English School 20th, Century
Portrait of King George VI, 1895-1952
King George VI
1st April 1930
pencil and watercolour
50.80 x 40.64 cm. (20 x 16 in.)


George VI (1895–1952), king of Great Britain, Ireland, and the British dominions beyond the seas, and sometime emperor of India, was born at York Cottage, Sandringham, Norfolk, on 14 December 1895. He was the second of the five sons and one daughter of the duke and duchess of York, who became prince and princess of Wales in 1901 and George V and Queen Mary in 1910. His birthday fell on the same day as the anniversary of the deaths of Prince Albert, the prince consort, in 1861 and Princess Alice in 1878, which upset his great-grandmother, Queen Victoria. The queen had failed to persuade the Yorks to give their first child (later Edward VIII) Albert as the first of his forenames but her request with respect to the second child was anticipated by the duke of York's father, the prince of Wales (later Edward VII), whose suggestion it was that the baby's first name be Albert and that the queen be his godmother (with six other royals). The baby was baptized at Sandringham on 17 February 1896 as Albert Frederick Arthur George, and was known in the family as Bertie.

Youth and education

Prince Albert was brought up at York Cottage—his home until 1923 with his elder brother, Prince Edward (later Edward VIII), and his sister, Princess Mary [see Mary (1897–1965)]. He was shy and sensitive and from about the age of seven developed a severe stammer, possibly compounded by being made to write with his right hand though he was naturally left-handed. His stammer emphasized the contrast with his outward-going elder brother, and it left him defenceless when his father dressed him down. He was knock-kneed, like his father and brothers, and was made to wear splints, initially by day and night. When the splints interfered with his school work, he was allowed to wear them at night only. Prince Albert attended the classes provided by Henry Peter Hansell, hired mainly for his sporting abilities. Though his only pupils were the royal children, Hansell's aim was to reproduce the atmosphere of a school, with the oldest child as ‘captain’. None made good progress. Prince Albert was slow to develop the resistance and determination needed for survival. His mathematics was especially poor. With his stammer, his splints, his gruff father, his distant mother, and his showy brother, it was not surprising that he was frequently in tears. The departure in 1907 of Prince Edward for the Royal Naval College at Osborne eased matters and in 1908 Prince Albert himself passed the entrance examination, including mathematics (a vital subject for naval officers), though Mr Hansell thought he had ‘failed to appreciate his position as “captain”’ in the Sandringham school (Wheeler-Bennett, 32). However, his French was good, and there were signs of development in his character. At Osborne and Dartmouth (1909–12) Prince Albert, like his brother, received the education of a naval officer. Prince Edward was heir to the throne from 1910, but Prince Albert was expected to follow a naval career, as his father had done. After taking some time to settle down, Prince Albert found friends and with them his stammer almost disappeared. Like his father, but unlike his brother Prince Edward, Prince Albert's naval friends from his cadet days were important to him in his later career.

Though personally more at ease, Prince Albert was never more than a mediocre student, sixty-eighth out of sixty-eight in the final examinations at Osborne. While at Dartmouth he took part in his father's coronation on 22 June 1910. He received a stern written warning from the new king about lack of effort in his academic work, and he gained something of a reputation at Dartmouth for skylarking, on one occasion receiving a beating of six strokes. He passed out sixty-first out of sixty-seven. While at Dartmouth Prince Albert developed stomach problems, which he did not report. He also gained a strong affection for the Church of England, being confirmed at Sandringham on 18 April 1912; he later wrote ‘I have always remembered that day as one on which I took a great step in life’ (Wheeler-Bennett, 57). He was throughout his life a convinced Christian, and later also an enthusiastic freemason.

Naval service and the First World War

Prince Albert began his time at sea with a training course on HMS Cumberland in 1913, during which he visited the West Indies and Canada. Though he suffered from seasickness, he enjoyed being free of the family context and tried to avoid publicity: he was happy to let his elder brother be the focal point of media attention. On his return he was appointed midshipman on HMS Collingwood in the Home Fleet and toured the Mediterranean. He was serving on Collingwood when war was declared on 4 August 1914 and he served in the Royal Navy until 1917, being actually at sea for twenty-two months. Late in August 1914 the gastric problems from which he had spasmodically suffered intensified, and his appendix was removed. On his return to Collingwood he undertook the normal duties of a senior midshipman, but a further bout of gastric pains soon required his transfer to the hospital ship HMS Drina. The king and the prince were both determined that the latter should not be invalided out (as he could have been), for the prince's presence in the navy was an important aspect of the monarchy's relationship to the war—and the prince much wished to remain with his ship and his comrades.

During his convalescence Prince Albert undertook some public duties before returning to Collingwood as an acting sub-lieutenant in May 1916, just in time to take part, in a turret of the Collingwood, in the battle of Jutland, the chief naval battle of the war. This was an important experience for the prince personally and for the monarchy nationally, George V on his visit to the Grand Fleet after the battle declaring: ‘I am pleased with my son.’ The prince of Wales—confined to minor duties behind the trenches—ached for this sort of activity and praise. It was symbolic of the brothers' developing relationship that it was Prince Albert who achieved his objective. In August 1916 he was diagnosed as suffering from a duodenal ulcer. Rest alleviated the symptoms and the prince returned to sea duties in May 1917 on HMS Malaya as acting lieutenant. He had been made KG on his twenty-first birthday. His persistence with naval service finally had to end in July 1917 when his stomach and other symptoms of debilitation brought him near collapse. The ulcer was successfully operated on, on 29 November 1917. He had been posted—at his own suggestion—to the Royal Naval Air Service station (HMS Daedalus) at Cranwell earlier that month. He was thus one of the first officers (as Flight Lieutenant Prince Albert) when the Royal Air Force was instituted in April 1918, and a royal presence was a handy political advantage for the new service. He was officer commanding boys (about 2500 of them). In October 1918 he was posted to General Trenchard's staff in France and witnessed the armistice on 11 November. At his father's request, he represented the king when the allies entered Brussels. Though he disliked flying, he trained as a pilot (though forbidden to fly solo) and qualified on 31 July 1919, next day being gazetted squadron leader.

Through frequent illness and two operations, Prince Albert had shown considerable determination during his time in the forces. His presence at Jutland gave him a status and confidence which he later found of great value, and his experience with boys' education in the RAF pointed him towards his chief subsequent innovation, his work with boys.

