Why does monarchy exist, and what purpose does it serve? At a time when the British monarchy has been much troubled, even those who think it an absurd anachronism must concede that it has shown an astonishing capacity for survival. If you start with Athelstan, who from around 930 was called “king of the English,” then England has been ruled by kings and queens for nearly eleven hundred years. Four years after King George V acceded to the throne in 1910 a terrible war ravaged Europe and ended with the collapse of four empires as well as the demise of many other kingdoms and principalities across the continent. But George—who during that war changed his dynasty’s name from Saxe-Coburg to Windsor in an attempt to disown its German origins—was more secure than ever.
Maybe that flourishing genre, the royal biography, helps explain this. Unlike those historical figures who have achieved greatness by personal qualities quite out of the ordinary, many monarchs have been exceedingly ordinary people, chosen by an accident of birth to occupy extraordinary positions—and never was that truer than of King George V. The title of Jane Ridley’s splendid George V: Never a Dull Moment is half ironic. He reigned, as she says, for “twenty-five of the most tumultuous and eventful years” in recent times; or as the courtier Sir Alan Lascelles wrote in his diary, George “was dull, beyond dispute—but my God, his reign (politically and internationally) never had a dull moment.”
And never a dull book about him. In 1983 Kenneth Rose wrote a prize-winning life of the king, and there’s a brilliant account by H.C.G. Matthew in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Those had been preceded by two official biographies: in 1941 King George V: A Personal Memoir by John Gore, a prolific journalist and author well known in his day, written with “the agreeable virtues of tact and taste,” in the words of the diplomat and writer Sir Harold Nicolson, who published in 1952 his own full-length life of the king, in many ways an excellent book, albeit marked not only by tact but by quiet condescension and patriotic self-congratulation. As Nicolson recorded in his diaries, he had been instructed by Lascelles that “I should not be expected to say one word that was not true…. All I should be expected to do was to omit things and incidents which were discreditable.” Lascelles added, “You will be writing a book on the subject of a myth and will have to be mythological,” which is the way quite a few other biographers, of Churchill for notable example, have worked unbidden.
Nearly seventy years later Ridley isn’t quite tactless or tasteless, but she’s untrammeled by any restraints. This is her third outstanding royal biography, following The Heir Apparent (2013), a full-dress life of King Edward VII,1 and Victoria (2016), a short life of the queen. And George might claim to have done more, almost by accident, than his grandmother or father to create the modern monarchy.
Like Henry VIII and Charles I, George V didn’t at first expect to inherit the throne. All three were younger sons who became heirs because of the death of elder brothers. George, the second son of the future Edward VII, was born in 1865, a year after Prince Albert, Duke of Clarence—“Eddy” to the family—an unfortunate youth of ungainly appearance and slow wits. By 1892 Eddy was betrothed to Princess May of Teck, but he suddenly fell ill and died, whereupon the families adroitly married her to his brother instead. George found himself second in line for the throne and before long the father of five boys and a girl. They settled in York Cottage—“this horrible little house,” as Nicolson called it—on the royal estate at Sandringham.
During George’s years at York Cottage, “all the basic stupidity of his character becomes apparent,” Nicolson sneered in his diary; “he did nothing at all but kill animals and stick in stamps.” It was true that stamp collecting became one of George’s passions, and shooting the other. This was the golden age, if that be the phrase, of battue shooting, which Ridley writes about with undisguised distaste. Artificial breeding of pheasants coincided with the advent of the double-barreled twelve-bore shotgun, which together meant that birds could be slaughtered on an industrial scale. George became one of the half-dozen best shots in the country, and was fiercely competitive. In his personal tally of “Game Killed by Me During Season 1896–97,” he reckoned that he had shot 11,006 creatures of all kinds, including 1,116 grouse, 2,509 partridges, and 5,993 pheasants.
With Victoria’s death in 1901, Edward VII became king and George heir to the throne. He and Mary (as she was now officially known, although he always called her May) made a lengthy imperial tour to Ceylon, Singapore, Australia—where he opened the parliament of the new commonwealth—South Africa, and Canada. George was made Prince of Wales on his return to a turbulent country, with increasingly bitter industrial conflict, women agitating violently for the franchise, Ireland unreconciled, and looming political deadlock at Westminster.
