Reign 11 December 1936 – 6 February 1952
Coronation 12 May 1937 (aged 41)
Predecessor Edward VIII
Successor Elizabeth II
Prime Ministers See list
Spouse Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon
Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon
Albert Frederick Arthur George
House House of Windsor
Father George V
Mother Mary of Teck
Born 14 December 1895 (1895-12-14)
York Cottage, Sandringham House, Norfolk, England
Died 6 February 1952 (1952-02-07) (aged 56)
Sandringham House, Norfolk
Burial 15 February 1952
St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle
George VI (Albert Frederick Arthur George; 14 December 1895 – 6 February 1952) was King of the United Kingdom and the British Dominions from 11 December 1936 until his death. He was the last Emperor of India (until 1947), the last king of Ireland (until 1949), and the first Head of the Commonwealth.
As the second son of King George V, he was not expected to inherit the throne and spent his early life in the shadow of his elder brother, Edward. He served in the Royal Navy during World War I, and after the war took on the usual round of public engagements. He married Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon in 1923, and they had two daughters, Elizabeth (who succeeded him as Queen Elizabeth II) and Margaret.
George’s elder brother ascended the throne as Edward VIII on the death of their father in 1936. However, less than a year later Edward revealed his desire to marry the twice-divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson. For political and religious reasons, the British Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, advised Edward that he could not marry Mrs. Simpson and remain king. So, Edward abdicated in order to marry, and George VI ascended the throne as the third monarch of the House of Windsor.
Within twenty-four hours of his accession the Irish parliament, the Oireachtas, passed the External Relations Act, which essentially removed the power of the monarch in Ireland. Further events greatly altered the position of the monarchy during his reign: three years after his accession, his realms, except Ireland, were at war with Nazi Germany. In the next two years, war with Italy and the Empire of Japan followed. Though Britain and its allies were ultimately victorious, the United States and the Soviet Union rose as pre-eminent world powers and the British Empire declined. With the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947, and the foundation of the Republic of Ireland in 1949, George’s reign saw the acceleration of the break-up of the Empire and its transition into the Commonwealth of Nations.
Birth and family
George VI was born at York Cottage, on the Sandringham Estate in Norfolk, during the reign of his great-grandmother Queen Victoria. His father was Prince George, Duke of York (later King George V), the second and eldest-surviving son of the Prince and Princess of Wales (later King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra). His mother was the Duchess of York (later Queen Mary), the eldest daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Teck.
His birthday (14 December 1895) was the anniversary of the death of his great-grandfather, Prince Albert, the Prince Consort. Uncertain of how the Prince Consort’s widow Queen Victoria would take the news of the birth, the Prince of Wales wrote to the Duke of York that the Queen had been “rather distressed”. Two days later, he wrote again: “I really think it would gratify her if you yourself proposed the name Albert to her”. Queen Victoria was mollified by the proposal to name the new baby Albert, and wrote to 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”. Consequently, he was baptised “Albert Frederick Arthur George” at St Mary Magdalene’s Church near Sandringham three months later. As a great-grandson of Queen Victoria, he was known formally as “His Highness Prince Albert of York” from birth. Within the family, he was known informally as “Bertie”. However, his maternal grandmother, the Duchess of Teck, did not like the first name the baby had been given, and she wrote prophetically that she hoped the last name “may supplant the less favoured one”.
Albert, as he was known, was fourth in line for the throne at birth, after his grandfather, father and older brother Edward.
In 1898, Queen Victoria issued Letters Patent that granted the children of the eldest son of the Prince of Wales the style Royal Highness, and at the age of two, Albert became “His Royal Highness Prince Albert of York”.
He often suffered from ill health and 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 day-to-day upbringing, as was the norm in aristocratic families of that era. He was forced to write with his right hand although he was naturally left-handed, and developed a stammer that lasted for many years. He suffered from chronic stomach problems as well as knock knees, for which he was forced to wear painful corrective splints.
Queen Victoria died on 22 January 1901, and the Prince of Wales succeeded her as King Edward VII. The Duke of York became next in line to the throne. Prince Edward moved up to second in line to the throne, and Prince Albert was third.
Military career and education
From 1909, Albert attended the Royal Naval College, Osborne as a naval cadet. In 1911, he came bottom of the class in the final examination, but despite this he progressed to the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth. When Edward VII died in 1910, Albert’s father became King George V. Prince Edward was created Prince of Wales, and Albert was second in line to the throne.