Prince Edward had spent several terms at Oxford before the war to no great purpose. Prince Albert (aged twenty-three) and his brother Prince Henry were sent to Trinity College, Cambridge, in October 1919. Like other post-war servicemen, they found college and academic life both frustrating and liberating. Prince Albert was tutored by the historians R. V. Laurence, J. R. M. Butler, and D. H. Robertson; he showed special interest in constitutional history. His equerry at Cambridge was Louis Greig (1880–1953), by whom he had been taught at Osborne; Greig, with whom the prince won the RAF tennis doubles in 1920, was an important influence in encouraging this still rather immature, somewhat gauche and uncertain young man, who had a good deal of his father's temper, to treat life with equanimity. George V permitted his son only three terms at Cambridge and, in a mark of paternal favour, on 3 June 1920 conferred on him the titles he himself had been given, Baron Killarney, earl of Inverness, and duke of York.

The duke and duchess of York: very different to dear David

George V made it clear to his second son that when he came down from Cambridge he would not resume his career in the forces but would take on royal duties: the prince of Wales would look after the empire, the duke of York would help chiefly on the home front. In 1920 the duke met Lady Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon (1900–2002) [seeElizabeth], the ninth of the ten children of Claude George Bowes-Lyon (1855–1944) and his wife Nina Cecilia, née Cavendish-Bentinck (d. 1938), cousin of the sixth duke of Portland. Lady Elizabeth, recently launched into London society from her Scottish origins at Glamis Castle, hoped to avoid an early marriage and was reluctant to respond to the duke of York's attempts at courtship. The duke for his part had as little experience of women as his elder brother had much, and was unsure how to proceed, though it would seem certain from an early stage that he wished to do so. He adhered to the view that a king's son could not propose, lest he be refused. J. C. C. Davidson, the tory éminence grise, advised him in 1922 to make a direct proposal none the less; on what was said to be the third attempt, he was accepted. The couple were married in Westminster Abbey on 26 April 1923; he was the first royal prince to be married there since Richard II. George V strongly approved of his son's bride and his letter of congratulation to him ended: ‘I feel that we have always got on very well together (very different to dear David)’ (Wheeler-Bennett, 154). The duke of York was different in a variety of (but not all) respects from his elder brother, and in making a happy marriage approved of by his family and the British establishment he had fulfilled one of the chief duties of a royal prince. He and his wife secured the succession to the end of the twentieth century with the births of their daughters Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary (from 1952 Elizabeth II), born at 17 Bruton Street, London, on 21 April 1926 (George V approved the names and the omission of Victoria) and Princess Margaret Rose, born at Glamis on 21 August 1930 (d. 9 February 2002).

By all accounts the duke of York was greatly altered by his marriage: ‘It transformed him, and was the turning point of his life’ (Rhodes James, 96). It is usually said that the Yorks had no expectation of the throne, but Wheeler-Bennett remarks:
as the years passed and the Prince [of Wales] remained a bachelor, there came an ever-increasing acceptance of the fact that, in the nature of things, the Duke and Duchess of York would one day become King and Queen. (Wheeler-Bennett, 156)
Initially the Yorks lived at White Lodge in Richmond Park, which they found too large and expensive; in 1926 they moved to 145 Piccadilly, in London. Royal Lodge in Windsor Great Park became their country house in 1931.

Philanthropy, recreation, and travel

In public the duke of York became quite a prominent philanthropist. His Industrial Welfare Society gained him knowledge of a wide range of industrial developments and discussions and he met trade unionists on something approaching a business footing, certainly more so than any previous prince. Within the royal family he became known as ‘the Foreman’ because of his interest in labour questions. Building on his RAF experience, he developed a special interest in education and from 1921 he played the leading part in the experiment in social integration known as the Duke of York's Camps, in which he was encouraged and in the early days financed by Sir Alexander Grant, the biscuit manufacturer. These camps brought together boys of working-class and public-school backgrounds in games, competitions, and discussions. The camps were held annually until 1939 (except for 1930), attended in all by about 6000 young men (R. R. Hyde, The Camp Book, 1930). The duke attended each camp (as ‘Great Chief’) except that of 1934, which he missed through illness. As an experiment in social integration in a period of social deprivation, high unemployment, and class tension, the camps were a bold move. It was an innovation for a royal prince to show such sustained interest in a cause of this sort. Film footage shows the duke relaxed and happy in what he, at least, found the sort of family atmosphere he hoped to encourage, and his joining in the camp song, ‘Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree’, with its accompaniment of cumulative body gestures, showed genuine camaraderie.

The duke of York also became well known for sport. In 1926, partnered by Greig, he played in the men's doubles championship at Wimbledon, being heavily defeated in the first round. The duke was embarrassed and never played tennis in public again (one member of the crowd shouted to the left-handed prince: ‘Try the other hand, Sir’; Bradford, 129). In September 1930 he played himself in as captain of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club at St Andrews, acquitting himself well in the nerve-wracking opening drive from the first tee; the caddies, recalling the prince of Wales's dismal effort a few years earlier, stood, a local paper noted, ‘disloyally close’ (ibid.). But the duke found that golf brought out his bad temper, and he gave it up for gardening. He also rode to hounds and was, like his father, an excellent shot.

The Yorks had little of the prince of Wales's restless enthusiasm for travel, but equally they did not follow George V in simply disliking ‘abroad’. They visited the Balkans in 1923 and in 1924–5 east Africa and Sudan. On their return the duke of York made the speech closing the British Empire Exhibition at the new Wembley stadium in north London. His father's opening speech had been one of the first to be broadcast; the duke's brief remarks exposed his stutter to the listening nation as well as the immediate audience. From October 1926 he was treated by Lionel Logue (1880–1953), an Australian speech therapist practising in London, who made good progress where others had failed. Under Logue's influence, the duke's confidence increased and his stutter diminished (though it by no means disappeared: on several occasions, film of speeches taken for newsreels was withdrawn). The duke and duchess visited New Zealand and Australia in 1927, travelling in HMS Renown via the Pacific. The duke was in Melbourne for Anzac day (25 April) and opened the new parliament building in Canberra on 9 May. His speeches on both occasions were considered great successes. Despite a major fire on Renown, the Yorks returned to Britain on 27 June.

The serious illness of George V in the winter of 1928–9 reminded his four sons that the accession of the prince of Wales might follow soon, with consequences for each of them, and particularly the duke of York, who would become heir presumptive. The years 1929 to 1935 saw the Yorks engaged in quiet domesticity, with no major foreign expeditions. This domesticity gave them a deceptive view of what was to be their role, for in the 1920s the duke had been much more publicly prominent as his father's representative.

