A Very Ordinary Person
Society reserves a spotlight for them unlike any it shines on other celebrities: they are the royal House of Windsor – famous, powerful, fabulously wealthy, revered, scorned, romanticized, vilified, and even taken for granted. Their gaudy, moving spectacle has played out alongside the entire 20th century – and continues into the 21st. In this year-long feature, we’ll examine the lives of the men and women whose stories comprise a Year with the Windsors.
The official coronation portrait of King George VI
by Sir Gerald Kelly, R. A., says a great deal about the king – all of it bad. He looks boyishly young
and vulnerable, eyes goggle-popped in barely-suppressed terror over his new life, gaunt body nearly lost in the folds of his robes and cloaks,
bony hand grasping the unconvincingly phallic scepter that rests propped against his body. His skinny legs are decked in hose and garters, his hand-on-hip pose looks overcompensating; the brilliant, day-lit marble all around him seems
ready crush the life out of him at any minute. It’s possible that Kelly was not being sly about all of
this: he may have meant the royal trappings to bolster the man, rather than undercut him. But pictures notoriously speak for themselves, and viewers of this one could be forgiven for seeing a new king who was most certainly not up to the job.
George VI in 1936 would have agreed completely. In one of the close parallels that seem to be a trademark of the House of Windsor, a younger son expecting to cheer from the sidelines was suddenly propelled to the throne. In the case of George V, the cause was physical illness: his brother Prince Eddy took sick one winter and, in an age before antibiotics, quickly died, leaving George V to inherit both the crown and the intended queen. His second son, Prince Albert (known to the family as “Bertie”), grew up even more certain than his father had been that he would be allowed a measure of peace and normality, free to live out his days as Duke of York while his brother, the glamorous and charming King Edward VIII, ruled the empire. Edward VIII had been one of the most popular Princes of Wales in modern memory, the toast of five continents, and he talked much of redefining the monarchy for the new century, modernizing the family business to suit modern times.
He also talked much of his paramour, the twice-divorced American arriviste, Mrs. Wallis Simpson – specifically, of his intention to marry her and make her his Queen. When his ministers confronted him with the flat impossibility of such a thing, Edward VIII threatened abdication, although his actions (then and after) betrayed a man who ultimately never expected his bluff to be called. It was, and he went. Bertie, a long-time Naval officer with no court or government preparation whatsoever (and a crippling stammer besides), was stunned. By his own account, when he broached the subject with his mother Queen Mary, he wept like a baby (when she recorded her eldest son’s stunning decision in her diary, she used not one, not two, but four exclamation points, signaling an unprecedented lack of amusement). The subject caused him to weep on at least four other occasions as well, and in a letter to one of his father’s old councilors, he wrote, “If the worst happens & I have to take over, you can be assured that I will do my best to clear up the inevitable mess, if the whole fabric does not crumble under the shock and strain of it all.” Hardly an auspicious beginning.
In 1958 the new King’s first (and still most eloquent) biographer, John Wheeler-Bennett, wrote:
Common sense and human understanding, great personal integrity, combined with a deep humility, a keen sense of public service, moral and physical courage above the ordinary, and as sincere recognition of dependence upon the grace and guidance of Almighty God were the outstanding qualities which King George VI brought to his high office.
This was very kind of Wheeler-Bennett (who was writing an official biography with great crowds of the King’s family and friends still living), but most of it could be applied equally to any of the family’s labrador retrievers. The new monarch had no choice but to lean rather heavily on the Almighty, since he otherwise had no idea what he was doing, being the first to admit he was ‘overwhelmed.’ Edward VIII on his ascension had personal relations with all the crowned heads of Europe, and George V at least had been his brother’s confidante. Thanks to Edward VIII’s infatuation with Mrs. Simpson, the man who would become George VI had recently been estranged from the brother he so admired and supported. As a result, he had less practical preparation than any recent monarch since Queen Victoria, and his feckless brother merely tossed him a cabled “best of luck,” like he was handing over the keys to a weekend vacation lodge.
