King George V

Sinead Fitzgibbon summarises the life of Britain’s King George V, grandfather of Queen Elizabeth II.

Grandson of Great Britain’s Queen Victoria and second son of Edward VII, Prince George Frederick Ernest Albert was born on 3 June 1865.

At the age of 18, George entered the Royal Navy, an occupation he retained until the unexpected death of his elder brother, Albert, from pneumonia in 1892.  With Albert’s passing, George became second-in-line to the throne.

In 1893, George became engaged to his dead brother’s fiancée, Mary of Teck. The couple would go on to have six children.

Following Queen Victoria’s death in 1901, the throne passed to George’s father, Edward VII. However, Edward’s reign was not destined to be a long one – he died just nine years after becoming king, and the Crown passed to George V.

‘The King is a very jolly chap’

George, essentially a shy man, preferred shooting and stamp collecting than being in the company of politicians or intellectuals. Nor were politicians and intellectuals terribly impressed by the new king – during his coronation in 1911, the English writer and caricaturist, Max Beerbohm, dismissed George V as ‘such a piteous, good, feeble, heroic little figure’. And David Lloyd George, at the time the Chancellor of the Exchequer, on first meeting the king, said, ‘The King is a very jolly chap… thank God there is not much in his head’.

The House of Windsor

During the First World War, when anti-German feeling was at its zenith, a wave a republican sentiment swept through the country, threatening the monarchy’s very existence.  This disaffection was borne out of the fact the British Royal Family was an off-shoot of the long-running German Hanoverian dynasty.  To add insult to injury, Kaiser Wilhelm II was George V’s first cousin – and these close family ties with the reviled enemy rankled with a significant proportion of the British public.

Around this time, other hereditary European sovereigns were being deposed at an alarming rate, including another of George’s cousins, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia (who would eventually be assassinated, along with his family, in an orgy of revolutionary zeal in 1918). George soon realized that, in order to prevent a similar fate befalling him, something had to be done … and fast.

Eventually, in 1917, he hit on a solution to the problem.  Displaying a keen survival instinct, George set about ‘anglicizing’ his family.  The only way to disassociate himself from his German ancestry, he decided, was to shed the family surname of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha in favour of one which would be more pleasing to the British ear.

After considering, and dismissing, a number of possibilities including Tudor, Stuart, Plantagenet, York and Lancaster, George and his advisors finally settled on the perfect dynastic surname for the British Royal Family – by Royal Proclamation on 17 July 1917, the House of Windsor was born. Ever the wit, the Kaiser joked, ‘I look forward to seeing the Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha’.

An Uncommon Marriage

And George did not stop there.  Having successfully rebranded his branch of the family tree, this politically-savvy king introduced yet another innovation which would further bolster his British credentials – he decided to break with tradition and allow his children to marry into British commoner (or non-Royal) families.

Up to now, in order to strengthen their ties with their European neighbours, it had been the Hanoverian habit to marry their children off to scions of other Continental royal families.  But now, George’s offspring were free to choose a spouse from the pool of British aristocratic clans.

One of the first members of the Royal Family to take advantage of the opportunity to introduce some ‘new blood’ into the lineage was George’s second son, Prince Albert, the Duke of York (known to all as Bertie).  After a two-year courtship, during which she twice refused his proposals of marriage, Bertie finally became engaged to Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon in January 1923.

When the wedding of Lady Elizabeth (a daughter of the Scottish Earl of Strathmore) and the Duke of York took place in Westminster Abbey on April 26 of the same year, the union was widely welcomed by an enthusiastic British public.  Crowds lined the streets to cheer the newlyweds as they emerged from the Abbey, and large numbers congregated in front of Buckingham Palace to witness the couple’s brief appearance on the balcony – evidence indeed that the British public’s love affair with their royal family had been rekindled.

As far as George V was concerned, it was mission accomplished.

The Death of ‘Grandpa England’

On the evening of 20 January 1936, the king’s physician released a notice to the Press stating that “the king’s life is drawing peacefully to a close”. No one was much surprised – from mid-November, it had become obvious that George V’s health was in serious decline.

And indeed, the doctor’s predictions proved to be correct.  At 11:55pm on the same evening, King George V, whom Princess Elizabeth (his granddaughter and the future queen) had lovingly dubbed ‘Grandpa England’, breathed his last.  He was succeeded by his eldest son, David, the erstwhile Prince of Wales, who chose to take the regnal name of King Edward VIII.

Sinead Fitzgibbon

Read more in Queen Elizabeth II: History In An Hour published by Harper Press.

See also the Death of George VI.

Read Sinead’s Culture Vulture blog