George VI of the United Kingdom

King George VI
George VI
Reign 11 December 1936-6 February 1952
Emperor of India 1936-1947
King of Ireland 1936-1949
Coronation 12 May 1937
Predecessor Edward VIII
Successor Elizabeth II
Spouse Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon
Issue Elizabeth II
Princess Margaret
Royal House Windsor
Father George V
Mother Mary of Teck
Born 14 December 1895
Sandringham, Norfolk, United Kingdom
Died 6 February 1952
Sandringham, Norfolk, United Kingdom

George VI (Albert Frederick Arthur George Windsor) (14 December 18956 February 1952) was the third British monarch using the name Windsor. He belonged to the House of Windsor (the name his father had given to his branch of the German House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha), and reigned from 11 December 1936 until his death. As well as being King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the British dominions beyond the seas, George VI was the last Emperor of India (until 1947) and the last King of Ireland (until 1949).

George VI succeeded the throne unexpectedly after the abdication of his brother, King Edward VIII. He was king during the Second World War.

Birth and family

George VI was born on 14 December 1895 at York Cottage, on the Sandringham Estate, Norfolk. His father was Prince George, Duke of York (later King George V), the second but eldest surviving son of Edward VII and Alexandra of Denmark. His mother was the Duchess of York (later Queen Mary), the eldest daughter of Prince Francis, Duke of Teck and Princess Mary Adelaide of Cambridge. He was baptised at St Mary Magdalene's Church near Sandringham and his godparents were Queen Victoria, Empress Frederick, the Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Princess Augusta Sophia, the Crown Prince of Denmark, the Duke of Connaught, Prince Adolphus of Teck, and the Duchess of Fife.

On 23 June 1894, the Duchess of York gave birth to her eldest son Edward, who was third in line to the throne. The future George VI was the second son of his parents, and was thus fourth in line for the throne at birth.

George VI was born on the anniversary of the death of Prince Albert, the Prince Consort. Uncertain of how Albert's widow Queen Victoria would take this news, the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) wrote to his son, Prince George, Duke of York, that the Queen had been a little distressed and he said: 'I really think it would gratify her if you yourself proposed the name Albert to her'. This mollified the baby's great-grandmother, who wrote to the baby's mother, the Duchess of York: 'I am all impatience to see the new one, born on such a sad day but rather more dear to me, especially as he will be called by that dear name which is a byword for all that is great and good.' However, his maternal grandmother Princess Mary Adelaide of Cambridge did not like the first name the baby had been given, and she prophetically wrote that she hoped the last name "may supplant the less favoured one".

Although George VI was the son and grandson of kings of the United Kingdom, his accession was the result of a play of circumstances. His father, the future George V, was the younger of the two sons of the then Prince of Wales, and was not expected ever to become king. However, his elder brother, Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence, who had been expected to eventually ascend the throne, died unexpectedly at a young age, on 14 January 1892, of influenza which developed into pneumonia. It was this that resulted in the Duke of York later becoming King George V.

Again, George VI himself was the second son of his parents; and indeed, his elder brother became king, as Edward VIII, upon the death of their father George V. However, Edward VIII chose to abdicate his crown to marry a divorcee; it was by reason of this unforeseeable abdication, unique in the annals of England, that George VI finally came to the throne.

Early life

British Royalty
House of Windsor

George V
   Edward VIII
   George VI
   Mary, Princess Royal
   Henry, Duke of Gloucester
   George, Duke of Kent
   Prince John
   Elizabeth II
   Margaret, Countess of Snowdon
   William of Gloucester
   Prince Richard, Duke of Gloucester
   Prince Edward, Duke of Kent
   Prince Michael of Kent
   Princess Alexandra of Kent
Edward VIII
George VI
   Elizabeth II
   Margaret, Countess of Snowdon
Elizabeth II
   Prince Charles, Prince of Wales
   Princess Anne, Princess Royal
   Prince Andrew, Duke of York
   Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex
   Prince William of Wales
   Prince Henry of Wales
   Princess Beatrice of York
   Princess Eugenie of York
   Lady Louise Windsor

As a child, George often suffered from ill health and he was described as 'easily frightened and somewhat prone to tears'. His parents, the Duke and Duchess of York, were generally removed from their children's upbringing, as was the norm in royal families of that era. Unfortunately this allowed the Royal nanny to have a dominating role in their young lives. The nanny doted over Albert's brother, Prince Edward, while neglecting Albert. Albert developed a severe stammer that lasted for many years as well as chronic stomach problems. He also suffered from knock knees, and to correct this he had to wear splints, which were extremely painful. He was also forced to write with his right hand although he was a natural left-hander.

