George V

George V (1865-1936) was king of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and emperor of India from 1910 to 1936. He maintained the monarchy as a stabilizing influence in a period of rapid international and domestic changes.

Born June 3, 1865, at Marlborough House, London, George V was the second son of the Prince and Princess of Wales (later King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra). Though over the years the royal family had several homes, it was to Sandringham in Norfolk, constructed by his father, that George as prince and later as king was especially attached. His early education was by private tutors, but the strongest influence on him was his mother. As the second son, he was to have a naval career, and in 1877 he became a naval cadet. He trained at sea, passed his examination to become a midshipman, attended the Royal Naval College at Greenwich, and served from 1886 to 1888 in the Mediterranean. In 1890 he was given personal command of a first-class gunboat with the West Indies and North American Squadron and was promoted to commander in August 1891.

Only with the death of his elder brother, the Duke of Clarence, in January 1892, did George, now 26, come into direct line of succession to the throne. He was at once created Duke of York, introduced into the House of Lords, and provided with living quarters in St. James's Palace. The next year he married his cousin, Princess Mary of Tech, who had been betrothed to his brother. To this union were born five sons and one daughter.


Accession to Throne

For some years George spent much of his time on official visits—to Russia in 1894 to attend the funeral of Alexander III; in 1897 to Ireland; in 1901 to Australia (where he opened in Melbourne the first Commonwealth Parliament), South Africa, and Canada; and in 1905-1906 a notable visit to India. With Victoria's death in 1901 he was created Prince of Wales. And Sir Arthur Bigge, Victoria's principal private secretary since 1896, became his private secretary, a role which continued when the prince became king and lasted until 1931. Bigge, created Lord Stamfordham in 1911, had great influence on George's official life. On Stamfordham's death in 1931 George V said, "He taught me how to be a King."

Edward VII and his son George V were two quite different personalities, the former an extrovert who enjoyed ceremonial pageantry, the latter a shy man who put himself on display only as an act of duty. George ascended the throne in May 1910. His coronation came in June 1911; in December in Delhi he received homage from the native Indian rajas. Meanwhile, in England he had inherited a constitutional crisis, the consequence of the attack of the Commons, controlled by the Liberal government, upon the Lords, controlled by the Conservatives. Upon the insistence of Prime Minister Asquith, King George agreed to create enough new peers to force the Parliament Bill, limiting the legislative power of the Lords, through that House. The Lords eventually gave way without the mass creation of new peers. In an even more serious crisis, involving national unity, over the Third Home Rule Bill for Ireland, King George brought the party leaders together at Buckingham Palace in 1914 in hopes of resolving the problem. The outcome was postponed by the advent of World War I.

During the war the King had no direct responsibility. But his duties, nonetheless, were manifold. He made some 450 recorded inspections of military and naval installations and some 300 visits to hospitals, as well as personally distributing 58,000 decorations. He and the Queen also followed the fortunes of two sons in the armed services. Due to the hostilities with Germany, a royal proclamation in 1917 changed the official name of the royal family from Hanover to Windsor. It was to Buckingham Palace that crowds turned on Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1918. Soon after, the King visited battlefields, cemeteries and devasted areas in France and then received President Wilson of the United States in London. In vain he advised David Lloyd George in 1918 to postpone a general election. Outwardly, at least, he was more successful when he sought to be a symbol of unity in opening the new Ulster Parliament in June 1921.


Later Reign

In various ways George's role affected events as the reign continued. In 1923, partly on the advice of elder statesmen and partly through his own decision, he chose Stanley Baldwin as prime minister, passing over Lord Curzon, who had more seniority. He accepted the advent of Labour to power in 1924 as natural and their due. With the end of the general strike in 1926 his influence was important in the decision not to punish strike leaders. In the financial and constitutional crisis of 1931 the role of King George was more controversial. The necessity of a national (nonpartisan) government, if Labour failed, was urged upon him by Sir Herbert Samuel, the Liberal leader. In the words of his private secretary, the King successfully impressed upon Ramsay MacDonald (who had been Labour prime minister) "that he was the only man to lead the country through the crisis." MacDonald formed a national coalition. It was perhaps as much a matter of the King advising his ministers as they advising him.

As his life developed, these qualities began to be associated with George V—dignity, frankness, occasional obstinacy and irritability, sense of duty, and fair play. His latter years were somewhat clouded by the differences with his eldest son, the Prince of Wales, who rebelled against tradition. But this did little to obscure the royal family as a symbol of British unity, particularly evident in the ceremonies of the King's Silver Jubilee in 1935. There was solemnity in St. Paul's and pageantry in Westminster Hall. Huge crowds massed in the streets as the King and Queen drove through London each day, and before Buckingham Palace as they appeared on the balcony each evening for a week.

But it soon became clear that the King's old bronchial ailment which nearly took his life in 1929 had returned, this time fatally. After a brief illness he died on Jan. 20, 1936, at the age of 70. His tomb is in the nave of St. George's Chapel, Windsor.


Further Reading on George V

There are two excellent biographies of George V: John Gore, King George V: A Personal Memoir (1941), treats his private life; Harold Nicolson, King George the Fifth: His Life and Reign (1952), covers his public life. Another personal account is in James Pope-Hennessy, Queen Mary, 1867-1953 (1959).

Additional Biography Sources

Halperin, John, Eminent Georgians: the lives of King George V, Elizabeth Bowen, St. John Philby, and Nancy Astor, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.

Hough, Richard Alexander, Born royal: the lives and loves of the young Windsors, Toronto; New York: Bantam Books, 1988.

Rose, Kenneth, King George V, New York: Knopf: Distributed by Random House, 1984.

Rose, Kenneth, King George V, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1983.

Sinclair, David, Two Georges: the making of the modern monarchy, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1988.

Van der Kiste, John, George V's children, Far Thrupp, Stroud, Gloucestershire; Wolfeboro Falls, NH: A. Sutton, 1991.