Over the previous century the monarchy had changed character. George III had been very much his own chief executive, and his ministers were a patrician oligarchy supported by a corrupt and unrepresentative House of Commons. In 1780 John Dunning’s famous parliamentary motion had asserted that “the influence of the crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished,” and much diminished it was in Victoria’s time. Successive Reform Acts had widened the franchise to about 60 percent of male citizens, and the prime minister was no longer a royal favorite but whoever commanded a majority in the Commons.
By the time Walter Bagehot published The English Constitution in 1867 he could distinguish between the “dignified” monarchy, whose purpose was to “excite and preserve the reverence of the population,” and the “efficient” prime minister and cabinet, who could “employ that homage in the work of government.” A monarch could no longer make or break a government but retained what Bagehot called “the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn,” as well as the authority to choose the prime minister in some circumstances and to act as an impartial referee in political disputes.
And yet reform had left untouched the hereditary House of Lords, which threw out William Gladstone’s second Home Rule Bill for Ireland in 1893 and then, after the Liberals won a landslide election in 1906, habitually rejected or mutilated their legislation, culminating in 1909 in the outrageous rejection of David Lloyd George’s “People’s Budget,” which proposed modestly higher taxes on the rich to pay for both social programs and battleships. It was finally passed the following year, but not before it had provoked a constitutional crisis. And so when Edward VII died in May 1910, George ascended the throne “at one of the few moments in the development of the modern British constitution,” in Matthew’s words, “when the powers of the crown, so often regarded as dormant, were required to be alive and active.” The crisis only ended in August 1911, when the peers, or enough of them, caved and passed the Parliament Act, curbing their own power.
For George, it was a relief to leave that autumn on a magnificent imperial visit to India. Cheering crowds and the great Durbar in Delhi, where gorgeously caparisoned Indian princes paid homage, gave him a comforting but misleading sense of loyalty. He returned in February 1912 as H.H. Asquith introduced the third Home Rule Bill, offering Ireland self-government within the United Kingdom. Arthur Balfour had been ousted as Tory leader and succeeded by Andrew Bonar Law, who openly urged Protestant Ulster to resist Home Rule by any means, including armed force, and was soon unmistakably inciting the army to mutiny. When the king implied to Asquith that he might refuse to give royal assent to the Home Rule Bill, it was something so utterly without precedent that Nicolson brushed over it, but even so, George was surely right when he told Asquith that it was his own “duty by every means in his power to prevent civil war.” The bill was finally passed in 1914 but suspended with the outbreak of war. In 1930 the king looked back and said, “What fools we were not to have accepted Mr. Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill,” which would have avoided so much woe and bloodshed.
One of the few men in Europe who could match George as a shot was Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. In the spring of 1914, and with painful dramatic irony, the archduke invited both George and Kaiser Wilhem II to shoot with him that autumn, not guessing that by June he would be a target himself. The Great War that followed, Ridley writes, “tore apart the dynastic realm of Queen Victoria’s extended family,” with sorry consequences for most of her descendants who ruled European countries in 1914, of whom there were no fewer than nine, but it only enhanced the position of the British Crown. “To the arbitrator monarch of 1910–14 was added a service monarchy, making direct contact with ordinary people, similar to the institution as it is today.” The king visited the army in France, where he was badly injured when thrown from his horse, and he and the queen toured the industrial cities of northern England with their great munitions factories and shipyards.
When H.G. Wells’s novel Mr. Britling Sees It Through (1916) derided “an uninspiring and alien Court,” George snorted, “I may be uninspiring, but I’ll be damned if I’m alien.” All the same, Wells was right when he said that “the European dynastic system, based upon the intermarriage of a group of mainly German royal families, is dead to-day.” Implicitly recognizing this, the king reluctantly allowed the removal from St. George’s Chapel at Windsor of the banners of the German knights of the Garter, before the “Change of Name,” as a new file opened by Lord Stamfordham, the king’s private secretary, was called. After some puzzlement as to what to call the royal family (or indeed what its existing name actually was), Stamfordham hit on their most famous castle, and Windsor was chosen as a pleasing new name. In July 1917 George recorded that “I relinquished all my German titles for myself & family.” Just as significant was his decision “that our children should be allowed to marry into British families.”
