Portrait of King George V 1865–1936, King of Great Britain, Ireland, and the British dominions beyond the seas, and emperor of India
Private Collection, Bedfordshire
This usigned portrait of King George V by Sir Oswald Birley is a version (also the same size), as the portrait in the National Portrait Gallery collection, London, NPG 4013, painted in 1933 and purchased in 1957. The Portrait was painted 3 years before King George V's death and in the same year the Nazi party comes to power in Germany as part of a coalition government with Hitler as Chancellor.
George V (1865–1936), was born at Marlborough House, London, on 3 June 1865, the second child of the prince and princess of Wales, later Edward VII (1841–1910) and Queen Alexandra (1844–1925). He was baptized at Windsor Castle on 7 July by the names of George Frederick Ernest Albert. The prince's elder brother,Prince Albert Victor Christian Edward (later duke of Clarence), was, after his father, heir to the throne should Queen Victoria die. Though much beloved in the family, Prince Albert Victor had a variety of difficulties which encouraged his parents to bring Prince George to the fore. From an early stage George was the dominant of the two brothers. The prince of Wales was determined to avoid for his sons the over-pressured intellectual education which he had been required to undergo, especially as he was aware in his own case of its lack of success. The family was based chiefly at Sandringham, and from an early age George acquired the values of the Norfolk squirearchy which so moulded his contribution to the British monarchy in the twentieth century. The boys' tutor from 1871 was the Revd John Neale Dalton (1839–1931), with whom Prince George formed a close, if sometimes awkward, bond which lasted much of his life; on his marriage he made Dalton his domestic chaplain. Dalton's chief responsibility was to educate the heir to the throne, and the lessons to which Prince George accompanied his brother were directed to that end. Dalton was not as heavy-handed as some of the prince of Wales's tutors had been, and he was not being constantly urged by the parents to make his pupils work. With Queen Victoria keeping a distant but characteristically watchful eye, Dalton gave his charges a limited education: exceptionally among European royalty, the future George V could barely speak French or German, and could not read those languages.
From an early stage Prince George was intended for the navy. It was clear that Prince Albert Victor could not do without him, and in 1877 the two boys were sent to HMS Britannia, the Royal Navy's training ship, with Dalton in attendance. This was followed, again with Dalton on board, by three years in HMS Bacchante, captained by Lord Charles Scott, in which the princes went round the world (1880–82); this was the third of their three voyages on the Bacchante, the first being to the West Indies (1879), the second to Spain and Ireland (1880). In an age when naval disasters were almost commonplace, placing both male heirs in one ship was a risk (as the cabinet pointed out), and indeed between South Africa and Australia the Bacchante was adrift rudderless for several days and several members of the crew were killed. The toughness of the conditions gave Prince George a point of reference to which he returned throughout his life. No member of the royal family had been exposed to such harsh physical and mental conditions since the youth of William IV. The voyage was recorded in The Cruise of HMS Bacchante, 1879–1882 (2 vols., 1886), which Dalton presented as being edited by himself from the journals and letters of the princes, but was in fact largely his own work (Nicolson, King George, 20). On their return the princes were confirmed by Archbishop Tait in Whippingham church on 8 August in the presence of Queen Victoria. George throughout his life was a middle-of-the-road Anglican.
Thus far, Prince George had been with his brother and tutor. In 1883 his naval career and independence advanced when as a sub-lieutenant he was posted to HMS Canada sailing in the north Atlantic; during this posting he visited Canada, where his Aunt Louise was wife of the governor-general (Lord Lorne), and on his return he was made KG by Queen Victoria. He then attended the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, and HMS Excellent, the shore-based school at Portsmouth, to complete his training. Excellent's captain was J. A. Fisher, later the admiral. George failed his pilotage but passed the rest, being promoted lieutenant. Prince Albert Victor had begun a life of dissipation and, unlike his father, had given worrying signs of being unable to control its extent. In July 1889 Prince George took command of HMS Torpedo Boat no. 75, and in 1890 a gunboat, HMS Thrush, being promoted commander in August 1891. These were no token or chaperoned commands, and a royal prince in a naval command was necessarily in a very exposed position. Kenneth Rose notes: ‘Soon after Prince George's twenty-first birthday, the smile disappears from his much photographed face, to be replaced by the familiar bearded stare that scarcely changed for the next half-century’ (Rose, 19).
In August 1891 Prince Albert Victor became engaged to Princess Mary of Teck in an arranged marriage (his own preference, Princess Hélène d'Orléans, having been turned down as a Roman Catholic). In November 1891 Prince George, usually of exemplary health except for seasickness, suffered a serious bout of typhoid. He had barely recovered when Prince Albert Victor died of influenza and pneumonia. On 14 January 1892 Prince George thus became the second in line to the throne and in due course was encouraged, especially by his grandmother, to propose to his dead brother's fiancée. He mourned his brother, with whom his youth had been so closely intertwined; but had Prince Albert Victor lived to ascend the throne in 1910 Prince George would have had the miserable role of trying to shield a hapless monarch from an unforgiving nation.
In 1892 the queen created Prince George duke of York, earl of Inverness, and Baron Killarney, and he took his seat in the House of Lords in June. His active naval career ended after a brief command of the cruiser Melampus, though he was promoted captain. He resisted the queen's wish that he should promote to first the last of his names, Albert. Almost wholly without direct political experience, he began the political round. His father, much more liberal on many topics than his grandmother, had taken care to insulate him from the extreme Unionism of Queen Victoria's court, and had even taken him and his brother to visit Gladstone in 10 Downing Street in August 1882 (when the Liberals were in exceptional royal disfavour). In February 1893 York dined with the aged premier, who found him ‘not only likeable but perhaps loveable’ (Gladstone, Diaries, 16 Feb 1893); George attended the introduction of the Government of Ireland Bill in February 1893, and with his father underwent the queen's fury when they acted as pallbearers at Gladstone's funeral in 1898. Both the atmosphere of the Wales's household and the naval context of the prince's early adult experience were much less politically partisan than the Conservative army circles to which his brother had been sent after his navy years.
On 3 May 1893 York became engaged to Princess Mary of Teck [see Mary (1867–1953)], their marriage in the Chapel Royal, St James's, following rapidly on 6 July. The Yorks settled happily into life on the Sandringham estate, where they lived in York Cottage. They quickly fulfilled their duty in perpetuating the succession, with the first of their six children born on 23 June 1894, the future Edward VIII, known in the family as David, his seventh name. Sensitivity to the nations of the United Kingdom was shown by the inclusion of the names of all the patron saints in their first son's names. The Yorks had five more children in quick succession: Prince George [see George VI (1895–1952)]; Princess Mary, later the princess royal;Prince Henry William Frederick Albert, later duke of Gloucester (1900–1974); Prince George Edward Alexander Edmund, later duke of Kent (1902–1942); and Prince John Charles Francis (1905–1919).
Within three years the fortunes of the house of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha had been transformed: the duke of York removed severe doubts as to the quality of the succession, and by his marriage and children provided a further generation of monarchs (in fact, through George VI, until 1952). These years, chiefly spent at Sandringham, were the calmest of the duke of York's life. Shooting was his chief pleasure, and he became one of the best shots in the empire. He enjoyed filling in his game book as much as his diary. In the 1890s he also developed his other major pastime, the collection of postage stamps. Though predecessors in the nineteenth century had begun the collection, the royal philatelic collection was in effect his creation. From 1906 he concentrated largely on the unused stamps of Britain and the empire, usually spending three afternoons a week on the collection; by the time of his death it comprised over a quarter of a million stamps in 325 volumes. From 1894 he was instructed in naval and constitutional history by J. R. Tanner, under whose guidance the prince made an abstract from Walter Bagehot's English Constitution, listing the crown's powers and obligations under the headings ‘its dignified capacity’ and ‘its business capacity’ (an interesting change from Bagehot's term, ‘efficient’; Nicolson, King George, 62).
Despite the domesticity of these years, the duke's behaviour to his wife—then and subsequently—often seemed abrupt and off-hand. She, in turn, felt excluded from significant aspects of her husband's life. Neither of the Yorks found it easy to bring up small children. The duke failed to perceive that his wife's intelligence needed more than the simple respect he undoubtedly felt for her, or that she longed for something more than the country longueurs of Sandringham life. He failed to protect her from his relatives' jealousy. On the other hand, he was scrupulously and contentedly monogamous, and his wife never had to suffer the indignities of Queen Alexandra.