Growing up, he was completely outshone by his elder brother, whose dominance was one of the most important influences on his early life. Prince Edward had, according to almost everyone who ever knew him, an extraordinary and magnetic charm. No one felt his charms more strongly than the younger members of his family. In the isolation of their lives, he was the most attractive person they ever knew. In childhood they followed his leadership, while as young men they ardently admired him.

As a great grandson of Queen Victoria, he was styled His Highness Prince Albert of York from his birth. In 1898, Queen Victoria issued Letters Patent which granted the children of the eldest son of the Prince of Wales the style Royal Highness. Thus Albert was then styled His Royal Highness Prince Albert of York.

Queen Victoria died on 22 January 1901. The Prince of Wales succeeded her as King Edward VII. The Duke of York became the new Prince of Wales. Prince Edward was then second in line for the throne, and Prince Albert was now third in line.

Military career and education

In 1909, Albert joined the Royal Navy and served as a naval cadet. Despite coming in at the bottom of the class, Albert moved to Dartmouth and served as a midshipman. He was still in the Navy when Edward VII died on 6 May 1910. His father became King George V. Prince Edward was created Prince of Wales on 2 June 1910. Albert was now second in line for the throne.

Albert served during World War I (19141918). He saw action aboard HMS Collingwood in the Battle of Jutland (31 May1 June 1916). The battle was a tactical victory for the German Empire but a strategic victory for the United Kingdom. In 1917, Albert joined the Royal Air Force but did not see any further action in the war. [1]

After the war, Albert studied history, economics and civics for a year at Trinity College, Cambridge, from October 1919. [1]

In 1920, Prince Albert was created Duke of York, Earl of Inverness and Baron Killarney. He then began to take on royal duties, representing his father, King George V. Upon taking the throne, be became an Admiral of the Fleet in the Royal Navy.


Albert had a great deal of freedom in choosing a prospective wife. In 1920 he met Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the youngest daughter of Claude Bowes-Lyon, 14th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne and set his sights on marrying her. She rejected his proposal twice and hesitated for nearly two years reportedly because she was reluctant to make the sacrifices necessary to become a member of the royal family; it has been alleged, however, that she had intended to marry Edward, who turned her down. Albert would be 'made or marred' by his choice of wife and after a protracted courtship she agreed to marry him. In an interview (for which she was later reprimanded by George V), however, Lady Elizabeth denied having turned down Albert: "Do you think I am the sort of person Bertie would have to ask twice?" They were married on 26 April 1923 in Westminster Abbey. The newly-formed BBC wished to record and broadcast the event on radio, but the Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Thomas Davidson, vetoed the idea because "men in public houses may listen to the ceremony with their hats on". Lady Elizabeth was styled Her Royal Highness The Duchess of York after their marriage. [2]

The Duke and Duchess of York had two children:

Reluctant king

Monarchical Styles of
King George VI of the United Kingdom
Reference style: His Majesty
Spoken style: Your Majesty
Alternative style: Sir

The Duke and Duchess lived a relatively sheltered life at their London residence, 145 Piccadilly; one of the few stirs was when George V proposed that the Duke become Governor General of Canada in 1931 — a proposal which the government rejected. [3] On January 20, 1936, King George V died and Prince Edward ascended the throne as Edward VIII. As he had no children, Albert was now the heir presumptive to the throne until the unmarried Edward VIII had any legitimate children. However, Edward VIII abdicated the throne on December 11, 1936, in order to marry his love, Wallis Warfield Simpson. Thus Prince Albert, Duke of York, was now king, a position he was reluctant to accept, and due to his nervous disposition, there was some discussion to bypass him and have his brother Prince George, Duke of Kent succeed instead. The day before the abdication, he went to London to see his mother Queen Mary. He wrote in his diary 'When I told her what had happened, I broke down and sobbed like a child.' [4]

Upon the abdication, on 11 December 1936, the Duke was proclaimed Sovereign, assuming the style and title King George VI to emphasise continuity with his father and restore confidence in the monarchy. His first act was to confer upon his brother the title HRH The Duke of Windsor. Three days after his accession he invested the Queen with the Order of the Garter. [5]

George VI's coronation took place on 12 May 1937—the intended date of Edward's coronation. In a break with tradition, Queen Mary attended the coronation as a show of support for her son. There was no durbar held in Delhi for George VI, as had occurred for his father, as the cost would have been a burden to the government of India in the depths of the Depression. Rising Indian nationalism made the welcome which the royal couple would have received likely to be muted at best, and a prolonged absence from Britain would have been undesirable in the tense period before World War II without the strategic advantages of the North American tour which in the event was undertaken in 1939.


