‘Spare’ George VI made the most of living life ‘in the shadows’

VE Day: King George VI broadcasts to the nation in 1945

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Prince Albert, later King George VI, was the second son of George V and Queen Mary. He spent his early life in the shadow of his older brother, Prince Edward, the heir apparent who would eventually become Edward VIII. Bertie, as he was affectionately known, became third in line to the throne when his father became king in 1901. He also became the “spare heir” — a role that now has connotations of scandal and struggle, with recent examples including Prince Harry, Prince Andrew and Princess Margaret. However, by all accounts, Bertie was happy with his role as Spare, content with a life in the shadows.

A naturally shy and reserved man, Bertie was perfectly happy to not be the heir apparent to the throne. “David, (later Edward VIII), was the heir, not the spare, and the dominant figure in the relationship,” historian Andrew Lownie told “As one contemporary said: ‘It’s like comparing an ugly duckling with a cock pheasant.’”

Both Bertie and David, as Edward was known within his family, “endured a difficult childhood with emotionally cold parents and bullying teachers and nannies”.

Mr Lownie continued: “Bertie was very much in the shadow of his older brother who was eighteen months older and had all the benefits and pressures of being the heir. David was charismatic and popular, his younger brother was seen as a bit of a dolt, academically backward, unconfident and with a stammer.”

In 1909, Bertie enrolled as a naval cadet at the Royal Naval College, Osborne, and later progressed to the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth. He served during World War One, becoming “the only British Sovereign to have seen action in battle since William IV,” as Mr Lownie, who authored Traitor King: The Scandalous Exile of the Duke & Duchess of Windsor, noted.

However, his Naval career was ultimately cut short, with the Prince unable to overcome his seasickness and suffering from bouts of ill health. With the establishment of the Royal Air Force, in 1918, Bertie transferred and served for the remainder of the war, eventually becoming a qualified RAF pilot.

In 1920, he was made the Duke of York and began to take on more royal duties. Earning the nickname ‘Industrial Prince’, Bertie often represented his father at coalmines, factories and railyards. His stammer, and shame over it, made him appear less confident than his brother, who was naturally charming.

Nonetheless, George forged his own role within the Firm. A keen tennis player, he played at Wimbledon in the Men’s Doubles in 1926. He developed an interest in working conditions, becoming the president of the Industrial Welfare Society; he also ran annual summer camps for boys between 1921 and 1931 in a bid to bring together children from different social backgrounds.

Meanwhile, the Prince had been courting his future wife, Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon — the youngest daughter of the Earl and Countess of Strathmore.

Given the Royal Family’s history of marrying fellow royals, it was unusual that Bertie was able to choose a prospective spouse. The Prince was determined to marry Lady Elizabeth, who had rejected his proposal twice in 1921 and 1922, reportedly because she feared the responsibility and sacrifices necessary to become a member of the Firm.

However, after a lengthy courtship, Elizabeth agreed to marry him. The pair wed in April 1923 at Westminster Abbey. In the years that followed, they toured Kenya, Uganda and Sudan, representing the monarchy.

his home Fort Belvedere in Windsor Great Park”.

Now approaching his thirties, Bertie was still struggling with his stammer. “Understandably, he grew up with a profound lack of self-confidence that not merely caused him to stammer so badly in public that he sometimes became incoherent, but also often tipped him into inarticulate and unpredictable rages,” wrote professor and historian Henry Judd for History Extra in 2020.

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He dreaded public speaking and after a particularly difficult speech in 1925, he decided to start seeing a speech therapist. Subsequently, his delivery improved and he was able to speak with less hesitation. He and Elizabeth continued with their royal tours of the Empire, visiting Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Jamaica.

In 1926, they welcomed their first daughter, Princess Elizabeth — the future Queen Elizabeth II. Four years later, their second child was born, another daughter who they named Margaret. The family of four lived in a London townhouse, opting not to stay in one of the royal palaces.

For 10 years, the family settled into a life away from the limelight, living a relatively quiet existence between their homes in London and Windsor.

Then, in January 1936, George V died and his eldest son became King. George had severe reservations about Edward succeeding him; before his death, he made an eery prophecy: “After I am dead, the boy will ruin himself in twelve months.”

He added: “I pray God that my eldest son will never marry and that nothing will come between Bertie and Lilibet and the throne.”

Less than a year later, Edward VIII abdicated the throne to marry the twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson. Edward had not been married before and had no children, so his younger brother was the heir presumptive.

Albert, although reluctant, accepted the throne, becoming King George VI. The day before the abdication and his accession, Bertie travelled to London to visit his mother, Queen Mary. He wrote in his diary: “When I told her what had happened, I broke down and sobbed like a child.”

His unexpected accession proved a strain, with Queen Elizabeth, later the Queen Mother — who already had fears about the responsibility of being royal — steadfastly refusing to forgive Wallis for her role in the abdication.

There were widespread concerns about Bertie’s ability to be King, with many noting his natural shyness. Albert himself was nervous about the role, hence his sobriquet: ‘The Reluctant King’.

However, he proved to be a popular monarch, respected for staying in London during the Blitz and his devotion to his family, which he lovingly nicknamed, “Us Four”.

He reigned until his death on February 6, 1952. Having failed to recover from a lung operation, he died at the young age of 56.

His successor and elder daughter, Elizabeth, ascended the throne and ruled for over 70 years, becoming the longest-reigning monarch in British history.

“In many ways, George VI seems almost impossibly dutiful, hard-working and ordinary,” Mr Judd wrote. “But the standards he set in his public and private life were staggeringly high, providing an invaluable template for his equally dutiful elder daughter.”

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