SEPT / OCT 2012: BY LIANNE M. BERNARDO
The British monarchy has its share of personalities. Some monarchs raised their throne to unprecedented power; others took it too far. A few have the misfortune of being crowned at a time of great strife. George VI became king during a precarious period in the 20 Century. History remembers him as a wartime king; he must also be known as a man of courage and fortitude.
Growing up, Prince Albert (as he was known early in life) experienced a number of physical ailments: knocked knees, left-handedness and, as a result of his nanny’s mistreatment, stomach problems. The latter kept him out of action from the Royal Navy for part of the First World War. The most debilitating ailment was a stammer that emerged when he was very young. Biographies note that his explosive temper was a result of his frustration at his inability to articulate himself to others. It was a hard condition to live with especially as he was required to attend many royal engagements. With their family becoming more visible thanks to radio broadcasting and photography, Prince Albert needed to project the complete confidence and authority his status required. The importance of this was highlighted in his speech at Wembley for the Empire Exhibitions, which was portrayed at the start of the film The King’s Speech. His wife, Elizabeth Lyon-Bowes, was ever at his side, quietly encouraging and supporting him. Though they consulted a number of physicians, each left him discouraged.
Unlike the movie, Prince Albert first met with Lionel Logue in the mid-1920s by suggestion of a Royal equerry. He visited Logue regularly under the same conditions seen on screen, and practiced a number of different exercises and techniques. More importantly, during these visits Logue helped the Duke of York gain confidence, assuring him that he could be cured. The duke’s efforts paid off: he became more confident at speaking in public and was in good spirits in his letters to his father. Logue later remarked that “he was the pluckiest and most determined patient I ever had.” Their friendship and work continued even after Prince Albert was crowned king, since his duties demanded he make more public speeches; this understandably placed him under considerable stress.
Prince Albert’s sense of dedication and resolve was tested during the abdication crisis. After George V died in 1936, Prince Albert’s older brother Edward became king. His short reign was riddled with growing public discontent toward him for his ongoing relationship with Wallis Simpson, a twice-divorced American he was determined to marry. When it was made clear the public and the associated governments of the empire would not support such a union, Edward chose to abdicate the throne, leaving his younger brother to succeed him.
According to Edward’s account, when he informed his younger brother about his decision, Prince Albert said, “None of us wants that, I least of all.” Such a remark conveyed the prince’s reluctance and lack of desire to become king. In one scene in the film, Prince Albert breaks down in front of his wife as he goes through state documents, telling her tearfully he doesn’t want to be king and the only thing he has ever really known is how to be a naval officer.
Although Prince Albert was always responsible in fulfilling his duties as a member of the Royal family, the fact remained that he was not first in line for the throne. Although he was well-liked, he did not share the same level of popularity his brother had. As the film shows, all his life Prince Albert operated in the shadow of his brother; the press often compared him to the “brilliant” Edward, who was in a constant spotlight. Once his brother abdicated, the spotlight fell on Prince Albert. Not only did he have to acquaint himself with the additional attention, he had to do so while controlling his stammer. The constant attention also meant that his family life, something he greatly cherished, would change considerably.
Aside from whatever his private reservations were, Prince Albert was reluctant because he was fully aware that he was inheriting not only a major responsibility but also its share of consequences. As a result of the abdication crisis, the position and respectability of the monarchy was unstable at best. He was left with the task of restoring the public and the colonies’ faith in the monarch. One of the ways he went about this was by drawing connections with his father’s reign, which was considered a successful and popular one, by choosing George VI as his royal name. He also reaffirmed his dedication to governmental traditions and the welfare of the British Empire. He was able to draw on his time and experiences when he had worked closely with his father when he was still the Duke of York; his dedication towards restoring the monarchy’s position would continue into the Second World War, standing with the public during the London Blitz and continuing to rally them through speeches.
George VI is an inspiring figure both for what he was able to achieve for himself and for the challenges he took on when he became king. His determination especially manifested itself through his work with Lionel Logue in learning to control his stammer in order to better and more fully communicate with the public. George VI rose to his challenges—however many and daunting they were—with perseverance and, as Sir Winston Churchill acknowledged in a wreath when he died in 1952, “for valour.” ■