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Reading: Sarah Bradford, George VI, London, England: Penguin Books, 1989: a Review

Updated on June 8, 2016
HM King George VI, 1943
HM King George VI, 1943 | Source

The unexpected monarch who reigned as a wise King

Reading: Sarah Bradford, George VI, London, England: Penguin Books, 1989, reissued 2011, p. p. 668, ISBN 978-0-241-95609-0


George VI has passed into history as a monarch whose reign began almost 80 years ago. But it is not always understood how deeply his accession to the throne and the years of his reign were overshadowed - at least, privately - by the events surrounding the abdication of his predecessor Edward VIII, George's elder brother.

While I still probably prefer Sir John Wheeler-Bennett's biography of George VI, this fine volume by Sarah Bradford is certainly a most excellent, contemporary appraisal of a highly prominent historical figure who is at the same time relatively little known today.

In some ways, the book makes disturbing reading, in relation to the well documented activities of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. It is clear that both the government of the day and the Royal Family regarded the revelation of these facts, which later emerged, as being so potentially explosive that stringent efforts were made to keep as much of them as possible hidden from the public. Only decades later, when more of the disagreeable facts about the Duke of Windsor had emerged, was some of the sheer stress and drama which occurred in the years 1936 - 1945 seen in clearer light (1).

George VI was a conscientious monarch, who - it has to be admitted - in contrast to his predecessor was scrupulously observant of his constitutional position vis-a-vis his ministers responsible to Parliament, beyond whose advice he never strayed. Sarah Bradford's book particularly shows how well informed he strove to remain on the military progress of World War Two and how good a relationship he was careful to maintain with Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

The book also shows the importance King George attached to links with the Empire, even though through a combination of political and military reasons he was unable to travel around the Empire to the extent that he would have wished. George VI's attempts to cultivate good relations with President Franklin W. Roosevelt and the American people is something that comes across strongly in the work also.

I was thoroughly impressed by Sarah Bradford's biography of George VI, which deserves to be regarded as a classic for decades to come. One might as well be frank also and say that, although it is billed as a biography of George VI, it might just as easily have been entitled something to the effect of 'The Life and Times of the Royal Brothers: Edward VIII and George VI': such were their lives uncomfortably intertwined - albeit as polar opposites - during and after the Abdication Crisis and for many years thereafter.

August 29, 2014

MJFenn is an independent writer based in Ontario, Canada.


(1) In one respect only, criticism of Edward VIII in Sarah Bradford's book seems odd; she takes issue with Edward's purchase of a Canadian Buick rather than of a vehicle manufactured in Great Britain. To which Canadians would respond: Why should the King of Canada not drive a Canadian-built car?


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