The duke of York was not expected to perform many duties, but in 1900 a journey to Australia was planned to open the new commonwealth parliament there. The death of Queen Victoria in January 1901 made York heir to the throne and the new king was reluctant for him to go. On A. J. Balfour's insistence the successful royal visit went ahead, the prince travelling as duke of Cornwall and York (the new dukedom having come with the duchy of Cornwall's income at the time of his father's succession). The duke, with the duchess, travelled via Aden, Ceylon, and Singapore and opened the Australian parliament in Melbourne on 9 May 1901. The royal party then visited Brisbane and Sydney, and then New Zealand. They next went to Mauritius and South Africa, where the duke presented medals (the South African War was still being fought). Canada was reached on 16 September and was crossed and recrossed by the Canadian Pacific Railway. This was much the most substantial imperial tour hitherto made by a future monarch and its timing at the start of the century was appropriate, for it pointed to what for the next hundred years was to be a principal duty of the monarchy.
On his return to Britain the duke was met by Edward VII, and on 9 November 1901 was created prince of Wales and earl of Chester. On 5 December the prince caught the national mood for the first time with his remarks at Guildhall: he reported that in the empire many thought ‘that the old country must wake up’. (Often rendered ‘Wake up, England!’, this phrase became a hallmark of the prince's bluff, commonsensical manner.)
The prince was thirty-six when he became prince of Wales. His father's coronation was delayed by an operation, and the new prince was unlikely to spend as much time as heir apparent as his father (the longest-serving prince of Wales). The new reign was accompanied by vastly improved relations between the monarch and the heir apparent. Edward VII and the prince of Wales enjoyed close and friendly ties. On the prince's side, expression of affection was restricted by his natural reticence and by his respect for his father, but this was a restriction by the prince and not, as with Queen Victoria, an exclusion by the monarch. Edward VII ensured that his son saw important foreign dispatches and (from 1903) the daily telegrams. In due course he also saw cabinet papers. The prince of Wales's imperial experience was extended by a visit to India from 19 October 1905 to 8 May 1906. As with his father in 1875–6, he was struck by the complacent sense of superiority of many of the white civil servants, and on his return made a speech calling for ‘a wider sympathy’ on the part of the Indian Civil Service. On his return he also took an active interest in imperial defence and naval reform and was encouraged by his father to attend the House of Lords regularly. In the bitter dispute over naval policy, he took the side of Lord Charles Beresford against Sir John Fisher (thus differing from his father). Wales had visited Berlin in 1902 and in March 1908 returned thither. In July 1908 he again briefly visited Canada. He had quite frequent contacts with members of the Liberal cabinet, and became well known in high political circles for salty remarks at dinner parties, notably his comment that though he trusted H. H. Asquith he thought him ‘not quite a gentleman’ and, to the head of the Treasury, that he could not think how he could ‘go on serving that damned fellow Lloyd George’ (Rose, 71). Such comments were reported to Asquith and Lloyd George and, though not necessarily reflecting hostility to Liberalism, did not foster a constructive relationship. As king, he regretted having said them.
On Friday 6 May 1910 Edward VII died, his son having told him that his horse had won the 4.15 p.m. race at Kempton Park. The prince of Wales thus ascended the throne as George V, emperor of India, and his wife as Queen Mary. He was aged forty-four. He led the mourners at his father's funeral at Windsor—the last great gathering of international royalty before 1914. He ascended the throne more thoroughly prepared for his reign than his father or his grandmother had been for theirs, and the view often stated that he was a political novice had little substance. There was, however, an element of naïvety in his intellect, and he lacked the intellectual sharpness of his two predecessors. He also lacked their cosmopolitan character and European experience. However, he had an exceptional memory for figures and details, whether of uniforms, politics, or relations. He had always had difficulty with foreign languages, to the extent that his trips abroad were far less frequent than those of his father, in part because when in France or Germany he was expected to be able to speak in the relevant language. But he also had little interest in ‘abroad’: for George V, Norfolk was his emotional home in the sense that France had been for his father.
George V seemed scandal free, and in fact was domestically much the most respectable of British kings from George III until the accession of George VI. Yet his reign opened with an extraordinary episode, the prosecution in February 1911 for criminal libel of E. F. Mylius for the claims, stated in his article ‘Sanctified bigamy’, published in Paris in Liberator, that the new king was a bigamist with three children from a marriage in 1890 in Malta to Mary Culme-Seymour, daughter of Admiral Sir Michael Culme-Seymour. Mylius, who was repeating a rumour which had been in circulation in certain circles from the early 1890s, was found guilty and imprisoned for a year, and his attempt to subpoena the king was rejected. Sir John Simon, who as solicitor-general prosecuted the case, used the conclusion of the trial to make a strong statement of the king's innocence. The trial was well timed, encouraging popular support for the new king, who had clearly been wronged.
The king opened parliament for the first time on 6 February 1911, for which occasion the obligatory anti-Roman declaration of his protestant faith was statutorily amended to a simple declaration that he was a protestant and would uphold the protestant succession. His coronation by Randall Davidson, archbishop of Canterbury, was on 22 June 1911. In July the king and queen visited Ireland (his sole visit as monarch) and Scotland, and on 11 November they embarked for India for a great durbar held in Delhi on 12 December, the most spectacular ceremony in the history of the British empire. The king–emperor declared Delhi the new capital and laid its foundation-stone (soon after moved when New Delhi was re-sited). The durbar was followed by an elaborate shooting expedition in Nepal and a visit to Calcutta. The royal party reached Portsmouth on 5 February 1912. This was the first visit (other than to Mediterranean colonies) by a ruling British monarch to an imperial territory, and it completed the ceremonial inauguration of George V's reign.
George V's reign began at one of the few moments in the development of the modern British constitution when the powers of the crown, so often regarded as dormant, were required to be alive and active. The budget of 1909 had been rejected by the Lords, and the general election of January 1910 had been won by the Liberals, though now dependent on Irish and Labour support for their majority in the Commons. Asquith had opened his election campaign with a remark taken to mean that he had secured Edward VII's agreement to create peers if the Lords again resisted the budget, though the king had later made clear that he would require a further Liberal success at the polls before doing so. The Lords passed the budget on 28 April 1910 without a division, but the government was now moving forward with the Parliament Bill, intended to curtail the Lords' powers by statute. Asquith introduced the bill on 14 April with a rather opaque reference to the terms the government would request from the crown should a further general election on the Lords be necessary. Behind the parliament stood the question of Irish home rule and other constitutional reforms. Asquith, who was on holiday aboard the Admiralty yacht when Edward VII died, had been careful not to harry the king and to avoid pressing him into an alliance between the crown and the aristocracy of the sort many of the peers expected. He was likewise cautious about appearing to force the hand of George V—but the Parliament Bill was already making its way through the Commons, backed by a large majority of MPs.
Just before his death Edward VII had discussed with A. J. Balfour, the leader of the Unionist opposition, the possibility of Balfour's forming a government should Asquith resign if the king refused to appoint peers. This exchange was not revealed to George V until 1913. The new king initially had two private secretaries: Sir Arthur Bigge, who had been his secretary when prince of Wales, and Francis Knollys, Viscount Knollys, Edward VII's private secretary, whom George V appointed side by side with Bigge. Knollys, who withheld the exchange between Edward VII and Balfour from the king, was a well-known Liberal; Bigge's position was less well tried, but he was soon shown to be as Unionist as Knollys was Liberal. Asquith suggested private talks with the opposition, which began on 17 June 1910 and continued spasmodically until November, with no resolution of the central predicaments. On 11 November Asquith requested a dissolution of parliament, which the king granted. Three days later Asquith alarmed the king and his secretaries by requesting that George V ‘should give guarantees at once for the next Parliament’ (Rose, 116). The king refused to give contingent guarantees. The cabinet sent a minute, ambiguous in certain respects but clear enough in its general drift, stating that in order to dissolve, it would require a private guarantee of royal action to support government policy (assuming a Liberal government was again supported by a majority in the Commons). Knollys supported the cabinet's request; Bigge urged the king to reject it. On 16 November the king ‘agreed most reluctantly to give the cabinet a secret understanding … I disliked having to do this very much, but agreed that this was the only alternative to the Cabinet resigning, which at this moment would be disastrous’ (George V's diary, Rose, 121).
If George V had known of Balfour's possible willingness to take office in such circumstances, he might have acted differently. If he had, he would have placed the monarchy in a perilous position. Bigge's recommendation, that the king decline his cabinet's advice on a central and well-matured constitutional question, would similarly have placed the monarchy at the centre of political controversy. George V long resented the cabinet's treatment of him, but that his government needed a guarantee that he would follow its advice was as much a comment on the monarchy as on the cabinet with its large Commons majority—a majority which the election of December 1910 confirmed. Asquith continued to give the king as much elbow room as he could and, when the Lords passed wrecking amendments to the Parliament Bill in July 1911, agreed to the king's request not to be required to create peers immediately but to allow a further negotiation between the two houses. The king's pledge was made public, so that the peers should have full knowledge of the consequence of their actions. On 7 August, at the king's request, Lord Crewe said in the Lords that the king's guarantee was given in November only with ‘natural and legitimate reluctance’, a remark which was taken by the last-ditch peers as encouraging. Lord Morley made it clear on 10 August, the day of the vote, that the king definitely would create peers if the bill was defeated: it passed by seventeen votes.
