Sinead Fitzgibbon offers a brief summary on the life of George VI, the reluctant king.
Prince Albert Frederick Arthur George, the second son of George V and Queen Mary of Teck, was born on 14 December 1895, exactly 34 years after the death of his great grandfather, Prince Albert, consort and husband of Queen Victoria. The elderly queen was delighted that her newest grandson should be named after her late husband.
As a child, the Prince, the Duke of York, known to his family as Bertie, suffered from crippling shyness and developed a debilitating stammer which affected him for a large part of his life. He also was forced to wear painful leg braces to correct a condition that is commonly known as ‘knock knees’.
Prince in love
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. The Duke and Duchess of York would go on to have two daughters, Princess Elizabeth (the future queen) and Princess Margaret. At the news of the birth of Princess Elizabeth on 21 April 1926, the newspapers of the time stated, somewhat mysteriously, stated that the Duchess was obliged to undergo ‘a certain line of treatment’, thought to be a euphemism for a Caesarean section.
The new king
Bertie, as the second son of George V, was not expected to inherit the throne. But following the unexpected abdication of his older brother, Edward VIII in 1936, Bertie became King George VI.
The new king’s coronation took place on 12 May 1937. George’s preparation included lengthy sessions with the maverick Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue, in a bid to overcome his stutter. As the two-and-a-half hour ceremony dragged on, the attention of the 11-year-old Princess Elizabeth began to wane. In her diary she wrote of the occasion, “At the end the service got rather boring, as it was all prayers. Grannie and I were looking to see how many more pages to the end, and we turned one more and then I pointed to the word at the bottom of the page and it said ‘Finis’. We both smiled at each other and turned back to the service.”
During the Second World War, the royal couple, refusing to abandon their people, remained at Buckingham Palace every weekday, returning at night to the relative safety of Windsor Castle, where they also spent every weekend. Indeed, so determined were they to stand in solidarity with their subjects, they did not alter this routine, even after narrowly escaping serious injury when the Palace suffered the first of nine direct hits in September 1940.
The stress of the war years had sapped the king of whatever strength he once possessed, and now a persistent cough indicated that years of heavy smoking had taken their toll. In 1951 he was diagnosed with cancer and had to undergo an operation to remove his left lung. For months, his condition was precarious, but by early 1952, he appeared to be improving – so much so that Princess Elizabeth and her new husband, Philip Mountbatten, decided to go ahead with a planned tour of East Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
But little did they know that, when the king made his way to London Airport on 31 January 1952 to bid his daughter and son-in-law farewell, it would be for the last time.
Six days later, on 6 February 1952, after enjoying a day of shooting on his Sandringham estate, George VI died peacefully in his sleep. He was 56. Elizabeth, who received the sad news in Kenya, was now, as the eldest daughter, Queen at the tender age of 25.