George VI, Queen Elizabeth and Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret in their coronation robes.
George VI, Queen Elizabeth and Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret in their coronation robes.

The beginning of George VI's reign was taken up by questions surrounding his predecessor and brother, who presumably had reverted to his previous title of Prince Edward. George VI decided to create Edward the Duke of Windsor. The Letters Patent creating the dukedom entitled Edward to be styled His Royal Highness, but prevented any wife and children from being similarly styled. George VI was also forced to buy the royal houses of Balmoral Castle and Sandringham House from Prince Edward, as these were private properties and did not pass to George VI on his accession. [6]

Meredith Frampton's portrait of George VI as Duke of York
Meredith Frampton's portrait of George VI as Duke of York

The growing likelihood of war erupting in Europe would dominate the reign of King George VI. Initially the King and Queen took an appeasement stance against Adolf Hitler, supporting the policy of Neville Chamberlain. The King and Queen greeted Chamberlain on his return from negotiating the Munich Agreement in 1938, and invited him to appear on the balcony of Buckingham Palace with them, sparking anger among anti-appeasement MPs including Winston Churchill. One historian went as far as to declare this "the most unconstitutional act" by a British monarch in the 20th century for its allegedly blatant partisanship. It has been theorised that the King and Queen intended to avoid war with Nazi Germany because they thought it would act as a counterweight against Russian communism. [7]

In 1939, the King and Queen undertook an extensive tour of Canada from which they made a shorter visit to the United States of America. George was the first reigning monarch to visit either of these countries. The royal couple were accompanied to the United States by Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King and not a British minister, meaning they were present as King and Queen of Canada. However, the aim of the tour was mainly political, to shore up Atlantic support for Britain in any upcoming war. The King and Queen were extremely enthusiastically received by the Canadian public and the spectre of Edward VIII's charisma was comprehensively dispelled; they were also warmly received by the American people, visiting the 1939 New York World's Fair and staying at the White House with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and at his private estate at Hyde Park, New York. [8]

When war broke out in 1939, George VI with his wife resolved to stay in London and not flee to Canada, as had been suggested. The King and Queen officially stayed in Buckingham Palace throughout the war, although they often escaped to Windsor Castle to avoid bombing raids. George VI and Queen Elizabeth narrowly avoided death when a lone German bomber despatched to bomb Buckingham Palace attacked. The bomb exploded in the courtyard, shattering windows in the palace. [9]

Throughout the war, the King and Queen provided morale-boosting visits throughout the UK, visiting bomb sites and munition factories. [10] It has been alleged that, contrary to how they portrayed themselves, the royal family ignored wartime rations (although their servants domiciled in the Palace were subject to them). [11]

It has been suggested (see Will Swift, The Roosevelts and the Royals: Franklin and Eleanor, the King and Queen of England, and the Friendship that Changed History (John Wiley & Sons, 2004)) that a strong bond of friendship was forged between the King and Queen and President and Mrs Roosevelt during the 1939 Royal Tour, which had major significance in the relations between the United States and Great Britain through the war years. There may be a marginal element of validity in this view but it is largely fanciful: it has never credibly been suggested that the King took any strategic role in the War; his frequent letters to the President were mostly unanswered and it was, of course Roosevelt's relationship with Churchill that was critical. Eleanor Roosevelt took a wry view of the utility of kings and queens and the substance of George and Elizabeth ("a little self-consciously regal," was her verdict on Elizabeth).


A plaque on the Manchester Town Hall records George VI's titles before giving up being Emperor of India.
A plaque on the Manchester Town Hall records George VI's titles before giving up being Emperor of India.

The war had taken its toll on the King's health. This was exacerbated by his heavy smoking and subsequent development of lung cancer. [12] Increasingly his daughter Princess Elizabeth, the heiress presumptive to the throne, would take on more of the royal duties as her father's health deteriorated.

On 6 February 1952, George VI died aged 56 in his sleep at Sandringham House in Norfolk. [12] He was the only British monarch of modern times whose death was not observed and whose precise moment of death was not recorded. His funeral took place on February 15, and he was buried in St George's Chapel in Windsor Castle. In 2002, the body of his wife Elizabeth and the ashes of his daughter Princess Margaret were interred in a tomb alongside him.