The reign of Edward VIII

George V's death on 20 January 1936 put the duke's brother on the throne. Edward VIII's uncertain and unsettled view of the monarchy was, from the duke's point of view, reflected in a wounding absence of consultation and, unlike Lord Louis Mountbatten, the duke and duchess of York were certainly not regularly included in the king's circle which met at Fort Belvedere, nor would they have wished to be (they do appear in swimming costumes in one of the well-known photographs of the Fort Belvedere circle). They had a very limited acquaintance with Wallis Simpson, the king's mistress, and the duke, at least, seems not to have appreciated the seriousness of the developing constitutional and thus personal crisis. Edward VIII's secretary, Sir Alexander Hardinge, warned the duke on 20 October 1936 of Mrs Simpson's impending divorce and on 28 October told the duke he believed the king might abdicate. In such circumstances, the Yorks' policy of uninvolvement was wise: it was also a strong indication that in this case, at least, they placed national before family priorities. The duke wrote to his brother several times in early November offering help, but does not seem to have gone to see him. The Yorks were not a party to the complex discussions which might have enabled Edward VIII to marry Mrs Simpson and remain king. On 17 November the king told his brother of his intention to marry Mrs Simpson. If the duke of York did not seek out his brother to assist him, neither did the latter seek assistance or advice from the person closest to him in the family. This was apparently their only private meeting during the crisis until two days before the abdication, and the king's news had already been told to Queen Mary and Stanley Baldwin, the prime minister. On 10 December the duke of York with his brothers witnessed Edward VIII's instrument of abdication and on 11 December he became king when Edward VIII assented to the statute enabling his own abdication. ‘When D and I said good-bye we kissed, parted as freemasons & he bowed to me as his King’ (George VI's account of the abdication, Wheeler-Bennett, 287). Freemasonry rather than religion or a common view of family had been a bond between the brothers, but it was not a bond that endured.

George VI

The abdication crisis was traumatic for George VI, the title the duke of York chose for himself. He had clearly underestimated the intensity and the speed of the crisis that led to his accession: when he visited his mother to tell her it was imminent, ‘I broke down and sobbed like a child’ (Wheeler-Bennett, 286). Even so, he dealt expeditiously and decisively with his elder brother's anomalous position, creating him duke of Windsor at his accession council. A good deal has been made of his statement to his friend Lord Louis Mountbatten: ‘I'm quite unprepared for it. David has been trained for this all his life. I've never even seen a State Paper. I'm only a Naval Officer, it's the only thing I know about’ (Wheeler-Bennett, 294). But this was a considerable exaggeration made in the immediate aftermath of the crisis. In fact George V had prudently (and possibly intentionally) prepared his second son for the kingship to a much greater extent than in previous analogous cases. The new king did not like publicity—he was that rare being, a genuinely shy monarch—but he was well used to deputizing for his father. It was in the behind-the-scenes aspects of monarchy that he was inexperienced, but not much more so at the time of his accession than any other monarch since George III. Even here, he learned quickly and always went through his cabinet boxes with something of the assiduity of his father.

Publicly, the new king had the advantage of a government with a large majority and no anticipation of domestic political crises; privately, he was happily married, with two daughters and a queen who acted as confidante to a greater extent than had been enjoyed by any recent British king. The emphasis on family happiness was an innovation in the twentieth-century monarchy: George V had often been photographed with his sons, usually in uniform or with shotguns, but the domestic element which George VI's young daughters brought to photographs and visits was homely and appealing. In broadcasts and public appearances he skilfully used this family aspect of his life to associate himself with the common experience of his subjects.

The ‘royal family’ no longer included the duke and duchess of Windsor; of that George VI was quite clear, and as late as 1941 he referred in his diary to his sister-in-law as ‘Mrs. S[impson]’. The revelation that the duke had failed to disclose assets material to his financial settlement hardened the king's resolve to exclude her, characterized by the legally dubious denial of the title ‘her royal highness’ to the duchess of Windsor. So also did the Windsors' irresponsible visit to Hitler in October 1937. The king probably overestimated how far the abdication endangered the stability of the monarchy—the events of 1936 in fact showed the crown in parliament acting with rapid and conclusive effectiveness—but in the pre-war years his treatment of his brother was prudent. It was soon generally understood that George VI sat on the throne through a sense of duty; this effectively countered the implication of Edward VIII's action, that occupation of the throne was a voluntary matter, with personal preferences in certain circumstances being given greater weight than the obligations of sovereignty.

George VI retained Sir Alexander Hardinge, private secretary to Edward VIII and before him George V. He afforced him with Sir Alan Lascelles (who had also served both previous monarchs) and Sir Michael Adeane, grandson of George V's secretary Lord Stamfordham. The secretariat thus embodied experience and tradition, though the secretaries' complaint was that the king too often disregarded them. Robert Rhodes James observes: ‘The myth that the Queen, Hardinge, Lascelles and Wigram [briefly private secretary in 1936] ran the monarchy and dominated a weak King, is amusing to the constitutionalist because the exact reverse was the case’ (Rhodes James, 132). The king retained something of the temper he had shown as a child, and he certainly had much of his father's will. The queen was noted for her ability to calm her husband, just as she had her father-in-law.

George VI was crowned on 12 May 1937 (the date planned for Edward VIII) and with his coronation in an important sense both passed and demoted his brother, who was not only the sole monarch since 1688 to abdicate, but also the only one to fail to be crowned. The coronation was broadcast by the BBC to a world and empire-wide audience, the king's wish prevailing against considerable opposition, but the coronation service was not televised (the element of intrusion into a religious ceremony rather than the smallness of the potential audience being the objection), though the procession was. The king's broadcast that evening was delivered almost faultlessly and the many rumours—that his stammer had worsened, that he suffered epileptic fits, that he would barely be able to undertake monarchic duties—were scotched.

Foreign policy and the onset of war

Neville Chamberlain's succession to Baldwin as prime minister in May 1937 required no initiative or choice on the king's part. Much less straightforward, in personal or policy terms, was foreign policy. As the Conservative Party divided into factions, so the king risked being drawn into the argument which came to be seen as pro- and anti-appeasement. His inexperience in this area eased him into his role as constitutional monarch, for its effect was that he did not interfere (though he was much put out by Chamberlain's failure to brief him in February 1938 that Anthony Eden's resignation was imminent). Thus he supported Chamberlain more because Chamberlain was his prime minister than because he approved of his German policy. Whatever view one takes of appeasement, George VI's conduct was correct. He did not initiate, as Edward VII had done, and he did not unilaterally interfere, as Queen Victoria had done.

