As Queen Victoria's grandson, King George V never had a chance to escape the drama that hounded his family. From the tragedy that thrust him into the spotlight, to his complicated relationship with his despicable elder son, the Sailor Prince barely saw a moment's rest in his seven decades on Earth.
1. He Had A Big Family
His Royal Highness Prince George of Wales was born on June 3, 1865, at Marlborough House, right in the heart of London. His parents were Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales, and Princess Alexandra of Denmark. The couple went on to have six children in total, filling their luxurious mansion with little princes and princesses—but George's parents were no ordinary royal couple.
These two hid a scandalous secret.
2. His Dad Had Too Much Time On His Hands
George's grandmother, Queen Victoria, had a...complicated relationship with George's father. She callously blamed him for the loss of her husband, and could barely stand to look at him. For that reason, she gave him absolutely nothing to do. Of course, George's father spent some of that time with his mother—they had six kids after all—but the rest of his time was spent somewhere far seedier...
3. He Adored His Father
George V grew up adoring his father—aside from Queen Victoria, most people who met Prince Albert Edward loved him—but George likely didn't know about his parents' secret: They lived a double life. The first life was the one that George saw: The happy royal family. However, George must have noticed that his father was gone from home for long periods of time.
He likely figured his dad was just off performing his royal duties. Yeah...something like that...
4. His Dad Slept Around
Prince Albert Edward eventually succeeded his mother and became King Edward VII—but before that, he had another name: Dirty Bertie. You see, Edward VII was a man of massive appetites, and we're not just talking about his bulging waistline. Edward's favorite place on Earth was Paris, where he frittered away the hours in the finest brothels the city could offer.
But how did George's mother feel about this? Well, like everything else in the royal family, it's complicated.
5. His Mother Put Up With It
By all accounts, Alexandra of Denmark loved her husband, and at the very least put up with his philandering. She couldn't keep up with his ravenous desires, and at least he still spent some of his time at home performing his marital duties. So, she simply turned a blind eye to Edward VII's Parisian adventures and spent her time raising George and his siblings—and boy, did she have her hands full.
6. He Grew Up With His Brother
An important note: The young Prince George was never supposed to be the King of England at all. That role was supposed to fall to his older brother, Prince Albert Victor. Born only a year apart, the two boys spent nearly their entire childhoods together. They received the same education, but neither of them was what you would call a "star student."
The classroom obviously wasn't working out for them—so when they were old enough, their father shipped them both away from home.
7. His Dad Wanted To Make Men Of Them
The Prince of Wales thought there was only one proper way to turn a boy into a man: The Royal Navy. George's father sent both him and his brother off for training when he was just 12 years old. By the time George was 15, the pair of them entered service on the HMS Bacchante. But don't go thinking the boys were off seeing active combat. Their time on the Bacchante was more holiday than boot camp.
8. He Got A Tattoo
Aboard the Bacchante, George and his brother traveled the world, visiting the furthest reaches of the British Empire, from the Caribbean to South Africa to Australia. In 1881, they visited Japan, where George made a scandalous decision. Like so many teens after him, he got a tattoo: a blue and red dragon on his arm, to be specific (though of course he never allowed anyone to photograph it).
George would fondly remember his teenage years on the high seas for the rest of his life—but his magical childhood was coming to a close.
9. He Split Up With His Brother
George grew up with his older brother Albert Victor, but they had to part ways eventually. Albert Victor was to be king, after all. Eventually, their parents sent Albert Victor to Trinity College to study, while George stayed with the Navy. But he wouldn't be alone for long—he was about to meet his first love. Unfortunately, she was...let's say a little too close for comfort...
Sign up to our newsletter.
History’s most fascinating stories and darkest secrets, delivered to your inbox daily. Making distraction rewarding since 2017.
10. He Fell In Love
Once he and Albert Victor parted ways, George began serving with his uncle, Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, in Malta. It made perfect sense: Like him, Alfred was a second son. Who better to show him the strange duties of a royal prince? But Alfred wasn't alone on Malta. He had his daughter, Princess Marie of Edinburgh, with him. George quickly fell in love with her, and she with him.
But, wait...doesn't that mean...?
11. She Was His Cousin
You read that right: Prince George's first love was...his cousin. And no "second cousin twice removed" business. She was his cousin. He quickly decided she was the one for him, and planned to pop the question. And even stranger, his grandmother, father, and uncle all approved. For the royal family, it seemed like a match made in heaven—at least, it did for most of them.
Others weren't so happy about it—and that's when the scheming began.
12. It Wasn't Meant To Be
Even with so many people in favor of these kissing cousins, some in the family despised the idea. George's mother and aunt were both against it—though not because of the cousin thing. They both disliked the political implications of the match. In the end, George's aunt convinced Princess Marie to refuse George's proposal, and she later went on to become the Queen of Romania.