Empire to Commonwealth

George VI's reign saw the acceleration of the retirement of the British Empire, which had begun with the Balfour Declaration at the Imperial Conference of 1926, when the Commonwealth came into being and the old caucasian-dominated Dominions were acknowledged to have become sovereign states over a period of years previous — the declaration being formalised in the Statute of Westminster, 1931 (Imp.). [13] (Britain's brief League of Nations Mandate over Iraq ended in 1932 with Iraqi independence without membership in the as-yet ill-defined Commonwealth even being considered.) This process further accelerated after World War II. Transjordan became independent as the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in 1946, Palestine as Israel in 1947 and Burma also in 1947, all three opting out of the Commonwealth. India became an independent dominion, with George VI relinquishing the title of Emperor of India and

(a) briefly remaining as King of India until that country enacted a Constitution which declared it to be a republic in 1950 (though India did elect to remain in the Commonwealth as a republic and to recognise George VI as Head of the Commonwealth, a title now incorporated into the regal style, although it is not clear whether the title is hereditary.) [14] and
(b) as King of Pakistan, succeeded by his daughter Elizabeth II as Queen of Pakistan, until 1956 when Pakistan similarly enacted a Constitution declaring it to be a republic.

George VI was the last King of Ireland, succeeding to that title by the enactment of the External Relations Act, 1936, until its repeal in the Republic of Ireland Act, 1948 when Ireland also left the Commonwealth.

Statue of George VI at Carlton House Terrace, London
Statue of George VI at Carlton House Terrace, London


A biographical television series, Bertie and Elizabeth, was broadcast on BBC in 2003. The series was also broadcast on PBS as a part of the Masterpiece Theater series in March 2005.

Titles from birth to death

1895-1898: His Highness Prince Albert of York
1898-1901: His Royal Highness Prince Albert of York
1901: His Royal Highness Prince Albert of Cornwall and York
1901-1910: His Royal Highness Prince Albert of Wales
1910-1920: His Royal Highness The Prince Albert
1920-1936: His Royal Highness The Duke of York
1936-1952: His Majesty The King (also Emperor of India until 1947)

Further reading

  • Sarah Bradford, The Reluctant King: The life and reign of George VI 1895-1952 (St Martins, 1989)
  • Philip Ziegler, King Edward VIII: The official biography (Collins, 1990)
  • Philip Ziegler, Mountbatten: the official biography (Collins, 1985)
  • Doris Kearns Goodwin, No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The home front in World War II (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994)

Notes and references

  1. ^ a b Picknett, Lynn, Prince, Clive, Prior, Stephen & Brydon, Robert (2002). War of the Windsors: A Century of Unconstitutional Monarchy, p. 37. Mainstream Publishing. ISBN 1-84018-631-3.
  2. ^ Picknett, Prince, Prior & Brydon, p. 48–51.
  3. ^ Picknett, Prince, Prior & Brydon, p. 72.
  4. ^ Picknett, Prince, Prior & Brydon, pp. 126–127.
  5. ^ Picknett, Prince, Prior & Brydon, p. 131.
  6. ^ Picknett, Prince, Prior & Brydon, p. 135.
  7. ^ Picknett, Prince, Prior & Brydon, pp. 145, 146, 149, 150.
  8. ^ Picknett, Prince, Prior & Brydon, pp. 151, 152.
  9. ^ Picknett, Prince, Prior & Brydon, pp. 168–170.
  10. ^ Picknett, Prince, Prior & Brydon, pp. 160–161.
  11. ^ Picknett, Prince, Prior & Brydon, p. 161.
  12. ^ a b Picknett, Prince, Prior & Brydon, p. 220.
  13. ^ Picknett, Prince, Prior & Brydon, p. 72.
  14. ^ Picknett, Prince, Prior & Brydon, p. 212.

Preceded by:
Edward VIII
King of the United Kingdom and British dominions beyond the seas
Succeeded by:
Elizabeth II
Emperor of India
Succeeded by:
Title dissolved upon Independence of India
Preceded by:
Iain Colquhoun
Grand Master of the
Grand Lodge of Scotland

Succeeded by:
Norman Orr-Ewing
Preceded by:
New Creation
Duke of York
Succeeded by:
Merged in crown

Monarchs of the United Kingdom
 Kingdom of Great Britain Anne | George I† | George II† | George III
 United Kingdom  George III†/‡ | George IV‡ | William IV‡ | Victoria | Edward VII | George V** | Edward VIII** | George VI** | Elizabeth II**
* Also Monarchs of Ireland | ** Also Monarch of the Commonwealth Realms|† Also Elector of Hanover |‡ Also King of Hanover

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