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George VI

Windsor Castle - Edward VIII made his abdication speech here, 10th December 1936, allowing George VI to become king

Religion and leadership have long been linked. Olga Soffer suggests this link may have first occurred during the Ice Age, when social stability was a vital part of a battle for survival. Religious leaders are in many ways above simple judgments of competence. Their authority according to Soffer relies on information which cannot be checked, rather than on plain old competence. As Soffer says: "if I tell you that I speak to God and he speaks to me, how are you going to prove me wrong?" (See The Neandertal Enigma P 317). Ever since the coronation ceremony was redesigned for Edgar the Peaceable in 973, coronations of English monarchs have included aspects of anointing rituals used in the priesthood. Even into the modern age monarchs still draw on this kind of authority. Four years after Elizabeth II came to the throne an estimated 34% of Britain's population believed that she had been chosen by God (see Introduction to The Firm by Penny Junor). While politicians struggle in the day to day hurly burly of political life, monarchs apparently inhabit a higher sphere.


Through the First World War and into the 1930s George V was a dour, unimaginative, steady, kind, hard working, and conventionally religious king. Then came the crisis of 1936 when his eldest son Edward took the throne as Edward VIII. Edward, not without intelligence, completely lacked any sense of spirituality in any form. He certainly had no interest in the established Church, and in this sense he was not a good candidate for the throne. But he did not really make any conscious rejection of religion. He was simply not interested, preferring nightclubs, money and clothes, and ultimately coming to worship his ferociously controlling wife, Wallis Simpson. It was this relationship which was to bring about the abdication of Edward VIII on 10th December 1936, and his replacement by his younger brother Albert, who took the more English name George as king. George VI was a much more straightforward character than his elder brother, in many ways just as superficial, but far more accepting of convention, and far more persistent and steadfast. As Sarah Bradford writes, there was a coterie who looked down on George VI "for his limited intellectual qualities and mediocre artistic tastes" (George VI by Sarah Bradford P462). But in many ways this is to misunderstand the job that George had to do. George did not have to be clever. The most important qualification was that he accepted the role he had to play.


York Cottage, Sandringham

Prince Albert Frederick Arthur George was born on 14th December 1895, during the reign of his great grandmother Queen Victoria. He was second son of Prince George and Mary of Teck. While his elder brother Edward had been born eighteen months earlier at the glamorous White Lodge in Richmond Park, George was born at unassuming York Cottage which sat away from the main building at Sandringham in north Norfolk. Both George and his elder brother Edward did not spend much time with their parents. They were entrusted to a nanny who according to Sarah Bradford, was a "sadist" (see George VI P20). The prince's early years were ruled by a nurse who seemed to take pleasure in mistreating the boys in her charge. This unfortunate woman was eventually to have a breakdown and leave royal service after three years without a single day off.


Early education took place at York Cottage, with a good natured but perhaps rather hopeless tutor, Henry Hansell. Hansell did his best to recreate a public school in York Cottage, and most of the prince's childhood passed in isolation and routine. Sandringham became a livelier place following the death of Queen Victoria in January 1901, and the succession of her son Edward VII, to the throne. Edward, Albert's grandfather, was a man who brought energy and glamour back to the monarchy. Every November Edward VII would arrive at Sandringham, and the two princes would be allowed to run up to the "Big House" to say goodnight to their grandparents, and take in the exciting atmosphere of his court. Then it was back home to bed. These excursions were unusual breaks in a difficult childhood. The stresses on young Albert may have contributed to a stammer, which developed around 1902, and was to afflict him for the rest of his life.





