“I have many times asked myself whether there can be more potent advocates of peace upon earth through the years to come than this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of war.”—King George V
King George V, born George Frederick Ernest Albert, was the second son of Edward VII and the grandson of Queen Victoria. He became King of England in 1910 and ruled until his death in 1936. He began his reign with the country in a constitutional crisis, and it didn’t get easier from there. He brought England through WWI with Germany, lived through the Russian Revolution, civil unrest, and the rise of socialism, Irish and Indian nationalism. Read on for 44 facts about this unexpected king.
1. Life Had Other Plans
As a second son, George was never meant to be king and he was just fine with that. In 1877 at age 12, he became a naval cadet, and continued in the navy into adulthood, intending to do what second sons do and make it his career. Life had other plans for the young prince, and when his older brother died of influenza in 1892, he was forced to leave the navy and start training to become king.
2. Princess May
Victoria Mary Augusta Louise Olga Pauline Claudine Agnes, daughter of the Duke of Teck (in Germany), was known as Princess May to those closest to her. At the urging of Queen Victoria (who quite liked her), she was selected as a bride for George’s brother Prince Albert. He died just a few weeks before their wedding, and while she was in mourning, she caught the eye of his brother George, who proposed in 1893.
The pair went on to have six children, two of whom became Kings of England.
3. A Non-Education
George’s parents, known around the palace as Bertie and Alix, weren’t the brightest bulbs in the bunch, and neither had much use for formal education. Their daughters were given virtually no education and grew up practically illiterate. George and his brother Albert Victor’s education was given over to the Reverend John Neale Dalton.
Dalton was a strict disciplinarian who was far more interested in making connections in the upper classes than in teaching the two young princes.
4. He’s Not That Smart
Prince Albert Victor, or Eddy as he was known to his family, was the first-born son of Edward VII and Alexandra, but died before ever getting a chance to be king. If his tutor was to be believed, it was probably just as well, as he once stated that the prince had an “abnormally dormant condition of mind.” He didn’t fare that much better at Trinity College in Cambridge, where his new tutor commented that he didn’t see much point in Albert attending lectures as he barely understood what he was reading. Ouch!
5. Could Have Been
Prince Albert was quite smitten with his first cousin, Princess Alix of Hesse, but she didn’t feel the same way and turned down his marriage offer. She went on to marry Tsar Nicholas II of Russia instead, becoming Alexandra Feodorovna, and she met her tragic end during the Russian Revolution, along with her husband and children Alexei and Anastasia.
Languages weren’t quite George’s strong suit. He was the first English monarch since 1714 who wasn’t able to speak German fluently, and his French wasn’t any better. As a result, he preferred to stick close to home where the people could speak English. He only made four state trips as king, to India, France, Belgium, and Italy.
The fact that his tax exemption required him to pay for his own travels was also a pretty good reason for him to just stay home.
7. Major Upheaval
When George V took the throne, the world looked much different than it did at his death. During his reign, he saw five emperors, eight kings, and 18 minor dynasties lose their thrones—which as a monarch himself, must have been pretty disturbing.
8. Loves Music, Hates to Dance
The list of George’s likes and dislikes was pretty extensive. He enjoyed reading and was said to read about a book a week. He liked gramophone records and funny, nonsensical movies. He disliked music from other countries, new forms of music, fashion, dances, girls who polished their nails and didn’t ride side saddle, communism, fascism, submarines, and chemical warfare. Talk about high maintenance!
9. German Roots
Thanks to the Act of Settlement in 1701 that prohibited Catholics from inheriting the throne, only a Protestant could inherit the British throne. When Queen Anne died, the closest living Protestant relative was her second cousin George, prince elector of Germany, who then became George I. Although George’s son, the future King George II, was the last British monarch born outside of England, all British Royals since George I have had German roots.
That also explains why it was shocking that George V couldn’t speak the language.
10. More British Sounding
In June 1917, during WWI, German forces began daylight raids on London, bombing a school in Poplar and killing 18 children. This caused a strong anti-German sentiment amongst the Brits. What made it even worse was that the attacks were carried about by Gotha Bombers. Why is that so bad? Well, to this point, the Royal House of England was Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. George read the room, and a month after the attack, he announced that he was changing his surname to the very British-sounding Windsor.
Any royal titles with German references were also changed to something more British.