On the other hand, George VI did at one important moment associate himself with Chamberlain's policy in a most unusual and public way, probably without appreciating the implications. The king's intended contribution to foreign affairs in 1938 was a message to Hitler, ‘from one ex-Serviceman to another’, which he suggested he send during Chamberlain's first visit to Germany in 1938 (he also offered to write in similar terms to King Victor Emmanuel of Italy and Emperor Hirohito of Japan). Lord Halifax, who had just succeeded Eden as foreign secretary on the latter's resignation, discouraged the idea, suggesting a later approach might be more appropriate. Nothing came of this, though the king returned to the idea in September 1938, shortly before Chamberlain's journey to Munich. But when Chamberlain returned from Munich on 30 September 1938, the king asked him to come ‘straight to Buckingham Palace, so that I can express to you personally my most heartfelt congratulations on the success of your visit to Munich’ (Wheeler-Bennett, 354). Chamberlain's visit to the palace was not unusual, but the king's appearance with his prime minister on the palace's balcony was an exceptional association of the monarchy with the government's foreign policy. The king followed this up with a message to his people on 2 October, praising Chamberlain's ‘magnificent efforts’ (Wheeler-Bennett, 355). Queen Victoria had made Beaconsfield a knight of the Garter when he returned from Berlin in 1878 bearing ‘peace with honour’, the phrase Chamberlain repeated in his speech in Downing Street after returning from the palace. George VI also wished to honour his prime minister, but Chamberlain, who immediately regretted his use of the famous phrase, declined and thus saved the king considerable subsequent embarrassment. The close association of the king with the government's policy of appeasement and rearmament was intended to be further shown by a royal announcement of a system of voluntary national service but Chamberlain, not the king, made the broadcast (not because the monarchy should not be involved in the implementation of policy, but because a royal message might be too alarming to the stock exchange).

George VI, influenced by Lord Halifax (who with his wife, a lady-in-waiting, regularly dined privately with the king and queen) and Lord Cranborne, appears to have moderated his position during the winter of 1938–9. His secretary, Hardinge, had always been hostile to Chamberlain's foreign policy. Unqualified evidence of Hitler's aggressive character and of the failure of ‘appeasement’ provided by the annexation of the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 thus left the king in a somewhat uncertain relationship to his prime minister, though in this he shared the ambivalence of much of the cabinet.

Happily for George VI a tour of Canada, which was suggested in 1937 and planned from 1938, provided an alternative focus of royal activity. A visit to the USA and the Roosevelts, suggested by the president in 1938, was associated with it. The king had already made an important state visit to France in July 1938. The king and queen sailed on 5 May 1939 on the Canadian Pacific liner Empress of Australia on what had become, given the deteriorating international situation, a royal tour of much more than usual importance. The support of the dominions for a second war in Europe could by no means be taken for granted, and the USA was still quite strongly isolationist. President Roosevelt, who proposed the visit with the deliberate intent of encouraging British–American co-operation at the personal level of head of state as well as at the diplomatic, showed much greater prescience than the British Foreign Office. Carefully choreographed by John Buchan (who as Lord Tweedsmuir was governor-general of Canada), the Canadian visit was a great success. This was, remarkably, the first visit by a British sovereign to a dominion. The royal party crossed Canada by train, welcomed by almost the entire populations of the little towns at which they stopped. They returned to Niagara Falls and there crossed into the United States, the first British sovereign to do so. A visit to Washington, accompanied by Mackenzie King, the Canadian premier, on 8 and 9 June 1939 was followed by a private visit at the Roosevelts' country house, Hyde Park. The royal party returned to Canada, sailing for Britain on 15 June. The king's notes of his talk with Roosevelt are an important source for the president's views at this time; so important did George VI consider these talks that he carried his handwritten notes of them in his briefcase throughout the war.

Royal visits are habitually described as successful; this visit to North America was, in diplomatic terms, second in importance in the twentieth century only to Edward VII's visit to Paris in 1903. Edward VII's initiative was an intended change of direction sponsored by the monarch. George VI's was not a personal initiative in that sense, nor did it reflect a change in direction; but it was effective all the same.

George VI and the Second World War

George VI was forty-three when war was declared on 3 September 1939. He began a diary which he kept through the war. That night he broadcast to the empire, and it was intended that a copy of his message be circulated to each household in the UK (a plan abandoned because of its cost). In 1914 George V had played no public role in the nation's adaptation from peace to war. The development of radio and film meant that the public role of the monarchy in this war would be prominent. The king had discontinued his father's Christmas broadcasts, but in 1939 reluctantly agreed to make one. He had been sent a book of poems, The Desert (privately printed, 1908), by Minnie Louise Haskins, a lecturer at the London School of Economics, and from it he included at the end of his message lines which immediately became famous:
I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year,
‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown’.
The broadcast followed well-publicized royal visits to the fleet at Invergordon and the British expeditionary force in France and placed the fit and energetic monarch at the forefront of the national effort, in contrast to his prime minister, who was aged seventy and looked it. The king believed a national government was desirable but, while he made this clear to Chamberlain, he did not undermine his prime minister, though the latter was the chief obstacle to its achievement. In the political crisis of 1940 the king personally hoped Chamberlain would continue as prime minister or, failing him, Lord Halifax. The king's secretaries, sensing an impending crisis, consulted constitutional authorities about the details of procedure, establishing, somewhat dubiously, that the king was not required to ask an outgoing premier's advice on his successor. On 8 May 1940 the Conservative government's majority fell from about 200 to 81 in the vote on the conduct of the Norway campaign. Meetings between the government and the Labour Party established that the latter would join a coalition, but not one led by Chamberlain. Halifax in effect removed himself from consideration for the premiership. Hardinge told the king that when Chamberlain offered his resignation the out-going premier would also ‘without hesitation recommend Mr Churchill’ (Rhodes James, 191). The king's abstinence from the process of cabinet-making at this time was highly beneficial, as the new national government led by Churchill emerged through the efforts and negotiations of its members, rather than as the result of royal encouragement.

When the king saw Chamberlain on Friday 10 May 1940, he accepted his resignation, and, according to his diary, told him ‘how grossly unfairly I thought he had been treated’ and learned in ‘an informal talk over his successor’ that Halifax would not serve. The king noted in his diary that he:
was disappointed … as I thought H. was the obvious man … Then I knew that there was only one person whom I could send for to form a Government … & that was Winston. I asked Chamberlain for his advice, & he told me Winston was the man to send for … I sent for Winston & asked him to form a Government. (Wheeler-Bennett, 444)
Churchill had emerged from a political process of elimination, despite the king's preference for Halifax, and the monarch at this dramatic moment in fact played no more of a part in that process than was usual, and certainly less than his father had played in the making of the First World War coalitions. George VI's account of his discussions at this time shows a very sensitive understanding of constitutional proprieties, with careful distinction drawn between conversation and formal request for advice. He floated Halifax at Chamberlain informally, and asked formally for advice only once that option was eliminated. He was careful to avoid being the recipient of advice which he was not ready to accept, and was also careful, at such an important moment in the nation's history, to be seen as ready to accept his new prime minister, Winston Churchill. Churchill now rapidly took on the role of leader of the war effort, in a way that Chamberlain could not do, leaving the king to a more symbolic role. The king soon appreciated Churchill's capacity for this, recognizing the effectiveness of the combination which they provided of baroque bravado and homely dignity.

