The Reluctant King: The life of King George VI

King George VI
Image: Public Domain

Known as the ‘Reluctant King’, George VI is universally recognised as the father of the late Queen Elizabeth II and for his pronounced stammer, which was the focus of the Oscar-winning British movie The King’s Speech. But as notable as George VI was as the brother of the king who abdicated, the man himself is still an enigma when it comes to his personality and upbringing.

The man who would be king

George VI was born Albert Frederick Arthur George and often went by his nickname ‘Bertie’. He didn’t want to be king and was originally never meant to ascend the throne. As a boy and youth, he was shy and as the years passed by the chance of George becoming king dwindled. He was happily married to Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon and had two young daughters, the future Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret.

However, his life changed and he had no choice but to take the throne after his older brother, Edward VIII, abdicated to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. Although officially named Arthur, the new king decided then to use his last name George as a way to create continuity with the reign of his father, George V.

A wartime hero

George VI had proven to be a brave man during World War I when he helped to defend British naval forces. During World War II, he and his wife refused to leave England when the country was under attack from the German Luftwaffe. Despite being under pressure to take safety out of Britain, the young royals stayed put, even after Buckingham Palace was bombed. The couple’s determination to see the war through with their subjects endeared them to the nation.

Sins of the father

George VI was a shy boy who grew up with a stammer that stayed with him into adulthood. It became an obvious challenge as king when he was expected to make countless public speeches. It is believed that his strict upbringing, where he was often punished by his authoritarian and pathological disciplinarian father George V, contributed to his nervousness.

One documented story is that George V would display his wrath for the most trivial of reasons, particularly around clothing errors. One such time was when the young Prince George wore a kilt with the wrong jacket. Bertie’s stammer is attributed to fearing his father, a priggish man obsessed with formality, order and fearful of scandal after the salacious reputation of his own father, Edward VII.

Hot dog monarch

George VI was the first reigning monarch of Great Britain to set foot on American soil, a tactic designed to help boost his popularity as Europe was on the brink of war in 1939. Former US President Franklin D Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor offered the king a hot dog as a snack when he met them for a social event. Roosevelt had planned every detail to ensure the visit was a success to gain sympathy and support for the war effort.

Speech therapy

Because of his stammer since childhood, King George VI dreaded public speaking. His speech at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in October 1925 when he was Duke of York had been particularly traumatic for him. The embarrassment prompted his wife to seek help from Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue.

Through breathing exercises, George’s speech improved. This was essential because he had planned tours of Australia, New Zealand and Fiji which would expose him to international scrutiny.

The most unconstitutional king

Shortly after becoming king in 1937, the developing crisis in Europe forced King George VI to support Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler, which was controversial with some politicians and the public.

After Chamberlain’s return from Munich, where he had negotiated terms with Hitler (later to be seen as a grave mistake and failure), he was invited to appear on the balcony of Buckingham Palace with King George and Queen Consort Elizabeth. Both the appeasement policy and the king’s impartial association with Chamberlain led his behaviour to be described by historian John Grigg as ‘the most unconstitutional act by a British sovereign in the present century’.

A king for all seasons

Despite criticisms at the beginning of the war, King George VI proved to be one of the most popular monarchs of the 20th century, not only because of his image as a loving father but also as a war hero. He was a man of principle as he tried to modernise the royal family at a time of shifting attitudes.

A heavy smoker from his youth, George VI was diagnosed with lung cancer and died from a coronary thrombosis in his sleep on 6th February 1952.