- Education and Science»
- History & Archaeology»
- History of the Modern Era
George VI - Early Life
1895 - 1920
To avoid confusion, in this article George VI will be referred to as Prince Albert, his given name before he assumed the throne.
At the death of King George VI in 1952, a newspaper in Los Angeles said, 'The late King may find his niche in history as 'George the good'. Or perhaps Britons will remember him as 'George the steadfast'. He was both.'
The baby that would someday be King was born in the early hours of the morning on the 14th of December 1895. The baby, Prince Albert Frederick Arthur George of York, was the second son of Prince George, the Duke of York.
The baby Prince was looked on as further security for the succession, though it seemed unlikely that the baby Prince should ever take the place of his elder brother, Prince Edward, on the throne - that was all in the distant future.
At the time of Prince Albert's birth, the reigning monarch was none other than his great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, who was a mere two years from being the first British monarch to have a Diamond Jubilee. The family that Prince Albert had been born into was atop a pyramid of power with the Queen above all others. At the time he was born, Britain had an empire that covered nearly a quarter of the world's land surface and had a quarter of the world's population. It was an empire that had never been seen before, or since; but inevitably, like all empires, the British Empire was destined to disintegrate in the reigns after Victoria, something that the little Prince himself would see happen in his own reign.
In the days when Prince Albert was young, many upper class families, and especially royalty, employed nurses or governesses to look after their children, meaning that the children were completely at the mercy of their nurse. Unfortunately for Prince Edward and Prince Albert, one nurse they had was probably unstable due to the jealousy of the positions of her employers. Before Prince Edward was taken into the drawing-room for tea with his parents, the nurse would twist his arm and pinch him until he cried, causing his parents to order him to be taken back upstairs. Prince Albert, on the other hand, was neglected and often given his bottle in the afternoons whilst out in a motor car. The ride was bumpy and may in fact have led to the Prince's stomach troubles later on. After three years of this, the nurse had a breakdown and their mother was horrified to find out the truth.
By 1901 the Victorian age was over, and the Edwardian had begun with the Prince of Wales now King Edward VII. Unlike his gloomy late mother, the new King hated to be bored and had a passion for rich food, cigars and women. Interestingly in spite of this, he did not drink to excess - a few glasses of champagne with dinner and the occasional glass of brandy was enough for the King. He may have allowed the young princes Edward and Albert to play the game of sliding buttered fingers of bread down the stripes of his trousers.
Two more siblings had joined Prince Edward and Prince Albert in the nursery by the time their grandfather's reign began: Princess Mary in 1897 and Prince Henry in 1900. Only two more would join later, and both before the end of their grandfather's reign - Prince George in 1902 and Prince John in 1905. Once Edward VII took the throne, Prince Albert's father became the Prince of Wales.
Early in 1901, a man came to be the tutor to Prince Edward and Prince Albert. The son of a Norfolk gentleman, Henry Peter Hansell was aged 39 and had been educated at Magdalen College, Oxford, before becoming tutor to Prince Arthur of Connaught, and later the two young Princes. It seems that the young Prince Albert was terrible at mathematics as Hansell wrote in July 1903, 'I really thought we had mastered division by 3 but division by 2 seems to be quite beyond him now.'
Princess Mary's own governess, a Frenchwoman by the name of Mademoiselle Dussau, became the sworn enemy of the Princes. She forced them to speak French at the dinner table and would deliberately get them into trouble, causing them to be summoned to their father's study, known as the Library. Prince George was not above putting the boys over his knee when they had behaved badly.
It was in his early childhood that Prince Albert developed a stammer (the curing of which was the subject of the Colin Firth movie titled "The King's Speech"). Prince George was impatient when the young boy struggled with a word and would command him to 'get it out'. The birthdays of his parents and grandparents must have seemed an absolute nightmare for Prince Albert. Each child had to memorise and recite poetry in front of the birthday person and their guests - it was surely bad enough for the stammering Prince to recite complex classical English poetry. It was even worse that as they got older, it was thought that they should have progressed enough in French or German to recite poetry in either language.
He was often relegated to the shadows - Prince Edward was popular with everyone as future heir to the throne, and Princess Mary was the only girl and her father's favourite. Prince Albert was rarely noticed unless he misbehaved - something to which ignored children are prone in order to receive attention, even if the attention is negative.
From the age of about 8, Prince Albert was forced to wear a set of splints on his legs so that they would grow straight. He had to wear them for most of the day and all night. Indeed, his legs did grow straight, but the added humiliation of splints may not have done his self-esteem much good, considering that he already had a stammer to contend with.
In early November, King Edward, Queen Alexandra and the Court would arrive at Sandringham - a welcome diversion for the young boys. The clocks would be put forward half an hour. This was Sandringham Time, and was done so that the King could have as much time as possible during the day for shooting. Christmas would also be spent at Sandringham - the children would have to wait until last to open their presents in front of their family and guests; the candles on the Christmas tree (which itself would be around 25 or 27 feet tall) would shine and it would be decorated with tinsel and glass balls.
In early 1907 Prince Edward left for the Royal Naval College at Osborne to begin his first term there, whilst Prince Albert remained at York Cottage, Sandringham, to continue under the tutelage of Hansell. Two years later, on the 16th of January, Prince Albert himself went to Osborne. Hansell thought that Prince Albert, a 'scatter-brain', would need the discipline at Osborne.
To say that Prince Albert was ill-equipped for life at Osborne is a slight understatement. He had lived a sheltered existence, rarely coming into contact with children who weren't his siblings and so had no idea of what other children were like. The Royal Naval College at Osborne was housed in what had been his great-grandmother's stable block of Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, where she had died eight years before.
