1922-23 – Four Royal Weddings:
The betrothal of 24-year-old Princess Mary to Viscount Lascelles, 39-year-old millionaire son of the Earl of Harewood, was officially announced at Buckingham Palace on 22 November 1921:
On the last day of February 1922, the marriage was held at Westminster Abbey. The Abbey was thrown open to the public after the ceremony, and a mile-long queue was formed by those waiting to go inside.
Soon after his younger sister’s wedding, The Duke of York rose even further in his father’s estimation following his courtship with the society beauty Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. Although she had led an even more sheltered life than he had, she was a commoner – albeit a high-born one. Bertie and Elizabeth had met at a ball in the early summer of 1920. The youngest daughter of the Earl and Countess of Strathmore, Elizabeth was twenty and had just arrived in London society to universal acclaim. A large number of suitors were keen to propose, but she was in no hurry to say ‘yes’ to any of them, including the Duke. It was not only that she was averse to becoming a member of the royal family, with all the constraints that this imposed. Also, the Duke did not seem that much of a catch: although kind, charming and good-looking, he was shy and inarticulate, partly due to his stutter.
The Duke fell in love with Elizabeth, but his early attempts to woo her were not successful: part of the problem, as he confided to J. C. C. Davidson, a young Conservative politician, in July 1922, was that he could not propose since, as the King’s son, he could not place himself in a position in which he might be refused. For that reason, he had already sent an emissary to Elizabeth to ask on his behalf for her hand in marriage, and she had responded negatively to this approach. Davidson had simple advice for him: no high-spirited girl was going to accept a second-hand proposal, and so, if the Duke was really as much in love with her as he claimed, then he should propose in person. Three decades later, after she was widowed, the then Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, wrote to Davidson to ‘thank you for the advice you gave the King in 1922.’ As Duke of York, he had to get his father’s consent, the then King, under the Royal Marriage Act of 1772, to marry a commoner. George V did not hesitate in giving it. Society had changed, making it acceptable for his children to marry commoners, provided that they came from the three highest tiers of the British nobility.
Their wedding on 26th April 1923 in Westminster Abbey, being used for the first time for the nuptials of a son of the King, was a joyous occasion. The bride wore a dress of cream chiffon moiré, a long train of silk net and a point de Flandres lace veil, both of which had been lent to her by Queen Mary. The Duke was in his Royal Airforce uniform. There were 1,780 places in the Abbey, and, as the Morning Post reported the next day, there was a large and brilliant congregation which included many of the leading personages and the Empire. The King wrote to his son:
You are indeed a lucky man. I miss you … you have always been so sensible and easy to work with (very different to dear David) … I am quite certain that Elizabeth will be a splendid partner in your work.’
After the wedding, crowds gathered outside Buckingham Palace, looking up to the familiar balcony and cheering when Queen Alexandra, Queen Mary, the Duchess of York (soon to be known as ‘the smiling Duchess’, the Duke of York and King George V came out through the central French windows. King George was already a grandfather, for Princess Mary (married the year before) had given birth to a son in February. Yet amid the joy, there was also a reminder that the Duke’s marriage was something of a sideshow compared to the occasion when his elder brother would eventually follow suit. In a special supplement, published on the day before the wedding, a writer in The Times had expressed satisfaction at the Duke’s choice of a bride who was so truly British to the core. Yet, he concluded, like so many did at the time, by contrasting Bertie with his brilliant elder brother, adding:
There is but one wedding to which the people look forward with still deeper interest – the wedding that will give a wife to the Heir to the Throne and, in the course of nature, a future Queen of England to the British peoples.
1922-23 – Civil War in Ireland:
Meanwhile, there remained one dark cloud over the western horizon from 1922-23; that of Ireland. The Anglo-Irish Treaty was ratified by a small majority by the Dail Eireann, the Dublin Parliament, but de Valera and his supporters in it were not prepared to accept the oath of allegiance, and a majority in the IRA rejected Partition. In June 1922, the country was plunged into a year-long, bloody civil war. This began with an attack by Free State forces on the headquarters of the die-hard republicans in the Four Courts and other strongholds in Dublin that they had occupied. As in 1916, the rebels had no strategic plan behind the occupation of these buildings; their decision to make a stand was based on a calculation of its propaganda value in an appeal to the memory of the Easter Rising.
Contrary to popular impressions, however, the Irish Civil War was, in fact, less bloody than the Anglo-Irish War that had preceded it. Total deaths numbered 1,872 between January 1920 and the truce of 11 July 1921, with a further 470 killed in the truce period to June 1922, whereas 927 were killed in the ensuing civil war.
Nevertheless, it cost the lives of Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins, Commander-in-chief, among many others on both sides, with the Southwest and Dublin City the worst affected areas, as shown on the map above.
The war was finally won by the Free State Government. In April 1923, the republicans proclaimed a unilateral cease-fire and dumped their arms, but not their opposition to the new State, which they continued to regard as a puppet régime of the British. The Free State victory had been achieved with substantial material support from the British Government and the backing of most institutions in Ireland. Among the tactical reasons for the government’s success was the execution of seventy-seven republican prisoners, in some cases illegally. Together with other unofficial killings, these executions sapped the will of much of the republican opposition to the Free State. Even their leader, Eamon de Valera, eventually accepted the constitutional framework and went on, following Fianna Fáil’s victory in the general election of 1932, to steer it towards full independence. In 1949, George VI gave royal assent to The Republic of Ireland Act which recognised:
… that the part of Ireland heretofore known as Eire, ceased… to be part of His Majesty’s dominions… Northern Ireland remains part of His Majesty’s dominions and of the United Kingdom…
1924-26 – The King, the Comrades & the Constitution:
Winston Churchill, writing in Great Contemporaries (1941), commented that George V’s relations with Ramsay MacDonald and the Socialists form an important chapter in his Kingship. The Constitution and the workings of parliamentary democracy were his guides and instruments. He was determined, from the outset, to show absolute impartiality in the Constitution to all parties, irrespective of policies and ideologies, who could secure a majority in the House of Commons. Churchill continued:
Indeed, if the balance were to be swayed at all, it must be on the side of newcomers, and they must be given help by the Crown. … Never did he fear, never did he need fear, … British democracy. He reconciled the new forces of Labour and Socialism to the Constitution and the Monarchy. This enormous process of assimilating and rallying the spokesmen of left-out millions will be intently studied by historians of the future. To the astonishment of foreign countries and of our American kinsmen, the spectacle was seen of the King and Emperor working in the utmost ease and unaffected cordiality with politicians whose theories at any rate seemed to menace all existing institutions, and with leaders fresh from organising a General Strike.W. S. Churchill, Great Contemporaries (1941), pp. 325-6.