George was heartbroken—but there was far worse pain right on the horizon.
13. He Fell Horribly Ill
Not even the royal family's resources could protect Prince George from everything. Around 1891, George fell ill with typhoid—the same disease that biographers believe killed his grandfather. For six excruciating weeks, George lay confined to a bed, praying for the fever to break. When it did, the entire royal family rejoiced. It seemed as though they'd evaded the Reaper—little did they know, George wasn't the prince he was looking for.
14. His Brother Was A Mess
George's older brother Albert Victor had started spiraling almost the instant the two of them parted ways. In England, rumors of his scandalous exploits were on everyone's lips. Whether it was secret affairs with chorus girls or controversy at a gay brothel, the name "Prince Albert Victor" seemed to just keep coming up where it shouldn't.
When he announced his engagement to Princess Mary of Teck, it seemed like he might finally settle down. Tragically, he never got the chance.
15. He Lost His Best Friend
Prince Albert Victor and Princess Mary of Teck got to enjoy their engagement for all of six weeks. This entire time, an influenza pandemic had ravaged the empire—and it finally came for a member of the royal family in 1892. Prince Albert Victor succumbed to pneumonia on January 14, 1892, at just 28 years old. George's closest friend in the world was gone—but that wasn't all.
His entire life, George never thought he'd have to become king. Well, that had changed.
16. His Grandma Matched Him Up
Is marrying your dead brother's fiancée weird? At least it's better than first cousins, I suppose. Queen Victoria had worked hard to choose the perfect bride for her grandson—so why let such a great match go to waste? She suggested that George, now in line to become king, marry Princess Mary instead! Now, we've all had grandparents meddle in our lives—but in a bizarre twist, this one actually worked out for the best.
17. He Fell For His Brother's Girl
Things must have been awkward between George and Mary of Teck at first, but over the months, their shared grief and loss brought them together. Though Victoria undoubtedly pushed them into it, the two of them soon grew to care for each other. About one year after losing Albert Victor, George asked for Mary's hand, and she said yes.
18. He Couldn't Express Himself
George V and Mary of Teck had a surprisingly devoted and tender relationship. Though they might have seemed slightly cold and distant in public, that was just because George struggled to express himself. However, both he and his wife frequently wrote each other love letters. Despite the strange way they got together, they were a team, and that was a good thing.
Pretty soon, they would both need all the help they could get.
19. He Ruled Through Fear
George and Mary had five sons and a daughter. George allegedly gave a simple explanation of his fatherhood style: "My father was frightened of his mother, I was frightened of my father, and I am [darn] well going to see to it that my children are frightened of me." That would certainly line up with what his son Henry would later say about him, calling George V a "terrible father."
Maybe the kids resented the fact that George didn't give them the life most royal families expected...
20. He Liked The "Simple" Life
George's blood was as blue as it gets, and he could have lived in any number of extravagant palaces or castles. But that wasn't George V's style. He raised his family mainly at York Cottage, a relatively small house in Norfolk. They looked more like an upper-middle-class family than anything else, even though George was now directly in line to be the King of England.
So what did George do with all that time out in the country? Simple: He shot things.
21. He Loved His Hobbies
Queen Victoria was still alive, so the crown was still quite far off—and that meant George didn't actually have that much to do. He had plenty of time to kill, and he took that literally. As his official biographer put it, "when he was the Duke of York...he didn't nothing at all but kill animals and stick in stamps." George's two great loves were hunting and stamp collecting—though one of those pastimes got a little bloodier than the other.
22. He Loved Big Game Hunting
Later in his life, when he became Emperor of India, George and his wife took a trip through the Indian subcontinent. And while George was in India, you just know he was going to buck wild. Over 10 days, he shot 21 tigers, eight rhinos, and a bear. He may have been rich, but you did not want to mess with George while he had a gun in his hand.
23. He Went Too Far
The peak of George V's hunting obsession came on December 18, 1913. That day, he went hunting for about six hours. In that time, he shot one thousand pheasants. That's one bird every 20 seconds. By the time he had finished, likely because there was no ammo left in sight, even George had to admit "we went a little too far." You don't say, Georgie!
24. He Moved Up In The World
When Queen Victoria finally passed, George's father became King Edward VII, and George became the Prince of Wales. He spent the next several years having children, traveling the world, and learning about the business of being king from his father. Well, he was going to need all the help he could get: While Queen Victoria had seemingly lived forever, his dad was not long for this world...