It seems that at first Prince Albert suffered from bullying because of his Royal status - on at least one occasion he was found tied up in a hammock and left in a gangway, calling for help. He was given the nickname "Sardine" because of his small and fragile build. Despite both Prince Edward and Prince Albert's reassurances that Prince Albert was getting on fine, their father was not deceived and hoped that the younger boy would settle in soon. Whilst his academic record continued badly (usually his name was to be found either at the bottom on examination lists or very near it) he was remembered as being 'generally popular' which suggests that he overcame the bullying problem.
On the 6th May 1910, Prince Albert's grandfather, King Edward VII, died. Prince Albert had seen his grandfather not long before his death - attending the opera on the 27th of April, went to a Private View at the Royal Academy on the 28th, and lunched with him on the 29th - the last time he ever saw him. Prince Albert realised before his other siblings what had happened. He woke Prince Edward with a cry, "Look, the Royal Standard is at half-mast!" as he had looked from the window and saw the standard. They were told that their father wanted to see them downstairs. Their father, who looked worn out, told them that their grandfather was dead. Prince Edward told him that they already knew because the Royal Standard was at half-mast. At first, their father didn't seem to understand what he had just been told, and then upon realisation, and a quick question for Prince Edward to repeat what he had said, their father said, "But that's all wrong." He then muttered, more to himself, "The King is dead. Long live the King." One of King George V's first orders as King was for a mast to be rigged to Marlborough House to fly the Royal Standard.
Silent crowds lined the route from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Hall for the dead King's funeral, and Prince Albert walked behind his grandfather's coffin at his father's side. Perhaps it was at this point, as he walked past hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people wishing to pay their respects to the dead monarch, that Prince Albert realised how important the public image of the monarch was.
Prince Albert went to Dartmouth Royal Naval College in early 1911 - Prince Edward was already there. Soon, both boys came down with the mumps and measles. Sometimes there can be complications resulting from the mumps, known as orchitis which affects male fertility. It may be that this affected Prince Edward, whom despite being promiscuous, never fathered a child and those close to him said that some went 'wrong with his gland' when Prince Edward hit puberty.
After his return from Dartmouth for Christmas in 1911, Prince Albert found that he had been replaced as his elder brother's companion by Prince George, several years younger than himself. There is no sign as to whether this actually bothered Prince Albert, though he must have felt a little more isolated. He remained on good terms with his elder brother, however.
After Prince Edward left Dartmouth, it does appear that Prince Albert got along better without his brother's presence. At Easter 1912, Prince Albert was confirmed in the Church of England. He had faith in God, something that would sustain him in times of trouble throughout his life.
At the age of 17, Prince Albert became a midshipman on HMS Collingwood. He slept in a hammock like the other midshipmen and taking part in all tasks - he was a son of the King, but he was treated like anybody else (unless of course, there were special occasions, which meant the Prince was shoved into the limelight). For his 18th birthday in 1913 he received a cigarette case from his mother, and he spent his first Christmas away from home, on ship, but was home by New Years' Eve.
The year 1914 saw the outbreak of World War One, or the 'Great War', as it was called then. However, when the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in June, nobody in Britain realised the effect that it would have. It was barely mentioned in the King's diary and Prince Albert did not write on it at all. HMS Collingwood was one of the ships that were sent to Scapa Flow to guard the northern entrance of the North Sea. On the 4th of August, the ultimatum that had been sent by Britain to the Germans had expired and all HM ships were instructed to 'Commence hostilities against Germany'.
King George, hundreds of miles away from Scapa Flow, worried for his second son, and wrote in his diary, 'Please God that it will soon be over & that he will protect dear Bertie's life.'
In 1916 Prince Albert was given the Order of the Garter by his father, when he was celebrating his twenty-first birthday.
During the war, Prince Albert suffered from gastric troubles, at one time being diagnosed with appendicitis and ending up recuperating, feeling like an invalid. He continued to suffer bouts of stomach trouble infrequently during the war, leading him to rest at these times for fear of his health, and he eventually transferred to the Royal Naval Air Service in 1917. HMS Collingwood did see some action during the war whilst Prince Albert was on the ship.
Also during the first world war, there was a serious anti-German feeling amongst the British people. King George V considered himself British in spite of his German ancestors (although he did have English and Scottish ancestors amongst them) and was insulted when H.G. Wells called the Court 'alien and uninspiring' - a dig at the King, whose response was, 'I may be uninspiring, but I'll be damned if I'm an alien.' It may have been this, amongst many other such insults and widespread feeling that King George made the move to change the family name to Windsor.
In the last year of the war, Prince Albert found himself in charge of 500 former Navy Boys, and he found it to be hard work. Eventually, the armistice was declared, and any experience that Prince Albert had picked up during the five years of war would be of use to him in the Second World War, although he did not know it then.
After the war, Prince Albert took great interest in visiting factories, mines and shipyards - the workings and processes intrigued him, and he was nicknamed 'the Foreman' by his brothers for it.
In 1919 Prince Albert began training to fly, and passed his tests, though on medical grounds he was not allowed to fly solo. That same year Prince Albert was sent to Trinity College, Cambridge for a year, and Prince Henry was sent to accompany him. They were restricted in their freedom as the King worried about the company they might keep. One of the few friends they were allowed was their cousin, Lord Louis Mountbatten.
The last decade and war saw the fall of monarchies - Austria, Germany, Russia - and the shaking of the foundations of other countries. George V had refused asylum to his cousin, the Tsar Nicholas II, and his family in 1917. It had been a decision that weighed heavily on George's conscience and distressed him greatly - but he was worried that if he accepted, it would cause a revolt by the British against his own rule.
Prince Albert was not aware of it, but the next decade would be amongst the happiest years of his life.
For further reading, please read "George VI - The York Years".