The king's role was to encourage the war effort by morale-boosting visits to bombed towns, cities, and factories, while at the same time providing a sense that normal life had not altogether disappeared. Thus the king and queen lived in Buckingham Palace (with their daughters living at Windsor) until the palace—virtually unprotected—was bombed on 9 September 1940: the bomb did not immediately explode and the king worked in his study just above it. At 1.25 a.m. next day it exploded, but with no casualties since that part of the palace had been evacuated. The palace was again bombed three days later (and altogether was hit nine times during the war). Subsequently the king and queen slept at Windsor, commuting to London each day. This German bombing was a great advantage to the British monarchy. It diminished the slightly paternalist tone of the royal visits to bombed areas in London and elsewhere. It was a good card to play in the USA. It gave the royal family greater confidence: the queen famously observed: ‘I'm glad we've been bombed. We can now look the East End in the face’ (Wheeler-Bennett, 470). The remark emphasized the difference as well as the advantage. No one else would have welcomed being bombed—indeed the king suffered some subsequent trauma—and it was of course the case that the royal family lived differently from ‘ordinary’ citizens in wartime as they did in peacetime. But their spartan existence, with their clothes and food subject to rationing, was relatively closer to ordinary life than at any time in the history of the monarchy. Although even Churchill was not told how close the escape from the first set of bombs had been, enough was known nationally for the point to be taken. The result of the bombing of the palace was, according to a Mass-Observation survey, that one-third of the king's appearances on newsreels were interrupted by applause in the cinema, as opposed to one-seventh before the bombing (Richard and Sheridan, 213).

The bombing of the palace occurred just as the full force of the blitz began, ordered by Hitler's directive of 5 September 1940. During the blitz the king and queen assiduously visited bombed areas, often on their own initiative and with little prior notice. The king was in Coventry on 16 November 1940, the day after its destruction. Similar visits were made to Southampton, Birmingham, and Bristol. The absence of notice meant that the usual disruptions of a royal visit were largely avoided. The king was aware that a royal visit in such circumstances could be awkward as well as encouraging, and noted in his diary: ‘I feel that this kind of visit does do good at such a moment & it is one of my main jobs in life to help others when I can be useful to them’ (Wheeler-Bennett, 479). Some felt that these visits could be intrusive—‘too busy cleaning up and one thing and another’ was sometimes the comment (T. Harrisson, Living through the Blitz, 1976, 164). But the absence of the sovereign from areas of devastation would have caused far more adverse comment than his presence. Clara Milburn of Burleigh, Warwickshire, wrote in her diary on 11 September 1940:
Their Majesties have visited the heavily-bombed areas today and, as an air raid warning was sounded, they went into a police station and had tea with A. R. P. workers and others … many remarked that Hitler couldn't have gone out visiting like that—he would have needed an armed bodyguard. Pah!! (Mrs Milburn's Diaries, ed. P. Donnelly, 1979, 55)
The king emphasized the importance of the home front by creating, on his own initiative and with his own design, the George Cross and George Medal, announced in his broadcast of 23 September 1940. They developed from his observation of civilian work following air raids. It proved difficult and sometimes divisive to select particular acts of civilian bravery, and many of the awards went to servicemen. The work of the king and queen on the home front, and especially in 1940–41, constitutes an exceptional moment in the history of the monarchy. The timing of the visits was largely at royal initiative and, though there was no palace press secretary until 1944, so was their management and presentation. Much of the detail was handled by the assistant private secretary, Sir Alan Lascelles, with whom the king formed a close bond. When in 1943 Sir Alexander Hardinge, the private secretary, resigned through ill health following a row with Lascelles, the king accepted the resignation with alacrity and would not allow Hardinge to withdraw it. The king—who felt of Hardinge that ‘he was doing me no good’—noted in his diary: ‘It was difficult for me to have to do this but I know that I should not get the opportunity again … I feel happier now it is over’ (Rhodes James, 248). Lascelles became George VI's private secretary, holding the post until the king's death and into the next reign. He was simultaneously keeper of the Royal Archives.

George VI worked well with Churchill once the latter became accustomed to his post. They met for lunch each Tuesday at Buckingham Palace. The first of over 200 lunches was on 10 September 1940, the day the palace was bombed, and continued until the end of Churchill's premiership. They met without advisers or secretaries present. The king found these talks invaluable for keeping in touch, though his staff regretted the absence of the memoranda that George V habitually dictated immediately following such meetings. Churchill also seems to have found them useful, and they ensured that there was no court influence on strategy other than via the prime minister (Churchill perhaps recalled the importance to Field Marshal Haig of palace support in 1916–18). Their mutual respect and affection was reflected in an exchange of telegrams following the axis surrender in north Africa in May 1943, an exchange unusually released for public information; the king's simple message and Churchill's florid reply neatly represent the differences between the two men (Wheeler-Bennett, 564–5). On Tuesdays, before the prime-ministerial lunch, George VI held investitures, for which he prepared himself very thoroughly; in 1945 he calculated that during the war he had personally bestowed over 44,000 medals and decorations (Rhodes James, 230).

The possibility of the death or assassination of the prime minister concerned the king, who at a Tuesday lunch on 16 June 1942—with Churchill about to leave for Washington—asked his advice on his successor. On the king's request, Churchill by letter that day confirmed that he recommended Anthony Eden. When Churchill and Eden travelled together in 1945, the king returned to the point, Churchill recommending Sir John Anderson, an independent MP, as prime minister in the event of Churchill and Eden's both being killed.

George VI, like many of his subjects, found the slow pace of the war frustrating. He longed to visit his troops, but, apart from a visit to the British expeditionary force in France in December 1939, there was no suitable occasion until 1943, after the defeat of the axis powers in north Africa. Travelling as General Lyon, he left for north Africa on 11 June, was prevented by fog from refuelling at Gibraltar, and reached Algiers on 12 June. He travelled 6700 miles in two weeks visiting camps and former battlefields. As well as his fear of flying, George VI suffered from a phobia about inspecting lines of troops and on at least one occasion was only with difficulty persuaded to leave his tent. ‘The real gem of my tour’, the king reported, was his entrance into Valletta harbour, Malta, on 20 June 1943 when, suffering quite severely from dysentery, he took the salute from the bridge of HMS Aurora. On his own imaginative initiative he had on 15 April 1942 awarded the people of Malta the George Cross for their heroism during a period of sustained siege and assault.

