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.
On the night of July 16, 1917, a guard woke the sleeping family in the middle of the night, warning that insurgent forces were within a few days of taking the city. The family was to dress quickly; they would be taken to a waiting room and then moved by truck to a safer location. When they were dressed and semi-awake, they proceeded downstairs – the handsome father first, with his son and heir, sick and weak, carried in his arms, and his wife and daughters trailing behind. They waited a few minutes in the bleak little brick-walled room, and then their guard suddenly marched in with all his men behind him and briskly announced, “Your relatives have tried to save you, but they have failed. In consequence, we must now shoot you all.” The father, a soft but not a cowardly man, stared, incredulous. “What?” he said. “What do you mean?” “I mean this!” his guard half-shouted, raising his pistol and firing point-blank at the man’s chest. The large-bore bullet blew open his rib cage and atomized his heart, and he fell back almost on top of his staring son, who froze with terror. Then the guards opened fire, filling the little room with smoke and thunder. When the initial volley quieted, the guards were amazed to find some of the daughters still alive – it would later be revealed that they had sewn some of their precious diamonds into their clothing to make it easier to smuggle them out of the country, and the gems had deflected some of the bullets. The girls were shot in their faces, to make certain, and the bodies were taken away in a truck and buried in unmarked ground. The tide of violent Bolshevism and popularist socialism had claimed another group of illustrious victims: King Edward IX of England and his family were dead.
Such was the dream of more than a few loyal Englishmen as social unrest gained strength and momentum in the second decade of the 20th century. These men – and their activist sponsors abroad – saw the royal family as the most egregious of social parasites, living in splendor and idleness while the teeming majority of their people worked and starved. The man who suffered that shooting along with his family in a basement room in Ekaterinburg was Czar Nicholas II, first cousin to the English throne (his mother was the king’s aunt), whose rule as Emperor of Russia had been ended by a popularist uprising he had, in hindsight, done a great deal to exacerbate. He was an oblivious, entitled monarch of a very old stamp and vintage, the kind who traveled always in his own Forbidden City of aides, servants, courtiers, and mystics. Elaborate ceremony was upkept to reinforce his majesty, and equally elaborate buffer zones were in place to prevent his insular world from being disturbed by the daily lives of his people.
Such monarchs fared poorly in the chaos unleashed by the First World War, and all such monarchs were vulnerable. England, the land of Oliver Cromwell as much as of Richard the Lion-Heart, was no exception. The monarch who should have been sitting on the English throne in 1917 when the Czar was killed was old King Edward VII’s successor, the Duke of Clarence and Avondale, Prince Eddy – a lazily entitled young man very much in the mold of Nicholas II. Prince Eddy had been the heir presumptive for his entire life, the bland recipient of exceptional treatment in everything he did; with his expensive tastes in food and wine, his incessant interest in costume and pageantry, and his all but complete ignorance of the people he would one day rule, he was the epitome of the kind of useless royal relic social agitators argued England would be better off without. It’s difficult to imagine he would have handled the staccato cataclysms of the 20th century with any kind of skill or flexibility.
In 1892 that question was mooted when Prince Eddy unexpectedly died, but another question rose instantly in its place: what kind of king would his younger brother Prince George make? Never expecting to reign, the young man had undertaken a career in the Royal Navy and was slowly rising through its ranks when suddenly his life changed forever. In 1892 he had married Princess May of Teck (the young woman who’d come to England to marry his late brother), and the two of them, as Duke and Duchess of York, retired to a quiet life at York Cottage on the grounds of the royal Sandringham estate, where George shot a prodigious amount of game and May – called Mary by her English public – produced a brace of healthy children (and one not so, sweet-natured little Prince John, who was epileptic and died young): David, Albert, Henry, George, and Mary. This quiet, almost cloistered existence was lost when old King Edward died in 1910 and King George V and Queen Mary ascended to the throne.
King George, with no political training, virtually no formal education, and an often deep Navy-trained dislike of frippery, was thus thrust into a larger world whose mounting crises would have challenged even an old master like Edward VII. In fact, the first test the new king faced was a constitutional crisis so pernicious the old king had only finally escaped it by dying: Liberal Prime Minister H. H. Asquith had introduced his “People’s Budget” with the intent of creating such novel measures as old age pensions and the first steps toward socialized medicine – and with the intent of imposing new taxes on the country’s oldest and most landed wealth to pay for those measures. Asquith and his colleagues (including Winston Churchill) proclaimed their main goal as giving relief to the poor and destitute, but their “People’s Budget” would also have taken a scythe to the power of the House of Lords, populated as it was by the very same landed gentry who would pay those new taxes. Naturally, the House of Lords vetoed the budget.
