Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Quite a historic occasion

‘I also informed the Council that May and I had decided some time ago that our children would be allowed to marry into British families. It was quite a historic occasion.’ This is King George V, born 150 years ago today, showing a rare touch of excitement in his diary on the day he changed the royal family name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor. George, like his grandmother Queen Victoria, was a keen diarist, but, by all accounts, his diary style is rather flat.

George Frederick Ernest Albert of the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the second son of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), and Alexandra of Denmark, was born on 3 June 1865. In his early years, he was educated alongside his older brother, Albert. Both were enrolled in the naval training academy in their teens. For three years, from 1879, the brothers served on HMS Bacchante visiting many parts of the world. While Albert went on to Trinity College, Cambridge, George remained in the Royal Navy, intending to make it his career.

In 1892, Albert’s death from pneumonia left George second in line to the throne (after his father). He left the Nayv, for more specialised training as the royal heir, and was soon created Duke of York by Queen Victoria. A year or so later he married Princess Victoria Mary of Teck (May), a German cousin who had been engaged to Albert. (See also The Diary Review article Princess Mary’s marathon.) The couple settled at York Cottage on the royal Sandringham Estate in Norfolk, living a fairly quiet life, though carrying out various public duties. During their marriage they had five sons and a daughter.

In 1901, after Edward VII had ascended the throne, George and his wife embarked on a long tour of the British Empire. This was devised by the government to reward Britain’s dominions for support in the South African War. The Duke and Duchess of York also spent the winter of 1905/1906 in India, and then went to Spain for the wedding of King Alfonso XIII to Victoria Eugenie of Battenberg. Edward died in 1910, and George became King George V on 6 May, with his coronation on 22 June the following year. Also in 1911, he revisited India for the Delhi Durbar so he and his wife could be formally acknowledged as the Emperor and Empress of India.

Public respect for King George V increased during World War One, during which he made many visits to the front line, hospitals, factories and dockyards. He also pressed for proper treatment of German prisoners-of-war and for more humane treatment of conscientious objectors. In 1917, anti-German feeling led him to adopt the family name of Windsor, replacing the Germanic Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Across Europe, monarchies were falling, and though George sent help to royals in Austria and Greece, for example, he took the pragmatic decision, on advice, to keep his distance from the autocratic Russian royal family, and denied political asylum to his cousin, the Tsar Nicholas II, and his family after the Bolshevik Revolution.

After the war, King George played an active role in the country’s politics, choosing Stanley Baldwin, rather than Lord Curzon, to form a government in 1923 when Andrew Bonar Law resigned, and by persuading the Conservative government not to take an unduly aggressive attitude towards the unions during the General Strike. Then, in an attempt to achieve national harmony during the economic crisis of 1931, he persuaded Ramsay MacDonald to lead a coalition government. The following year, he introduced the idea of broadcasting a Christmas message to the country. Dogged by ill-health in his later years, he continued to spend much time on his favourite hobby - collecting stamps. In May 1935, the country celebrated his silver jubilee, and he died the following year. See Wikipedia, English Monarchs, The British Monarchy, or Spartacus Educational for more biographical information.

Like his grandmother, Queen Victoria, George kept a diary - from 1880 to 1935. The manuscripts are held by the Royal Archives. As far as I can tell, though, no parts have been published in their own right (unlike Victoria’s - see Victoria’s diary online and The crown hurt me). However, George’s diaries have been mined extensively by biographers, such as Harold Nicolson in King George the Fifth: His Life and Reign, London (Constable and Co, 1952), and Kenneth Rose in King George V (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1983). See, for example, The Diary Review article on the anniversary of George V’s coronation - A terrible ordeal.

‘I am deeply grateful to Her Majesty the Queen,’ Rose says in his biography’s acknowledgements, ‘for gracious permission to publish documents of which she owns the copyright. These include many extracts from the Royal Archives made by Sir Harold Nicolson when writing his biography of King George V but not included in the completed work.’ He goes on to say that among these transcripts, ‘previously unpublished passages from the King’s diaries and from the correspondence of his private secretaries have proved particularly valuable to the present writer.’ Rose also includes a large number of quotes from several prominent diarists of the age - notably Harold Nicolson himself, ‘Chips’ Channon, Cynthia Asquith, Beatrice Webb. Here, though, are a few extracts of George’s own diary as taken from Rose’s biography.

[George V was in Madrid to attend the wedding of Princess Ena of Battenberg to the reigning king Alfonso XIII; the royal procession was heading back to the Royal Palace, when their was an assassination attempt.]
31 May 1906
‘Just before we reached the Palace, we heard a loud report and thought it was the first gun of the salute. We soon leaned however that when about 200 yards from the Palace in a narrow street, the Calle Mayor, close to the Italian Embassy, a bomb was thrown from an upper window at the King and Queen’s carriage. It burst between the wheel horses and the front of the carriage, killing about 20 people and wounding about 50 or 60, mostly officers and soldiers. Thank God! Alfonso and Ena were not touched although covered with glass from the broken windows . . .

Of course the bomb was thrown by an anarchist, supposed to be a Spaniard and of course they let him escape. I believe the Spanish police and detectives are about the worst in the world. No precautions whatever had been taken, they are most happy go lucky people here. Naturally, on their return, both Alfonso and Ena broke down, no wonder after such an awful experience. Eventually we had lunch about 3. I proposed their healths, not easy after the emotions caused by this terrible affair.’

[George V went to India in December 1911 for the so-called Delhi Durbar, a huge and spectacular event to commemorate his coronation and allow his proclamation as Emperor of India. It was the last of only three such Durbars, and the only one attended by the sovereign. ‘Even the King himself,’ writes Kenneth Rose, ‘who shunned hyperbole, described the Durbar as “the most beautiful and wonderful sight I ever saw”. The rest of his account is inimitably homespun. It ends:’
12 December 1911
‘Reached the Camp at 3.0. Rather tired after wearing the crown for 3½ hours, it hurt my head, as it is pretty heavy . . . Afterwards we held a reception in the large tent, about 5,000 people came, the heat was simply awful. Bed at 11.0 & quite tired.’

9 August 1914
‘Warm, showers and windy. At work all day . . . I held a Council at 10.45 to declare War with Germany, it is a terrible catastrophe but it is not our fault. An enormous crowd collected outside the Palace; we went on the balcony both before and after dinner. When they heard that War had been declared, the excitement increased and May and I with David went on to the balcony; the cheering was terrific. [. . .]

Please God it may soon be over, and that He will protect dear Bertie’s life.’ [He is referring to his second son, the future George VI]

17 July 1917
‘I also informed the Council that May and I had decided some time ago that our children would be allowed to marry into British families. It was quite a historic occasion.’ [This came after the Privy Council meeting which established the House of Windsor and renounced German titles.]

22 January 1924
‘I held a Council, at which Ramsay MacDonald was sworn in a member. I then asked him to form a government, which he accepted to do. I had an hour’s talk with him, he impressed me very much; he wishes to do the right thing. Today 23 years ago dear Grandmama died. I wonder what she would have thought of a Labour Government.’

27 October 1931
‘May and I dined alone. We listened to the returns of the election on the wireless, which made us happy as the National Government have won seats everywhere.’

17 January 1935
[An illegible reference to snow and wind.] Dawson arrived this evening. I saw him and feel rotten.’ [King George V’s last diary entry.]

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