Bertie took the throne in Westminster Abbey on 12 May 1937 in a Coronation ceremony that had been designed and planned for his brother, and as Sarah Bradford writes in her warm and sympathetic 1989 biography, “The family ghost at the feast was, of course, the Duke of Windsor. The first monarch to listen to his successor’s Coronation, he sat beside the radio at the borrowed Chateau de Cande in Touraine, knitting a dark blue sweater for Wallis.” (This distracting specter was counter-balanced by another: in a breach of royal protocol – and a subtly dramatic repudiation of Edward VIII – Queen Mary attended her second son’s coronation). Representatives of all the world’s royalty attended the week of celebrations that followed – the kings and queens of the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Greece, Denmark, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Italy, Romania, and Albania sent their envoys, as did the emperors of Japan, Iran, and Ethiopia. Hardly noticed in this gaudy crowd were emissaries from the Third Reich.
Coronation of George VI
The King and his Queen settled into their duties (the first of which was to create the former Edward VIII as the Duke of Windsor), and in 1937 George VI greeted his new Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain. The world could no longer overlook the Third Reich, and by the time the royal couple embarked on a long tour of North America in 1939, the horizon was darkening over Europe. George VI was the first reigning monarch to visit Canada, and he and his wife were given rapturous welcomes in their progress. Their popularity was if anything greater when they subsequently became the first British monarchs to visit the United States, where the king’s great-great-great-great grandfather George III played the role of villain in the national mythology. Before returning home, George VI met with President Franklin Roosevelt, who was impressed by the King’s studious preparation on all subjects and assumed a quasi-paternal role in their conversations, to which the King was not averse. Their talk was of war.
Chamberlain back in England was still working for peace, and all throughout his byzantine negotiations with Adolf Hitler, he had the unwavering support of his king, who was willing to do almost anything to avoid a return to the horrors of the First World War (in which he had served in the Navy, including being present at the Battle of Jutland). Additionally prompted by his fatherly worry for his two teenage daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, George VI offered to send a personal note to Hitler, one ex-serviceman to another, urging peace (his councilors rejected the idea for fear that Hitler would publish the letter and add a mocking response). His efforts were beset with obstacles, not all of them foreign. For two years, the work of the King’s ministers in striking a tough but balanced tone with Germany had been systematically undercut by the treasonous speeches of the Duke of Windsor, including one urging conciliation with Germany, made while the King and Queen were heading to America partly in an attempt to woo the United States into a closer alliance in the event of war. By this point the King was paying the bulk of his brother’s expenses, but this didn’t stop the Duke from trying to position himself as the Germans’ natural choice to install on the English throne, in the event that they should conquer the country, publicly execute his brother, and need a quisling king. The Duke was packed off to govern the Bahamas for the duration of the war.
The Second World War was the gravest peril to befall England since the Spanish Armada, and the key players shifted into place with almost chesslike precision: Chamberlain resigned and died, and the King summoned his obvious successor Winston Churchill in May, asking him puckishly “I suppose you don’t know why I have sent for you?” and receiving an equally sly response, “Sir, I simply couldn’t imagine why.” Churchill formed a war cabinet and took to the airwaves to inspire the nation, but inspiration came in equal measure from the fact that the nation’s King did not absent himself or his family from danger. The starkness of this decision was brought home to all concerned when the King and Queen very narrowly escaped death on 13 September 1940 after Buckingham Palace was bombed (the King believed the pilot – who broke formation, flew up the Mall, and struck the Palace with abnormal precision – had been specifically instructed on his target, and the King suspected his exiled brother of complicity, but he never voiced that suspicion outside his family).
Throughout the war years, the King – lank and haggard in his Admiral of the Fleet uniform – was palpably present for his subjects. “Thank God for a good king!” they shouted when he visited bombed buildings or municipal shelters; “Thank God for a good people!” he shouted back. Visitors to Buckingham Palace and Windsor noticed the lights on in the King’s study late into the night. Churchill and George VI forged a close working partnership, and in the darkest days of the Blitz, the King practiced his marksmanship and vowed to lead a guerrilla resistance movement in the event of a Nazi invasion.
That invasion never came – help arrived instead. Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into the war, and suddenly the covert material aid Roosevelt’s government had been providing for years came to center-stage and changed the face of the conflict. “Give us the tools, and we will finish the job,” Churchill had notoriously bombasted, but the swelling American forces were partners in full; the tide of the war inexorably turned, and on V-E day, the 8th of May 1945, the King invited his Prime Minister to join him on the balcony of Buckingham Palace to receive the cheers of the crowd. Churchill wasn’t the only person that day to notice how worn and ashen George VI appeared.