The General Strike, in support of the coal miners, took place between the 4th and 12th of May, 1926. On the 5th, Hyde Park was closed to the public and became the centre for London’s milk supplies. The following night, Britain’s trains, trams and buses came to a stop. But the Government was just as well organised as the trades union, if not better. Troops organised food supplies, nearly half a million men enrolled as special constables, and men and women everywhere volunteered for vital services. The Government published an official paper, The British Gazette, in the absence of the Fleet Street press and as an antidote (it claimed) to the wild rumour. The trades unions regarded it as a Government ‘propaganda sheet’, edited by Churchill, who argued that the strike was unconstitutional. On 8th May, a two-mile convoy of lorries, escorted by armoured cars, took food from the docks to Hyde Park; on 10th May, 3,677 trains were being run by volunteers, and on 12th May, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) gave the “Back to Work!” order. The miners stayed locked out for six months and went back in the end, defeated and victimised.
Labour leaders then concentrated on winning back power by constitutional means, forming a second administration in 1929.
1925-26 – A Death, a Birth & a ‘Fiasco’:
Meanwhile, the Prince of Wales had been building bridges to distant parts of the Empire…
Marriage was a turning point in the Duke of York’s life: he became far happier and more at ease with himself and with the King. His father’s devotion to Elizabeth also helped: although a stickler for punctuality, he would forgive his daughter-in-law for her chronic lateness. Initially, they lived at White Lodge, in the middle of Richmond Park, a large property built by King George II for himself in the 1720s. The birth of their first daughter, Elizabeth, the future Queen, on 21 April 1926 brought the family even closer together.
The Royal Princess was christened Elizabeth Alexandra Mary at Buckingham Palace the following month. The official bulletin read:
Her Royal Highness and the infant Princess are making very satisfactory progress.
The phrase ‘infant Princess’ was a reminder of Queen Victoria’s advice to the official who had referred to the birth of a royal baby. “Royal ladies”, he was told, “do not have babies; they have princes or princesses.” The first child to be born to the then Duke and Duchess of York, Princess Elizabeth was third in line to the throne, after the Prince of Wales and her father.
In 1927, the young family moved to Number 145 Piccadilly, a comfortable, stone-built house close to Hyde Park Corner, facing south with a view over Green Park to Buckingham Palace. The Duke was continuing with his factory visits and seemed happy in such work. More formal occasions, especially those involving speechmaking, he always dreaded. Her husband’s speech impediment and the effect that it had on him was affecting the Duchess, too; according to one contemporary account, whenever he rose from the table to respond to a toast, she would grip the edge of the table until her knuckles were white for fear he would be unable to get a word out. This further contributed to his nervousness which, in turn, led to outbursts of temper that only his wife could calm.
The full extent of the Duke’s speech problems became painfully obvious for all to see in May 1925, when he was due to succeed his elder brother as president of the Empire Exhibition at Wembley. Two hundred thousand people, eleven Cabinet ministers and nearly fifty members of British and foreign Royalty attended the opening of the exhibition by King George on 23rd April 1924. Then, the golden-haired figure of the Prince of Wales formally asked his father for permission to open the exhibition. The King had spoken briefly in response, and, for the first time, his words were broadcast by the British Broadcasting Company, later Corporation. The King had recorded in his diary that everything went off most successfully.
On the 10th May 1925, it was Bertie’s turn to give a short speech which he had practised feverishly. But his dread of public speaking was making him increasingly nervous and was added to by the fact that he would be speaking in front of his father for the first time. The Duke’s speech was broadcast not just in Britain but around the world, and it ended in humiliation. Although he managed to struggle through to the end of it, his performance was marked by some embarrassing moments when no sound came out of his mouth. The King tried to put a positive gloss on it, writing to Prince George, Bertie’s young brother, the next day that ‘Bertie got through his speech all right, but there were some long pauses.’
But for Bertie and his family, this ‘fiasco’ of a speech had a dramatic psychological effect and presented a significant problem for the monarchy. Such speeches were considered to be part of the daily routine of kings and princes, and Prince Albert was second-in-line to the throne, yet he had conspicuously failed to rise to the challenge in this respect. The consequences for his future and that of the monarchy looked serious. As one contemporary biographer put it:
…it was becoming increasingly manifest that very drastic steps would have to be taken if he were not to develop into the shy retiring nervous individual which is the common fate of all those suffering from speech defects.
By coincidence, one of the members of the crowd at Wembley listening to the King’s speech was Lionel Logue, a self-taught and virtually unknown Australian speech therapist. Based on his recently discovered diaries, in 2010, his grandson Mark Logue published The King’s Speech: How One Man Saved the British Monarchy, the previously untold story of the remarkable relationship between Logue and the future King George VI. He took a professional interest in what he heard that day at Wembley. He told his son Laurie, who accompanied him:
He’s too old for me to manage a complete cure. But I could very nearly do it. I am sure of that.
1926-27 – From Harley Street to South Australia:
Whoever was responsible for the initial introduction, the first meeting between the Duke and Logue almost didn’t happen. Although the Duchess was keen he should seek professional advice, Bertie was becoming increasingly frustrated with the failure of the various cures he had been persuaded to try, especially those that assumed his stammering had its root in a nervous condition, which seemed to make matters worse rather than better. The Duchess was determined he give Logue a try, however, and he eventually agreed to an appointment. The outcome of this meeting in Harley Street is now well known through the recent film, The King’s Speech.
After the initial interview in 1926, the Duke had a total of eighty-two appointments between 20th October and 22nd December 1927. Ironically, it was an invitation from the Governor General of Australia to attend the State Opening of the new Commonwealth Parliament House in the new Australian capital of Canberra on 9th May 1927, which became the main focus of these sessions. The following January, the ‘Yorks’ were to embark on a six-month world tour aboard the battle-cruiser Renown. Stanley Bruce, the Australian prime minister, had asked George V to send one of his sons to perform the opening ceremony. It was a highly symbolic occasion. The Daily Telegraph claimed the Duke’s speech there would be as historic as Queen Victoria’s proclamation as Empress of India in 1877. With all eyes and ears pointing in his direction, Bertie could not risk a repetition of the Wembley ‘fiasco’.
The origins of the trip went back just over a quarter of a century to the transformation of the then Australian colonies into states, federated together under one Dominion government. This government, and the parliament to which it was responsible, were initially located in Melbourne, in the State of Victoria, but this was only a temporary solution. While the people of Victoria would have liked their capital to have become the federal one, Sydney, the capital of New South Wales, also wanted the honour. A decade later, a compromise was finally decided upon: the government acquired an area of nine hundred square miles was acquired from New South Wales to be designated as federal territory. It was to serve as the new Australian capital, Canberra. Building work was finally begun in 1923, and 1927 was chosen as the year for the transfer of power to Canberra and the convening of the new federal parliament.
