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King George VI - the Unexpected King

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HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, Duchess of York (1923 - 1936) | The Abdication of King Edward VIII of England and the Effect on the British Royal Family | King George VI - the Unexpected King
HM Queen Elizabeth - Queen Consort 1936 - 1952 | HM Queen Elizabeth - The Queen Mother | Queen Elizabeth II

King George VI

Being second-in-line to the British throne earns that person the dubious nickname 'the spare'. This is because they are the 'stand-by' to take over as Monarch should anything untoward befall the Heir. Prince Albert, Duke of York, like his father, was the 'spare' of his generation; he became King George VI when his older brother Edward VIII abdicated.


Queen Victoria and her consort Prince Albert had nine children: Victoria, Albert Edward (who became Edward VII), Alice, Alfred, Helena, Louise, Arthur, Leopold and Beatrice. It was Queen Victoria's descendants through Edward VII who provided the roots for the Windsor family tree and today's Royal Family.

Edward VII married Princess Alexandra of Denmark and they had six children: Prince Albert, Duke of Clarence; George, Prince of Wales; Princess Louise; Princess Victoria; Princess Maud and Prince Alexander. Prince Albert was second-in-line to the throne and engaged to London-born Princess Mary of Teck1, but he died of pneumonia in 1892 before the wedding ceremony took place.

Queen Victoria, who was Mary's godmother, advised her grandson George to propose to Mary and they were married2 on 6 July, 1893, at the Chapel Royal, St James's Palace, London. They had six children: David, Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII); Prince Albert (later George VI); Mary, the Princess Royal; Henry, Duke of Gloucester; George, Duke of Kent; and Prince John (a sufferer of epileptic fits who also had autistic spectrum learning difficulties, he died aged 13 years).

Prince Albert

Albert Frederick Arthur George was born3 at Sandringham House on 14 December, 1895, on the anniversary of the death of his great-grandfather, Prince Albert, who had died of typhoid on 14 December, 1861. The elderly Queen Victoria was unhappy and reluctant to celebrate the baby's arrival at first, but she grew to be devoted to the infant prince, saying his birth 'had broken the spell of this most unlucky date'.

The young prince's legs were encased in splints to straighten his knock-knees. He was naturally left-handed, but he was forced by his father to write with his right hand4. He also suffered from a severe nervous stutter, something even his older brother teased him about.

The Reign of King Edward VII

Following the death of Queen Victoria on 22 January, 1901, her elder son, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, finally inherited his birthright (he has been the longest heir-in-waiting in history) and was crowned King Edward VII, honouring his mother's decree that no future king should bear the name Albert as a mark of respect for her husband. George and Mary became Prince and Princess of Wales. Prince Albert, now third in line of succession, went to naval college in 1908 at the age of 13. He thought he would escape his father's bullying but ended up being bullied at the college as well.

The Reign of King George V

In 1910, King Edward VII died and so his oldest-surviving son George inherited the throne. King George V and Queen Mary's coronation took place in June 1911, and his elder son David was declared Prince of Wales and heir apparent. King George worried that the British people might take exception to the British Royal Family's German surname, (they were called Saxe-Coburg-Gotha from Queen Victoria's marriage to Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha), so it was changed to the very British 'Windsor'.

Prince Albert, now second-in-line, served in the Royal Navy during the Great War and his ship, HMS Collingwood, was involved in the Battle of Jutland. Later he joined the Royal Air Force before studying History and Economics at Trinity College, Cambridge from 1919 to 1920. That year he was created Duke of York, and it was also the year that he met his future bride.

Duke and Duchess of York

When Albert ('Bertie') met Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, youngest daughter of the 14th Earl of Strathmore, he was instantly smitten. Elizabeth turned down his marriage proposal twice before finally accepting, and she became Duchess of York when they married on 26 April, 1923. The wedding took place at Westminster Abbey instead of the more usual Royal Chapel to help lift public spirits in the shadow of the Great War. Their first daughter, Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor, Princess of York, was born at 2.40am on 21 May, 1926 at their home, 17 Bruton Street. In 1927 they embarked on their first world tour, which included Australia and New Zealand. Their second daughter, Princess Margaret Rose (1930 - 2002), was born in her mother's ancestral home, Glamis Castle, Angus, Scotland.

