George VI

George VI

George Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was born in Sandringham, Norfolk, on 14th December, 1895. George was the great-grandson of Queen Victoria and his father was George V, who became king of the United Kingdom in 1910. George's elder brother, Edward, was therefore heir to the throne.

George was a sickly child and was often ill. He also developed an acute stammer. In 1909 he was sent to Osborne as a naval cadet but passed out bottom of his class. After attending Dartmouth he joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman, but suffering bouts of acute gastritis, did not see action in the First World War until serving on HMS Collingwood at the Battle of Jutland.

The outbreak of the First World War created problems for the royal family because of its German background. Owing to strong anti-German feeling in Britain, it was decided to change the name of the royal family from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor. To stress his support for the British, George V made several visits to the Western Front.

In 1917 George joined the Royal Naval Air Service and later the recently formed Royal Air Force (1919). However, George did not qualify as a pilot until 1919 and therefore did not take part in the highly dangerous air war.

After the war George attended Trinity College, Cambridge, but only stayed for a year. In 1920 he was created the Duke of York and carried out public duties for his father. Three years later he married Elizabeth Bowles-Lyon. The couple had two children, Elizabeth (1926) and Margaret (1930).

George also became president of the Industrial Welfare Society. In this role he visited so many factories that he became known as the "Industrial Duke". He also made royal tours of East Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

George's marriage had the approval of his father, George V. However, his brother, Edward, the heir to the throne, had developed a relationship with Wallis Simpson, an American woman who was married to Ernest Simpson. This was her second marriage and had divorced her first husband, E. W. Spencer in 1927.

George V died on 20th January, 1936. Edward VIII now became king and his relationship with Wallis Simpson was reported in the foreign press. The government instructed the British press not to refer to the relationship. The prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, urged the king to consider the constitutional problems of marrying a divorced woman.

Although Edward VIII received the political support from Winston Churchill and Lord Beaverbrook, he was aware that his decision to marry Wallis Simpson would be unpopular with the British public. The Archbishop of Canterbury also made it clear he was strongly opposed to the king's relationship.

On 10th December, 1936, the king signed a document that stated he he had renounced "the throne for myself and my descendants." The following day he made a radio broadcast where he told the nation that he had abdicated because he found he could not "discharge the duties of king as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love."

George now became king and the coronation took place on 12th May, 1937. Later that month, Neville Chamberlain replaced Stanley Baldwin as prime-minister. The following year Chamberlain travelled to Germany to meet Adolf Hitler in an attempt to avoid war between the two countries. The result of Chamberlain's appeasement policy was the signing of the Munich Agreement.

Crowds cheered all along Chamberlain's route from the airport back to Buckingham Palace, where he was to brief King George VI on the incredible turn of events. He was greeted by more cheering crowds outside 10 Downing Street as he arrived home. A few minutes later, Chamberlain was persuaded to step forwards and make a speech from the first-floor window: "My good friends: this is the second time in our history that there has come back to Downing Street from Germany peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time."

Several ministers, including Duff Cooper, Oliver Stanley, Harry Crookshank and Leslie Hore-Belisha, were very unhappy with the Munich Agreement. Cooper explained how he felt as he arrived at 10 Downing Street following the signing of the agreement: "I was caught up in the large crowd that were demonstrating their enthusiasm and were cheering, laughing, and singing; and there is no greater feeling of loneliness than to be in a crowd of happy, cheerful people and to feel that there is no occasion for oneself for gaiety or for cheering. That there was every cause for relief I was deeply aware, as much as anybody in this country, but that there was great cause for self-congratulation I was uncertain."

Chamberlain pleaded with the men to stay in the government in order to give an image of unity. However, on 3rd October, Cooper resigned. After a brief interview with Chamberlain, he made his way to Buckingham Palace to hand in his seals of office. King George VI was polite but frank: "He said he could not agree with me, but he respected those who had the courage of their convictions." That evening the King issued a statement: "The time of anxiety is past. After the magnificent efforts of the Prime Minister in the cause of peace it is my fervent hope that a new era of friendship and prosperity may be dawning among the peoples of the world."

King George VI; Neville Chamberlain; Annie Vere Chamberlain; Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother (30th September 1938)
King George VI; Neville Chamberlain; Annie Vere Chamberlain;
Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother (30th September 1938)

On 3rd September, 1939, Neville Chamberlain went on radio to announce: "Britain is at war with Germany" and went on to say: "This is a sad day for all of us, and to none is it sadder than to me. Everything that I have worked for, everything that I have hoped for, everything that I have believed in during my public life, has crashed into ruins. There is only one thing left for me to do; that is, to devote what strength and powers I have to forwarding the victory of the cause for which we have to sacrifice so much. I cannot tell what part I may be allowed to play myself; I trust I may live to see the day when Hitlerism has been destroyed and a liberated Europe has been re-established."

Considered an uninspiring war leader, members of the Labour Party and Liberal Party refused to serve in his proposed National Government. Chamberlain resigned and was replaced by Winston Churchill. The king had been against Churchill's appointment but the two men eventually became close allies. Later the king wrote in his diary: "I could not have a better prime minister."