One purpose of the Parliament Act was to enable the passing of a Government of Ireland Bill. In 1912 the Liberals duly brought forward the third Home Rule Bill, which was rejected by the Lords in January 1913. On 9 June 1913 Asquith again introduced the bill in the Commons and the process for passing it under the Parliament Act began. In September 1911 Andrew Bonar Law replaced Balfour as Unionist leader and astonished the king in May 1912 by asserting that, as the Lords had lost its power of permanent veto and had moreover not been reformed (as the Parliament Act intended), the king's personal veto (dormant since the reign of Queen Anne) had again become an efficacious arm of the constitution. Bonar Law's implication was that Unionists expected the king to use his veto to prevent the enactment of the bill once passed under the Parliament Act. This was a desperate move on the part of Bonar Law and reflected the Unionist view that they dictated British affairs whether they could gain a majority in the Commons or not. The king was of course under no obligation to seek or take advice from an opposition leader, but the Unionists' attempt to use the monarch in this way greatly angered and distressed the king.
In February 1913 the king retired Knollys, leaving himself with Stamfordham (as Bigge had become) as his private secretary. This was a dangerous move, for Stamfordham's Unionism was becoming, if anything, more strident. Asquith countered the influence of Bonar Law and Stamfordham—embodied in memoranda from the king to Asquith of 11 August and 23 September 1913 in effect putting the Unionist case for a dissolution of parliament—by a memorandum of his own reminding the king of his constitutional relationship to his ministers. In return, the king reminded Asquith that as head of the army the sovereign could not avoid concern about the possibility of civil strife in Ireland. He also returned to the suggestion he had made earlier of a conference at which he would try to ensure that the opposition acted ‘in a reasonable and conciliatory spirit’.
During his visit to Balmoral in October 1913 Asquith proposed to Bonar Law that there be a conference. A variety of conversations were held between October and January 1914. George V was personally much upset by the ‘Curragh mutiny’ in March 1914, especially, perhaps, because his requests to Asquith to exclude Ulster from the Home Rule Bill had had some success, and the ‘mutiny’ thus, if anything, made the exclusion of Ulster from the bill more difficult. The king played a part in the process by which the government, on its side, accepted that home rule could not apply to the whole of Ireland; the opposition, for its part, accepted that home rule for much of Ireland was inevitable. The king hoped this gradual convergence could be consolidated by a conference held at Buckingham Palace from 21 July. The king attended the opening session and privately encouraged all parties. Such direct monarchical political involvement was unprecedented since the reign of George III. The curious mixture of formal powers and informal commission of those powers to the cabinet—what F. W. Maitland called ‘our careful conservation of forms’—made a degree of royal involvement unavoidable. The various parties, by the time the conference ended inconclusively on 24 July, were in fact close to agreement, with the definition of boundaries the outstanding issue, and it cannot be known if civil war would have followed the enactment of the statute accompanied by an amending act: though as Stamfordham remarked ‘It is obvious that Civil War cannot be permitted on the subject of the delimitation of a county’ (Rose, 157).
George V's unavoidable involvement in the political and constitutional crisis of 1910 until the outbreak of war in August 1914 was by a long distance the most testing constitutional experience for a British monarch since the early years of the reign of George III. George V played his part manfully. In strict interpretation of the constitution, as Asquith implied, he leaned too far towards the Unionists (and he was reluctant to see that the Parliament Act eased the role of the monarch). But the extent to which Unionism had been institutionalized in the armed forces, the army, and the House of Lords meant that the king could not avoid responding, more than his prime minister, to so powerful a force.
The constitutional crisis of 1909 to 1914 had shown the king to be an active and needed element in the resolution of political difficulties. He was much less active than his father or grandfather in foreign affairs. He had entertained the Kaiser at the opening of the Victoria memorial in the Mall in May 1911 (the king was so pleased with it that he drew his sword and knighted the architect, Sir Thomas Brock, on the spot), on which occasion Wilhelm II mentioned in passing possible German action in Morocco and later claimed that the king's courteous but uncritical reply constituted British acceptance of the German initiative. In 1913 George V visited Berlin for the marriage of the Kaiser's daughter, a private family occasion, at which the tsar of Russia was also present.
In 1914 the European-wide connection of Queen Victoria's descendants was able to play little part in avoiding war. Indeed family relationships were as much a hindrance as a help. On 28 July 1914 Prince Henry of Prussia told his brother, the Kaiser, that at Buckingham Palace on 26 July George V had told him ‘We shall try all we can to keep out of this and shall remain neutral’; the king's memorandum of the conversation notes that he told Prince Henry: ‘I hope we shall remain neutral’ (Nicolson, King George, 245–6). Ever prone to exaggeration, the Kaiser made more of this than it deserved, but in the context of the delicate negotiations about Britain's reaction to an invasion of Belgium, it was not a helpful conversation. On Saturday 1 August Asquith woke the king at 1.30 a.m. to ask him to approve a direct appeal for restraint to the tsar. Next day the king showed a sharp appreciation of the likely course of events: ‘At this moment public opinion here is dead against our joining in the War but I think it will be impossible to keep out of it as we cannot allow France to be smashed’ (Rose, 168). On 4 August he noted: ‘Warm, showers and windy … I held a Council at 10.45 to declare War on Germany, it is a terrible catastrophe but it is not our fault’ (ibid.).
George V was well placed to respond to the extraordinary course of the First World War. Like his prime minister, Asquith, he was intent on both winning the war and maintaining the peacetime values which the British believed they were fighting to safeguard. The king normally wore uniform during the war and resided in Buckingham Palace, his lifestyle, never extravagant, being even more frugal than usual. He was eager to encourage, and in the course of the war made 450 visits to troops, 300 to hospitals, and almost as many to shipyards and munitions factories. He initially signed all officers' commissions, though this soon became impossible, and he personally gave 50,000 awards for gallantry. He first visited the western front in December 1914. During a visit to the First Army at Labuissière the king was thrown by the mare he was riding, fractured his pelvis, and suffered severely from pain and shock. The injuries, and his need to recover quickly from them so as to resume his role, left a lasting strain. Given his naval experience, the king was a skilful visitor to forces in the field. His lack of bombast, his straightforward manner, and his able appreciation of military positions were unusual and attractive qualities. As was already the case with the sons of a number of cabinet members, the king's son Prince Albert (later George VI) was a serving officer and saw action in HMS Collingwood at the battle of Jutland in May 1916. That the royal family was thus directly committed was an important bond between George V and his people. (As heir to the throne, the prince of Wales was not permitted to serve in a fighting capacity, but he was an energetic presence as a non-combatant officer on the western front.)
George V was already accustomed, in the various meetings between politicians in 1910–14, to working together with both party leaderships. He was good at encouraging his ministers—an important support for men isolated and working in a quite unprecedented and exceptionally stressful context. He came to value Asquith's qualities more than in peacetime. Perhaps surprisingly, he found Lloyd George's effervescent enthusiasm initially attractive, and was drawn by him into declaring what became known as the ‘king's pledge’ of teetotalism from 6 April 1915. He encouraged Asquith when forming a coalition government in May 1915 to create a separate Ministry of Munitions under Lloyd George.
The need to accept the replacement of his first cousin by marriage, Prince Louis of Battenberg, as first sea lord in October 1914 had early alerted the king to the problems of xenophobia; but many felt his reluctance to remove the eight enemy knights of the Garter from the Garter roll went too far the other way (they were struck off in May 1915, though their brass plates in St George's Chapel remained). George V reluctantly agreed that the titles of foreign members of the royal family should be considered by the Bryce committee of the House of Lords on foreign titles. This led to the Titles Deprivation Act of 1917, though the titles were not actually removed until March 1919, after the war had ended. Allied to this question, and at a time when the monarchy was being widely criticized in early 1917, was the name of the Saxe-Coburg dynasty (as the royal house was conventionally if erroneously called—the College of Heralds in 1917 was unable to provide a certain name). George V spoke English with no foreign accent (the first monarch since 1830 to do so) and resented aspersions on his patriotism. Yet he recognized the problem and on 17 July 1917, by royal proclamation approved by the privy council, the king announced that all descendants of Queen Victoria should bear the name of Windsor. He also renounced for himself and his successors further use of the titles of princes of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, but not the succession to those duchies. At the same time he defined and limited the use of royal titles such as royal highness, prince, and princess.