Albert, Elizabeth and their daughters were a close-knit family. They enjoyed the privileges of being members of the Royal Family without the pressures of impending rulership, and there was no reason for them to think anything barring a tragedy would happen to change this. Albert was a shy man, embarrassed by his childhood stutter, and he hated public-speaking because of this. He was as different from his older brother - a charismatic, bachelor 'playboy' partygoer who revelled in his title of Prince of Wales - as it was possible to be.

King George doted on his beautiful granddaughters - he was responsible for giving Princess Elizabeth the nickname 'Lilibet'. The King, when he knew he was dying, said:

I pray to God that my eldest son Edward will never marry and have children, and that nothing will come between Bertie and Lilibet and the throne.

Archive film footage of the Yorks pre-1936 shows a carefree, happy couple enjoying a picnic in the Scottish countryside, and their two little girls running about and playing with the family dogs.

1936 - Year of Turmoil

In January, 1936, King George V died, just after celebrating his silver jubilee. Traditionally, the monarch's crown sits atop the coffin as it is borne on the funeral march, but during the procession a jewelled cross pattée became dislodged and it fell to the ground. For those who believe in such things, it was a sign which did not augur well for the next ruler.

Edward VIII - the Uncrowned King

The throne passed to his first-born son, Prince Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David, known as David, who assumed the title of Edward VIII. Still single at the time, he found himself under pressure to marry a 'suitable' woman who would become Queen, and get on with the job of producing an heir. Edward was having an affair with Bessie Wallis Simpson, (née Warfield), an American divorcée, who was still married to her second husband. Considering the attitudes of the day, it is hard to imagine a more unsuitable prospect for Queen of England, as she was also a Catholic5, and the British monarch is the head of the Church of England.

At that time the British press were deferential towards the monarchy and no stories of the Edward and Wallis affair were published, so Joe Public was essentially in ignorance of the looming constitutional crisis. Commonwealth and foreign media had no such qualms and reported the relationship widely, garnering much interest in Europe and the US.

After much deliberation between Parliament and the King, he was left with three options: give up Wallis, keep Wallis and the government would resign, or keep Wallis and abdicate. Unofficially, Edward had another choice - he could have married an aristocrat's virgin daughter or a distant relation from a European Royal house and had a family with her, while observing a tradition followed by previous Princes of Wales - that of keeping a mistress. Edward's decision to abdicate rather than live without his beloved Wallis was to change the course of British history.

The Abdication

On 12 December, 1936, Edward tearfully broadcast his decision to renounce the throne, something which no British sovereign before him had ever done. He gave his allegiance to his brother Albert, to whom he was passing the duty of King. The American people were listening to the King's abdication speech live via radio on the other side of the Atlantic. They were as captivated by the drama as the British people, but for different reasons: the Americans entertained the possibility that one of their own might become Queen of England, and thought the whole affair very romantic, whereas the King's shocked subjects felt abandoned and betrayed.

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth

The ex-King's younger brother, Albert George (Bertie), the Duke of York, and his wife Elizabeth, Duchess of York, succeeded to the throne, and were crowned King George VI6 and Queen Elizabeth7 on 12 May, 1937. The new King and Queen were to be the last Emperor and Empress of India, which gained independence in 1947. The King's first proclamation was to create the title 'HRH Duke of Windsor' for his brother. When the Duke married Wallis on 3 June, 1937, she became known as Her Grace the Duchess of Windsor. Pointedly, the Duchess was refused the title 'HRH', a snub the ex-King and his wife bitterly resented.

Queen Elizabeth never forgave the couple for what she perceived as dereliction of duty. Her husband, although untrained for royal duties and certainly not wanting the responsibility, set about the job quietly and effectively. Although the King didn't champion Winston Churchill for the post of his next Prime Minister, after the resignation of Neville Chamberlain he abided by Parliament's decision and gave Churchill his wholehearted support. The two men grew to respect each other tremendously.