The Prince of Wales had toured Australia in 1920 to lavish acclaim, and the King felt it was time for his younger son to carry out an important imperial mission. But he was not entirely convinced that Bertie was up to it, and neither was Bruce. He had heard the Duke speak several times during the Imperial Conference of 1926 and had not been impressed. Bertie was equally doubtful about his ability to get through the gruelling programme of speeches that would be required. Embarking on such a long trip would also mean leaving behind their baby, Princess Elizabeth. It was against this background that the Duke had his first session with Logue three months later, and it gave him a considerable psychological boost. According to the Duke’s biographer, Taylor Derbyshire:
The one great advantage of that first consultation was that it had given the Duke assurance that he could be cured. … Disillusioned so often before, the change in outlook caused by the discovery that his trouble was physical and not as he had already feared mental, re-established his confidence and renewed his determination.Taylor Darbyshire (1929), The Duke of York: an intimate and authoratative life-story of the second son of their majesties, the King and Queen by one who has had special facilities, and published with the approval of his Royal Highness. London: Hutchinson & Co, p. 22.
In the seven months leading up to the trip, the Duke met Logue for an hour, either on Harley Street or at his home in Bolton Gardens. By the end of the year, the improvement was noticeable in the London press and society. However, the challenges he would face on the tour were wholly different from the events he had spoken at in London. He would have liked to have taken his tutor with him, but Logue declined, pointing out that self-reliance was an important part of the cure, and for him to accompany the Duke would be a ‘psychological error.’ The day before he left, the Prince wrote a letter to Logue (below), thanking him for his work and stating that he was now full of confidence for this trip anyhow.
The Duke and Duchess sailed from Portsmouth on 6 January 1927. The King and Queen had seen them off at Victoria station; there was a peculiar sadness about their departure as they had to say farewell to their baby daughter Elizabeth. The Duchess wrote later to the Queen:
‘I felt very much leaving on Thursday, and the baby was so sweet playing with the buttons on Bertie’s uniform that it quite broke me up.’
Frequent letters from home reporting on their daughter’s progress went only a little way to comforting them in their absence. Bertie was also weighed down by the gravity of the formal responsibilities that lay ahead of him. He wrote to his father:
‘This is the first time you have sent me on a mission concerning the Empire & I can assure you that I will do my very best to make it the success we all hope for.’
Their visit to New Zealand was a great success, despite being separated by the Duchess being struck down with tonsillitis, forcing her to return to Wellington to convalesce at Government House. When Bertie rendezvoused with her on board the Renown on 22nd March, he could look back on what he had achieved without her at his side with a degree of satisfaction. But the real challenge came with the Australian leg of their tour. The following two months, during which they travelled from state to state, were packed with engagements and speeches. One of the most emotional was the one he had to make in Melbourne on Anzac Day, commemorating the twelfth anniversary of the Gallipoli landings. He carried it off with success.
Then, on 9th May came the tour’s main event: the opening of the new parliament building. He made a brief address to the crowds outside, entirely HRH’s own idea, and then opened the great doors of the building with a golden key. Dame Nellie Melba sang the national anthem; troops paraded, and aeroplanes droned overhead, one of them crashing from four hundred feet about a mile from the reviewing stand, killing the pilot. Although some twenty thousand people were present (and an estimated two million listened at home on the radio), the Duke won the battle with his nerves. Despite the intense heat made worse by the lights for the photographers and cameramen whose footage was to be distributed by Pathé news to viewers back in Britain. The Duke pressed on, putting in what all considered an impressive performance. In his letter home to his father, in which he paid tribute to the assistance he had received from Logue:
‘I was not very nervous when I made the speech, because the one I made outside went off without a hitch & I did not hesitate once. I was relieved as making speeches still frightens me, though Logue’s teaching has really done wonders for me as I know how to prevent & get over any difficulty. I have so much more confidence in myself now, which I am sure comes from being able to speak properly at last.’
On 23rd May, the Duke and Duchess finally set off for home, congratulations still ringing in their ears. Sir Tom Bridges, the Governor of South Australia, wrote to the King:
‘His Royal Highness has touched people profoundly by his youth, his simplicitly and natural bearing, while the Duchess has had a tremendous ovation and leaves us with the rsponsibility of having a continent in love with her. This visit has done untold good and has certainly put back the clock of disunion and disloyalty twenty-five years as far as this State is concerned.’
The Duke and Duchess arrived back in Portsmouth on 27th June, making a speech in response to the Mayor’s welcome address. Basil Brooke, the Duke’s comptroller, who was among those present, wrote to Logue to say how ‘really amazed’ he had been by what he had heard:
There was practically no hesitation and I thought it was perfectly wonderful.
The Duke’s three brothers met him at Portsmouth, and the King and Queen met him at Victoria station. During their six months away, the royal couple had travelled thirty thousand miles by sea and several thousand by land. The warmth of the reception demonstrated the high regard in which the monarchy was still held in both Australia and New Zealand, and there was little doubt that, by their presence, they had further strengthened such devotion to the Crown and Empire. As importantly for all the Windsors, Bertie had renewed confidence in his abilities. He was acutely aware of the way his performance had improved his standing in the eyes of the King. At the end of the summer, he wrote to Logue from Balmoral:
… I haven’t had a bad day since I have been in Scotland. Up here I have been talking a lot with the King & I have had no trouble at all. Also I can make him listen & I don’t have to repeat everything over again.
But however great the progress he had made in Australia, Bertie realized that he still had to work on his stammer and on his public speaking. So, a few days after returning to London, he resumed his regular visits to Harley Street. In the sessions that followed, the Duke worked on the tongue twisters Logue prescribed for him. Logue told Darbyshire, the Duke’s biographer:
‘The outstanding feature of the two years he has spent with me is the enormous capacity for work his Royal Highness possesses. When he first began to improve, he visualised what perfect speech was and nothing short of that ideal is going to satisfy him. For two years, he has never missed an appointment with me, a record of which he can be justly proud. He realized that the will to be cured was not enough but that it called for grit, hard work and self-sacrifice, all of which he gave ungrudgingly. Now he is “come to his kingdom” of content and confidence in diction.’
1928 – Haig’s Funeral & King George’s Illness:
In January 1928, Lord Haig, the Commander of the British Forces in France during the Great War, died in London at the age of sixty-six. His funeral procession, more than a mile long, went to Westminster Abbey, then to Waterloo Station, where the coffin was ‘entrained’ for Scotland for the burial at Bemersyde, the late Earl’s home. Pallbearers included Marchal Foch and seven British Field Marshals; the Prince of Wales, Duke of York, and Prince Henry followed the cortége.