Encouragement to the government and people of the United States after they had entered the war was uncontroversial, and was developed by George VI in a series of letters and by the reception of Eleanor Roosevelt in London in October 1942. More complex were the United Kingdom's relations with the Soviet Union. Here the king played a characteristically straightforward role. He wished to honour the citizens of Stalingrad in the same way as he had honoured those of Malta, and incidentally associate the monarchy with the very popular pro-Russian sentiments of the working class. The award of a British medal to Stalingrad was thought inappropriate (though George V had awarded the Military Medal to French cities in the First World War) and it was decided instead to award a sword of honour, the personal gift of the king, ‘to the steel-hearted citizens of Stalingrad’. This the king played an active part in designing; the sword was displayed in British cities prior to being taken by Churchill to the Casablanca conference early in 1943 for presentation to Stalin, the high point of Anglo-Russian fraternity.

The end of the war

George VI made one of his rare strategic suggestions when in 1943, encouraged by Smuts, he encouraged Churchill to reconsider operation Overlord (the D-day landings) in favour of further attack via Italy. Churchill sent the king's letter to the chiefs of staff and, after a dinner attended by the king, Churchill, and Smuts, plans for D-day went ahead, though some extra attention was paid to Italy. The king attended the conference in London on 15 May 1944 at which senior staff were briefed on the landings, and he brought it to a conclusion with a brief and effective unscheduled speech of exhortation. The king, now thoroughly enthused about operation Overlord, visited each of its assault forces in its port of assembly, and conceived the notion of accompanying the invasion in person, as, separately, did Winston Churchill: ‘W. cannot say no if he goes himself, & I don't want to have to tell him he cannot’, the king noted in his diary (Wheeler-Bennett, 601). The queen encouraged her husband to go, but his secretary, Lascelles, wisely persuaded him out of what would have been a dangerous prank and a deflection of important resources since the king and prime minister would both have had to be guarded. Reluctantly the king agreed not to go and with considerable difficulty he persuaded Churchill not to go either (the king eventually had to tell Churchill he would personally drive to Portsmouth to prevent the premier embarking on HMS Belfast).

On the evening of D-day, 6 June 1944, the king broadcast to his subjects and on 16 June visited the Normandy beaches for the day, returning to find London bombed for the first time by V1 flying bombs: Buckingham Palace, though not directly hit, suffered constant indirect effects in the subsequent assaults, and several bombs fell in close proximity. From 23 July until 3 August the king was in Italy with his troops, and in October 1944 he visited recently liberated Belgium (just as in 1918 he had represented his father for the same purpose). Churchill vetoed the king's plan to follow up these visits with a tour of the Far East, and especially India. The king prepared carefully for the long-anticipated VE (Victory in Europe) day, but disagreements between the allies about the timing of the announcement somewhat spoilt his plans. However, on 8 May 1945 the king received the war cabinet and the chiefs of staff to congratulate them and that evening made a broadcast. The royal family and Churchill made repeated appearances on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. In subsequent days the king and queen drove in state through east and south London and attended services at St Paul's and St Giles' cathedrals. On 17 May the king made an affecting speech in Westminster Hall to members of both houses, his voice faltering only at the end when he referred to his brother, the duke of Kent, killed on active service in a plane accident in 1942. At the end of the speech, Churchill waved his top hat and called for three cheers for the sovereign. He was wise to do so. The war ended with the monarchy on a high note, and clearly more popular than the rest of the upper class; as Ross McKibbin observes: ‘the exceptional popularity of the monarchy throughout the war—a lucky escape, given George VI's commitment to Chamberlainite Conservatism—did much to shield the old élites’ (McKibbin, 534).

Towards peacetime

The king was noticeably tired in 1945 but not apparently ill. During the war his health seemed to hold up well. He drank moderately but smoked heavily. It was not suspected that he had only six years to live. During the war, however, he requested parliament to amend the Regency Act so as to permit his daughter, Princess Elizabeth, though still a minor, to be included among the councillors of state if necessary. The king ignored suggestions, including those of the cabinet, that she be made princess of Wales on her eighteenth birthday (for that, the king argued, would make her husband, once she had one, prince of Wales, the normal title of the heir to the throne; this was in fact an erroneous argument, for women never confer titles on their husbands by marriage alone). A public announcement was made that there would be no change at that time to the princess's style and title. According to Robert Rhodes James, who had access to exceptional sources, both written and oral, the king was ‘seriously irritated’ by his cousin, Lord Louis Mountbatten, for ‘his constant promotion of the virtues of his nephew Prince Philip of Greece’. The king ‘liked the dashing young naval officer, and invited him to Balmoral on leave, but Mountbatten's pushiness annoyed him, seeing only too clearly what his cousin's motives and ambitions were’ (Rhodes James, 254). The king and queen had handled their daughters' upbringing much more sensitively than any of their recent predecessors. For the first time since 1760, a calm, straightforward, uncomplicated succession to the throne was assured (that of 1910 had been straightforward, but only by the fortuitous early death of George V's elder brother). This in itself was a striking achievement. Much less satisfactory, from George VI's point of view, was the position of his elder brother and sister-in-law. Churchill in 1944 had raised the question of the Windsors' status, suggesting the duchess be received in London, and proposing other posts for the duke, who was bored with governing the Bahamas. Churchill moved too early and too insistently, and by conflating the question of the recognition of the duchess with that of a post for the duke made a complex situation more so. The queen and Queen Mary were unwilling to receive or even meet the duchess (Rhodes James, 164). The exile of the Windsors—whether imposed or self-imposed—was not ended during the king's reign, and the unwelcome flurry of activity about them in 1944–5 delayed rather than encouraged a rehabilitation which might have occurred once the war had ended safely.

Politics and the end of the war

In 1918 a general election had immediately followed the armistice. In 1945 there had been no general election since 1935. Churchill hoped the national government formed in 1940 would continue until the end of the Japanese war (thought to be still some time off), a view with which the king sympathized. The king and Churchill knew of the atomic bomb, and plans to use it, but C. R. Attlee, the Labour leader and deputy prime minister, did not. The Labour Party conference in May 1945 opposed maintenance of the coalition beyond the autumn. Churchill was hostile to such a brief extension, and on 23 May 1945 resigned his posts and, by inference, those of his cabinet. The king declined to accept his resignation, and asked him to return later that day. At the second audience, the king accepted Churchill's resignation and asked him again to form a government. Churchill then at once asked for a dissolution of parliament, which was granted. The effect of this constitutional quadrille was that the Labour members of the national government went out of office. Churchill had not been leader of the tory party when appointed prime minister in 1940, but had been careful to be so elected in October 1940, after Chamberlain's death. As the tories were the largest party in the Commons, the king was right to ask Churchill to form another government, even though he had just resigned as a result of his inability to maintain the national government. Churchill resigned on 26 July, the day the counting of the votes revealed the overwhelming victory of the Labour Party in the general election held on 5 July. The king, according to his diary, asked if he should send for Attlee (an innovation, in that the sovereign by convention asked for advice, rather than proposed a name) and Churchill agreed. ‘We said good bye & I thanked him for all his help to me during the 5 War Years’, the king noted in his downbeat way (Wheeler-Bennett, 636). George VI regretted Churchill's departure as he had that of Chamberlain five years previously. The king offered him the Garter but not, it would seem, the customary peerage. Churchill would, in fact, have had to recommend himself for the Garter, for it was only in July 1946 that, by agreement with the party leaders, the patronage of the Garter and the Thistle became, like the Order of Merit, non-political and at the personal disposal of the monarch (the prime minister being consulted but his or her advice not being necessary). The king then revived various aspects of the Garter chapter, which had not met since 1911.

