, he was George V and Queen Mary’s second son and was born 14 December 1895. It was the anniversary of his great-grandfather, Prince Albert’s death.
Left-handed Bertie was forced to write with his right hand, which was the practice of the day. He wore splints to correct knock-knees and had a life-long stammer, the correction of which was the subject of the movie The King’s Speech. At thirteen he was sent to the Royal Naval school where he was bullied and marking his hated time there, passed out near the bottom of his class. However, one bright spot was that he was put in the care of the school doctor, Louis Greig, a former captain of the Scottish Rugby team who became his close friend.
War broke out when he was eighteen whilst he was serving as a mid-shipman on HMS Collingwood, where he saw action at the battle of Jutland in 1916. However, he had a miserable war, he suffered from depression and from an undiagnosed stomach ulcer which caused him pain throughout. He is the only sovereign to see battle since William IV.
Bertie was the first member of the royal family to join the newly formed RAF and qualify as a pilot, although he couldn’t fly solo due to a medical condition. He was persuaded to give up flying due to the risks involved.
He was created Duke of York in June 1920, a year that saw him win the RAF tennis doubles partnered with Greig – and the future king sadly lost in the semi-finals of the singles competition. He also played tennis at Wimbledon in 1926 watched by his wife, Elizabeth. He was again partnered by Greig and after competing against previous champions of the event, they went out in the first round. He remains the only member of the royal family to have competed at Wimbledon.
He married Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon in April 1923 and had two daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret Rose. They were the quintessential minor royal family until the tumultuous ending to his brother’s reign changed their destiny and the destinies of their descendants. He was happiest in their company.
In my other ‘Thoughts on’ articles I’ve listed good aspects and bad aspects about the subject monarch, but I find it’s hard to pinpoint bad things on George VI. He would become frustrated and was highly strung and prone to rages, but rather than make me think the worst of him I think it makes him a rounder character and counterbalances the meek, earnest man, terrified of public speaking due to his impediment. I find him a very sympathetic and likeable subject.
Here’s a little bit more about him.
- He became closer to his strict father in adulthood.
- From 1921 the Duke of York’s Camps: boys from different social backgrounds could have a week’s holiday.
- He was President of the Industrial Welfare Society and toured factories, his brothers called him the foreman.
- He was chronically shy – he was once found in a dark room, too timid to ask servants to turn on the lights.
- He was modest and retiring and not surprisingly considering his shyness and speech impediment, was resistant to appearing in public.
- He became king 11 December 1936, crowned 12 May 1937 and reigned during World War Two.
- He is said to have cried for an hour on his mother’s shoulder when he learned he would be king.
- Was dutiful and loyal and tried to be the best king he could be.
- He supported Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy which failed to prevent war with Hitler’s Germany.
- Only two Prime Ministers have appeared on the Buckingham Palace balcony – Neville Chamberlain prior to WWII and Winston Churchill to celebrate VE Day in 1945 – both occasions when George VI was on the throne.
- The King had phobias of heights and of reviewing lines of soldiers during military inspections! He had to be ordered from his tent in north Africa to review soldiers in 1943.
- He died 6 February 1952 at Sandringham.
- His brother, the Duke of Windsor, formerly Edward VIII, attended his funeral without his wife, who was not welcome.
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