Once, when on five days’ leave in England, Haig spent the whole time quietly at home with his wife and declined an invitation to see the King at Buckingham Palace. The following year, after a visit to the troops in France, King George wrote to Haig:
“It is especially pleasing to me to find that the absolute confidence I have in you is shared throughout your command.”
The Prince of Wales emulated his brother in taking an interest in industrial questions when he became the Patron of the National Council of Social Service in 1928, a charitable organisation involved with the problems of the unemployed. That year, he made an extensive tour of the ‘distressed areas’ as they were then known, in South Wales, Tyneside, Clydeside and Lancashire, meeting men who had been unemployed for years.
He seemed sincerely and visibly shaken and is reported to have said:
“Some of the things I see in these gloomy, poverty-stricken areas made me almost ashamed to be an Englishman. … isn’t it awful that I can do nothing for them than make them smile.”Quoted in John Gorman (1980), To Build Jerusalem. London: Scorpion Publications.
In December, King George V was seriously ill with lung trouble. A month before, on a rainy, chilly day, he attended the Cenotaph Armistice Day Service and a few days later, he had gone to bed suffering from a cold ‘with slight fever.’ However, it was a severe chill, and when neglected, it turned into acute septicemia. It became clear that he would be incapacitated for some time, and on 2nd December, six Councillors of State were appointed to transact public business in the meantime; the Prince of Wales, the Duke of York and the Queen were three of these. But David was away on a tour of East Africa, and despite warnings of the severity of his father’s condition, he did not immediately set off for home, to the horror of his aides. Eventually convinced of the seriousness of the situation, he hurried back. During the journey, he received a letter from the Duke, which suggested that despite the gravity of the King’s illness, neither brother had lost his sense of humour. The Duke wrote:
‘There is a lovely story going about which emanated from the East End that the reason for your rushing home is that in the event of anything happening to Papa I am going to bag the Throne in your absence!!! Just like the Middle Ages…’
Edward was clearly so amused by the letter that he kept it and used it in his memoirs. The King was operated upon, and although his life remained in danger for some time, he began gradually to recover in the new year.
It was not until the following June that he was strong enough to participate in public ceremonies again. The Duke had been put under strain both by worry about his father and by the extra duties he had to perform, but he took it all in his stride, as he revealed in a letter he sent to Lionel Logue on 15 December 1928, thanking him for the book Logue sent him for his birthday:
‘I don’t know whether you sent it with a gentle reminder for me to come and see you more often or not, but I liked yor kind thought in sending it. As you can imagine just lately my mind is full of other things, and as a matter of fact through all the mental strain my speech has not been affected one atom. So that is all to the good.’
The second Labour Government succeeded the Conservatives quite smoothly as a result of the normal wax-and-wane party popularity with the electors. It had been five years since Labour had been tainted with the ‘Bolshie’ tag, and Ramsay MacDonald, the new Prime Minister, introduced the members of his Cabinet as chosen for very hard work and because I believe the nation fully believes they are perfectly competent to perform it. In the event, they proved as incompetent as anyone else to stem the already swelling tide of unemployment. J. H. Thomas, the Minister responsible, admitted that he had no clue as to how to resolve the situation and joked that he was breaking all records in unemployment.
The Locarno Treaty had been the ‘high-water mark’ of the attempt to reach a guarantee of collective security in Europe between the wars. The map below suggests how the Paris Peace Settlement failed completely to satisfy the needs of Europe. By 1935, not only had the defeated state of Germany openly repudiated the restrictive clauses of the Treaty, but the victor states, recognising that the collective security of the League Covenant was uncertain, reverted to pre-War methods of forming alliances and piling up armaments. Two countries, Italy and Japan, had already undertaken military conquests in defiance of solemn treaty promises. The main causes of these developments were the rise of Nazi Germany and the growth of militant Fascism under Mussolini in Italy. In addition to Hitler’s repudiation of the Treaty of Versailles, one principal development was that Anglo-German Rivalry had reappeared in the German demand for colonial territory.
The 1930s proved to be the most tumultuous decade of the twentieth. The Wall Street Crash of October 1929 had brought the ‘Roaring Twenties’ to a shuddering halt, ushering in the Great Depression and leading to untold economic misery worldwide. International trade dropped by almost half during the next four years, with Britain’s exporting industries slumping still further. The demand for raw materials such as rubber and cotton fell away, so every kind of national economy was affected. But for the Windsors, and especially the Yorks, the first six years of the decade, at least, were a time of peace, calm and celebration. The Duke’s official biographer wrote that it was…
… almost the last span of peace that he was to know and one in which a felicitous balance seemed to have been struck between his arduous duties as a servant of the State and his happy existence as a husband and father.Wheeler-Bennett, p. 251, quoted in Logue, p. 93.
Gradually, the Duke was required to play an increasing role in the day-to-day functioning of the Crown. As well as serving as a Counsellor of State during his father’s illness, he had represented him at a number of royal funerals and weddings during his recovery and had been appointed Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. Other duties, and inevitably more speechmaking, were to follow. There were changes, too, on the domestic front: on 21st August 1930, the Duchess gave birth to their second daughter, Margaret Rose. That September, the Duke wrote to Logue from Glamis Castle, responding to his letter of congratulation on the birth of Princess Margaret:
‘We had a long time to wait but everything went off successfully. My youngest daughter is going on very well and she has got a good pair of lungs. My wife is wonderfully well, so I have no worry on that side. My speech has been quite all right and the worry did not affect it at all.’
In September of the following year, the King gave the ‘York family’ the Royal Lodge in Windsor Great Park as their country home. As they grew up, the two princesses were rapidly turning into media stars. Newspapers and magazines on both sides of the Atlantic were keen to publish stories and photographs of them – and did so, quite often, with the encouragement of the royal family themselves, who realised their publicity value.
Extraordinarily, ‘Lilibet’, as Princess Elizabeth was known in the family, was already considered important enough to earn her a place on the cover of Time magazine on her third birthday, 21st April 1929, even though her father was not then the heir to the throne.
By the end of 1930, unemployment in Britain had more than doubled from one million to 2.5 million, equivalent to one in five of the workforce. It continued rising to three million by 1932 and then never dropped much below the two million mark until the rearmament programme at the end of the decade. For many people, especially in the heavy industry towns of the North of England, Scotland and Wales, unemployment became a permanent way of life, sometimes for whole communities like Jarrow and Merthyr (see the table below). Even the royal family felt the need to make sacrifices and to be seen to do so. These were largely symbolic, however.
