George VI: The Reluctant King Who Stole Britain’s Heart | History Hit

George VI: The Reluctant King Who Stole Britain’s Heart

Peta Stamper

30 Apr 2023
King George VI speaking to his empire on the evening of his Coronation, 1937.
Image Credit: BBC / Public Domain

In December 1936, Albert Frederick Arthur George got a job he neither wanted or thought he would be given. His older brother Edward, who had been crowned King of the United Kingdom in January of that year, sparked a constitutional crisis when he chose to marry Wallis Simpson, an American woman twice divorced, a match forbidden by the British state and Church.

Edward forfeited his crown, and his royal responsibilities fell to the heir presumptive: Albert. Taking the regnal name George VI, the new king reluctantly assumed the throne as Europe fast approached war.

Nonetheless, George VI overcame personal and public challenges, restoring faith in the monarchy. But who was the reluctant ruler, and how exactly did he manage to win over a nation?

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Albert was born on 14 December 1895. His birthdate happened to be the anniversary of his great-grandfather’s death, and he was named Albert to honour the Prince Consort, husband of the still-reigning Queen Victoria. To close friends and family, however, he was affectionately known as ‘Bertie’.

As the second son of George V, Albert never expected to become king. At the time of his birth, he was fourth in line to inherit the throne (after his father and grandfather), and he spent much of his adolescence overshadowed by his elder brother, Edward. Albert’s childhood was therefore not uncharacteristic of the upper classes: he rarely saw his parents who were distant from their children’s day-to-day lives.

The four kings of the United Kingdom between 1901 and 1952: Edward VII, George V, Edward VIII and George VI in December 1908.

Image Credit: Daily Telegraph’s Queen Alexandra’s Christmas Gift Book / Public Domain

Made famous by the 2010 film The King’s Speech, Albert had a stammer. His stammer and embarrassment over it, coupled with a naturally shy character, made Albert appear less confident in public than the heir, Edward. This did not stop Albert committing to military service during World War One.

Despite being plagued with seasickness and chronic stomach trouble, he entered service in the Royal Navy. While at sea his grandfather Edward VII died and his father became King George V, moving Albert a step up the succession ladder to second in line to the throne.

The ‘Industrial Prince’

Albert saw little action during World War One because of continued health problems. Nonetheless, he was mentioned within reports of the Battle of Jutland, the war’s great naval battle, for his actions as a turret officer aboard Collingwood.

Albert was made Duke of York in 1920, after which he spent more time fulfilling royal duties. In particular, he visited coal mines, factories, and railyards, gaining himself not only the nickname of the ‘Industrial Prince’, but a thorough knowledge of working conditions.

Putting his knowledge into practice, Albert took on the role of president of the Industrial Welfare Society and between 1921 and 1939, established summer camps that brought together boys from different social backgrounds.

At the same time, Albert was looking for a wife. As the second son of the king and as part of the monarchy’s attempt at ‘modernising’, he was allowed to marry from outside the aristocracy. After two rejected proposals, Albert married Lady Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon, youngest daughter of the 14th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne, at Westminster Abbey on 26 April 1923.

The determined couple were well-matched. When Albert made a speech opening the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley on 31 October 1925, his stammer made the occasion cripplingly humiliating. He began to see the Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue and with the steadfast support of the Duchess of York, his hesitation and confidence improved.

King George VI opened the Olympics in London with a speech, 1948.

Image Credit: National Media Museum / CC

Together Albert and Elizabeth had two children: Elizabeth, who would later succeed her father and become Queen, and Margaret.

The reluctant king

Albert’s father, George V, died in January 1936. He foreshadowed the crisis that was to come: “After I am dead, the boy [Edward] will ruin himself in twelve months … I pray God that my eldest son will never marry and that nothing will come between Bertie and Lilibet [Elizabeth] and the throne”.

Indeed, after just 10 months as king, Edward abdicated. He wanted to marry Wallis Simpson, an American socialite who was twice-divorced, but it was made clear to Edward that as King of Great Britain and Head of the Church of England, he would not be allowed to marry a divorcee.

Edward therefore forfeited the Crown, leaving his younger brother to dutifully assume the throne on 12 December 1936. Confiding in his mother, Queen Mary, George said that when he found out his brother was to abdicate, “I broke down and sobbed like a child”.

Gossip suggesting the new king was not physically or mentally fit for the throne spread across the country. However, the reluctant king moved fast to assert his position. He took the regnal name ‘George VI’ to provide continuity with his father.

George VI on the day of his coronation, 12 May 1937, on Buckingham Palace’s balcony with his daughter and heir, Princess Elizabeth.

Image Credit: Commons / Public Domain

The question of his brother’s position also remained. George made Edward the first ‘Duke of Windsor’ and allowed him to retain the title of ‘Royal Highness’, but these titles could not be passed down to any children, securing the future of his own heir, Elizabeth.

The next challenge the new king George faced was characterised by the budding war in Europe. Royal visits to both France and the United States were made, particularly in an attempt to soften US President Roosevelt’s policy of isolationism. Constitutionally, however, George was expected to align with Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy towards Hitler’s Nazi Germany.

“We want the King!”

Britain declared war on Nazi Germany when Poland was invaded in September 1939. The King and Queen were determined to share in the danger and deprivation their subjects faced.

They remained in London during the fierce bombing raids and on 13 September, narrowly escaped death when 2 bombs exploded in Buckingham Palace’s courtyard. The Queen described how their decision to stay in London allowed the royals to “look the East End in the face”, the East End having been particularly devastated by enemy bombing.

Much like the rest of Britain, the Windsors lived on rations and their home, albeit a palace, remained boarded-up and unheated. They also suffered a loss when the Duke of Kent (the youngest of George’s brothers) was killed in active service in August 1942.

When they were not in the capital, the King and Queen went on morale-boosting tours of bombed towns and cities across the country, and the King visiting troops at the front lines in France, Italy, and North Africa.

George also developed a close relationship with Winston Churchill, who became Prime Minister in 1940. They met each Tuesday for a private lunch, frankly discussing the war and showing a strong united front to drive the British war effort.

On VE Day in 1945, George was met by crowds chanting “we want the King!” outside Buckingham Palace, and invited Churchill to stand beside the royals on the palace balcony, delighting the public.

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Supported by the Queen, George had became a symbol of national strength during the war. The conflict had taken a toll on his health, though, and on 6 January 1952, aged 56, he died from complications after having surgery for lung cancer.

George, the reluctant king, stepped up to perform his national duty when Edward abdicated in 1936. His reign began just as public faith in the monarchy was faltering, and continued as Britain and the Empire endured the hardships of war and the struggles for independence. With personal courage, he restored the popularity of the monarchy for the day his daughter, Elizabeth, would assume the throne.

Peta Stamper