In the same year, on the advice of Lord Esher, the king created the order of the Companion of Honour (with sixty-five members) and the Order of the British Empire; the latter had five classes, and in 1918 was divided into civil and military divisions. The Order of the British Empire quickly established itself as a popular decoration, with its bottom two classes (officers and members) quite different in membership from the élitist tone of other orders and decorations. By the end of 1919 there were about 25,000 recipients, including trade unionists and syndicalists, some of them among the monarchy's critics. The order linked well to the democratic aspirations of post-war reconstruction, while at the same time playing on the traditional English liking for recognition of merit by according status: ‘as a tool to instil deference and dish republicanism it was a masterstroke’ (F. Prochaska, ed., Republic of Britain, 2000). Moreover, the inclusion of women in all classes, including the creation of the rank of dame to equal that of knight, was a striking innovation, anticipating the extension of the franchise to women in 1918.
Cautious, perhaps as a result of Unionist behaviour in 1910–14, the king was careful not to be drawn into Conservative criticism of Asquith or into the various political plots of 1916 against Asquith. In December 1916 the king noted in his diary that he accepted Asquith's resignation ‘with great regret. … It is a great blow to me & will I fear buck up the Germans’ (Nicolson, King George, 288). He then sent for Bonar Law, following one view of the precedents, and to Law's annoyance declined to agree to a dissolution until Law asked him in the capacity of prime minister (anticipating Law's request, the king had equipped himself with Haldane's advice). In circumstances of some confusion, on Balfour's advice the king called a conference of leading politicians of all British parties (including Labour) at Buckingham Palace on 6 December 1916. The upshot was that Law declined the king's offer, and the king then sent for Lloyd George, who formed a government which saw out the war.
The king found Lloyd George much less easy to deal with than Asquith as prime minister, and did not fall for his charm. Though he admired Lloyd George's energy he disliked his lack of method, which the king saw as epitomized by the prime minister's ceasing to provide handwritten reports of cabinet meetings and by the haphazard selection of printed cabinet minutes received from the new cabinet secretariat. Moreover, the king was drawn into military politics far more than before by his long-standing friendship with Douglas Haig, commander of the British armies in France. The king defended Haig. His defence of Haig was important and its effect was hard to measure, for royal support was almost always indirect and was very rarely directly challenged or even exposed. Even so, it should probably not be seen as critical to Haig's survival, which was the result not of royal support but of the absence of genuine prime ministerial determination to replace him.
Uncertainty about the tone of popular politics played an important part in George V's reaction to the suggestion that Britain offer a place of refuge to the Russian royal family, following the tsar's abdication in March 1917. Initially, the king did not demur to his cabinet's suggestion to respond favourably to a request from the provisional government, but soon, strongly encouraged by Stamfordham, he requested Balfour as foreign secretary to withdraw the offer, and the British ambassador was instructed to say nothing more, with the implication that a further request would be rejected (though a number of Russian princes were rescued by cruiser). The king attended the tsar's memorial service in July, and apparently never regretted his judgement in this matter. In his biography Kenneth Rose believed this may have been because he had not been as inactive or hostile as appeared, perhaps encouraging unsuccessful plans for the British Secret Service to effect a rescue.
George V found it difficult to maintain his spirits about the war. Affected by his accident, worried about his children, wearied by the constant slaughter, he was observed to have aged. This was hardly surprising as, unlike his ministers and generals who were from time to time replaced, he was the only person in British politics in the same position at the end of the war as at its start, and was almost the only monarch in Europe to retain his throne.
The king visited the front twice in 1918, first in March–April to encourage troops facing the start of the formidable German spring offensive, and again on 7 August 1918, the day when the British army at last broke through the German line and the war was in effect won. On 11 November, the day of the armistice, the king wrote in his diary: ‘Today has indeed been a wonderful day, the greatest in the history of the Country’ (Rose, 222).
The armistice celebrations were a brief caesura for George V. He and the queen appeared on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, the noise too great for his intended speech to be heard. On five successive days they drove through the streets of London and attended various formal celebrations in St Paul's Cathedral and at Westminster, with similar ceremonies a little later in Edinburgh. The king reviewed disabled soldiers and sailors in Hyde Park and the fleet in the Firth of Forth. In November he visited Paris (where one of the main boulevards was named after him) and on 19 November he addressed both houses of parliament. He received President Wilson of the USA in London in December. The king and queen's return to Sandringham was saddened by the death, following an epileptic attack, of their youngest son, Prince John, on 18 January 1919. Post-war ceremonials were completed by a victory parade in London on 19 July 1919, after the peace treaties had been signed and a national act of remembrance established in November 1919, the king supporting the suggestion of two minutes' silence at 11 a.m. on 11 November. On 11 November 1920 the king unveiled Lutyens's cenotaph in Whitehall and walked to Westminster Abbey for the burial of the Unknown Soldier.
The king failed to persuade Lloyd George not to request an immediate general election, which was requested the week before the armistice; this was the start of a tetchy peacetime relationship, soon exacerbated by Lloyd George's failure to consult the king about his plan for a trial of the Kaiser. The king faced the prospect of losing a significant part of his kingdom through the secession of the Irish Free State—the first such loss of territory to the English crown since the Danes were expelled in the ninth century—though the king helped to keep the free state within the empire as a dominion. The king personally on 22 June 1921 opened the first session of the Northern Ireland parliament, established in Belfast by theGovernment of Ireland Act (1920). His speech, drafted by E. W. M. Grigg and influenced by General Smuts, contained eirenic comments with respect to Ireland as a whole and expressed the hope that the south of Ireland would establish the reciprocal parliament provided for in the act. However, the time had passed for Ulster to be offered as a role model for the rest of Ireland. In July 1921 the king was reported as having told Lord Northcliffe with respect to the British government and the activities of British troops in Ireland: Lloyd George ‘must come to some agreement with them [the Irish]. This thing cannot go on. I cannot have my people killed in this manner’ (Nicolson, King George, 347; Rose, 240). Apparent royal intervention on such a subject caused a sensation: the interview was forsworn by Wickham Steed, the editor of The Times, and by Lloyd George in the Commons on behalf of the king. In fact the interview was less of a fabrication than was made out at the time, and the king was distressed at the slow resolution of the Irish question (History of The Times, vol. 4, pt 2, 806ff.; Rose, 241). A treaty establishing the Irish Free State as a dominion was signed on 6 December 1921. The king believed ‘that now after seven centuries there may be peace in Ireland’ (Nicolson, King George, 361), but in fact the treaty led to civil war.
George V's inclination at the end of the war was, like that of many of his wealthier subjects, for a ‘return to normalcy’. He recognized that post-war austerity required an absence of display. His excellent system of intelligence (independent of the government's) alerted him to those elements of working-class opinion which criticized the monarchy as a way to advance a more general critique of the governing class. However, though recognizing that more appearances in working-class areas were desirable and though concerned at the potential impact on the monarchy of extensive unemployment, the king did not see this as the moment for any fundamental reconsideration of the monarchy's role. He even helped to restore some traditional but abandoned ceremonies, such as the distribution of Maundy money (brought back in 1921). Though he was not opposed to some pragmatic changes, the king and his secretary, Stamfordham, were ill-equipped for any such reconsideration (though Clive Wigram, the junior secretary, did have plans for closer relationships with the newspaper press, and a full-time press secretary was appointed in 1918, the position lapsing between 1931 and 1944).
One consequence of this was that the king was at the mercy of those, like Lloyd George, who had their own views and methods about uses to which the court might be put—namely the sale of political honours, each of which had to be bestowed with the king's personal encomium. The king was unable to counter Lloyd George's habit—unthinkable to earlier prime ministers—of offering titles without first having obtained royal approval. The use of honours by Lloyd George and others in the post-war years was not wholly new, but its flagrant disregard for the usual niceties was new. The king protested about some of the proposed honours—such as the barony for William Vestey, of the meat-importing family, whose skill at evading income tax had become a matter of national comment—but he made little headway against the prime minister's will. Lloyd George's honours played on a national cult of snobbery which the king and his father, for all their rather egalitarian behaviour in private, had done nothing to diminish. The royal commission on honours was established partly as a result of the king's requests. On its recommendation the political honours scrutiny committee was set up as the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act passed in 1925, and honours in due course returned to their traditional decorum, at least as far as the public was aware.
Lloyd George's resignation on 19 October 1922, following a meeting of Conservative MPs at the Carlton Club, brought to an end the complex manoeuvres of the wartime coalitions, but it began a series of important political decisions for George V, which he and Stamfordham handled adroitly. The king requested Bonar Law—not technically the Conservative leader (that being Austen Chamberlain, who had supported Lloyd George at the Carlton Club meeting)—to form a government which, after prevarication, he did. Bonar Law's reserved, matter-of-fact manner pleased the king, but ill health forced his resignation in May 1923. In circumstances almost as confusing as those surrounding the formation of the Lloyd George coalition in December 1916 (and with Balfour again playing an important role behind the scenes), the king asked Stanley Baldwin to form a government, which he successfully did. George V appears to have been guided by a simple rule: that, given the complex political circumstances of the time, the prime minister should be in the Commons. The good sense of this was seen in the next year, as the Labour Party came to the fore. To have had Lord Curzon as prime minister (the alternative to Baldwin and about whose personal qualities for the premiership the king probably had doubts, as did almost everyone except Curzon himself) might have made a delicate situation even more awkward.