25. He Became The King
Years of debaucherous eating, drinking, and sleeping around took their toll on Edward VII. Victoria's reign lasted 63 years; Edward's only lasted nine. He succumbed to illness on May 6, 1910. The loss devastated George—soon to be King George V. Numb, he wrote: "I have lost my best friend and the best of fathers...I am heart-broken and overwhelmed with grief..."
But George didn't have long to mourn. At the time, Europe was a powder keg—and it was about to explode.
26. He Ruled Through WWI
On 4 August 1914, four years after George V became king, he wrote a frank entry in his diary: "I held a council at 10.45 to declare war with Germany. It is a terrible catastrophe but it is not our fault....Please to God it may soon be over." WWI would prove the most horrifying conflict that the world had ever seen—but not many people realize just how close to home it hit for George.
27. His Cousin Was Public Enemy #1
During WWI, the British public saw Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II as the figurehead for all the horror taking place on the continent. To them, he was little more than a monster—but he was George's first cousin. King George V was quite literally fighting with his own family—and the nightmare would only get worse as it got better.
28. He Sounded Too German
George tried his best to remain a beacon of strength and national pride during WWI. That meant making a decision that changed the royal family forever. Technically, George's house—the ruling house of England—was German. The House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, to be exact. Britons had to watch as thousands upon thousands of their fathers, sons, and brothers went off to fight Germans, while a German ruled them.
It was a terrible look, and George knew it. So he decided to do something about it.
29. He Invented A New Name
I don't expect you to know the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, but I bet you've heard of the House of Windsor. Well, turns out they're the same thing. In 1917, George V released a royal proclamation, changing the British royal house's name to Windsor. He also made his German relatives change their names too. Prince Louis of Battenberg became Louis Mountbatten, for instance.
The royal family as we know it was born that day—but changing your name can't solve all your problems, as George was about to learn.
30. His Cousin Lost His Crown
As if he didn't have enough on his plate, later in 1917, George received truly harrowing news: His first cousin and near-doppelganger, Tsar Nicholas II, had been overthrown, and the Bolsheviks had taken over the nation. The British government acted fast and planned to offer asylum to the Russian imperial family—but in a surprisingly heartless turn, George stepped in the way.
31. He Betrayed His Family
Kings must have to make countless hard decisions, but this one was particularly harsh. George feared that the Romanov family might inspire revolution in Britain. So, he abandoned his own cousin to a chilling fate. George blocked the offer of asylum: The Romanovs were not welcome in Britain. They remained in Russia where, after several grueling months in captivity, the Bolsheviks executed the entire family, then dumped their bodies down an abandoned mineshaft.
32. His Youngest Child Was Sickly
Finally, in 1918, King George V got some good news: WWI was finally over! George rejoiced along with his nation—but his happiness would be short-lived. Prince John, George's youngest child, was born in 1905, but from the moment of his birth, he was a sickly and frail boy. Little "Johnnie" was the baby of the family, but no matter how much anyone spoiled him, his health just never improved.
Finally, just two months after Armistice Day, George's worst fear came true.
33. He Suffered Every Parent's Nightmare
On January 18, 1919, Prince George had a severe seizure, and this time, he would never recover. He passed in his sleep at 13 years old. George and his wife Mary were both devastated, but part of them was relieved. John's entire life had been filled with sickness and pain. In a letter, George painfully described John's passing as "the greatest mercy possible."
34. He Started A Tradition
If you've ever watched Queen Elizabeth II's address on Christmas Day, you've got George V to thank. In 1932, he delivered the first-ever Royal Christmas Speech on the radio. He didn't want to do it, but his advisors reminded him that his people wanted to hear from him. And it turns out they were right! George became a beloved king—even if he didn't see it.
35. He Didn't Know Why They Loved Him
In 1935, George celebrated his Silver Jubilee, and he could not believe the crowd that came out for the occasion. His radio addresses had allowed him to reach his people unlike any monarch who came before him. When he heard the crowd's adulation, he exclaimed, "I cannot understand it, after all I am only a very ordinary sort of fellow."
Well George, not everyone liked you—and at the top of the list was your own son.
36. He Was Disappointed In His Son
When George was young, his older brother was the problem child. When it came to his kids, the story was the same. Though they had once been close, George's relationship with his eldest son Edward grew more and more strained as the years went on. Now, oftentimes, fathers expect too much of their sons. In this case, I side with George 100%.
Prince Edward was not the kind of guy to make a father proud...
37. Edward Was Not A Good Guy
While he traveled the world, George had noted the prejudices of the British Empire with disgust. Edward had a...different reaction. His world travels only confirmed his belief that whites were superior to everyone on Earth. His writings about the indigenous people he encountered are truly despicable—yet that was just one way he disappointed George.
Edward's scandalous affairs might have been even worse.