11. Stripping Their Titles
That wasn’t it for awkward German connections during WWI. Queen Victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha led to titles being thrown in all directions, with many Brits gaining German titles and vice-versa. As a result, by the time the Great War came around, several British peers were actually officers in the German Army.
To rectify this, under George V, the British parliament passed the Titles Deprivation Act in 1917, which stripped these nobles of their titles.
12. Changing the Rules
During Victoria’s reign, she restricted the use of the title HRH (His or Her Royal Highness) to the male or female children of a sovereign and the male grandchildren of the sovereign. She did so in order to limit the spending of her numerous relatives who didn’t have much to do but all wanted to be recognized as royals.
In 1917, her son George V modified the rules to include the eldest son of the eldest grandson, which in modern times would include Prince William’s son George, but not Harry’s son Archie.
13. Titles in Limbo
Thanks to the Titles Deprivation Act, the Dukedoms of Albany and Cumberland have been in limbo for almost a century. The titles were last held by George V’s cousins Prince Charles-Edward (Duke of Albany) and Prince Ernest-Augustus II (Duke of Cumberland), but the king stripped them of their titles for bearing arms against the United Kingdom.
Technically, the lineal male heirs to the title could petition the crown to get them back, but so far none have tried.
14. Constitutional Crisis
When George’s father Edward VII died in May 1910, the country was in the midst of a constitutional crisis. The problem began when the Conservative House of Lords refused to pass the budget from the Liberal House of Commons, forcing an election in 1910.
15. Now What?
Had the Liberals won a majority government there wouldn’t have been any issues, but of course, they didn’t. A Progressive alliance won the election, but not a majority. So, the Liberals now wanted the King to create a bunch of new peers, giving them a majority and forcing the budget through. It seemed like this was going to happen eventually, but before Edward was prepared to take such drastic measures, he wanted a second general election held.
16. Keeping a Promise
By the time the next election was held in November 1910, Edward VII had died and George V had succeeded him and inherited the problem. Like his father had before him, George promised to support reform in the House of Lords—but only if the Liberals won a clear majority. They did just that, and George threw officially threw them his support.
The Liberal victory in 1910 still didn’t solve the deadlock between the two branches of government. As a result, the 1911 Parliament Act majorly cut down on the powers of the House of Lords. The House of Lords obviously wasn’t happy with this and attempted to stop it from getting passed. The Prime Minister asked the King for help, and so George finally promised/threatened to create 250 new Liberal peers, effectively removing the Conservative majority in the House of Lords.
Seeing the writing on the wall, the Conservatives gave in and allowed the bill to pass.
18. Public vs. Private
As the war in Europe started ramping up, George was careful not to publicly say anything about the conflict, but that didn’t mean that he didn’t have strong feelings about it. George believed that war with Germany was necessary to prevent them from taking over England, but in a secret meeting between George and his Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, Grey revealed that the Cabinet hadn’t found any valid reason to enter the war. George then reputedly replied, “You have got to find a reason, Grey”.
19. Finding a Reason
The justifiable reason for entering the war came in the form of two letters—one from the French President Raymond Poincaré encouraging Britain to enter the war, and the other from the Flemish King Albert informing him of Germany’s invasion of Belgium. George immediately sent both letters to Grey, telling him that here was the justification they needed for entering the war.
20. Grand Tour
Beginning in 1870, Queen Victoria started sending her children on trips to different parts of her empire around the world to gather information for her about what was happening with her subjects and her land. For four months between November 1905 and March 1906, King George and Queen Mary (then the Prince and Princess of Wales) were sent on a highly ambitious tour of India and Burma.
They passed through the Indian Continent via train twice, giving speeches, visiting leaders, and participating in other scheduled events. Sounds exhausting!
21. Indian Extravaganza
From 1858-1947, India was under British rule, and as a show of that control, a grand spectacle called the Delhi Durbar was held three times. The first was in 1877, to mark Victoria’s coronation as Empress of India, the second in 1903 for Edward VII, and a final time in 1911 for George V. Of the three of them, George was the only one who actually attended.
22. Party Like It’s 1911!
The Delhi Durbar of 1911 was a pretty major affair. It reportedly cost India a million pounds at the time (over £100 million today) and took over a year to plan. The who’s who of Indian royalty and nobility turned up for the event, arriving on elephants. Some of the Indian spectators were hoping that the King would also make his entrance on an elephant, but he arrived instead on a horse named Akbar, causing many in the crowd to miss seeing him when he arrived.