The post-war monarchy

The king's enthusiasm for the Garter and similar ceremonies cut across the tone of his new Labour government. In May 1940 the king had sent the Foreign Office a proposal for a voluntary federation of European states at the end of the war and had encouraged the subsequent ministerial committee to develop a plan of social post-war reconstruction. This was squarely in line with the king's interests when duke of York, but they were not interests to which he gave prominence during the rest of the war, even though in 1940 the TUC had presented him with its Gold medal. Churchill's regular lunches drew the king into a close interest in military strategy and tactics and kept him somewhat distant from the development of home policy represented by the Beveridge report and its aftermath. The king summoned Beveridge when the report was published, but, according to Lady Beveridge, wanted to know, not about national insurance, but about the ‘queer people’ at the London School of Economics (J. Harris, Beveridge, 1977, 426). Even so, the king in 1945 at once played an important part in Labour politics by suggesting to Attlee that Ernest Bevin would be preferable as foreign secretary to Hugh Dalton (Attlee's suggestion). The king had never got on well with Dalton, the son of his father's tutor. It is hard to know how heavily the king's advice weighed with Attlee in his decision to make Bevin foreign secretary, and, as a stickler for form, the new prime minister said nothing about the king's advice to his colleagues, including Bevin (it was the king who, somewhat naïvely, revealed his suggestion to Bevin at their first audience, thus making the crown quickly controversial in certain sections of the Labour Party).

On 15 August the king opened parliament and that evening appeared on the balcony of Buckingham Palace to take part in the celebrations marking the surrender of Japan and the final end of the war. The Labour government and party embarked on their great programme of legislative innovation, which extended into most aspects of British home life. At the same time the king's cousin, Lord Mountbatten, oversaw what became the partition of the Indian subcontinent, the subsequent establishment of India, Pakistan, and Burma as independent republics, and the ending of George VI's title emperor of India. This great turning point in the world role of Britain, linked as it was to the rise of the domestic welfare state, might have been the occasion for some fundamental reconsideration of the role of the monarchy. George V had undertaken just such a reappraisal in the last two years of the First World War. But George VI did not think in such bold terms. Moreover, the Labour government had no modernizing plans for the monarchy, beyond some modification of the civil list, and Clement Attlee was quite conservative in his approach to the institution of monarchy, as well as being deferential to the monarch. Though the Parliament Act of 1949 reduced the power of the House of Lords, that was the extent of Labour's interest in the constitution (George VI made it clear to the tories that they should not look for resistance from him on this question). The instinct of the palace was a return to ‘normalcy’. But the inter-war normalcy to which the palace by degrees returned ignored the change which the Labour government represented, even though that government did not propose any changes for the role of the crown or the monarch. While the king's personal life was never ostentatious, and while a few minor changes of court style were made, he did not reappraise his role or that of the palace with respect to British domestic life.

George VI never had what could be called a normal period of rule. In the aftermath of the abdication the king, his family, and the court were accommodating of the fact that the king had not expected to be on the throne; when that accommodation was complete, preparations for war began; the war itself was followed by a period of post-war hardship and reconstruction in the latter part of which the king was ill. George VI thus was never in a position to take part in the usual round of royal duties in a settled situation. For much of his reign the sporting events which his father had used as a means of regular royal association with the British calendar were suspended or held in unusual circumstances and places. The royal palaces were restored or reopened after the war; there was not much time or money for the exercise of royal patronage of the arts and architecture; nor was this an area in which the king wished to take an especial interest, leaving picture collecting to the queen (she assembled a fine private collection). He took much interest in the restoration of the Royal Collection after the war, but did not see it as his role to add to it. The exhibition ‘The King's Pictures’, held at the Royal Academy in 1947 and arranged by the new surveyor of the king's pictures, Anthony Blunt (appointed in 1945), was the first great post-war exhibition held in London. Blunt set the royal collections on a fresh footing and started theircatalogue raisonné, preparatory work having been done by Ben Nicholson while deputy surveyor during the war. Like his father, George VI had middlebrow tastes in music, art, the theatre, cinema, and literature. When John Piper completed his brooding series depicting Windsor Castle (commissioned by the queen), the king is said to have remarked to him ‘You've been pretty unlucky with the weather, Mr Piper.’ The king's equivalent to George V's stamp collection was a collection of medals, on which he became a considerable authority. Also like his predecessors, he was a stickler for correct dress and turnout.

The war even affected royal iconography. Gerald Kelly was commissioned to paint the state portraits of the king and queen in their coronation robes and had begun to do so when war intervened. The king disliked wearing the full panoply of silk tights and court dress for the picture, but characteristically agreed to be so portrayed. The architectural background to the portraits was designed by Lutyens. Kelly resided at Windsor Castle for two years during the war to work on the portraits. It was said that Kelly rose early each day to paint out the changes imposed on him the previous afternoon. The portraits, now at Windsor Castle, were finished in 1945 in time for the Royal Academy exhibition.

In external affairs the king strongly supported the Labour government's policies and played an important part in encouraging the development of the Commonwealth. Having been encouraged by Smuts during his wartime visits to London, the king and queen and their daughters visited South Africa in 1947, sailing from Portsmouth in HMS Vanguard on 1 February, just as the full rigours of the appalling British winter of 1947—one of the coldest and snowiest of modern times—were reaching their height (the king considered shortening the tour because of the home situation, but was advised by Attlee not to). The southern African visit was demanding and exhausting. The king opened parliament in Cape Town on 21 February and in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia, on 7 April. The choice of South Africa as the dominion first to be visited after the war was questionable and the king was necessarily drawn into the politics of a deeply divided polity: the National Party boycotted most of the events at which its members would normally have been expected to be present and though apartheid was not yet official policy, the question already dominated South African politics. The king was not allowed to shake hands with African servicemen when he invested them with medals. The royal party felt itself much more at ease in the surrounding colonies than in the dominion.

Ironically, for the tour was intended to highlight the importance of the Commonwealth and was marked by Princess Elizabeth's broadcast on her twenty-first birthday in which she dedicated herself to it, the king's absence from London removed him from the details of the negotiations and discussions as the Indian subcontinent moved towards independence: by the time he returned from South Africa in May 1947 partition had become unavoidable. The king signed himself ‘G. R. I.’ for the last time on 15 August 1947 (except for the final India honours list of 1 January 1948). He asked for the last of the union flags flown at the residency at Lucknow in 1857, and this was recovered for him.