Dartmouth Naval College

Following his older brother's lead, Albert left York Cottage in January 1909 for Osborne Naval College on the Isle of Wight. The college was based in the stable block of what was once Queen Victoria's Osborne House mansion. Here Albert was bullied by other cadets, and usually came bottom of his class. It wasn't until he moved on to Dartmouth Naval College in 1912 that Albert began to do a little better. Academically he never shone, but as a sportsman he excelled, particularly in tennis. 1912 was to be a year which clearly revealed an important part of Albert's developing character. At Easter 1912 Prince Albert was confirmed at Sandringham church. A very literal religious belief is revealed in his choice of reading at this time. Albert was no great reader, but a book on the supposed historical truth of the resurrection, called The Empty Tomb made a great impression on him. It was this straightforward religious sense which separated Albert from his older brother. In many ways Europe was moving away from the old sense of monarchy. In March 1912 an assassination attempt was made on King Victor Emmanuel III of Greece. In March 1913 King George I of Greece was assassinated in Sardinia. Then in 1914 came the shooting in Sarajevo of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, which set in motion a train of events which would lead to the First World War. The war itself was to sweep away monarchy all over Europe, and the old pattern of religiously based monarchical authority went with it. And yet the future George VI was settling into a straightforward and literal religious philosophy which was typical of monarchy.





Polesden Lacey

By the time World War One started Albert was a midshipman on the battleship HMS Collingwood. After some time off sick with a stomach ulcer, the prince was back on HMS Collingwood in time to take part in the Battle of Jutland, a huge naval encounter between British and German fleets in the North Sea, on 31st May 1916. Albert, frankly, enjoyed the experience, but ill health was soon to force a retirement from the navy and a move to the Royal Flying Corps training establishment at Cranwell. Here Albert did a competent job, even though his desire to succeed in his new role tended to make him harsh and over strict with his trainees. Following the war Albert settled down to life as Duke of York. He went to Trinity College Cambridge for a largely symbolic year in 1920, and spent the 1920s touring factories, proving so diligent in this work that his brother called him the Foreman. Then there was his Duke of York Camp project, where young men from different social classes would get together and engage in various scout camp type activities. June 1920 was also to bring Albert's first meeting with his future wife, Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon at a dinner party. Elizabeth was daughter of the 14th Earl of Strathmore. Her family owned Glamis Castle in Scotland, one of the oldest inhabited buildings in the country. In describing Glamis, Lord Gorrel would in a sense be describing what the monarchy itself aspired to: "Everything at Glamis was beautiful, perfect. Being there was like living in a Van Dyke picture. Time, and the gossiping, junketing world stood still. Nothing happened... but the magic gripped us all" (quoted by Sarah Bradford P100). After some delay on the part of Elizabeth, who wanted to think about what she was letting herself in for, the couple married on 26th April 1923. They spent the first part of their honeymoon at Polesden Lacey. The owner Mrs Ronald Greville was a leading figure in the traditional set which surrounded the new Duke and Duchess of York.

Albert's ceremonial duties now became more intense. While his brother Edward began to disintegrate under the pressure of constant adulation, Albert had speech therapy for his stammer and got on with the job, touring Australia and New Zealand in 1927 with great success. Albert, unlike his brother, also had a happy family life which helped him cope with stress. His first daughter, Elizabeth - who was to become Elizabeth II - was born on 21st April 1926, with Margaret following on 21st August 1930. But Albert's relatively settled and happy life was to be turned upside down by the events of 1936. In January of that year his father George V died, and was succeeded by Albert's elder brother as Edward VIII. Edward by now was deeply embroiled in an affair with Wallis Simpson, and wanted Mrs Simpson to divorce her husband and marry him. The ensuing scandal made it impossible for Edward to continue as king, not that he ever really seemed to want the job. Albert looked on horrified as the events unfolded, culminating in Edward VIII's abdication on Thursday 10th December 1936. At 1.52pm on Friday 11th December Prince Albert became king, choosing the name George for his official title as George VI.