The Statute of Westminster, which became Law in 1931, removed every shackle from a Dominion’s sovereign power, with a few small exceptions. It left the Crown as the sole legal link holding together the alliance of these states, which included Australia, New Zealand and Canada. It also provided the basis for the modern Commonwealth of Nations, which eventually replaced the Empire. A debate continued about what the exact rights of the Dominions should be, but one thing that emerged was the tremendous meaning of the Crown. After the war, it acquired far deeper and more intimate meaning for ‘Britons’ overseas. John Buchan wrote (in the year before the death of King George and the abdication crisis of Edward VIII) that:
The journeys of the Prince of Wales, and his powers of charming every class, have brought the royal life into the kindliest contact with their own. When on Christmas Day in recent years the the King has spoken to all his people, his wave-length has been subtly attuned to their hearts. He is not Sovereign nor symbol, but the Head of the Family, who summons his household round the hearth, and commends it to “the Father of Whom every family in heaven or on earth is named”.
Economic & Political Crisis – A Kingly Intervention:
Between Churchill’s return to the Gold Standard in 1925 and the Silver Jubilee celebrations of 1935, the last decade of King George’s life and reign, Britain faced difficult economic, social and political circumstances at home. Unemployment grew, especially during the world economic slump of 1929-33, and it became clear that Britain’s traditional heavy industries had fallen to a level from which they could never recover. In these years, the country sorely needed some other heartening than the obligatory optimism of statesmen.
The worst year in ‘the slump’ for the entire country was 1931 (though for the ‘depressed areas,’ it was 1933, see below). Early in that year, the whole European credit system sustained a near-fatal jolt when the Austrian bank, Kredit Anstalt, failed and had to be shored up with a loan from, among others, the Bank of England. There had been a steady drain of gold from the bank ever since the American loans had ceased to flow into Central Europe. A British Government report had just been published which showed that it was overspending by a hundred and twenty million pounds a year, so when the Bank of England asked New York bankers for a loan, they refused until Britain had taken steps to balance its budget. Without the loan, the Bank would have to default on its obligations, resulting in Britain going off the gold standard. A programme of drastic cuts in Government expenditure was the only alternative, and some senior members of the Cabinet made a plan to reduce the pay of the armed services, civil servants and teachers and to cut unemployment benefits by ten per cent.
This last measure was opposed by more than half the Cabinet. They argued that not only had they failed in carrying out their promise to cut unemployment, but it had increased from one million to almost three million, and it was the least they could do as a Labour Government to continue to go on paying the ‘dole,’ the merest margin between life and starvation. So the Labour Cabinet dug its heels in, and on 24th August, with the entire British economy in crisis, including the Bank of England, MacDonald and the entire Labour Cabinet resigned. But when he went to Buckingham Palace to tender his resignation, the King would not accept it, at least not initially. He had, unusually, a proposal of his own to put to his Prime Minister.
Meanwhile, on 21st August, the King arrived at Balmoral for his annual Scottish holiday; the next day, on hearing that the Government might fall, he returned to London. It was not for him to have any economic policy or preference between those of different parties. The common procedure would have been for MacDonald to resign and give way to the Conservatives. But, as the ‘trustee’ of the nation, the King felt that a national emergency should be faced with a united front. His view was accepted by some of the leading cabinet ministers, and the King invited the Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, to form an emergency National Government comprised of all main parties. This was the first and only time in peacetime Britain that a coalition of all main parties governed, bringing to the task all Britain’s constitutional resources, including those of the monarchy. The day after his journey to the Palace, MacDonald returned to Downing Street to proclaim to his colleagues that he was still PM.
In an emergency budget presented to Parliament on 11th September, the cuts were duly brought in by the Chancellor, Philip Snowden, who had followed MacDonald into the National Government. Income tax was increased by sixpence (2.5%), ten per cent was added to the surtax, a penny was added to the cost of a pint of beer, teachers’ pay was cut by fifteen per cent, and Police and Armed Services’ pay by various drastic cuts. The dole was reduced from seventeen shillings to fifteen and threepence. The King also took action in his own ‘household’ by taking a fifty thousand pound reduction in the Civil List so long as the emergency lasted. For his part, the Duke of York gave up hunting and his stable. He wrote to Ronald Tree, master of the Pytchley Hounds in Northamptonshire, where he had been hunting for the previous two seasons while renting Naseby House:
‘It has come as a great shock to me that with the economy cuts I have had to make, my hunting should have been one of the things I must do without. And I must sell my horses too. This is the worst part of it all, and the parting with them will be terrible.’
On 14th September, matters worsened drastically for the National Government when Atlantic Fleet exercises were cancelled owing to unrest among the sailors because of the cuts to their pay. At Invergordon, the ratings of the warship Valiant and two other ships refused to obey the order to put to sea. It was the politest mutiny ever staged, the men refusing even to admit that it was one: according to them, it was a strike. Nobody was hurt or manhąndled. But for two tense days, the Fleet lay at anchor at Invergordon, men carrying out all ordinary duties but refusing to put to sea. Otherwise, respect for officers was fully maintained. The few ratings who sang ‘The Red Flag’ were considered out of order and behaving in bad taste. Instead, the whole enterprise was carried out to the tune of The more we are together, the merrier we shall be, a popular drinking song and the ratings themselves instituted a ritual of saluting the White Ensign. Their manifesto, a representation of their case to the Admiralty, read:
We, the loyal subjects of His Majesty the King, do hereby present to our Lords the Commissioners of the Admiralty our representation and implore themto amend the drastic cuts in pay which have been inflicted on the lowest-paid men of the lower deck. It is evident to all concerned that these cuts are a fore-runner of tragedy, misery and immorality among the families of the lower deck, and unless a guaranteed written agreement is received from the Admiralty, confirmed by Parliament, stating that our pay will be revised, we are still to remain as one unit, refusing to serve under the new rates of pay. The men are quite agreeable to accept a cut which they consider with reason.
Administrative blundering, the responsibility for which lay with Austen Chamberlain, First Lord of the Admiralty, had brought about this mutiny; sailors had not been told of these cuts or the need for them, and the first news came when some of them went ashore to buy evening newspapers. As one of the ratings told a reporter,
‘We are fighting for our wives and children. The cuts cannot hit us on board ship. We’ve cut out the luxuries long ago. Our wives, after the rent is paid, have no more than a pound. How can they stand a cut of seven and sixpence?’
The Invergordon mutiny caused no great scandal in Britain for the simple reason that it was barely mentioned by the British Press and then only vaguely as some sort of trouble in the Navy. The Admiralty tried to hush up the whole affair, and the result was that only garbled versions and rumours escaped to the foreign press, where they were blown up ten times life-size to suggest an ugly and bloody insurrection. But the Admiralty was sensitive to reaction at home, suggesting that if the British Navy was disaffected, Britain was on the road to ruin. This resulted in another spectacular run on the Bank of England’s gold. No doubt, it was this consideration which prompted the Government to deal so quickly, sensibly and mildly with the mutiny. The ships were ordered to their various home stations, and shortly after, certain cuts were adjusted and/or reduced, restoring the status quo almost at once. Twenty-four ratings were dismissed from the service, but not until some time later.