For centuries, money-related bills had been the semi-officially recognized purview of the House of Commons, and so a battle was begun between elected politicians and hereditary landed aristocracy, with the Crown caught squarely in the middle. In order for Asquith and his colleagues to force their budget through the House of Lords, they had to first pack the House of Lords, filling it with enough new peers to swamp their opponents. It was the King who had the power to create those peers – but at the cost of making a mockery of the House of Lords, filling its ranks with trumped-up new men entirley beholden to political brokers. When the Prime Minister went to him and asked for his guarantee to do just that if the forthcoming special election made it necessary, George, seeing no alternative, bitterly agreed. In the end, the mere knowledge of those guarantees was sufficient: the House of Lords passed the Parliament Bill nullifying its own power rather than compromise its own nature. In addition to being a harbinger of future trends, the whole crisis was one hell of a baptism by fire for the new king.
More crises were to follow. “I seem never to get any peace in the world,” the King once grumbled, nor could he get any peace in his own kingdom. Social activism was on the rise everywhere, women were agitating for the vote in unprecedented numbers, proponents of Irish Home Rule were so numerous and so powerful they could affect national elections (and opponents could threaten civil war in Ulster if Home Rule were given royal assent), and even the citizens of India, where the new King-Emperor was given a dazzling coronation, were growing restless for their independence.
In short, the new king was no sooner crowned than the lunging, fractious 20th century came clawing its way out of the dead husk of the nineteenth, and like many newborn predators, it was both hungry and unpredictable. When a disgruntled young nationalist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, no statesman or news-watcher thought it a signal for alarm, and yet within weeks the First World War had begun – and in addition to claiming over 16 million lives, the war would also claim thrones, including those of two of King George’s cousins, Kaiser Wilhelm and Czar Nicholas.
It came closer to claiming his own than perhaps seems believable now. As the war wore on, anti-German sentiment in the capital and in the country rose to an intolerant pitch. Dachshunds were kicked in the street; German businesses were vandalized; and suddenly it wasn’t just radical editorialists who were noticing that the King’s own family were as German as the soldiers shooting and killing British young men on the fields of France every day. H.G. Wells made the acid comment about the “alien and uninspiring court,” to which the King grumbled in response, “I may be uninspiring, but I’ll be damned if I’m alien” – a retort with a double barrel of truth in it, and yet in response to the public mood the King did something that would never have occurred to the Kaiser and never have been suggested to the Czar: he agreed to change his family’s name. To most of his subjects, his “Saxe-Coburg Gotha” didn’t sound any different from the Kaiser’s “Hohenzollern.”
Several possibilities were put forward (including, rather hilariously, “Tudor-Stewart”), each unacceptable. It was Arthur Bigge, Lord Stamfordham, George’s trusted secretary, who came up with “Windsor” – a perfectly English-sounding (and Shakespeare-sanctioned) name which the King then proclaimed would characterize his family henceforth: on 17 July, 1917, the House of Windsor had officially been born. Canny David Lloyd George, Prime Minister during the war, had seen at once the political advantages to be reaped from even such cosmetic changes, but he was also quick to acknowledge the deeper qualities of the royal family; “They’re simple, very, very ordinary people,” he realized, crucially adding, “and perhaps on the whole that’s how it should be.”
The King himself stressed that quality constantly. “I am a very ordinary fellow,” he often said, and he drove his handlers to despair by demonstrating it. He cared nothing for most expressions of art – paintings, stage plays, music, opera left him almost frantically uninterested. The byzantine workings of foreign courts and countries, which had so endlessly fascinated his cosmopolitan father, both bored and irritated him. He had only the most rudimentary and laboriously-learned command of any languages (wags might include English in that description, but certainly he had mastered that tongue’s expletives), and his taste in clothing, household decoration, and family behavior was blandly and unchangingly conservative. His broiling temper – never particularly controlled under the best of circumstances – regularly got the better of him when he perceived lapses in due protocol. Conscientious ministers were loudly rebuked for wearing incorrect waistcoats; duchesses of far older lineage than his own were reprimanded for incorrect state dress and made to grovel in apology; his own children faced his furious, basilisk stare if they were even a few minutes late for breakfast (this stare caused one tardy – and very hungover – young son to faint dead away, to the suppressed cheers of his brothers).