In comparison with the chaos of 1936 George now set about recreating the steady reign of his father George V. Underpinning this was his straightforward religious attitude. In May 1937 Harold Nicolson said: "There is no doubt that the king and queen have entered on this task with a real religious sense" (quoted by Sarah Bradford P205). While Edward went off to France to worship his wife, the religious feelings of King George VI followed more regular channels. The monarchy could now fulfill its role, as a symbolic authority beyond that of politicians. In 1938 Neville Chamberlain had gone to Germany to try and reach an accommodation with Hitler. He seriously misjudged Hitler, and the government's policy of appeasement was a disaster. For this Chamberlain lost his office. King George had been an enthusiastic supporter of Chamberlain and his appeasement policy, but when that turned out to be the wrong course, George did not lose his throne. The power of the throne did not rest on even the most vital details of policy, and endured beyond them. Ironically even the most powerful of politicians were to find comfort in this. When Winston Churchill took over as prime minister on 10th May 1940, he was to form a very close relationship with George VI. Winston Churchill must be recalled as the most personally forceful of British prime ministers. And yet this man was a great monarchist who had enormous respect for the role of monarchy as an authority beyond that of political office. Sir Iain Jacob, military assistant to the war cabinet said: "Churchill was a tremendous monarchist and therefore took his duty to the king very seriously. He would not give way on something he thought important of course, if they were at odds, but he would certainly give full attention to everything the king said" (quoted Bradford P305).



Buckingham Palace

Through the war that followed George VI was an important source of symbolic authority. He insisted on staying in London, even after Buckingham Palace was bombed, and constantly toured the battle torn capital with Elizabeth, offering whatever support he could. The king was also a source of actual authority. John Major has commented that he could talk openly in conversation with his monarch Elizabeth II, since he knew she had no political axe to grind (see The Firm by Penny Junor P 17). Churchill was similarly open with George VI. "He tells me more than people imagine, of his future plans and ideas, only airing them when the time is ripe to his colleagues and the Chiefs of Staff" (quoted Bradford P339). It was the intervention of the king which prevented Churchill from recklessly watching the D-Day landings from the deck of HMS Belfast. Even when the war was over and Clement Attlee's Labour government had taken over, George VI's influence was unaffected. Michael Foot writing of Attlee, said: "Only once did I ever see Attlee emotionally affected in public, and the occasions for doing so were frequent, dating back to the early morning in San Francisco in May 1945 when his parliamentary private secretary, John Dugdale, and I broke into his bedroom to tell him that the Second World War was over and that we would like a statement from him for the British labour movement; then he just got back into bed. But when he spoke of George VI's death, tears were in his eyes and in his voice" (quoted Bradford P386).





St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle

The death Michael Foot referred to was not long in coming. George VI was a heavy smoker, and by 1948 he was already showing signs of loss of circulation in his legs. An operation to ease this condition followed in March 1949. Then lung cancer developed, which led to the removal of the left lung in September 1951. A final Christmas broadcast was pre-recorded for 1951, carefully edited to disguise frequent breathless pauses. By February 1952 there seemed to be some improvement. On 5th February George enjoyed a day's shooting at Sandringham. That night he died in his sleep of a coronary thrombosis. Churchill then in his second term as prime minister, was shattered when he heard the news, as were millions of other people. 300,000 people filed passed the coffin lying in state at Westminster Hall, before the funeral at St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle on 16th February. His twenty five year old daughter Elizabeth, then in Kenya, succeeded to the throne, continuing an ancient form of government which is based on continuity and acceptance rather than competence and questioning. Government clearly can no longer exist solely on continuity and acceptance, and it might seem hopelessly out of date to have this kind of institution in government. Tony Benn is quite right when he says in his book Common Sense that "the mythology and magic surrounding the Crown and the Royal Family have always been used... to veil a whole range of undemocratic powers". Nevertheless it seems that something of the old tradition of government remains as influential as ever. Intellectuals tend to look down on the royal family, and there is a natural desire to value analysis and competence. But that is not the job of the Royal Family. Even though most people do not now believe in any divine superintendence of human affairs, there is a residual desire for those old ways of thinking, and a residual value in the stability they provide.