However, the run on the Bank had been so exhausting for the Cabinet ministers that the Government was now forced to give up the Gold Standard after all. It did not have enough gold to back up its banknotes, and on 20th September, Britain came off the Gold Standard. But the pound, instead of crashing through the floor as had been feared, fell to about seventy-five per cent of its former value, actually improving the foreign trade situation and bringing down unemployment, at least temporarily. But the British bankers’ policy of granting huge loans for foreign investment was one of the causes of the financial crisis; so when German, Austrian and other central European banks collapsed, British investors were unable to get their money back.
The result of the ensuing general election on 27th October showed that the formation of a National Government was also the ‘will of the people.’ Fourteen million people voted for the National Government, and seven million voted to keep a Labour Government. This gave MacDonald the biggest parliamentary majority since the passing of the 1832 Reform Bill, with 554 seats against the rump of 52 for the Labour Opposition and 16 Liberals. The electorate seemed convinced that the Socialists had brought the pound to the verge of disaster. In the Labour Party, there was an uproar against MacDonald, who remained Prime Minister, and the new Cabinet contained four Labour representatives, four conservatives and two Liberals. MacDonald was accused of ‘betraying his class’ and was ostracised by his own party for the rest of his career. But his loyalty to ‘the Nation’ was quite unequivocal. Stanley Baldwin was Lord President of the Council, and after Snowden’s resignation over trade tariffs, Neville Chamberlain became Chancellor of the Exchequer. But not even this cabinet of talented politicians could control the continuing drain on the Bank of England.
As in the war, the King did much by his constant visits to the troubled areas of his kingdom, which now became known as ‘depressed areas.’ His words were always of hope, reminders that Britain had passed through dark days and places before and yet had emerged into the sunlight. Yet the economic crisis of 1931 led directly in December 1931 to a stoppage of work on the five million pound Cunard liner ‘534’, now the ‘Queen Mary’ (pictured above). Designed as the finest, fastest and safest ship ever built, she was to have been launched three months later to make her maiden voyage in 1933. Banks refused to finance construction, and notices were posted in the Clydebank shipyard, where five thousand men suddenly found themselves unemployed. When visiting Glasgow to open a new dock on the Clyde, the King told the assembled people:
“What chiefly encourages me is your present courage and enterprise. At a moment of industrial depression you are steadfastly preparing for the long-hoped-for trade revival. I believe that those who have faith in the future of our nation will not be disapointed, and will reap the full reward of their foresight.
“Two centuries ago Glasgow was the pioneer in the development of trade with North America. … She has been the window from which Scotland especially has looked out upon the world. She has been the port from which Scotsmen have gone forth to colonise and develop new lands. For a century her ships have sailed every ocean, and there are few corners in the world, however remote, where you cannot find a Glasgow engineer.
“It is a great record, but I am convinced that it is not yet ended. There are still new worlds for Glasgow to conquer. … The motto of this great city is ‘Let Glasgow flourish’. When Scotsmen aspire earnestly to a purpose, the purpose is already half accomplished. We shall watch… the fulfilment of that hope.”
But despite these hopeful and sympathetic words, for the unemployed, who had now passed the two million figure, there was a bare subsistence on reduced benefits, tragic idleness, a steady loss of their technical skill, and dulling of mind. Yet, in the very tragedy, there were elements of hope. Symbolic recognition that everyone in Britain belonged, somehow, in the same boat seemed to Orwell not enough. The biggest symbolic gesture of all was made by the King in sending the Prince of Wales back to the mining valleys to express once more his concern at the distress, a public relations move that worked like a charm. But he did not stop there. A problem of such magnitude required a solution using both the energies of the State and the commitment of philanthropic individuals and their charitable trusts. This was partly due to the Prince of Wales’s work, as he stimulated clearer thinking as to how to remake and transform Britain’s whole industrial economy.
The new Government imposed the Means Test. Of all the blows which fell upon the poor and unemployed in the Thirties, this measure was the best calculated to divide the nation and the most bitterly resented. It meant that an unemployed man who had come to the end of his insurance stamps was now at the mercy of a Public Assistance Committee, empowered to enquire into every halfpenny that found its way into his home.
That night, they marched on Parliament with a petition containing a million signatures protesting against the means test. Thousands of onlookers gathered at Westminster, Whitehall and Charing Cross. Fireworks were thrown into the crowds, and a man with an iron bar tried to hit a mounted police officer, pictured below. Parked cars were overturned, windows broken, and fifteen people were injured. The railings of Hyde Park were torn up and found lying on the pavement the next morning. The hunger marchers cost London dearly; apart from police maintenance during their stay and the vandalism caused, the genuine unemployed among them went home by rail at a special rate of three miles a penny.
Yet the mass of the people, whether middle-class or working-class, especially those who had fought in the war, lined up solidly behind the pageantry of the monarchy. George V commanded massive popularity. He was gruff, solid and sensible. Of a member of MacDonald’s Labour Government with whom he became friendly, he was reported to have said:
“If I’d had that man’s childhood I should feel exactly the same as he does.”
In the Thirties, most families were grouped around a ‘wireless’ set in the evenings; it was stimulating, and Sir John Reith made sure that the diet, though somewhat austere and puritanical, was of a highly polished, professional quality. This was especially the case when the King broadcast to the Empire on Christmas Day. These occasions began in 1932 and consisted of a round-up of messages of cheer and goodwill from all over the Empire, known professionally as the round-the-world hook-up, which preceded the King’s talk. The way he spoke directly and with great simplicity to his people made him a father figure. This fatherly image of the king-emperor entered a new dimension altogether with this first radio broadcast, which he delivered with baritone aplomb, as Simon Schama has described it. His image was greatly enhanced by the fact that his Hanoverian origins had given him a classless accent. In another brilliantly conceived gesture, George V made a point of talking directly to the children of Britain:
“Now, children, it is your KING who is talking to you.”
That made them sit up and pay attention!
Another Royal Wedding:
The BBC had also made great strides in the techniques of outside broadcasting, from the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race in early spring to the end of the cricket season in September. London was, self-consciously, an Imperial city, and the BBC, therefore, became a masterly impresario of great state occasions, the first of which was the wedding in 1934 of Prince George, Duke of Kent, to Princess Marina of Greece, who became a leader of British fashion during the Thirties: she gave her name to a hairstyle which became a craze, and her hats were instantly copied for shops in the High Street.