Thus the brief Indian empire ended. The question of the change of title (which required the permission of all members of the Commonwealth) was tidied up at the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in London in April 1949, by the India (Consequential Provisions) Act of 1949, and, after the king's death, by the Royal Titles Act of 1953. India and Pakistan remained among the king's dominions but both were set on republican courses, becoming republics within the Commonwealth in 1950 and 1956 respectively. Burma left the Commonwealth on becoming an independent republic in 1948; in the same year the Irish Free State declared itself a republic outside the Commonwealth, the position being regularized on the British side by the Ireland Act of 1949, though Ireland was not modified to Northern Ireland in the royal title during the king's lifetime. The late 1940s thus saw a significant modification of the formal authority and title of the monarch. George VI showed none of the amour propre with respect to his position which would have been expected from Queen Victoria, Edward VII, or George V. His absence of complaint has sometimes been taken for weakness. But for busy politicians it must have been a relief not to have to cope with royal interventions fundamentally irrelevant in the face of unavoidable changes.

While the royal family was in southern Africa, the protracted question of the naturalization of Prince Philip (b. 1921), which had implications for Greek politics, was resolved, the prince taking his mother's family name, Mountbatten. The king had been cautious about Lord Mountbatten's energetic promotion of his nephew, and still, as his biographer observed, ‘found it difficult to believe that his elder daughter had really fallen in love with the first young man she had met’ (Wheeler-Bennett, 751). George VI later hoped he had not seemed ‘hard-hearted’. However, the engagement of Princess Elizabeth to Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten was announced on 10 July 1947, with their wedding in Westminster Abbey being solemnized on 20 November 1947. Just before the wedding the king made his daughter, and a few days later, his prospective son-in-law, KG. He created Philip a royal highness (but not a prince, though he was popularly known as Prince Philip), and duke of Edinburgh.

Final years

George VI did not much like the domestic legislation of the Attlee government, but he maintained a stoically proper public front, and concentrated on the Commonwealth, the arena which the king and his advisers increasingly saw as a valuable new area of royal activity. In March 1948 it was announced that the king, the queen, and Princess Margaret would visit Australia and New Zealand in 1949. In the course of 1948, however, the king's health declined; as in his Dartmouth days, however, he was reluctant to report his condition to his doctors. In October he was examined but, with remarkable lack of urgency, it was not until 12 November that the recommended specialist, Sir James Learmonth, saw him. Learmonth diagnosed severe arteriosclerosis with the possible need for the amputation of his right leg. The royal tour was deferred from 1949. On 12 March 1949 Learmonth operated, making a right lumbar sympathectomy. He recommended that the king live effectively as an invalid, and greatly reduce his smoking. At his final examination, the king remarked to his surgeon: ‘You used a knife on me, now I'm going to use one on you’, and, producing a sword, knighted him on the spot (Wheeler-Bennett, 768). The king resumed limited official duties, and a scaled-down royal tour was rescheduled for 1952, to follow the Festival of Britain in 1951.

In the general election of 1950 the Labour Party obtained its largest popular vote, but saw its number of seats reduced to an overall majority of about eight. Lascelles, the private secretary, in an anonymous letter to The Times signed Senex, claimed a good deal of latitude for the sovereign in granting a dissolution; George VI's view is not known, and the issue did not immediately arise. The king opened the Festival of Britain from the steps of St Paul's on 3 May, but at subsequent public events that month it was clear that he was not well. His condition deteriorated and on 16 September an exploratory operation showed he had cancer of the lung. He was not told of this conclusion, and believed the operation performed by Mr Price Thomas on 23 September was to remove his lung to free his bronchial tube. This series of operations was far more public than George V's somewhat similar illness in 1928–9, and occasioned intense public interest. It seemed unfair that one who had led so well in the war should not share in the post-war recovery which the Festival of Britain so effectively represented.

In October 1951 the Conservative Party won the general election with a small majority and Attlee, who had been the king's minister for eleven continuous years, resigned, the king conferring on him the Order of Merit. Churchill thus for the third time became prime minister. On 2 December there was a day of national thanksgiving for the king's recovery.

On Christmas day 1951 George VI made what turned out to be his final Christmas broadcast, having just celebrated his fifty-sixth birthday. The speech, always an ordeal for the king despite the value he had come to attach to it, was for the first time recorded. He told the nation he had come through his illness. He also planned a convalescent private visit to South Africa (remarkably, as the National Party was now in power). Princess Elizabeth and the duke of Edinburgh departed on 31 January 1952 for east Africa, the first stage of the postponed tour of Australia and New Zealand on which they were taking the king and queen's place. On the tarmac at London airport, the king, hatless, windblown, haggard but cheery, led the royal party in waving farewell. On the morning of 6 February, after a happy day's shooting, his valet found him dead in bed at Sandringham. The new queen and her husband returned rapidly from Kenya. Public mourning was extensive but restrained; the king's death was marked by just that quiet dignity that he himself had shown in his life. George VI's body lay in state for three days in Westminster Hall, about 300,000 people filing by to pay their respects, and was buried in St George's Chapel, Windsor, on 15 February, where a memorial chapel was built and dedicated in 1969.


George VI was a plain, straightforward, though sometimes in private tempestuous man who was fortunate in his years of kingship, his life intimately intertwined with his subjects' experience of war and suffering. He did his duty without fuss when national circumstances required his subjects to do the same. This gained him exceptional respect, as did his lifelong struggle with his speech impediment. He worked well with each of his four prime ministers; between them they covered a large spectrum of political style and ideology, from the florid Churchill to the phlegmatic Attlee. Like his father in the First World War, George VI's down-to-earth absence of flamboyance well suited the ‘see it through’ attitude of his subjects to the Second World War. When the king had tea in a bomb shelter during an air raid, his presence seemed natural and unforced. Royal visits during the war were the least formal since Queen Victoria ceased her practice of calling unannounced on Scottish cottagers. Though he kept an eye on the royal prerogative—even in his last illness preventing Churchill from describing Eden as deputy prime minister—George VI in practice allowed the prerogative to become more latent. Though he disliked some of its legislation, he made no attempt to circumscribe the Attlee government's great programme of social reform.

George VI embodied homely virtues in a violent age. He remarked in his final Christmas broadcast, echoing Macaulay, that in:
an age which is often hard and cruel … I think that, among all the blessings which we count today, the chief one is that we are friendly people … I wonder if we realize just how precious this spirit of friendliness and kindness is.

H. C. G. Matthew  DNB