The stage was rapidly changing its players once again. President Roosevelt, who’d been something of a father figure (albeit a frustrating one) to the King, had died in the war’s final hours and been replaced by Harry Truman, a politician of a very different stamp. The King met briefly with Truman aboard the U.S.S. Augusta as it passed through Plymouth Sound in August of 1945. The two men discussed the atomic bomb Truman was determined to unleash against Japan, a subject on which Truman found the King remarkably well informed (when Truman’s Admiral Leahy commented that the bomb, some professor’s day-dream, would never have any practical applications, George VI said, “Would you like to lay a little bet on that, Admiral?”). In July of 1945, George VI had been stunned when Winston Churchill himself was resoundingly voted out of office by the nation he had done so much to save, ushering in a Labour government under Clement Attlee. “We have it on the authority of Pericles,” Wheeler-Bennett writes, “that men rarely adhere to the same views during the course of war which they held upon entering it.” “I shall miss your counsel to me more than I can say,” he wrote the departing PM, and he gingerly began dealing with Attlee – and the postwar world he represented.
One of the signature facts of that postwar world was clear even before the radioactive dust had settled on Hiroshima and Nagasaki: after a run of nearly 600 years, England’s days in the first rank of world powers were coming to an end. Its enormous empire had become a Commonwealth, and in 1947 the King’s government sent his cousin Lord Mountbatten to the former “jewel in the crown,” India, in order to act as its last Viceroy and smoothly transfer autonomy. On the 15th of August George VI removed ‘emperor’ from his long list of titles. In November of the same year he watched his eldest daughter get married in Westminster Abbey. He wrote to her that evening:
Considering the fact that the King had chain-smoked his way through half a decade of sleepless nights during the Second World War (and given the knock-kneed Windsor constitution which he inherited to the last molecule), it was unlikely that everything was all right, and in September of 1951 George VI, suffering from lung cancer (though nobody revealed this to him), had his left lung resected. By mid-October he could write to Queen Mary, “So I am getting stronger & can walk to the bathroom. It will take some time for me to recover from the ordeal I have been through.” (At the time, Queen Mary was 84 years old and hadn’t had a day of poor health since the Battle of Agincourt).
I was so proud and thrilled at having you so close to me on our long walk in Westminster Abbey but when I handed your hand to the Archbishop, I felt I had lost something very precious. You were so calm and composed during the Service and said your words with such conviction, that I knew everything was all right.
By mid-October he was also chain-smoking again, so it’s not surprising that he couldn’t, as he put it, “chuck out the bug.” On the 6th of February, 1952, while Princess Elizabeth and her husband were in East Africa, the King died in his sleep. “Never at any moment,” his friend Churchill (now Prime Minister again) wrote, “in all the perplexities at home and abroad, in public or in private, did he fail in his duties; well does he deserve the farewell salute of all his governments and peoples.”
For three days the King’s body lay in state in Westminster Hall while hundreds of thousands of his staggered subjects filed past the dais to pay their respects. Many thousands of them remembered being personally encouraged by him during the days of the Blitz when they had lost everything. Churchill left a wreath with a card on which he had written simply “For Valour.” On the fourth night, when the public at last had gone, members of the royal family stepped from the sidelines and approached the oak coffin, Queen Mary unbending, a statue of almost unthinkable endurance (the following day, as the funeral cortege bearing the King to Windsor passed Queen Mary’s residence at Marlborough House, she stood in her sitting room window and raised one black-clad arm in a farewell gesture of medieval starkness; the royals in the entourage paused, turned to her, and saluted in silence), the new Queen, bright and supple in that place of death, the former King Edward VIII, old now too, going down on one knee before the brother he had so afflicted, and last Queen Elizabeth, who stayed alone with her husband until the chimes of midnight.
Encomiums flowed in from every part of the world, and countless superlatives were in death showered on this man who in life had been their least likely recipient. “I am only a very ordinary person,” he had written when still Duke of York, and it’s the dramatic twist of this brief reign that such an ordinary person occupied the throne during the most extraordinary period in his nation’s history. The epic events of the day seemed to call for an Edward III or a Henry V to match them, instead of this faint-voiced reedy family man who throughout his reign seemed vaguely embarrassed at being king.
Fortunately, during those epic events, the nation got just such a monarch – only it wasn’t George VI.
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Columbia Journal of American Studies, Historical Novel Review Online, The Washington Post, The National and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.