Buchan ended his biographical book, The King’s Grace 1910-1935, with an Epilogue in which he made the observation that Majesty and Grace are in the royal office. There were various forms of monarchy in Europe in the 1930s. Some were elective and temporary or, as in dictatorships, enforced and undefined in length. By comparison, a hereditary monarchy is not only more enduring than such types, but it also has a special quality which they can never win. A monarch who reigns not by election or by a sudden popular impulse but by right has a sanction which no transient dictator or president can claim. A sovereign’s authority is interwoven with their subjects’ life, traditions and views. This should preserve them from the wastefulness of revolution or reaction. The Throne’s occupant must be recognised by their subjects as of similar nature to themselves, exalted, but with the same outlook on life, customs and tastes, staunch and familiar virtues, and shared values. Above all, he or she should be a plain man or woman.
The office in itself is a great thing, but it may be made more potent by the personality of the monarch who holds it. They may add a graciousness that springs from their own character to the Crown’s duties. They possess a high seriousness, and the note of faith and piety which they have often struck is not the mere convention of their office. They have walked securely in more difficult circumstances than their immediate predecessors and courageously faced crises that imperilled their people and Throne. In addition to all this, they have diffused a spirit of simplicity and charity, which has profoundly affected the national mood. When nerve was breaking, their steadfastness restored it, and when strife was fermenting, they have spoken a healing word. Buchan concludes his ‘Epilogue’ with these final memorable words:
The power of the Throne lies in what it is: but the authority of the King lies in what he is, and in what he has done. With the Queen and his family to aid him, he has made Britain not only a nation, but a household.
Leadership does not consist only in a strong man imposing his will upon others. In that sense it has no meaning for a British Sovereign. But in a far profounder sense the King has shown himself a leader, since the true task of leadership is not to put greatness into humanity, but to elicit it, since the greatness is already there. That truth is the basis of all religion, it is the only justification for democracy, it is the chart and compass of our mortal life. The King has led his people, for he has evoked what is best in them.
The Silver Jubilee of George V:
In 1935, King George V had been on the throne for twenty-five years. He was, by then, a genuine father figure: people felt that they and he had weathered some terrible storms together, so, in 1935, it was decided to make a fuss of King George. The Silver Jubilee was orchestrated in much the same spirit of democratic monarchism as the ceremonials of the previous twenty-five years. On the day of the Silver Jubilee itself, Their Majesties drove in procession to St Paul’s for a thanksgiving service and received loyal addresses from the Houses of Parliament. London was floodlit, something quite new; there were flags and banners everywhere, and the King later wrote in his diary that it was…
… the greatest number of people in the streets that I have ever seen in my life.
The people on the streets of London…
On the way to St Paul’s, at Temple Bar, the boundary of the City of London, the Royal Carriage of State was held up at the point of a sword in accordance with ancient custom. In 1642, Charles I violated parliamentary liberties by entering the House of Commons to seize five members to stand trial for treason. They took refuge in the City, and when Charles II came to the throne at the Restoration in 1660, it was laid down that the Sovereign should never cross the boundaries except by permission of the Lord Mayor. The picture below shows the Lord Mayor, then Sir Stephen Killick, whose face is partly reflected in the side of the carriage, handing the hilt of the sword to the King, who then honours it by grasping it before handing it back so that the procession is able to continue into the city to St Paul’s Cathedral.
After the service, the royal couple toured the East End boroughs of London in an open motor Landau, where they received, to the King’s great surprise, an overwhelmingly affectionate and enthusiastic welcome. He is reported to have said:
“I am beginning to think they must like me for myself”.
Still stunned at the adulation of the public, George continued to wonder out loud why he was so popular since he was just an ordinary fellow. This, as an equerry was quick to assure him, was precisely the point.
The celebrations were sincere and heartfelt, and most of Their Majesties’ subjects would have been very willing to return to the earlier, simpler Britain of which the Royal Family reminded them. George was loved by his people as a man of simple tastes, fond of the sea and pre-eminent in the annual slaughter of pheasants and partridges on his Sandringham Estate in Norfolk. Gruff and sensible, he was very much more to the taste of the British people than any man of ideas or imagination could have been in this position, and in some ways, he was seen as a bulwark against such people. He fitted exactly into the myth of the good old squire who would look after his people, and his Christmas broadcasts had clinched that impression.
If George V was unmistakably royal, Queen Mary was regal. Tall and impressive and very dignified, she had the royal attribute of appearing to be the one fixed point in a reeling universe. Her skirts had remained ankle-length, and she wore a splendid kind of hat called a ‘toque’ which was neither fashionable nor unfashionable but simply outside of all such considerations. The Queen was a woman of considerable taste, and her personal raids on the art and antique shops were famous. Both the monarch and his Queen Consort were supremely good at their jobs.
With just a few more months to live, the normally gruff and taciturn monarch continued to talk and talk as well as make more formal speeches. Most notable among the latter was the one written for him by G. M. Trevelyan, which represented the empire as one great ‘family’, the ultimate progeny of the great and glorious, unwritten and immemorial British Constitution.
Sad Stories of the Death of the King:
Ever since George V’s illness in 1928, there had been concerns about his health: a renewal of his bronchial trouble in February 1935 necessitated a period of recuperation at Eastbourne. The King had recovered sufficiently to take a full part in his Silver Jubilee in May when he appeared to have been genuinely surprised at the enthusiastic welcome he was given by the crowds. When he appeared at Spithead that July to review the Fleet, many onlookers were convinced that he would go on to reign for several more years. But his improvement was relative and temporary. He had just celebrated his seventieth birthday, was ailing, and after he returned from Balmoral that autumn, those closest to him noticed a serious deterioration in his health. The death of his younger sister, Princess Victoria, early in the morning of 3 December came as a tremendous blow, and for once, his overwhelming sense of public duty faltered when he cancelled the State Opening of Parliament. He went to Sandringham that Christmas for the usual celebrations and made his broadcast to the Empire, but listeners could detect the deterioration in his voice.
On the evening of 15 January 1936, the King once more took to his bedroom at Sandringham, complaining of a cold; he would never leave the room alive again. He became gradually weaker, drifting in and out of consciousness. ‘I feel rotten,’ he wrote in his diary, his last recorded entry. On the evening of the 20th (see above), his doctors, led by Lord Dawson of Penn, issued a bulletin with the words that were to become famous: ‘The King’s life is moving peacefully towards its close.’ This statement was broadcast to the country and the empire at 9:25 by the BBC’s chief announcer, Stuart Hibberd’s golden voice, so that the people could be well prepared for his death, which was then hastened along by Dawson, who admitted in his medical notes, made public over half a century later, that he had administered a lethal injection of cocaine and morphine.
It seems this was done to prevent further suffering for the patient and strain on the family but also to ensure that the death could be announced in the morning edition of The Times rather than ‘the less appropriate evening journals.’ The newspaper was advised to hold its edition by Dawson’s wife in London, whom the doctor had tipped off by telephone. It duly obliged and was rewarded when A Peaceful Ending at Midnight was rolled off as its headline the next morning. At five minutes to midnight, King George died. Queen Mary turned from his bedside to kiss the hand of the new Sovereign, her son David, now to be known as Edward VIII.