Against the king's advice Baldwin obtained a dissolution in November 1923 and lost the consequent general election. It appeared to be for the king to decide who had won, for no party had an absolute majority, and Labour came second to the tories, and ahead of the Liberals. The king asked Baldwin to meet the new House of Commons without resigning. That Ramsay MacDonald became the first Labour prime minister was in fact largely Asquith's decision, for, in deciding not to support Baldwin, Asquith left MacDonald as the person whom the king would by precedent invite. A Labour government was also the outcome favoured by the king. He noted in his diary for 22 January 1924, the day of MacDonald's appointment: ‘Today 23 years ago dear Grandmama died. I wonder what she would have thought of a Labour Government’ (Rose, 326). That George V dealt amiably with a Labour government which was at least in intention socialist in its ideology was in part a tribute to his own quality of businesslike commonsense. It also marked Labour's moderation in approach, and the decline of Unionist partisanship by the court (eased by the loss of most of Ireland). Court society was by no means progressive in tone, but it had become, like the king, rather apolitically conservative, certainly relative to the last decades of Victoria's reign. Indeed, it would not be going too far to say that the king's behaviour in the 1920s showed considerable mistrust of the Conservatives' confidence that their party represented in some unique way the national interest. J. C. C. Davidson later recorded his view that the king ‘was very right-wing and he knew where his friends really lay, and that the Conservative Party was the King's Party and a radical party was not’, which was certainly how tories liked to see their relationship to the monarchy (Memoirs of a Conservative, 177). But George V was skilful at distinguishing between the conventional, slightly old-fashioned views which he personally held as to society and social behaviour, and the dangers of eliding social preferences with political positions. Moreover the king had concluded, he told Ramsay MacDonald in 1930, that the British had been ‘fools … not to have accepted Gladstone's Home Rule Bill’ (Rose, 242); the basic premiss of Unionism since 1886 was thus, in George V's later view, fallacious. With much of Ireland lost to the United Kingdom, it was not surprising that he was cautious about a simple association of Unionism with the national interest.
MacDonald's minority government was short-lived, Asquith withdrawing support in October 1924. George V tried to avoid a general election, which might be as inconclusive as the last, but neither Asquith nor Baldwin would form another minority government. The election, fought in the context of the Zinoviev letter (of whose authenticity the king was sceptical), resulted in a substantial overall Conservative majority. ‘I like him and have always found him quite straight’ wrote the king of MacDonald when the latter resigned on 4 November 1924 (Nicolson, King George, 403). The accommodation of a Labour government into the processes of the British constitution looks easy in retrospect, but it was a considerable achievement on the king's part, among others, that friction was minimal. The king, though usually a stickler for dress conventions and court etiquette, proved easy-going on the question of court dress for his Labour privy councillors, a matter of considerable importance with respect to the public presentation of Labour in power.
The experience had considerable impact on a king and a court assumed to be Conservative in politics. Industrial relations were to play a significant role in Baldwin's government and the king, though suspicious of the practice of picketing, was very careful to distinguish the national interest from that of the government in his approach to the trade union question between 1925 and 1927.
The king was concerned at the deteriorating relations between employers and employees in the coalfields in 1925, and requested Baldwin by the autumn ‘to put before the country some definite policy to deal with, and if possible avert, the dangerous state of things with which we shall otherwise be confronted in the coming winter’ (Stamfordham to Baldwin, 12 June 1925, Nicolson, King George, 414). Baldwin's solution of July 1925—some financial assistance to the industry and a royal commission—prevented a strike at that time and was greeted with relief by the king, though not by Stamfordham, who regretted that the government had been driven into concession. Stamfordham fairly consistently took a harder line than the king, but this does not seem to have precluded an excellent inter-war working relationship between monarch and secretary. The existence of this difference of view, however, shows how far George V took his own line and stuck to it.
During the general strike in May 1926 the king stayed in London, receiving frequent bulletins on developments. He criticized the British Gazette (Churchill's emergency tabloid) for announcing that the armed forces would receive full support ‘in any action … to aid the Civil Power’ (Nicolson, King George, 418), and at the end of the strike told the prime minister to beware of ‘being rushed by some of his hot-headed colleagues into legislation which might have disastrous effects’ (Barnes and Middlemas, 415), a remark which shows how successfully Baldwin had presented himself as the moderate leader of a belligerent cabinet, when in fact he himself directed the cabinet's policy.
Though George V set great store by the empire and valued its role in the war, he surprisingly did not visit its dominions and colonies after that war, though he sent the prince of Wales out to do so. His inability to complete the tour of the empire begun by the Indian visit after his coronation was initially because British politics were unstable, but this was less of an obstacle after the war. The prince's tours were extremely successful. Though the king disapproved of many of his son's egalitarian innovations, he perhaps felt that this was the sort of thing his imperial subjects expected, and which he certainly could not emulate.
Balfour's formula for imperial development and devolution was accepted by the Imperial Conference of 1926, confirmed by the conference of 1930, both of which the king hosted, and implemented by the Statute of Westminster in 1931. The changes involved the king in several ways. By the conference of 1926 and the statute, the royal title was modified (to the form stated at the head of this article) with the intention of providing a title usable in all parts of the empire (including Ireland). This was a relief to the king, who had dreaded the possibility that each dominion parliament might legislate individually on the royal title and succession. The title question continued to cause difficulties for the rest of his reign, with South Africa passing its own acts in 1934. Behind this question lay the complex matter of the dominions' relationship to the British government and crown—a matter especially raised with respect to the governor-generalship of Australia in 1930, when the Australian prime minister wished to make a direct recommendation of an Australian to the king. There was a real tension between imperial devolution and the wish of the British government and, on the whole, of the king, to act as a single power in such matters. As Nicolson observes, ‘The resolutions of 1926 and 1930 and the Statute of Westminster itself left King George with a number of loose ends. He did not like loose ends’ (Nicolson, King George, 488). The king's good relations with dominion representatives, over which he took considerable time, were important when imperial relations were evolving in the context of the British hope, successfully realized in 1939, that the dominions would still see themselves as part of a worldwide pattern of defence and foreign policy led and co-ordinated by the British.
George V saw himself as a family man. Whereas the public had associated his father with cosmopolitan life tempered by scandal, and a wide circle of internationally known friends, George V seemed to embody the virtues of the Norfolk squirearchy from whose ranks several of his small group of cronies were drawn. Certainly the Sandringham estate, with Balmoral as a summer alternative, was where he felt most at ease. Yet accounts of the royal children's upbringing are closer to Rudyard Kipling's alarming stories of his own youth than to George V's cheery, sometimes even playful relationship with his easy-going father. Unlike Edward VII, George V did not particularly enjoy being king, and the sense of duty which kept him so assiduously at his boxes and his letter-writing informed his view of his children's development. Though he sensed the narrowness of his own naval education (undertaken, of course, when he was not expected to become king), he imposed the same tough regime on his sons as he himself had undergone, sending three of them (Edward VIII, George VI, and the duke of Kent) to the Royal Naval College at Osborne and then to Dartmouth (another, Henry, duke of Gloucester, went to preparatory school and Eton College, followed by Sandhurst, while John was educated at home). The absence of a chaperon tutor at Osborne and Dartmouth was a change from his own experience, allowing the boys a more ‘normal’ experience, but exposing them to bullying. On the other hand, the king rather abruptly sent his eldest son to Oxford University, as his father had been sent—though to Magdalen College rather than Christ Church—the experience proving as liberating for the future Edward VIII as it had been for the future Edward VII.
George V has received poor marks from historians for his record as a father: as Kenneth Rose remarks, he ‘has passed into history as a heavy-handed father’ (Rose, 305). Certainly, George V displayed little of his father's expansive affection, and he treated his children, even when adult, as naval ratings rather than as close relatives; gruff rebukes about errors of dress and punctuality were humiliatingly administered before cabinet ministers and courtiers. Though he was a very regular correspondent with his children, his letters sometimes read unfeelingly. On the other hand, as Frances Donaldson points out, the notion that George V was deliberately brutal towards his children is a fiction. The coldness they felt and the high early expectations that were required of them were not dissimilar to those recorded in scores of memoirs by children of the propertied classes reared in this period. A monarch, exceptionally, cannot choose for the heir to the throne an education simply to suit the personal needs and character of the child. Despite the absence of affection in their upbringing, both Edward VIII and George VI, in their very different ways, showed in their adult lives considerable public capacity. None of the children of George V and Queen Mary was problematic in the sense that Prince Albert Victor (George V's elder brother) or Prince Leopold (Edward VII's younger brother) had been.