Albert was commissioned as a midshipman on 15 September 1913 and one year later began service in World War I. His fellow officers gave him the nickname “Mr. Johnson”. He was mentioned in despatches for his action as a turret officer aboard HMS Collingwood during the Battle of Jutland (31 May – 1 June 1916), an indecisive action against the German navy which emerged as a strategic victory for the United Kingdom. He did not see further action in the war, largely because of ill health caused by a duodenal ulcer. In February 1918, he was appointed Officer in Charge of Boys at the Royal Naval Air Service’s training establishment at Cranwell. With the establishment of the Royal Air Force two months later and the transfer of Cranwell from Navy to Air Force control, he transferred from the Royal Navy to the Royal Air Force. He was appointed Officer Commanding Number 4 Squadron of the Boys’ Wing at Cranwell and he remained there until August 1918. During the closing weeks of the war, Albert served on the staff of the Independent Air Force at its headquarters in Nancy. Following the disbanding of the Independent Air Force in November 1918, he remained on the continent as a staff officer with the Royal Air Force.
In October 1919, Albert went up to Trinity College, Cambridge where he studied history, economics and civics for a year. On 4 June 1920, he was created Duke of York, Earl of Inverness and Baron Killarney. He then began to take on royal duties; he represented his father, the King, toured coal mines, factories, and railyards, and acquired the nickname of the “Industrial Prince”. His speech impediment, and his embarrassment over it, together with his tendency to shyness, caused him to appear much less impressive than his older brother, Edward. However, he was physically active and enjoyed playing tennis. He developed an interest in working conditions, and was President of the Industrial Welfare Society. His series of annual summer camps for boys between 1921 and 1939 brought together boys from different social backgrounds.
In a time when royals were expected to marry fellow royals, it was unusual that Albert had a great deal of freedom in choosing a prospective wife. In 1920 he met Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the youngest daughter of the Earl and Countess of Strathmore and Kinghorne. He became determined to marry her.
Although Lady Elizabeth was a descendant of King Robert I of Scotland and King Henry VII of England, she was, according to British law, a commoner. 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. In the words of Lady Elizabeth’s mother, Albert would be “made or marred” by his choice of wife, and after a protracted courtship Elizabeth agreed to marry him.
They were married on 26 April 1923 in Westminster Abbey. The newly-formed British Broadcasting Company wished to record and broadcast the event on radio, but the Chapter vetoed the idea (although the Dean, Herbert Edward Ryle, was in favour). Lady Elizabeth was styled Her Royal Highness The Duchess of York after their marriage. Albert’s marriage to a British commoner was considered a modernising gesture.
Because of his stammer, Albert dreaded public speaking. After his closing speech at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley on 31 October 1925, which was an ordeal for both him and the listeners, he began to see Lionel Logue, an Australian-born speech therapist. The Duke and Logue practiced breathing exercises, and the Duchess rehearsed with him patiently. As a result of the training, the Duke’s opening address at Australia’s Federal Parliament at Canberra in 1927 went successfully, and he was able to speak subsequently with only a slight hesitation. His journey by sea to Australia took him via Jamaica, where Albert played doubles tennis partnered with a black man, which was unusual at the time and taken locally as a display of equality between races.
The Duke and Duchess of York had two children, Elizabeth (called “Lilibet” by the family), born 21 April 1926, who would succeed her father as Elizabeth II, and Margaret, born 21 August 1930. The Duke and Duchess and their two daughters lived a relatively sheltered life at their London residence, 145 Piccadilly. One of the few stirs arose when the Canadian Prime Minister, R. B. Bennett, considered the Duke for Governor General of Canada in 1931—a proposal that the King rejected on the advice of his ministers.
On 20 January 1936, King George V died and Prince Edward ascended the throne as Edward VIII. As Edward had no children, Albert was the heir presumptive to the throne until his then-unmarried older brother had any legitimate children, or died. George V had severe reservations about Edward, saying, “I pray God that my eldest son will never marry and that nothing will come between Bertie and Lilibet and the throne.” Less than a year later, on 11 December 1936, Edward VIII abdicated the throne in order to marry his mistress, the twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson. Edward had been advised by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin that he could not remain King and marry a divorced woman with two living ex-husbands. Edward chose abdication in preference to abandoning his marriage plans. Thus Albert became king, a position he was reluctant to accept. 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.”
Courtier and journalist Dermot Morrah alleged that there was brief speculation as to the desirability of bypassing Albert (and his children) and his brother, Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, in favour of their younger brother Prince George, Duke of Kent. This seems to have been suggested on the grounds that Prince George was at that time the only brother with a son.
