George V & Edward VIII
The reign of King George V (1910-1936) spanned 25 of the most tumultuous years faced by any 20th century sovereign. George steered the monarchy through the turmoil of the First World War, emerging stronger from a crisis which caused the fall of the three great empires of Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary. He played the role of mediator over Irish Home Rule, where he was concerned above all to prevent civil war. He intervened to enable the appointment of four prime ministers at times when, either through war or through political realignment, the party system was not functioning as it should to produce agreed candidates for the office. The King and his private secretary, Stamfordham, would descend in their frock coats and set to work to fix the problem and find a new prime minister.
Clement Attlee the Labour leader considered that the King was a statesman who was prepared to accept political change and succeeded in coming to terms with democracy. One of the reasons why Britain avoided the extremism of other nations, was because of ‘the presence of a King who commanded the respect and affection of his people, who was beyond the spirit of faction’. It was in part because of the heroic stature of the King that the British people didn’t turn to a fascist leader.
George reinvented the monarchy. He was responsible for ditching the name of Saxe Coburg Gotha and renaming the dynasty the House of Windsor, cutting its links with other European monarchies, many of which were German. He created a monarchy which was aloof and distant and at the same time shared the values of the people. George preferred to eat dinner alone at home with the Queen; but he wore a white tie and Garter ribbon, and Queen Mary sparkled with abundant jewels as well as the Garter.
George’s Court was not fashionable but dull and tweedy. The Queen knitted after dinner and the King sat on the sofa and talked. But if London society sneered, the monarchy, after 1918, gained a cultural centrality to the national life which was not equalled by any political institution. It became more public and ceremonial but also more domestic.
George succeeded in many areas, but he failed over the fundamental role of a monarch: to secure the succession. George’s quarrel with his eldest son Edward VIII, later Duke of Windsor, must count as his greatest failure.
There is a famous story about George V. Talking to his friend Lord Derby, who asked him why he didn’t make greater friends of his children, George allegedly replied: ‘my father was terrified of his mother, I was terrified of my father, and I am determined that my own children shall be terrified of me.’ The story may be apocryphal, but it encapsulates an essential truth – namely that George believed that he was entitled to bully his sons. He seems to have considered that this was the right thing for a royal father to do. As Owen Morshead the royal librarian remarked, ‘The House of Hanover produce bad parents. They are like ducks, they trample on their young.’ Both Edward VII and George himself survived their bullying parents, eventually becoming successful monarchs. Edward VIII was the shortest-reigning monarch of the United Kingdom, with a mere 326 days on the throne before he abdicated. The question is – was his failure the result of his relationship with his father, or was Edward’s character such that he was bound to fail in any event?
As a child, Edward was frightened of his father, who ‘chaffed’ and bullied him mercilessly. But the son most affected by the King was Bertie, later George VI, who suffered from a stammer, which his father made worse. ‘Get it out’, he would shout to the frightened little boy. Edward, by contrast, was bright and quick, and his mother’s favourite.
The quarrel between father and son really began in the First World War. The prince was desperate to fight in France, and he rebelled against his father’s insistence that, as the heir to the throne, he should not risk his life by fighting in the trenches. Instead, he became a popular figure behind the lines; and the experience taught him that he could carve out a role for himself on his own account.
After the war, there was considerable discussion as to what the prince should do. On the suggestion of the Prime Minister Lloyd George, he undertook a tour of Canada and America. This was the first of a series of empire tours which made him a global celebrity figure, mobbed by cheering crowds. Edward’s film star popularity drove a wedge between him and his father. The king peppered his son with criticisms. ‘You might as well be photographed naked,’ he wrote of a photograph of Edward in a swimming pool.
The essential function of the Prince of Wales was to marry and produce an heir. Edward failed to do this. Instead, for over ten years, Edward pursued an affair with a married woman, Freda Dudley Ward. Marriage to Freda was out of the question and, while the affair persisted, he was unable to marry a suitable woman and beget an heir.
Freda Dudley Ward was succeeded as royal favourite by the American, Thelma Furness, and soon Thelma was ousted as the prince’s mistress by Wallis Simpson. As an American divorcee, Wallis Simpson embodied everything the King abhorred about the post-war world. She painted her nails and plucked her eyebrows, she smoked in public, and she lived in a chic London flat.
During the last months of his life, the King could think of little but Mrs Simpson and his son. So desperate was George, that he asked the government to spy on Edward. He was convinced that Edward was incapable of being king. When Archbishop Cosmo Lang congratulated him on having raised the monarchy to a position higher than ever before, George replied: ‘What is the use when I know my son is going to let it down?’
Around this time, the King predicted that Edward would abdicate. To Prime Minister Baldwin, he remarked, ‘After I am dead the boy will ruin himself within twelve months.’ To a friend, he said, ‘I pray to God that my eldest son will never marry and have children, and that nothing will come between Bertie and Lilibet and the throne.’
Edward, by now, had determined to marry Mrs Simpson. As head of the Church of England, which he would become on succeeding as king, Edward could not marry a divorced woman. Forced to choose between the throne and Wallis, he was prepared to abdicate. He claimed that he had intended to discuss his marriage with his father in the months before his death. But Edward lacked the courage to confront the gruff old king. What is more curious is that George did not begin the conversation. The fact was George had already written off his son. He couldn’t bring himself to discuss the matter, and Mrs Simpson floated beneath the surface like an ‘unexploded mine’.
Ultimately, however, the Abdication was resolved quickly and smoothly without riots or political crisis. The Abdication can be seen as ‘triumphant proof’ of the success of the life’s work of George V. He left the monarchy sufficiently robust to survive the failure of his eldest son.
We can never know whether Edward VIII would have abdicated had it not been for Wallis Simpson, but his infatuation with a woman whom he could not marry unless he gave up the throne suggests that he wanted an escape from the role of king. George V’s quarrel with his son was a key cause of the Abdication. But the removal of Edward now seems increasingly fortunate in view of mounting evidence of his Nazi sympathies. George V was ruthless in cutting out his son, but he was right to do so.
Jane Ridley is a historian and Professor of Modern History at the University of Buckingham. She is the author of George V: Never a Dull Moment and Bertie: A Life of Edward VII.
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