Much more problematic was the king and queen's management of the succession, in a hereditary monarchy a vital responsibility of the monarch. George V was the last British monarch to experience a thoroughly managed marriage. His dependence on Queen Mary throughout their marriage was considerable, but the circumstances of his engagement to her could not be called those of romantic love (though, at least on his side, their relationship came to be so). The twentieth century brought an expectation on the part both of the public and of royalties that ‘falling in love’ would play a central part in royal marriages. The prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) fell in love, but not with someone who—as future king—he could marry, and George V died leaving the question of his successor's consort unknown, though his three other surviving sons made successful marriages to acceptable spouses. The king and queen's abrupt and censorious handling of the prince of Wales's relationships with married women was at the least unsympathetic. The consequence was that the prince told his parents as little as possible about his ‘private’ life, so they could not help him in his search for a wife and future queen.
During the 1920s George V recovered something of the bonhomie which many felt the war years had blunted. His middle-brow remarks became something of a hallmark of his peacetime reign, with the peppery comments which so often upset his offspring. When as a Royal Academician he was asked to sign Augustus John's diploma, he remarked: ‘What, that fellow! I've a damned good mind not to sign it’ (Rose, 318). The king knew his own reputation, and was probably not above adding to it. Many of his bons mots, though not uncharacteristic, seem to have gained in the telling, and Frances Donaldson is surely correct in seeing one of his most famous—‘My father was frightened of his mother; I was frightened of my father, and I am damned well going to see to it that my children are frightened of me’—as at least improbable (Donaldson, 10). With respect to the story about Augustus John, it is striking that the king clearly knew who the young artist was. The king's visits to galleries were field days for the collectors of these bons mots (and perhaps for their creator). He stood before a French impressionist painting and called out to the queen: ‘Here's something to make you laugh, May’. He told the director of the National Gallery, ‘I tell you what, Turner was mad … My grandmother always said so’ (K. Clark, Another Part of the Wood, 1974, 237). He shook his stick at a Cézanne. On the other hand, he suggested a tax on works of art being exported from Britain, so as to preserve the national collection (Rose, 317–18). His conservative taste was sometimes usefully deployed: he prevented the illustration of postage stamps (a favoured ploy of the Post Office to raise money) and told Kenneth Clark: ‘We invented the postage stamp—all it had on it was the sovereign's head and Postage and its value. That's all we want’ (Clark, 238).
George V, Kenneth Rose remarks, ‘liked a book with a plot, a tune he could hum and a picture that told a story’ (Rose, 312); but within those limits he was industrious and quite knowledgeable. He read a book a week and recorded his reading. This included much political biography and novels by such as John Buchan and C. S. Forester, but also R. S. Lambert and H. L. Beales's Memoirs of the Unemployed (1933) and Giles and Edmund Romilly's Out of Bounds (1935). He was determined to harness the ability of the young Kenneth Clark, and in 1934 bullied him into becoming surveyor of the king's pictures. The king's taste was prescient: on the walls of his writing room, in which he normally spent most of the morning, the pictures were John Phillip's Letter Writer of Seville and W. P. Frith's Ramsgate Sands (the latter a favourite picture). Even so, and despite the best efforts of Clark and others, there was no return to the days when the royal family were the nation's leading patrons of art. The king enjoyed listening to the gramophone, though his taste in music was conservative (a special favourite was ‘The Departure of the Troopship’, which ended with the national anthem and all in the drawing room standing to attention). He also enjoyed the cinema, but complained to the headmaster at Eton that the boys there had been shown Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin. Travelling theatre appealed to him, and a company was often invited to Balmoral.
In addition to his stamp collection (the king's especial enthusiasm), George V was an energetic patron of a variety of sports. In terms of personal participation, shooting was to the outdoors what philately was to the study. The king was one ‘of the first ten game-shots of his day at grouse and pheasants … and a very notable driven-partridge shot’ (Gore, 233), dedicated to the practice of the sport rather than the social ambiance which surrounded it. The king always shot with hammer guns, though they slowed him up. On a day at the end of the last shooting season before the war, he fired 1760 cartridges—representing, his biographer John Gore observed, ‘the high-water mark of superabundance in his sporting career’ (ibid., 230). It was said that during the years of his head keeper F. W. Bland over 1 million head of game were killed at Sandringham, the record being on 18 December 1913, when 3937 pheasants were shot by the king and his guests. The king's closest companions were, in addition to the navy friends whom he appointed to court offices, the shooting gentry of Norfolk such as George Brereton. After his illness in 1928 he used a pair of specially made light twelve-bore guns, but never had to use spectacles except for reading. George V balanced this pastime by developing the royal pigeon lofts; he was a frequent and successful competitor in this predominantly working-class sport. Despite rumours to the contrary circulating at the start of his reign, George V was a keen attender at horse races, especially Ascot and Goodwood, but though he nurtured the royal stud at Sandringham he was a much less successful owner than his father. Indeed, though a good judge of a horse, his attitude to racing was the reverse of his view of shooting: he chiefly enjoyed the ambiance. His only classic was the One Thousand Guineas with Scuttle in 1928. It was with his attempt to win the Derby that one of the most famous episodes of royal racing occurred: in 1913 the suffragette Emily Wilding Davison died after throwing herself under the king's horse Anmer; attempting to disrupt the race, she had miscalculated the speed of the horses. The king's other participation in sport was yachting. He inherited Britannia from his father; he initially used her as a pleasure boat, but in 1913 re-rigged her as a racing cruiser and raced her regularly. Between 1893 and 1934 she sailed in 569 races, winning 231 and taking prizes in 124 more (Rose, 323). In 1935 George V was asked if he would like a replacement as a jubilee gift from yachtsmen. He declined this offer and requested that Britannia be scuttled after his death. In July 1936 she was sunk off the Isle of Wight.
The king enjoyed the new spectator sports and established the tradition of a regular royal presence at their chief occasions: the association football cup final at Wembley and before, test matches at Lord's, tennis at Wimbledon, the Derby at Epsom, the summer meetings at Goodwood and Ascot, and, less frequently, international rugby matches at Twickenham. Indeed the emergence of a national canon of certain sports over others (in addition to horse racing) owed something to his patronage. He was the most eclectic of Britain's sporting royals.
George V had a trim figure. Except between 1898 and 1900, when he put on half a stone, he was usually within a pound of 10 stone 5 pounds. Sir Owen Morshead, his librarian, thus described him: he
was slightly below the middle height, neatly made, and impeccably dressed in the style before last. His voice was strong and resonant, his prominent eyes arrestingly blue. Moderate in diet, he drank hardly at all but smoked heavily. His mode of life was of an extreme regularity, his occupations being predictable to the day, indeed almost to the hour … Although not pietistically inclined, the King was all his life a sound churchman and early formed the habit of daily Bible reading. He attended Sunday morning service wherever he might be; when travelling in India his train used to be stopped for the purpose. (DNB)
The king's smoking had begun when he was a youth, with cigarettes given to him by Dalton, his former tutor. Both his sons smoked heavily, George VI fatally. George V, Harold Nicolson observed, spoke just like George VI: ‘Very virile, rather bronchial, very emphatic. I notice the closed “o” as in “those”; it is what the B.B.C. would call “off-white”, meaning slightly cockney’ (Nicolson, Diaries, 208).
In November 1928 the king fell ill with a chest infection, confirmed by radiology. By December his heart was weakened and the blood generally infected. On 12 December he was almost dead when Lord Dawson, his doctor, found the abscess with his needle and drew off the poison. Further drainage and the removal of a rib ended the decline. Dawson was much criticized for not consulting experts, but, whether by luck or good clinical experience, his patient recovered and was able, from February 1929, to convalesce at Craigweil, Sir Arthur du Cros's house at Bognor. One version of the king's most famous but unfortunately perhaps apocryphal expletive is that as he prepared to leave Bognor a deputation of its citizens requested the renaming of the town as Bognor Regis to mark its new royal association. ‘Bugger Bognor’ was said to have been the royal reply (but the town was so renamed). The king went from Bognor to Windsor, but in May 1929 suffered a further abscess. His illness was the longest suffered by a monarch since the accession of Queen Victoria. On 4 December the king signed a warrant nominating six councillors of state to act in his place during his illness. This followed the precedent of the hiatus in Queen Victoria's reign after the death of the prince consort. The prince of Wales and the duke of York were both councillors, but a regency does not seem to have been seriously contemplated. The illness, accompanied by bulletins, attracted wide sympathy. Churches were kept open day and night for prayer. The king attended a service of thanksgiving in Westminster Abbey, his wound still unhealed. He subsequently laughed so hard at J. H. Thomas's ribald jokes that the wound split and a further rib had to be removed. The king was not an equable patient and his temper showed. Sister Catherine Black proved good at managing him (sometimes assisted by the duke of York's elder daughter, later Elizabeth II); Sister Black remained his nurse for the rest of his life. Popular sympathy supported the king for the rest of his reign, but his illness left him a weakened man.