23. A Major Slight
According to custom, the ruling princes of India were supposed to individually bow and pay homage to King George, but when it was time for Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad of Baroda to step up, the ceremony went south. He saw bending a proverbial knee as humiliating and he appeared in plain clothes without any decorative jewels. He didn’t perform the ceremonial bow as expected, giving a half-hearted bow instead, and he turned his back on them instead of backing away when he was done. He also apparently laughed as he left, which would be taken as an insult by pretty much anybody.
Being the dawn of film, the whole incident was caught on tape and shown in London cinemas where viewers called for his head.
24. Powers of Persuasion
Sultan Jahan of Bhopal was the Begum (meaning female royal) of Bhopal, India for twenty-five years. She enjoyed a strong relationship with the British, even attending the King’s coronation in London and the Delhi Durbar that same year. In 1926, she decided to abdicate in favor of her youngest and favorite child—but she needed some help from her ally, King George. She sailed to England to meet with him, pulled off her face covering, and pleaded with him to make her son ruler.
When the King said he couldn’t possibly allow it, she cried, fainted, and persisted begging until the King finally relented and changed the laws of succession. Now that’s a powerful woman!
25. A Crown for a King
St. Edward’s Crown is the crown jewel of the crown jewels and has been crowning British monarchs since the coronation of Henry III in 1220. The original crown was sold during the English Civil War, but a new crown was fashioned for Charles II in 1661 after the restoration of the British Monarchy. After the coronation of William III in 1689, the crown was put aside in favor of a lighter crown, but George V revived the tradition and chose to wear it for his coronation.
Since then, all British monarchs have been crowned with St. Edward’s Crown.
26. Identical Cousins
The resemblance between Tsar Nicholas Romanov II of Russia and his cousin George V was so close that one might have thought they were twins. Their mothers, Alexandra and Dagmar, were sisters who also bore a close resemblance, which explained why the boys looked so much alike.
27. Tough Choices
When the Russian Revolution broke out, the British government wanted to offer political asylum to the Romanov family, but George V disagreed. Despite the family connection, he was afraid their presence in England would be highly damaging to the monarchy and withdrew the offer.
28. Cousins at War
One of the great tragedies of WWI is that the monarchs of England, Germany, and Russia were all cousins and yet they still went to war with each other. The German Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II was George’s first cousin and Nicholas II’s third cousin. George and Nicholas were first cousins, and all were fifth cousins descended from George II of England.
Unfortunately for the world, political alliances and personal rivalries meant that there was no possibility of the cousins hashing it out amongst themselves.
Kaiser Wilhelm II
29. Settling a dispute
During WWI, George was pretty hands-on, and when arguments over who was responsible for the British defeat at the Battle of Loos showed no end after a month, George hopped on his horse and traveled to France to sort it out under the pretense of an official visit to the troops. In meetings with his generals, they expressed their non-confidence in commander Sir John French. George already didn’t like the man, and he determined to remove French from duty.
30. Unfortunate Injury
At the end of his trip to France, George did actually visit troops, stopping to inspect the 1st Wing of the Royal Flying Corps. During this visit, a freak accident caused him to fracture his pelvis in two places. A sudden cheer from the men spooked his horse which reared up, slipped in the mud, fell, and pinned George beneath her.
Probably not the best sight for morale!
31. Telling Him Where to Go
The King’s doctors weren’t sure exactly how bad George’s injuries were and wanted to hold off moving him until they knew more. French was worried about what would happen to the King if the Germans figured out who he was, so he pleaded with George’s doctors to get the King out. When that didn’t work, he tried messaging George directly, to which the king—who was on some powerful pain meds—allegedly replied, “Tell Sir John to go to hell.”
32. Representing Them All
On November 11, 1920, King George laid the Unknown Warrior to rest in Westminster Abbey. The unidentified serviceman became the representation of all those soldiers from Great Britain who died in WWI, and a wreath has been laid on his coffin every Remembrance Day since then.
33. Changing of the Guard
In the general election of December 1923, no party won a majority. The Conservatives had the majority of the seats, but were unable to form a government when their leader, Stanley Baldwin was defeated in a vote of no confidence. Since the Labour Party had the next highest number of seats, George invited leader Ramsay Macdonald to form a minority government and become the first ever Labour Prime Minister of the UK.