George V has been characterized by his biographers as an emotionally remote father, someone who might think it right that since he himself grew up afraid of his father, his own children should grow up afraid of him, someone who might bark at a son just returned from a world cruise “Late as usual!” This portrayal has most recently been immortalized in the Oscar-winning movie “The King’s Speech,” and yet there’s ample evidence for the opposite impression conclusion. The King’s letters to his sons are peppered with admonitions, yes, but they also glow with involvement and affection, and his interactions with his beloved granddaughter Elizabeth were unabashedly joyful (he loved to play with her, and she called him “Grandpapa England”). The King could be excessively punctilious, yes, but he could be gracious too, especially in moments a more intelligent man would have begrudged. His welcome to the country’s first Labour ministry was heartfelt despite the horror he felt at the prospect; he could receive his politicians in a silk dressing gown and slippers (during recovery from one of the many illnesses that plagued his later years) rather than shirk his duty; when one of those politicians referred to striking workers during the General Strike of 1926 as revolutionaries, this protocol-obsessed king didn’t hesitate to respond, “Try living on their wages before you judge them.”
King George’s sense of the crown’s entitlements was rigid precisely because the crown was never supposed to be his; his sense of his office was exalted in inverse proportion to how he exalted himself. His father, long trained for the throne and long denied it, completely embodied kingship when it finally came to him (when an eager man once interrupted Edward VII in conversation, the King said “I don’t believe I spoke to you” in tones so quiet and polite that the whole group was terrified into silence). His son’s case was the reverse: kingship sought him out, and throughout its rigors he clung to the ordinary life it supplanted.
“The characteristic advantage of a constitutional king” Walter Bagehot wrote, “is the permanence of his place. This gives him the opportunity of acquiring a consecutive knowledge of complex transactions, but it gives only the opportunity. The king must use it.” This idea of the monarch as a passive repository of accumulated ruling knowledge would have struck Queen Victoria as odd; it would have struck King Edward VII as quite out of the question; but it has been the guiding principle of the House of Windsor, and it got its rough and awkward trial period at the hands of George V. The constitutional monarch has “the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, and the right to warn” – but not to orchestrate, exclude, insist, or scheme: an incredibly fine distinction into which the whole of a personal rule must somehow be made to fit. In King George the British Royals began to understand that distinction; the House of Windsor owes its existence to the King’s willingness to learn it.
This was the king who famously chided Gandhi (whom he privately called a “rebel fakir”), “Now, I’ll have no attacks on my empire!” But after the Labour government was elected in 1929, a courtier remarked somewhat wistfully, “We must recognise that Democracy is no longer a meaningless sort of shibboleth; with the enormous increase of voters by the women’s franchise it is the actual voice, for better or worse, the political voice of the State.” And when it came time for this recognition, George V embraced it: when the 1931 Statute of Westminster granted independent status to the various dominions of the crown, the King was dutifully vocal in his support of this transformation of his kingdom into a far-flung commonwealth stretching from Nova Scotia to New Delhi. No British king had ever seen such a transformation of the very thing he was ruling, and for all King George’s faults, any impartial observer would have to say it could all have been done much worse – or failed to be done at all.
Those faults were manifest, of course. The most grievous may well have been the King’s pusillanimous fear when confronting the nightmare of that basement scene in Ekaterinburg. Until the last moment of his life, Czar Nicholas had expected that his cousin (and eerie doppleganger) George V would intervene in the upheavals of Russia and offer him and his family sanctuary in England. The King’s ministers were indecisive, fearful of the country’s reaction, but the King had vacationed with these people, laughed and played with them – he should not have been fearful, and he certainly should not have decided to leave them to their gruesome fate. In this as in so many other choices he made in his quarter century on the throne, his own monarchy’s survival took precedence over everything else. He might threaten to abdicate when a petulant mood was on him, but not even his most credulous courtiers believed him: his sense of duty – his awe at the charge placed upon him – was too strong.
The shadow of abdication would darken the Windsors before too long, although George V would be gone by then, taken early by the nonstop smoking he’d done since the age of 10 (his alleged last words, “Bugger Bognor!” are likely apocryphal, alas). Before we leave his reign behind, we’ll pause next time to examine the life of the one person who more than any other made that reign possible: the King’s Consort, Queen Mary.
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.