When he was partially recovered the king had to deal, on 4 June 1929, with the resignation of Stanley Baldwin following the Conservatives' defeat in the general election (unlike 1923, Baldwin resigned without meeting parliament). The king sent for Ramsay MacDonald, who on 4 June kissed hands for the second time. To the surprise of both—for this was a second minority government—MacDonald was to be prime minister almost until the king's death: his longest-serving premier and for nearly a quarter of the reign. The king was encouraging to the government, supporting MacDonald and Snowden as they respectively negotiated the three power settlement for the navy and the Dawes plan. But the government was soon facing not merely the chronic unemployment of the later 1920s but what was said to be the imminent collapse of the financial system. The king was depressed by the deaths of his sister, the princess royal, in January 1931 and of his oldest friend, Sir Charles Cust, the same month. Moreover, Stamfordham, his secretary since his accession, died in March 1931 (the king appointed Clive Wigram to the post). George V thus faced the political crisis of 1931 uneasily. Wigram suggested to him at an early stage that ‘Your Majesty might be asked to approve a National Government’ (Nicolson, King George, 449). After departing for Balmoral on 22 August the king had to return that night. At 10 a.m. on 23 August MacDonald came to the palace to resign. Baldwin, the Conservative leader, could not be found, but Herbert Samuel, as temporary leader of the Liberals, advised the king at noon that day that the preference should be for a continuing Labour government administering retrenchment or, failing that, for a national government. Wigram later noted ‘It was after the King's interview with Sir Herbert Samuel that His Majesty became convinced of the necessity for the National Government’ (ibid., 461). The king then saw Baldwin and asked him not if he would form a government, but whether he would serve in a national government under MacDonald; Baldwin agreed to do anything necessary to assist. Next day MacDonald visited the palace to tell the king that his cabinet had resigned and that consequently he must resign also. He had also mentioned to the cabinet his intention to recommend the king to summon a conference of himself (MacDonald), Baldwin, and Samuel. This he did, the king summoning the conference for 24 August. It was known to MacDonald, but perhaps not to the king, how hostile many members of the Labour cabinet were to accepting severe retrenchment and reduction of the welfare benefits. At this meeting the king pressed on MacDonald his view that the prime minister who was attempting to resign ‘was the only man to lead the country through the crisis’ (ibid., 464). Both men—the king in his personal appeal to MacDonald as an individual rather than as a party leader, MacDonald with his suggestion of a conference of party leaders—had moved significantly towards the formation of a national government. The king noted in his diary:
I held a Conference here in Indian room with the Prime Minister, Baldwin & Samuel & we discussed the formation of a National Government composed of all three Parties, with Ramsay MacDonald as P. M. … The Prime Minister came at 4.0 and tendered his resignation. I then invited him to form a National Government, which he agreed to do. (ibid., 465)
The government was to be ‘a temporary measure’ to meet the crisis, followed by a dissolution with the parties acting separately in the consequent general election. MacDonald's exceptional position and his separation from the former Labour government was marked by the fact that he again kissed hands, though there had been no intervening attempt to form a government and he had not resigned.
This was the most energetic use of royal prerogative since Edward VII's unauthorized sallies into foreign policy. The king had not merely been asked to approve a national government, as Wigram had predicted: he had been the most active agent in creating one. It is hard to avoid the view that, but for royal pressure, MacDonald would have resigned the premiership and the Labour Party would not have split. Some have seen that as a skilful ploy on the king's part to destroy, at least for the time being, the party of British socialism. But, as we have seen, the king was not hostile to Labour governments. His action is more likely to be explained by his underestimating, especially at the time of his first interview with MacDonald, the Labour Party's unwillingness to join the National Government. It is also of importance that it was MacDonald who advised the king to call a conference of the three party leaders: an unprecedented suggestion from a prime minister at the point of resignation, and one with a strong implication of inter-party co-operation. Wigram may well have been playing a deeper game, and his role in the crisis is hard to assess.
The National Government stabilized politics and proved anything but a short-term interlude. The king found its attempt at non-politics reassuring. He stiffened MacDonald's resolve to continue as prime minister, and the phrase ‘Your majesty's government’ became something more than a well-worn formula. The king encouraged MacDonald in his dotage and seemed undisturbed by his premier's diminishing grasp of public affairs. George V approved of the government's policies, including its controversial legislation for India. In 1931, during the second round-table conference, he received Gandhi and other Congress Party delegates at Buckingham Palace. He was ‘disgusted’ when the Indian princes denounced proposed legislation for a central federation in 1935 and said that it would be better if the princes improved conditions in India rather than attended his jubilee. MacDonald was determined to continue in office beyond the king's jubilee, which was held on 6 May 1935—marked by a service in St Paul's Cathedral, an address next day in Westminster Hall, and a series of banquets and processions in glorious weather. The king noted in his diary: ‘The greatest number of people in the streets that I have ever seen in my life. The enthusiasm was indeed most touching’ (Nicolson, King George, 524), and MacDonald recorded of the service:
We all went away feeling that we had taken part in something very much like a Holy Communion. … This Jubilee is having a miraculous effect on the public mind & on the King himself. He is finding confidence & is showing the Prince of Wales's aptitude for saying the right popular thing & feeling the popular mind. But with it all he retains the demeanour and the status of a King & does not step down to get on a lower level. (Marquand, 775)
Contact between the king and his subjects in the British Isles and throughout the empire had been dramatically enlarged by the introduction of a royal Christmas broadcast from Sandringham in 1932 (John Reith had suggested such a broadcast as early as 1923). The king's speech opening the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924 was thought to have been heard by 10 million people, and marked the popular arrival of the new medium as well as selling many wireless sets. The first Christmas broadcast was drafted by Rudyard Kipling; those for 1933–5 by Archbishop Lang.
On 7 June 1935 MacDonald resigned as prime minister, George V telling him (according to MacDonald's diary): ‘I hoped you might ha[ve] seen me through, but I now know it is impossible … You have been the Prime Minister I have liked best’ (the king persuaded MacDonald to stay in the government as lord president; Marquand, 777). It was Stanley Baldwin who was to see George V out. Baldwin's third premiership began in the midst of the Abyssinian crisis. The king supported, in general terms, the government's approach to foreign policy. His dislike of war was strong. He quite often made comments suggesting the abolition of capital ships and of submarines. On the other hand, in April 1934 the king gave a strong warning to the German ambassador that, if Germany ‘went on at the present rate, there was bound to be a war within ten years’ (Nicolson, King George, 521), and he warned the British ambassador in Berlin in January 1935 ‘that we must not be blinded by the apparent sweet reasonableness of the Germans, but be wary and not taken unawares’ (letter from Wigram, Nicolson, King George, 522). He reacted sharply when hearing, through the medium of Lady Snowden, of a German proposal for action by ‘the two Germanic nations’; the king deplored any suggestion of abandoning the French. In 1935, as the Abyssinian crisis developed, the king told Lloyd George: ‘I will not have another war. I will not … I will go to Trafalgar Square and wave a red flag myself sooner than allow this country to be brought in’ (Rose, 387). The Abyssinian crisis caused the king to wake in the night, though during the day his constricted arteries were by the end of 1935 causing him to doze off. The king's ambivalence, between profound suspicion of Hitler and Mussolini, and a pronounced wish to avoid war, placed him foursquare with his government and most of his subjects.
By the start of 1936 George V was, at just over seventy, a man close to his end, as he himself sensed. The final diary entry written by the king, on 17 January, reads: ‘Dawson arrived this evening. I saw him & feel rotten’ (Nicolson, King George, 530). On 20 January members of the privy council gathered in the king's bedroom at Sandringham and a proclamation constituting a council of state was with great difficulty initialled by the king. Dawson drafted a lapidary bulletin: ‘The King's life is moving peacefully to its close.’ In the course of the evening, the king asked Wigram ‘How is the Empire?’ and attempted to discuss political developments. A variant on the story about his earlier remark about Bognor became common after his death. It is said that one of the doctors tried to cheer him with the suggestion that he might soon again be convalescing in Bognor. That the king responded ‘Bugger Bognor’ is hard to substantiate, but it soon became the most famous of his many bons mots. With Dawson easing his patient's pain, and perhaps timing his death to suit the quality papers, George V died that evening, 20 January, just before midnight (though by Sandringham time he died at 12.25 a.m. on 21 January, for the king kept all the Sandringham clocks half an hour fast, the prince of Wales ordering them to be corrected, perhaps to avoid exactly this confusion).