38. His Son Slept Around Too
Edward VIII definitely would have had more in common with his grandfather than with his father. He refused to settle down, embarking on affairs with married women, courtesans, and whoever else happened to catch his eye. Edward's antics horrified George and the other royals, but at least to this point, they had mostly stayed under wraps.
Then a scandal broke out that threatened to drag the entire royal family into Edward's mess.
39. He Found A Scandalous Mistress
Her name was Marguerite Alibert, and she was not the kind of person George wanted his son sleeping around with. A one-time working girl, she caught Edward's eye, and he upgraded her lifestyle to "courtesan." Edward met her while on leave from the front during WWI, and she gave him whatever he needed. But his grandfather was the one who loved working girls—not the current king.
When George found out about his son's new mistress, he was horrified.
40. She Shot A Man
George and the rest of the royal family heaved a sigh of relief when Edward broke things off with his Parisian courtesan—but that wasn't the last they'd hear of Marguerite Alibert. Just a few years later, she visited London with a new lover...and she shot him in the back several times. This upper-class murder shocked England—but for George, the stakes were so much higher.
41. He Kept It Buried
George V did everything he could to make sure that his son's name never appeared in the press surrounding the Marguerite Alibert. He mostly succeeded, and though there were rumors, the public never learned that the Prince of Wales had an affair with a working girl, who then shot her new lover. George eventually tracked down every last letter that Edward had written to Alibert and had them destroyed.
But the damage was done: George would never truly trust his son again.
42. He Adored His Son And Granddaughter
The members of George's family weren't all as exhausting as his eldest son. He thought extremely highly of his second son, the future King George VI, and adored his precocious granddaughter "Lilibet" (you might know her as Queen Elizabeth II). She loved him in turn, affectionately calling him "Grandpa England." He thought both of them would make excellent monarchs—if only they got the chance.
43. He Feared His Son Would Ruin Himself
By 1935, George's faith in his son and heir had all but evaporated. He said, "After I am dead, the boy will ruin himself within 12 months...I pray to God my eldest son will never marry and have children, and that nothing will come between Bertie and Lilibet and the throne." He must have sensed that the end was near—and he would have been right.
44. His Health Failed
Back in the days when people called him the Sailor Prince, George V was the picture of health—but he'd seen hard miles in his time as king. During WWI, his horse bucked and threw him to the ground, causing serious injury from which he never fully recovered. The fact that he smoked like a chimney his entire adult life didn't help matters either.
The once hale and hearty king grew frail and sickly—and a painful tragedy only made things worse.
45. He Lost His Favorite Sister
George V's brother Albert Victor had been his closest companion growing up, but he still held a soft spot for his little sister Victoria. In December of 1935, when George was already at death's door, Victoria suffered a hemorrhage and suddenly passed. Her loss sent the king into a spiraling depression from which he would never recover.
46. He Went In His Sleep
By January 1936, George barely clung to life. He retired to a country estate at Sandringham House, but pretty soon he was too weak to leave his bedroom. Finally, his doctors released a statement: "The King's life is moving peacefully towards its close." And that it did. George V passed quietly in his sleep on January 20, 1936—only, that wasn't the whole story.
47. His Doctor Had A Secret Diary
Lord Dawson of Penn was George V's chief physician in his final days. He kept a detailed diary from that time, but he kept them a closely guarded secret for the rest of his life. Finally, in 1986, his diaries were made public. They revealed the king's last words, a mumbled "God damn you!" to his nurse. But that's not all they revealed.
It turns out, Dawson had not been entirely honest about that final night.
48. His Doctor Euthanized Him
The entire world thought that George V had passed from natural causes. In truth, Dawson had actively ended the king's life. A believer in euthanasia, Dawson knew that George's end might take hours or even days, and he saw the toll that it was taking on the king's family. So, he made the decision to kill a king. He injected King George V with morphine and cocaine.
15 minutes later, George's breath slowed...then stopped.
49. His Son Gave Up The Crown
George's son Edward became King Edward VIII—but it turns out that George's fears about him were baseless. Sure, George thought he'd make a terrible king, but apparently so did Edward! Before the year was out, Edward abdicated his throne so he could marry his divorcee partner Wallis Simpson. He was then free to live a life of high fashion, German sympathies, and extreme prejudice while his younger brother became King George VI.
So at least our guy King George V got what he wanted in the end.
50. His Son Really Was The Worst
It's hard to pinpoint when exactly George V's relationship with Edward went south—but it certainly could have been around the time the family lost young Prince John. While George and his wife experienced mixed relief and sorrow, Edward's response was truly disturbing. Despite being a 24-year-old man, Edward called his brother's loss "little more than a regrettable nuisance." I, for one, am happy this guy gave up his crown.