The British populace, at first reluctant to accept the quiet King as a substitute for his flamboyant and popular brother, began to warm to him as they saw he was getting on with the job. King George worked hard to forge an alliance with France, which he paid a state visit to in 1938. In 1939, on a state visit to Canada and the United States, a first for a reigning British monarch, he succeeded in forging a close friendship with the US President  Franklin D Roosevelt. Together they visited the New York World Fair and the Royal party stayed at both the White House and Roosevelt's home in New York.

The War Years: 1939 - 45

During World War II, the King visited his armies where they were fighting, raising morale intently. He founded the George Cross in 1940 for 'acts of the greatest heroism or of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger'.

Polish lieutenant Josef Stanislaw Kosacki came up with an invention which would save countless lives all over the world – the mine detector. Kosacki received the Polish Silver Cross, and King George wrote him a personal letter of thanks.

Queen Elizabeth was advised by Parliament to relocate with her daughters to Canada for safety during the Blitz. She insisted8 on remaining in Buckingham Palace9 with her husband and children, no doubt giving a huge boost to morale and resistance in the country. Queen Elizabeth was a staunch supporter of her husband, and very rarely spoke in public. However, her proclamation that she 'wouldn't be able to look the East End in the face again' if the Royal Family evacuated while their subjects were left behind to face Hitler's bombs won the Royal Family many hearts as well as loyalty. Adolf Hitler is said to have called Queen Elizabeth 'the most dangerous woman in Europe'.

The King and Queen visited many badly-bombed areas in London and elsewhere in the country, which helped to raise morale. The King suffered a personal tragedy in 1942 when his brother George, Duke of Kent, was killed during a training exercise in Scotland. In 1943 the King visited his troops in North Africa after the victory at El Alamein. Ten days after D-Day, in June 1944, the King visited his army on the beaches of Normandy.

On 8 May, 1945, on what is now called VE (Victory in Europe) Day, Buckingham Palace was a gathering place for the celebrations of the people, and up to a million cheered the appearance of the Royal Family on the famous balcony. With the permission of the King, the two princesses slipped away and anonymously joined the throng below, revelling in the euphoric atmosphere. The Royal Family's behaviour and actions during the war years helped rebuild public respect for the monarchy following the shock of the Abdication, when the people had felt betrayed and abandoned.


Rationing lasted for some years after the war ended, and the Royal Family liked to perpetuate an image of their frugality, when in fact they supped as they had always done. The servants at the palace were subject to rationing regulations, though. In 1947, the King went on a state visit to South Africa, taking his family along, which was a first for a ruling monarch.


When heiress presumptive Princess Elizabeth was 13 years old, she met a distant cousin, Prince Philip of Greece, and fell in love. After a suitably long courtship, (during which the couple were never without a chaperone), Philip asked the King for Elizabeth's hand in marriage. He was deemed a suitable husband for the future Queen due to his royal bloodline and the fact that he was already schooled in royal duties. Just before the wedding, which took place on 20 November, 1947, Philip was given the titles of Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth and Baron Greenwich by the King. The birth of a grandson10 in 1948 and a granddaughter in 1950 greatly delighted the King and he revelled in the role of grandfather.

Ill Health

The King's last public appearance was when he waved off his daughter Elizabeth and her husband on the first stage of a world tour, due to begin in Kenya. The tour was to have been made by the King and Queen, but the King was too frail. He was a heavy smoker suffering from lung cancer, and had had a surgical operation on 23 September, 1951, during which his diseased lung was removed.

The King is Dead - Long Live The Queen

On the evening of 5 February, 1952, the King retired to bed in Sandringham House, his birthplace, after a day's shooting. During the night he suffered a coronary thrombosis (a blood clot in the heart), and his body was discovered at 7.30am by a manservant. The exact time of death was unrecorded because he was alone; the first time this had ever occurred to a ruling monarch in British history. The death of His Majesty George VI on 6 February, 1952, at the age of 56, was unexpected and came as a massive shock to both the nation and the Commonwealth. Sir Edward Ford, the King's private secretary, relayed the news to Churchill:

Ford - I've got bad news for you, Prime Minister. The King is dead.
Churchill - Bad News? The worst!