George V lay in state in Westminster Hall for four days before his funeral in St George's Chapel, Windsor, on 28 January. His four sons kept vigil on the last evening. His body was later placed in a tomb in the nave of St George's Chapel, with an effigy by Sir William Reid Dick. The king's death occasioned considerable national and imperial mourning, with that individual but widespread sense of loss which a monarch, personally unknown in any direct way to most of his subjects, can provoke. The psychoanalyst W. R. D. Fairbairn interestingly recorded the profound effect of the king's death on some of his patients (see ‘The effect of the king's death upon patients undergoing analysis’, 1936, in W. R. D. Fairbairn,Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality, 1952).
George V's trim figure made him a much less exotic subject for artists than his two predecessors. His state portrait by Sir Luke Fildes (1912) is at Windsor Castle, a work of little distinction. He disliked sitting to artists, and many of his portraits were largely done from photographs. Of his many portraits, the group portrait of the royal family by John Lavery (1913, NPG) is by some way the most distinguished, with that by John Berrie for the King's Liverpool regiment (1935?) an attractive likeness. The king's appearance lent itself to photography, and the Illustrated London News jubilee supplement (4 May 1935) gives a good pictorial portrait of the reign. The king's head for the coronation medal and for the coinage was the work of E. Bertram Mackennal, a sculptor much liked by the king; he also carved marble statues for Madras and Delhi. In London, George V's statue outside the east end of Westminster Abbey is by William Reid Dick, by whom other sculptures or effigies were done for Sandringham, Crathie, and St George's Chapel, Windsor.
George V was fortunate in being the subject of two among the best-written biographies of constitutional monarchs. Harold Nicolson's official life was published in 1952; Nicolson followed Sidney Lee's official life of Edward VII in giving as candid an account of the king's life as reasonable discretion permitted (an easier task for Nicolson than for Lee). Nicolson's account of the king's role in the politics of the reign was particularly sharp. Kenneth Rose in 1983 took Nicolson's account a good deal further, especially on the domestic and family side, and brought out, more than it had been appropriate for Nicolson to do, the full flavour of the king's slightly off-beat personality in private life. The king had already been the subject of an unusual personal memoir by John Gore (1941), with access to the king's diaries and other papers. John Buchan's The King's Grace was written for the jubilee and, though it had a vast sale, was not one of Buchan's best books.
George V left the throne certainly no weaker, and perhaps stronger, than he found it at his accession. His was the busiest service of any nineteenth- or twentieth-century British monarch. He dealt with a remarkable and arduous series of crises: the reaction of the Unionists to the Parliament Bill and the home rule crisis, the complex coalition-forming of the First World War, the incorporation of the Labour Party into the working of constitutional government, the replacement of orthodox politics by a national government. George V's assiduous and non-partisan approach smoothed the process of political change which these crises represented. The significance of the royal prerogative in such cases is hard to separate from the personal force of the monarch. George V guarded the royal prerogative carefully. He did not try to use it aberrantly, as had his father in his foreign policy expedition, or to attempt to frustrate policy, party, or persons approved by the electorate, as had his grandmother. He worked with the grain of representative government politics, but he was capable of giving his own finish to the wood. When he acted, he did so decisively, but within a well-prepared context and in a way which made the outcome seem natural—a great skill in a monarch. Deeply conservative by nature and personal behaviour, George V had moved with the times, and faster than the times in certain respects. In an epoch when many of the older European monarchies were abolished, this was an achievement of substance. Though the British showed little sign of anti-monarchism, wrong steps by the king could have quickly changed their view. Compton Mackenzie wrote of him (intending criticism) that he ‘had all the talents but none of the genius of monarchy’; the crises with which George V dealt were exactly those in which attempts at ‘genius’ would have been disastrous. The nature of the British constitution requires monarchic action at certain points, almost always in moments of crisis in which each participant looks to a different precedent. George V experienced these in abundance and enabled the constitution to work. He was also important in the new style he brought to royal life: unstuffy and unpretentious, but combining with these a sharp and rather self-conscious sense of separateness that his otherwise more egalitarian tone perhaps required. His father had started the Sandringham style among the royals, but had balanced it with Paris and the continent: George V made the county habits and dress of the Norfolk gentry central to the royal style, and brought the British royal family closer to the English country gentry than had the earlier European, cosmopolitan attitudes of the Victorian and Edwardian royal family. George V thus set the tone for the rest of the century.
H. C. G. Matthew DNB
Birley, Sir Oswald Hornby Joseph (1880–1952), painter, was born on 31 March 1880 in Auckland, New Zealand, the son of Hugh Francis Birley, of St Asaph, north Wales, and his wife, Elizabeth, daughter of George McCorquodale, of Newton-le-Willows, Lancashire, while his parents were on a world tour. He was their only child and his father was determined to ensure the development of his son's artistic talent which had shown itself at an early age. He was educated at Harrow School and then, in 1897, was taken by his father to Dresden, Munich, and Florence. In 1898 he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, and then to Paris in 1901 where he studied under Marcel Baschet at the Académie Julian and exhibited regularly at the Salon until 1904. In 1905 he visited Madrid, staying there for almost a year and executing a series of copies from Velázquez which presented him with an ideal and helped him to formulate his style.
From 1906 Birley was working in London, rapidly establishing a reputation as a portrait painter and exhibiting his portraits at the Royal Academy from 1904 and almost every year thereafter until 1945. In 1907 he was one of the co-founders of the Modern Society of Portrait Painters, exhibiting alongside his friends and principal rivals, Glyn Philpot and Gerald Kelly, both of whose portraits he painted about this time (both National Portrait Gallery, London). From an artistic viewpoint, much of his best work, including interiors such as Room at James Pryde's (1914; sold Christies, Charleston Manor, Sussex, 3 October 1980, lot 25), was executed during this period.
In 1914 Birley enlisted in the Royal Fusiliers with whom he served until 1915 when he was transferred to the intelligence corps, flying as an observer with the Royal Flying Corps. He became a captain in 1916 and received the MC in 1917. In 1921 he married Rhoda Vava Mary Lecky Pike (1900–1981), daughter of Robert Lecky Pike, of Kilnock, co. Carlow (they had one daughter and one son), and the following year moved to 62 Wellington Road, St John's Wood, London, which had been built for him by Clough Williams-Ellis.
In the 1920s Birley's painting began to change rapidly, the artist using coarser brushwork and his approach becoming increasingly literal, but this had no discernible effect on his burgeoning career as a society portraitist. He received his first royal commission, a portrait of George V for the board of the National Museum of Wales in 1928; and thereafter he was to paint virtually every member of the royal family including Queen Mary and George VI (1945), and Queen Elizabeth, Elizabeth II, and Prince Philip (1949). He painted Stanley Baldwin twice (1928, Goldsmiths' Company; 1939, formerly Carlton Club, London), Neville Chamberlain (1933, City of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery), a bluff portrait of Ernest Rutherford (1932) for the Royal Society, and, as well, a large Conversation Piece (1937) for The Times. A series of painting travels included, besides Europe, visits to the United States (1922 and subsequently); Mexico in 1926, where he painted President Plutarco Calles; India (1927 and subsequent visits), which produced some of his more inspired ‘off-duty’ work; and Siam in 1929, where he painted the king and queen.
In 1943, while serving with the Sussex Home Guard, Birley lost the sight of an eye in an accident when a weapon exploded, but he adapted himself with great patience to his partial loss of vision. He painted most of the statesmen and military leaders of the war, particularly a series for the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, of George VI and his admirals, and four portraits of Winston Churchill with whom he sometimes painted in the south of France.
Birley, who was a member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters from 1912 and latterly its vice-president, was knighted in 1949. In 1951 an exhibition of his work, ranging over half a century, was held at the Royal Institute Galleries in London. A year later, after a final visit to the United States and a long period of increasingly poor health, he died at his London home on 6 May 1952. He was buried in the country churchyard at Westdean, near his Sussex home of Charleston Manor. The house and garden subsequently became well known for an annual festival of music and the arts organized by his widow, herself an amateur painter, until shortly before her death in 1981. His daughter was the designer and fashion writer Maxime de la Falaise (1922–2009) and his son the club owner Marcus (Mark) Birley (1930–2007).
Captain Birley, as he continued to call himself, was indeed described by The Times (7 May 1952) as looking more like a soldier than a painter. Exceptionally handsome, he had immense charm which must in no small degree have accounted for the success of his portrait practice. Although a number of obituaries expressed surprise that he had never been elected a member of the Royal Academy, it was presumably for the same reasons that none of his work was ever acquired by the Tate Gallery or any of the major municipal art collections. In addition to the collections already mentioned, however, his portraits are also found in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh (Lord Reith, 1933) and the Imperial War Museum, London.
Robin Gibson DNB