Sunday, 3 November 2013

King George VI

One of those two wonderful diarists, Sir Harold Nicolson or Sir Henry Channon, said that HM King George VI looked like a Russian icon. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor called the Queen Cookie because she looked like a cook. 

One sees why here. This picture is from the State Opening of Parliament in 1948. They had ceased to be Emperor and Empress of India the year before. When Andrew Roberts asked the Queen Mother what is was like to be Empress of India she replied, 'Very nice'.

The future King George VI on the helter-skelter at the Wembley Exhibition, London 1925
1925 Wembley Exhibition. Imagine Musso, Stalin, or Hitler on a helter-skelter. You can't. FDR maybe.
I think King George VI was so unintelligent as to be not quite but almost mentally retarded, but the majority of his subjects were not clever either. He is one of the few monarchs to have made the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, for telling W.H. Auden 'Abroad is bloody.' Like George III he gloried in the name of Briton. 

He was a good man, not a bully like his father or a cad like his elder brother. When he ascended the throne he reigned over the most powerful and most civilised country in the world. It was left to our present Queen, his daughter, to preside over what we have now.

He was informed of our present Queen's birth while playing golf. A servant brought him a telegram with the news. He read it and then continued his game. I am old enough for this to seem understandable to me because I remember a time before mobile telephones and before fathers attended births.  I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled....

He won admiration for staying in London during the blitz, though A.J.P. Taylor said that while other Londoners stayed there because they had work to do the King and Queen stayed there to be bombed. He had a ration-book like his subjects and at Buckingham Place he ate spam on golden plates. 

He stammered very badly and was very shy. Waugh said his wartime broadcasts to his subjects did not inspire them so much as fill them with fear that he would be unable to finish his sentence. According to Andrew Roberts' very funny essay on him in Eminent Churchillians, he once reviewed a battalion of WRACS who had just landed in Sicily, asking the first: 'When did you arrive in Sicily?' and receiving the reply: 'This afternoon, sir'. He then repeated exactly the same question with the remaining WRACs, receiving the same reply each time.

He was very right-wing, but not a fascist like his brother, King Edward VIII, later Duke of Windsor. Sir Oswald Mosley's wife, Lady Diana Mosley, said of the latter, 'Of course, he was much more right-wing than my husband '. 

George VI greatly admired Neville Chamberlain and wanted Lord Halifax, not Churchill, to succeed Chamberlain as Prime Minister. The King thought the National Health Service a bad idea. 'You might as well give people free shoes...' 

He smoked sixty Capstan unfiltered a day and died of lung cancer at the age of 56.

The Queen and Queen Mother never forgave Edward VIII for abdicating. They blamed him for George VI's early death. 

King George VI opening the Festival of Britain in 1951 in the South Bank. The royal family laughed at Mrs. Thatcher's deep curtsies but Churchill's bow seems much deeper than the nod people usually make to the Sovereign nowadays.


  1. George VI was a sweet man, really. He made great friends with the Irish diplomat John Dulanty, even though Dulanty kept having to tell the King that Mr De Valera refused to join in any royalist celebrations, for republican reasons. Bertie (the King) confided to John D., how he was gasping for a fag during the Coronation. The Queen Mum, being a Scot, was more caustic about the Irish, but Bertie took all Dev's rebuffs very humbly. Mary Kenny

    1. Gladstone was completely right about Home Rule yet Chamberlain who left the Liberals over HR was right about tariff reform which could have made a confederation of the white dominions

    2. I think this is true, but in the modern era, monarchs have to be popular and show that they can be useful, both ceremonially, and maybe providing a neutral constitutional forum where matters of national concern can be discussed. The King of Spain and his son have taken to having round table discussions with the PM and leading politicians about youth unemployment (a French Republican magazine enthusiastically reports!!)

    3. The Irish Free State was technically still part of the Commonwealth when George VI was crowned in 1937, but was described by Churchill as "half in and half out" as De Valera refused to attend Commonwealth meetings and was undoing the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty (which acknowledged the King as the head of the C'wealth) piece by piece. He banned Irish parliamentarians from attending the '37 Coronation and forbade the Irish High Commissioner in London from putting up (or joining in with) Coronation bunting or celebrations. Dulanty, the High Commissioner, a delightful and adroit diplomat, followed Dev's orders, but charmed Queen Mary by talking to her about antiques (she was a kleptomaniac that way - heavens, this is turning into Downton Abbey!) and was much liked by Bertie. In 1948, the subsequent Irish administration declared a republic and quit the Commonwealth, and Dev, who was then in opposition, said (rather perversely) that he disapproved entirely of this move, as staying within the Commonwealth club should be used to build bridges with the North. By a quirk of history, Edward VIII (Duke of Windsor) remained, technically, King of Ireland until he died in 1972 and Mrs Wallis Simpson, (Duchess of Windsor) Ireland's queen - because the Instrument of Abdication was not carried out exactly correctly in the Dail in 1936 (according to constitutional pedants). For more details, see my book 'Crown & Shamrock: Love and Hate between Ireland and the British Monarchy'!

  2. Wallis was NOT Ireland's Queen. Edward became King of Ireland at the death of his father; Wallis was not his wife at that stage. A woman becomes Queen Consort automatically if her husband becomes King; but a woman who marries the King does not become Queen Consort until she is proclaimed and crowned. Wallis was neither proclaimed nor crowned, and so was never a Queen. I hope the rest of your book is more accurate (and better written) than this tripe.

    As for "I think King George VI was so unintelligent as to be almost mentally retarded" - this comment is unkind, unnecessary and untrue. "I think..?" Well you think wrongly. My grandfather knew George and would absolutely refute this ignorant statement.

    1. I rather like the no-nonsense country squire George V.

  3. For the record, Queen Elizabeth was not Empress of India. We have only had one: Victoria. Whilst under common law a wife takes her status for her husband -- and the wife of a King is therefore a Queen, the title of Emperor of India was a Parliamentary title and no provision was made for Empress. It is for this reason that George VI signed "RI" but Elizabeth only "R". Queen Mary had no doubt that she was Empress of India and when the then Garter King of Arms informed George V that, in fact, she wasn't, George V replied: "Are you going to tell her, or shall I?" Best, Rafe

    1. I am an ardent monarchist too and did not wish to cause offence. I should not have said the King was almost mentally retarded - I am an intellectual snob, it seems.

    2. I don't think there was any hint of intellectual snobbery in your piece. Your piece was well-reasoned, honest and fair.

  4. The article is a little hard on George, a shy man with a bad stutter who served in the Royal Navy at the Battle of Jutland and was a figurehead for the county throughout WW2.

  5. He was a good man. Thank God for him. I remember hearing, over forty years ago, and being greatly moved by, a talk by the poetess Alice V Stuart in which she compared Charles I and George VI as embodiments of what Shakespeare described as:

    "The king-becoming graces,
    As justice, verity, temperance, stableness,
    Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness,
    Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude."

    I also remember what Lord Fisher allegedly said of Edwatd VII after his death:

    "He wasn't clever, but he always did the right thing, which is better than brains.”

  6. "When Andrew Roberts asked the Queen Mother what is was like to be Empress of India she replied, 'Very nice'." This was her way of saying what a silly question. Alex Clarke