All that was nothing compared with events in Russia. In 1917 the February Revolution overthrew George’s cousin Tsar Nicholas II, and Sir George Buchanan, the British ambassador in Petrograd, reported that the provisional government expected the tsar to be offered refuge in England, as previous deposed rulers like Louis Philippe and Napoleon III had been. But Nicholas was not. Much later a completely false story was mentioned by the American-born social butterfly and brilliant diarist “Chips” Channon and subsequently repeated by the deplorable Lord Mountbatten: the king wanted to help the tsar but Lloyd George prevented him. This was the reverse of the truth. Lloyd George was ready to give the tsar refuge if it kept Russia in the war but, as Ridley unravels the story, it was George, nervous about his own position amid republican murmurs, who could “not help doubting, on general grounds of expediency,” in Stamfordham’s words, “whether it is advisable that the Imperial Family should take up their residence in this country.” The fate of that family was sealed by the Bolsheviks’ October Revolution. “Nicky and Alicky,” as George knew the tsar and tsarina, were sent to Yekaterinburg, where in July 1918 they and their son and four daughters were brutally killed on Lenin’s orders. Ridley admits that if George felt sorry for their fate, there’s no sign that he felt remorse. Successful dynasties don’t survive without a ruthless instinct for self-preservation.
After the Armistice in November 1918 the royal couple drove for five days through cheering crowds in the poorest quarters of London. The king was alarmed by the threat of socialism and shared Stamfordham’s hope that the masses would come to see the Crown “as a living power for good.” He was dismayed by the violence that erupted in Ireland soon after, not only the IRA’s terrorist campaign but the Black and Tans’ cruel reprisals. “Are you going to shoot all the people in Ireland?” he angrily asked Lloyd George. “I cannot have my people killed in this manner.” Lloyd George tried to spirit the problem away with his 1920 Government of Ireland Act, offering separate parliaments for six-county Northern Ireland and the twenty-six-county south, and in June 1921 the king courageously went to Belfast to open the smaller parliament with a speech pleading for peace and unity of spirit in Ireland. (A hundred years on, there may be peace, but unity of spirit has proved more elusive.)
By then George’s position as an independent arbitrator was stronger than ever, which was just as well given the bewildering succession of events that awaited: from 1922 to 1924 there were three elections, four governments, and four prime ministers. The king was appalled by Lloyd George’s sale of honors to unworthy men, which came to a head in June 1922 when the birthday honors “were flagrantly corrupt,” Ridley says. “Five new peers were listed, four of whom were crooks or tax evaders.” Weakened by the scandal, Lloyd George resigned in October 1922 after a majority of Tory MPs decided to leave the coalition, to be succeeded by Bonar Law, who served as prime minister for only seven months before resigning when he was diagnosed with terminal throat cancer.
Now the king had to choose a successor. Some thought that it should be Lord Curzon, the imperious foreign secretary, a view certainly held by Curzon himself, but George chose Stanley Baldwin instead. Soon afterward, and against the king’s expressed wish, Baldwin called a general election in which the Tories lost their majority. Although “the palace had dreaded a Labour government,” it came to power on January 22, 1924, with Ramsay MacDonald as prime minister. While wondering what “dear Grandmama” Victoria would have thought of it, George told his mother, “They have different ideas to ours as they are all socialists but they ought to be given a chance.”
MacDonald depended on the passive support of the Liberals, which was withdrawn after little more than nine months. The Tories won the ensuing election in a landslide after playing up the threat that Labour could be penetrated by the Soviets and making much of the “Zinoviev Letter.” This purportedly came from Grigory Zinoviev, the head of the Communist International (and shot twelve years later as Stalin’s great purge began), urging the British Communist Party to foment sedition and, more damagingly, claiming that the recognition of Soviet Russia by the Labour government would radicalize the British working class.