Albert assumed the style and title of King George VI to emphasise continuity with his father and restore confidence in the monarchy. The beginning of George VI’s reign was taken up by questions surrounding his predecessor and brother, whose titles, style and position were uncertain. He had been introduced as “His Royal Highness Prince Edward” for the Abdication broadcast, but George VI felt that by abdicating and renouncing the succession Edward had lost the right to bear Royal titles, including “Royal Highness”. In settling the issue, George’s first act as King was to confer upon his brother the title HRH The Duke of Windsor, but the Letters Patent creating the dukedom prevented any wife or children from bearing royal styles. George VI was also forced to buy the royal residences of Balmoral Castle and Sandringham House from Prince Edward, as these were private properties and did not pass to George VI automatically. Three days after his accession, on his 41st birthday, he invested his wife, the new Queen, with the Order of the Garter.
George VI’s coronation took place on 12 May 1937, the date previously intended for Edward’s coronation. In a break with tradition, Queen Mary attended the ceremony 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. Rising Indian nationalism made the welcome that 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. Two overseas tours were undertaken, to France and North America, both of which promised greater strategic advantages in the event of war.
The growing likelihood of war in Europe dominated the early reign of George VI. The King was constitutionally bound to support Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler. However, when the King and Queen greeted Chamberlain on his return from negotiating the Munich Agreement in 1938, they invited him to appear on the balcony of Buckingham Palace with them. This public association of the monarchy with a politician was exceptional, as balcony appearances were traditionally restricted to the royal family.
George VI, as King of Canada, grants Royal Assent to laws in the Canadian Senate, 19 May 1939. His consort, Queen Elizabeth, is to the right.
In May and June 1939, the King and Queen toured Canada and the United States. From Ottawa, the royal couple were accompanied throughout the trip by the Prime Minister of Canada,to present themselves in North America as King and Queen of Canada. George was the first reigning Monarch of Canada to visit North America, though he had been to Canada previously as Prince Albert and as Duke of York. The Canadian Prime Minister, Mackenzie King, hoped that the King’s presence in Canada would allow him to demonstrate in reality the principles of the Statute of Westminster 1931, which gave full self-government to the Dominions and recognised each Dominion as having a separate crown. Thus, at his Canadian residence, Rideau Hall, George VI personally accepted and approved the Letter of Credence of the newly appointed U.S. Ambassador to Canada, Daniel Calhoun Roper. The official Royal Tour historian, Gustave Lanctot, stated: “When Their Majesties walked into their Canadian residence, the Statute of Westminster had assumed full reality: the King of Canada had come home.”
The entire trip was a measure intended to soften the strong isolationist tendencies among the North American public with regard to the developing tensions in Europe. Although the aim of the tour was mainly political, to shore up Atlantic support for Britain in any future war, the King and Queen were enthusiastically received by the public. The fear that George would be unfavourably compared to his predecessor, Edward VIII, was dispelled. They visited the 1939 New York World’s Fair and stayed with President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the White House and at his private estate at Hyde Park, New York.
Illness and death
Statue of George VI at the Zoological and Botanical Gardens, Hong Kong
The stress of the war had taken its toll on the King’s health, exacerbated by his heavy smoking and subsequent development of lung cancer among other ailments including arteriosclerosis. Increasingly his daughter Princess Elizabeth, the heiress presumptive, took on more royal duties as her father’s health deteriorated. A planned tour of Australia and New Zealand was postponed after the King suffered an arterial blockage in his right leg, which was operated on in March 1949. The delayed tour was re-organised with Princess Elizabeth and her husband, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, taking the place of the King and Queen. The King was well enough to open the Festival of Britain in May 1951, but on 23 September 1951, he underwent a pneumonectomy where his left lung was removed following the discovery of a malignant tumour. At the State Opening of Parliament in November, the King’s Speech from the throne was read for him by Lord Chancellor Lord Simonds. His 1951 Christmas broadcast was recorded in sections, and then edited together.
On 31 January 1952, despite advice from those close to him, he went to the airport to see off Princess Elizabeth, who was going on her tour of Australia via Kenya. Before takeoff he reportedly said to Bobo Macdonald, Elizabeth’s childhood nanny who was accompanying her on the trip, “Take care of Lilibet for me”, and she promised she would. On 6 February, George VI died from a coronary thrombosis in his sleep at Sandringham House in Norfolk, at the age of 56. His daughter Elizabeth flew back to Britain from Kenya, as Queen Elizabeth II.
His funeral took place at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, on 15 February, after a lying in state at Westminster Hall. He was interred in the Royal Vault until transferred to the King George VI Memorial Chapel inside St. George’s on 26 March 1969. In 2002, the remains of his widow, Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, and the ashes of his daughter Princess Margaret, who both died that year, were interred in the chapel alongside him.