The government was formed on the 23rd anniversary of Queen Victoria’s death, leading George to wonder in his diary what she might have thought of it.
34. An Offer He Could Refuse
The idea for the annual UK Sovereign’s Christmas broadcast was first proposed by the manager of the newly formed BBC radio in 1923, but George declined, partly because he feared new technology and partly because he didn’t like or think he was good at public speaking.
35. You Don’t Have to Write it!
Despite being given a radio set of his own by the BBC in 1924, and the fact that his addresses from various functions were being recorded and successfully broadcast to millions, George still refused to give a public address over the radio. That changed with the appointment of Ramsay Macdonald in 1929. Macdonald assured the king that he didn’t need “flair” and that being plain and honest would be just fine.
On Christmas Day 1932, King George delivered the first Christmas broadcast, with his words written by famed writer Rudyard Kipling. Since then, the Christmas Speech has been delivered by the sovereign for over 80 uninterrupted years.
36. Looking at Their Side
In 1926, King George V faced another crisis in England with the declaration of a general strike called by the General Council of the Trades Union Congress in an effort to prevent declining conditions and wages for the 1.2 million locked-out coal miners. George was sympathetic to the plight of the miners and didn’t like them being labeled as revolutionaries.
When his position was criticized, he told government officials: “Try living on their wages before you judge them.”
37. But Why?
King George V truly was a king of the people, and by his Silver Jubilee (25th anniversary on the throne) he was incredibly popular and well-loved. He was also pretty modest, and genuinely puzzled as to why his people loved him. In response to the crowd’s admiration, he declared “I cannot understand it, after all I am only a very ordinary sort of fellow.”
38. Low Expectations
It would be a severe understatement to say that George V had any expectation that his eldest son Edward would be any sort of king. He famously said, “After I am dead, the boy will ruin himself within 12 months…” and he wasn’t so far off. 11 months after his ascension, Edward became the first English monarch to voluntarily abdicate, citing his desire to marry his divorced American mistress.
39. Failing Health
George V had always been a heavy smoker, and by the late 1920s he was suffering from serious respiratory problems. By the last year of his life, these were so severe that he needed oxygen, and it only went downhill from there. On January 20, 1936, George died at Sandringham House in Norfolk.
40. Murder or Mercy?
It was always known that George V died of lung disease, but what wasn’t initially known was that he had some help. In 1986, the diary of his attending physician Lord Dawson of Penn was made public, revealing that he’d given the king a fatal dose of morphine and cocaine, not wanting to prologue his or his family’s suffering.
Kenneth Rose, a biographer of the King, believed that the doctor had murdered him, but whether or not the Royal family knew about it is unknown, so whether it was murder or mercy will likely remain a mystery.
41. A First for Everything
Queen Mary outlived her husband George by 17 years, and when her second son was crowned King George VI, she became the first already crowned queen to attend a coronation. At age 81, she very nearly became the first Queen to see a grandchild ascend to the throne, but she died just months before Elizabeth’s coronation.
42. Mourning Music
On the eve of the King’s death, German Composer Paul Hindemith was in London, scheduled to perform his viola concerto with the BBC Symphony Orchestra the next day. With the king’s death, the concert was canceled, but the orchestra’s conductor still wanted to perform a piece with Hindemith. After failing to come up with an appropriate piece, Hindemith sat in an office at the BBC for half a day and composed Trauermusik (mourning music/funeral music) in tribute, premiering it that same day.
43. Famous Last Words
Over the years, there have been different versions of what words George uttered on his death bed. One famous myth suggests that they were “Bugger Bognor,” in reference to his belief that he was getting better and might be able to go back there one day. Another is the much less interesting “How is the Empire”, supposedly said to his secretary Clive Wigram on the day he died.
His actual last words, as relayed by his physician, were “God damn you,” said to a nurse when she gave him a sedative.
44. Sweet Nicknames
George was extremely close to his granddaughter Princess Elizabeth (Queen Elizabeth II) and they each had a nickname for the other. George called her Lilibet and she, in turn, called him Grandpa England. They were apparently so close, that the Bishop of London was quite startled to find him crawling around on all fours with the little princess when he arrived for a meeting with the King one day.