Throughout Ridley’s richly entertaining book we’re reminded of King George’s mundane personality and conventional outlook, not least his obsession with correct dress, a subject on which he continually berated his eldest son, among others. As Nicolson put it, George was a man who always preferred the fashion before last, and when others had moved on he continued to wear frock coats, buttoned boots rather than shoes, and trousers creased at the sides. He welcomed the postwar return of formal levee dress of white breeches and silk stockings at court, though he relented and permitted Labour ministers to wear evening dress. And yet with all his stiff conventionality, George was also blessed with basic decency and the sheer common sense that ought to be the cardinal Tory virtue but that sometimes, as at present, goes missing.
His decency was exemplified by his anger when it was proposed that captured U-boat crews should suffer punitive “differential treatment” from other prisoners of war, his instinct for fair play by his openness to a Labour government, and that common sense by his canny—and correct—suspicion that the Zinoviev Letter was a forgery. During the general strike of May 1926 in support of the miserably ill-paid miners, the king was hawkish to begin with but softened, criticizing “an unfortunate announcement” in Winston Churchill’s hysterical British Gazette that advised the armed forces to take any action necessary against the strikers, as well as a cruel attempt by the government to block strike pay. As Ridley perceptively says, stuffy and absurdly rigid though the king could be, he actually moved away from high society, while the monarchy gained what Ross McKibbin, the Australian-born Oxford historian and author of Classes and Cultures (1998), has called “a cultural centrality to British life” and “became more public, ceremonial, and glamorous, but also more obviously domestic.”
Over the winter of 1928–1929 the king was gravely ill and seemed close to death, while primitive remedies were attempted by the inept Lord Dawson, his personal physician. The diagnosis that eluded him was doubtless obstructive pulmonary disease, and the cause was also clear: his smoking, which shortened the lives of the present queen’s father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. But George recovered and within months “smoked my first cigarette which I enjoyed.” This was shortly after the May 1929 election in which Labour was returned to power though still in a parliamentary minority.
In October the Wall Street collapse set off the Great Depression, but MacDonald was preoccupied with foreign affairs, until the financial time bomb at last exploded in the summer of 1931. It had been ticking since Churchill, an improbable and incompetent chancellor of the exchequer, had returned to the gold standard in 1925, and now a run on the pound seemed to threaten disaster. One courtier told the king that “we are sitting on the top of a volcano” and foresaw that “Your Majesty might be asked to approve of a National Government”—a coalition of all parties. Orthodox wisdom held that financial confidence could only be restored by severe cuts in public spending, beginning with unemployment pay, although the cause of the crisis—as of the 2008 crash—wasn’t the fecklessness of the poor but the recklessness of the rich: irresponsible lending by bankers.
When most of the Labour cabinet refused to accept drastic cuts, MacDonald told the king that he wanted to resign, but George “said that he believed I was the only person who could carry the country through.” MacDonald, the son of a penniless unmarried farm servant in the remote north of Scotland, was unmistakably in awe of royalty; in 1924, unlike his colleagues, he had donned formal levee dress. For his part, George liked MacDonald more than any of his other prime ministers and, as Ridley acutely says, saw him as a faithful Highland ghillie. In all MacDonald offered his resignation four times, and four times the king refused. By August 26 a National Government, in name at least, had been formed, made up of Conservatives and Liberals as well as MacDonald and a couple of other ministers who had deserted the Labour Party. The run on the pound nevertheless continued until the guardians of financial rectitude finally gave up on September 21, when England came off the gold standard, which effectively devalued the pound by a quarter and ended the panic.
Although Ridley says that “the appointment of the National Government was the right thing to do in the circumstances,” that is not what the Labour Party thought, then or since. George’s “they ought to be given a chance” might be seen as his way of helping Labour become a democratic party of government, but the view on the left was that he had neutered Labour and drained it of its radical impulse. Although damaging Labour may not have been the king’s conscious motive, that was certainly the effect. An election was called in October 1931 with all the “Nationals” campaigning together. Labour was routed, falling from 288 seats in the Commons to 52, and a Tory government in all but name continued in office for nearly nine years, until a far graver crisis in May 1940 saw a truly national government formed.