David, now Edward VIII, and his brother, George Albert, the Duke of York, were grief-stricken, especially Bertie, who had grown closer to his father as David had grown apart from him. The consequences for both of their lives were dramatic. Although he was already carrying out his fair share of royal duties, Bertie had hitherto remained in the background. With his elder brother’s accession to the throne, since David had no children, he was elevated to become the heir presumptive, which meant that he had to take over many of the activities Edward had hitherto carried out as Prince of Wales. Marion ‘Crawfie’ Crawford, nanny to his children, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, commented:
‘All we at 145 Piccadilly knew in the schoolroom was that all of a sudden we saw much less of handsome golden-headed David. There were fewer occasions when he dropped by for a romp with his nieces.’
In the House of Commons, Clement Attlee, the new Labour leader (since 1935), gave tribute to the late King:
“History affords many examples of rulers who failed, of thrones which were overturned because their occupants stubbornly set themselves against the march of events. King George succeeded where others failed because he was a democrat. He was a supreme exponent of the art of constitutional Kingship. He knew and understood his people and the age in which they lived, and progressed with them. … The right to vote has been given to practically every man and woman of full age. The franchise now depends on citizenship and not on the ownership of property. The power of the Upper House has been diminished. King George accepted it as a necessary and just consequence of modern conditions.
“The duties of Kingship have had to be reinterpreted with the passing years. King George showed an incomparable understanding of what is required of a King in the modern world. … just when scientific invention has enabled, for the first time, so many citizens of the Commonwealth to hear for themselves the voice of the King, we… have had on the the throne a man who set before the nation ideals of peace, justice and service. We have seen the end of a noble life, a life devoted to the service of humanity. In the long roll of British Sovereigns none will, I think, take a higher place than King George.”Source: C. R. Attlee (1954), As It Happened, pp. 83-5.
The Official Biographer – Harold Nicolson’s Postscript:
Harold Nicolson (1886-1968), George V’s official biographer, was a renowned politician, historian, diarist, journalist and broadcaster. Having lost the Croydon by-election (above), he was considering giving up on politics and was, therefore, looking for a fresh writing or publishing venture. On 3 June 1948, Nicolson was given an opportunity to generate a substantial income when he was invited to write the official biography of George V. In doubt as to whether he would be given a free hand, especially since Queen Mary was still alive, he held back for a few days and then telephoned the Palace. Sir Alan ‘Tommy’ Lascelles, George VI’s private secretary and a close friend of Harold’s, humoured him:
‘I should not be expected to write one word that isn’t true. I should not be expected to praise or exaggurate. But I must omit things and incidents which were discreditable. I could say this in the Preface if it would ease my mind’.Quoted in Norman Rose (2005), p. 279
After a few more days of indecision, Nicolson accepted. George V occupied Harold for the next three years, during which time he wrote little about foreign affairs, including the Korean War, the pivotal international event of the 1950s until the Suez Crisis. He was granted full access to the King’s papers in the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle. He worked there from April 1949 to August 1951. The contemporary nature of the book caused him to alter his methodology. As a rule, he would prepare his notes in chronological order and, once satisfied, would begin writing. Now, anxious to interview the surviving witnesses, including Queen Mary (who died in 1952), he began virtually at the end of the King’s reign, with the 1931 Crisis that led to the formation of the National Government.
On re-reading what he had already written, he resolved to slide more from my early chirrupy overture into a wider and more solemn note. His ‘gift,’ he thought, ‘is to explain things at length and convey atmosphere.’ But his wife, Vita Sackville-West, one of the most famous writers of the day, thought that ‘the austerity with which you have imposed upon yourself is slightly overdone.’ She advised him to stitch in a ‘few bright flowers here and there.’ The final draft of George V was ready on 19 September 1951. George VI approved, as did Queen Mary, who said, ‘They have done it so beautifully, so dignified.’ Harold remarked that he had enjoyed it immensely and that It had been a most congenial task, though, for Eddy Sackville-West’s benefit, he drew a less favourable pen portrait of George V:
Of course, he was a Philistine in many ways, and in many ways a harsh Naval Officer.
Clearly, Harold did not find the late King intellectually stimulating and remarked that he found his writing no better than that of a railway porter, while his diaries, a major source for Harold, were pure pastiche. Addicted to shooting and philately, as Duke of York, he did nothing but kill animals and stick in stamps. Other aspects of George’s lifestyle were far removed from Harold’s. York Cottage on the Sandringham estate was George’s preferred residence, but Harold saw it as ‘a glum little villa indistinguishable from those of any Surbiton or Upper Norwood home.’
Harold claimed unreservedly not to harbour any mystical feelings about the Monarchy and to regard it simply as a useful institution. But this was not completely true. Hugh Trevor-Roper, Regius Professor of History at Oxford University, told his son Nigel (pictured above) that he hadn’t read the book and, perhaps sensing its tone, added that I don’t waste my time reading Royal hagiography. At the time, Nigel thought that response was ‘pretty Bad’, but in later correspondence with ‘Tommy’ Lascelles, and after he had just finished editing three volumes of his father’s diaries, he wrote:
‘People reading his diaries will be astonished to find that the hagiography, which is an accepted part of royal biography, should have mesmerised his mind.’
Evidently, Harold identified with the institution of monarchy, taking it for granted as God-given if not pre-ordained. In his biography of George V, he set out to answer two questions: How does a monarchy function in a modern state?; and to what extent were the powers of the Monarchy diminished or increased during the twenty-five years of King George’s reign? The first question he answered satisfactorily through his powerful narrative content and style. On the second question, Nicolson was more non-committal, allowing the readers to make up their own minds. He does, however, conclude that the King did not breach constitutional precedents or principles when dealing with the three great political crises of his reign: the constitutional crisis in parliament of 1910-11; the replacement of Bonar Law with Baldwin in 1923; the events leading to the formation of the National Government in 1931.
The biography was published on 14 August 1952 to huge acclaim. Widely praised for its scholarship and style, it sold ten thousand copies within a fortnight and nearly twenty-five thousand by June 1953. ‘My life’s work is finished,’ he asserted, ‘never have I witnessed such a chorus of praise.’ He expected ‘the counter-attack to begin shortly,’ but it never did. Nancy Mitford, the novelist, called it ‘the very best biography of any English King’, and G. M. Trevelyan thought it Harold’s ‘best book and to me his most interesting.’ Harold didn’t agree – he placed it third. As a reward for George V’s success, however, he was dubbed a Knight Commander of the Victorian Order (KVCO).
(to be continued).