His Majesty had ruled for 16 years and he was the figurehead for his subjects during one of their homeland's darkest periods. As the news of the King's death spread, shops, pubs, restaurants, cinemas and theatres closed, and some employers sent their upset workers home. All BBC programmes were cancelled, except for the regular news bulletins. Flags on every Town Hall around the country were lowered to half-mast, and sporting events were postponed. Prime Minister Churchill suspended the House of Commons with the words: We cannot at this moment do more than record the spontaneous expression of grief.

From around the globe, tributes began to pour in:

He shared to the end of his reign all the hardships and austerities which evil days imposed on the brave British people. In return, he received from the people of the whole Commonwealth a love and devotion which went beyond the usual relationship of a King and his subjects.
- US President Harry S Truman

Princess Elizabeth

At the time her father had died, Elizabeth had been asleep high above ground in the now-famous Treetops Hotel, on her tour of Kenya. The telegram sent to Sagana Lodge, the remote farm given to Elizabeth and Philip as a wedding present by the Kenyan government, never arrived. Prince Philip heard the news on the radio and then had to break the news to his 25-year-old wife. The remainder of the tour was cancelled and arrangements were made to bring the Royal party home. The people of Kenya lined the route calling out: Shauri mbaya kabisa ('The very worst has happened') as Elizabeth, who left London a princess, began her journey home as Queen.

The State Funeral

Over 300,000 people visited Westminster Hall and paid their last respects to the King as his body laid in state for three days. Crowds began to gather in London in the early hours of 15 February. For the first time, thousands of people were able to witness the funeral procession on television. Those without televisions gathered solemnly around their radio sets. At 9.30am the first of Big Ben's 56 chimes began, one for every year of the King's life. Foreign royalty, Heads of State and the armed forces formed the funeral cortege.

The coffin was draped in the red, blue and gold of the Royal Standard, and carried on a gun carriage in Royal tradition, drawn by naval ratings. Among the walkers was the King's brother, the Duke of Windsor. The Duchess of Windsor did not attend. Atop the coffin was the Imperial State Crown, the Gold Orb, the Sceptre, the insignia of the Order of the Garter and a wreath of white flowers from the King's widow Elizabeth. Chopin's Funeral March was played as the procession arrived at Paddington Station and the Royal train transported them to Windsor. Following the funeral service at St George's Chapel, Windsor, two minutes' silence fell at 2pm over the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth in tribute.

There is a statue of King George VI at Carlton House Terrace, London.

His Daughter Margaret

When Princess Margaret died in February 2002, her funeral was held, coincidentally or by design, on the 50th anniversary of the burial of her father the King. She left instructions that her final wish was to be cremated (a break with Royal tradition) and her ashes interred with her father's body in the King George VI Memorial Chapel.

His Widow Elizabeth

Princess Margaret's final request was honoured after the state funeral of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, who died in her sleep the following month, aged 101 years.

Bertie on the Big Screen

The 2010 movie The King's Speech is based on George VI's relationship with his unorthodox speech therapist Lionel Logue, played by Geoffrey Rush. Colin Firth plays the King and won an Oscar for the role in 2011.

1Teck is a castle in the south-west of Germany, close to Stuttgart. It used to be the domicile of the dukes of Teck in the Middle Ages.2Their marriage was reminiscent of the family triangle which occurred between Henry VIII, his first wife Catherine of Aragon, and Henry's brother, Arthur, the Prince of Wales, to whom Catherine was married until Arthur's death.3At his birth, he was fourth in line to the British throne.4His great-grandson Prince William is also left-handed, but he didn't suffer the same abuse.5A King (or Queen) of England is constitutionally forbidden to marry a Catholic.6Like his grandfather Edward VII, he honoured Queen Victoria's decree that no future king should bear the name Albert as a mark of respect for her husband.7Remember that this is the Elizabeth who later became the Queen Mother, as opposed to Queen Elizabeth II.8'The princesses will never leave without me; I will not leave without the King, and the King will never leave'.9This has been the principal Royal residence since 1837, and was bombed nine times during the war.10Prince Charles has stated a preference for the title 'King George VII' - in honour of his grandfather - when he accedes the throne. Strangely enough, Nostradamus is said to have predicted the death or abdication of 'Charles III' in 2022.

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