King George VI
King George VI

The king and queen many several tours of Britain's bombed cities during the Second World War. In September, 1940, Buckingham Palace was badly damaged during a raid. His wife, Queen Elizabeth, remarked: "I'm glad we've been bombed. It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face."

In 1943 the king flew out to North Africa to visit the troops after their victory at El Alamein. He also visited Malta and was present at discussions about the D-Day invasion. Soon after a bridgehead had been created, the king arrived in Normandy to meet the troops.

After the war the king enjoyed a reasonable relationship with his new prime minister, Clement Attlee. He was opposed to socialism and unsuccessfully attempted to persuade him not to nationalize several of Britain's main industries. George VI died at Sandringham, Norfolk, on 6th February, 1952.

Primary Sources

(1) King George VI, letter to Neville Chamberlain (16th September, 1938)

I am sending this letter to meet you on your return, as I had no opportunity of telling you before you left how much I admired your courage and wisdom in going to see Hitler in person. You must have been pleased by the universal approval with which your action was received. I am naturally very anxious to hear the result of your talk, and to be assured that there is a prospect of a peaceful solution on terms which admit of general acceptance. I realize how fatigued you must be after these two very strenuous days, but if it is possible for you to come and see me either this evening or tomorrow morning, at any time convenient to yourself, I need hardly say that I shall greatly welcome the opportunity of hearing your news.

(2) King George VI, letter to Queen Mary (27th September, 1938)

The latest news is this: the Prime Minister has just sent a telegram to Hitler and Benes suggesting that they should get into touch with each other and to propose that Hitler should occupy Asch and Egerland on October 1st. That an International Commission should than arrange for the rest to be handed over peacefully by October 10th.

Benes has been told, as he well knows, that this country will be overwhelmed anyhow, and that it would be wise for him to take this course. If Hitler refuses to do this then we shall know once and for all that he is a madman. It is all so worrying this awful waiting for the worst to happen.

(3) King George VI, letter to Neville Chamberlain (27th September, 1938)

I am sending this letter by my Lord Chamberlain, to ask you if you will come straight to Buckingham Palace, so that I can express to you personally my most heartfelt congratulations on the success of your visit to Munich.

In the meantime this letter brings the warmest of welcomes to one who by his patience and determination has earned the lasting gratitude of his fellow countrymen throughout the Empire.

(4) King George VI, letter to Queen Mary (4th May, 1938)

I am sure you feel as angry as I do at people croaking as they do at the P.M.'s action, for once I agree with Lady Oxford who is said to have exclaimed as she left the House of Commons yesterday, "He brought home peace, why can't they be grateful". It is always so easy for people to criticise when they do not know the ins and outs of the question.

(5) King George VI, letter to Neville Chamberlain (18th March, 1939)

I feel I must send you one line to say how well I can appreciate your feelings about the recent behaviour of the German Government. Although this blow to your courageous efforts on behalf of peace and understanding in Europe must, I am afraid, cause you deep distress, I am sure that your labours have been anything but wasted, for they can have left no doubt in the minds of ordinary people all over the world of our love of peace and our readiness to discuss with any nation whatever grievances they think they have.

(6) In his diary King George VI recorded his thoughts on the German invasion of France.

23rd May, 1940: Baron Newall (Marshall of the Royal Air Force) came in the evening. He had just left a Chiefs of Staff meeting with the Prime Minister and he told me that the situation in France was critical. Viscount Gort (commander of the British Expeditionary Force in France) had sent a message to say that he was short of food and ammunition. Owing to the rapid advance of the German tanks and motorised divisions, his lines of communication had been cut through Amiens, and food had to be sent to France from here by air. German tanks had reached Boulogne, and had captured a fort above the town and were shelling the harbour. Newall was sorry to come with such a gloomy account and said that the French command must have "gone to seed" behind the Maginot Line.

This news was so worrying that I sent a message to Winston asking him to to come and see me after dinner. The Prime Minister came at 10.30 p.m. He told me that if the French plan made out by Maxine Weygand (French military commander) did not come off, he would have to order the British Expeditionary Force back to England. This operation would mean the loss of all guns, tanks, ammunition and all stores in France. The question was whether we could get the troops back from Calais and Dunkirk. The very thought of having to order this movement is appalling, as the loss of life will probably be immense.

(7) King George VI, radio broadcast (24th May, 1940)

The decisive struggle is now upon us. I am going to speak plainly to you in this hour of trial I know you would not have me do otherwise. Let no one be mistaken. It is no mere territorial conquest that our enemies are seeing. It is the overthrow, complete and final of this Empire and of everything for which is stands: and after that the conquest of the world. And if their will prevails they will bring to its accomplishment all the hatred and cruelty which they have already displayed.

It was not easy for us to believe that designs no evil could find a place in the human mind. But the time for doubt is long past. To all of us in this Empire, to all men of wisdom and goodwill throughout the world, the issue is now plain. It is life or death for all.