For George there was a last huzzah, his Silver Jubilee in 1935. In keeping with Lascelles’s command, Nicolson described this climax to the reign: “The proletariat welcomed…a public festival,” while for the populace as a whole there was pride
in the fact that, whereas the other thrones had fallen, our own monarchy, unimpaired in dignity, had survived…. Reverence in the thought that in the Crown we possessed a symbol of patriotism, a focus of unison, an emblem of continuity in a rapidly dissolving world. Satisfaction in feeling that the Sovereign stood above all class animosities, all political ambitions, all sectional interests. Comfort in the realisation that here was a strong benevolent patriarch personifying the highest standards of the race.
Yes, Nicolson surely earned the knighthood that followed his book.
On one sensitive subject Gore’s A Personal Memoir was censored by George VI: George V’s distant and difficult relations with his children. Nicolson censored himself, treating the matter in a cursory paragraph. The youngest son, Prince John, was likely autistic and died aged thirteen. Princess Mary married Lord Lascelles, son of the Earl of Harewood (they were the parents of the most remarkable recent member of the larger royal family, the late George Harewood, a central figure in British musical and especially operatic life), while the second son, Bertie, Duke of York, married another earl’s daughter, Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, and the third, Henry, Duke of Gloucester, married a daughter of the Duke of Buccleuch.
More of a problem were the fourth son, George, Duke of Kent, and the eldest, the Prince of Wales. (The family had a habit of confusing nicknames: the Prince of Wales who briefly became Edward VIII was “David,” and the Duke of York who became King George VI was “Bertie.”) Both ran wild, George reputedly as a bisexual cocaine user—what would today’s tabloids do with that!—while David had a series of liaisons with married women, to his father’s dismay. “I am not interested in any wife except my own,” said the uxorious King George, a contrast to both his father and his eldest son, and his last years were clouded by David’s infatuation with “that woman,” Wallis Simpson.
By early 1936 the king was more gravely ill. The nation listened raptly to regular bulletins on the BBC, until the memorable words from Dawson on the evening of January 20: “The king’s life is drawing peacefully towards its close.” Peacefully, but not unaided: in order to ensure that his death would be announced in The Times rather than “the less suitable” evening papers, Dawson “decided to determine the end,” as he put it, and polished the king off with shots of morphia and cocaine. Dawson made his deadline and George died punctually at five minutes to midnight, the full story only revealed half a century later. Since he was in no pain and had made no request to be sped on his way, at least one lawyer has said that this was legally murder.
Everyone knows the sequel. George V was succeeded by King Edward VIII, who reigned for 327 days before abdicating in order to marry Mrs. Simpson. (As Queen Mary exclaimed, “Really, this might be Rumania!”) The following year he justified apprehensions about him by meeting Hitler and giving the Nazi salute. “The Yorks will do it very well,” said Queen Mary, and so King George VI and Queen Elizabeth did when war came.2
This February George V’s granddaughter, the ninety-five-year-old Queen Elizabeth II, marked her seventieth anniversary on the throne, not only the longest reign in English or British history but almost the longest in European history.3 But her Platinum Jubilee coincides with the worst travails the royal family has known since the Abdication, what with the lawsuit in America accusing the Duke of York of sexual abuse in connection with his friendship with Jeffrey Epstein, which he has now settled out of court in humiliating fashion; Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, grumbling away in California; and few people apart from the Prince of Wales himself looking forward with much enthusiasm to his becoming king.
On April 21, 1926, Chips Channon woke to the sound of booming guns announcing that the Duchess of York had given birth to a daughter, to be known as Elizabeth like her mother. With eerie prescience at a time when his friend the Prince of Wales was still expected to marry and beget an heir, he wrote, “I have a feeling the child will be Queen of England. And,” he added in words that could now sound more than ominous, “perhaps the last sovereign.”
Queen Mary received perhaps the best biography of all, by James Pope-Hennessy in 1959, a wonderful pendant to which appeared four years ago, The Quest for Queen Mary, Pope-Hennessy’s record of all his interviews with royalties English and European while writing his biography. See the review in these pages by Alexander Waugh, June 7, 2018. ↩
She has already passed the Austrian emperor Franz Joseph’s sixty-eight years, and in 2024 she can beat the record of King Louis XIV, who inherited the French throne at the age of four and reigned for seventy-two years and 110 days. ↩