King George VI

When Edward VIII abdicated in December 1936, George VI found himself assuming a position he did not want, and for which he was not prepared.

In January 1936 George V died, leaving the throne to his eldest son, Edward VIII. Edward had been bred, born and raised to ascend the throne. He had always known that it was to be his future and his destiny. The only problem was, he didn't really want to be king. He was much happier pursuing his recreational activities and basically doing what he wanted to do. Once he became king he was very uncomfortable with the additional structure and constrictions that came with the position. To make matters worse, he fell in love with and was determined to marry a woman who was considered quite unsuitable to be married to the King of England""Wallis Warfield Simpson. In the end, after less than a year on the throne, Edward VIII abdicated, leaving the position to his younger brother, George VI.

George VI was born on the anniversary of the death of his great-grandfather, Prince Albert. The sad memories associated with this day were magnified when Princess Alice, daughter of Victoria and Albert, died on the same date in 1878. This was a double blow for Queen Victoria""a blow from which she never recovered. Thus, it is not difficult to understand the mixed feelings of Queen Victoria""and the royal family""when the infant prince made his appearance on a day filled with unhappy remembrances. To make matters worse, his parents were disappointed at his birth because they had wanted a daughter. And his mother, then the Duchess of York, even apologized to Queen Victoria for having given birth to her new son on an anniversary dedicated to death. It was an inauspicious beginning.

In addition, his father, George V, was a stern, overbearing man who had little patience with children. He found fault with almost everything and everyone. Being born on this dark anniversary of death, and to such a demanding father, creating feelings of inadequacy that affected George VI for most of his life. To make matters worse, his nanny, Mrs. Green, was so obsessed with his older brother, that she basically ignored George, sometimes even forgetting to feed him. This ongoing emotional and physical neglect also exacerbated both his sense of unworthiness and his low state of physical well being.

Compelled to write with his right hand even though he was naturally prone to be left-handed; required to wear splints for part of the day and even, for a time, in bed at night to straighten his knock-kneed legs; wanting desperately to please his father but regularly being made to understand that he did not, he became subject to outbursts of anger and to moods of silent depression. By his eighth year he had acquired a stammer which, in spite of his determined and life-long struggle against it, was never entirely overcome. Despite these obstacles, he never broke out into open defiance or rebellion, for it was his nature to accept punishment, to comprehend and in due time to share his father's views on duty, behavior and control. These qualities would be a great asset to him, once he became king.

Unlike his outgoing and popular brother, George VI grew up believing that he would always remain in the background. He didn't want, or expect, a lot out of life. He just wanted a quiet existence, and believed that he would marry, have a family, and live quietly in the shadow of his older brother's popularity. He did, in fact, marry Elizabeth of Glamis and they had two beautiful daughters. He was quite content with his life. But it was all to change very soon.

In the days leading up to the abdication crisis, George VI and his wife, whose very future depended on the outcome, knew little more than many of the political figures involved in the matter. In fact, they spent the weekend before the abdication with friends. Interest in Edward's relationship with Mrs. Simpson was running high throughout Great Britain by now, and some of their friends took the opportunity to question the young couple about Edward's intentions of marriage to Wallis Simpson. In frustration Elizabeth replied that they knew nothing of Edward's plans towards Mrs. Simpson and that everyone else had more information than she and her husband did. Not until immediately prior to the abdication was George VI advised of what was about to transpire. Even as Edward was renouncing his throne for reasons of self-gratification, his younger brother, a shy and timid man who had never dreamed of nor been trained for the ascension to the throne, found himself suddenly thrust into the very position which he feared and dreaded the most. A quiet man who had wanted nothing more than to live a quiet life with his wife and two daughters, he nevertheless summoned up all his courage and determination and stepped into a position which he had never wanted to occupy. And so, in December 1936, England had yet another king, George VI.

One of his early acts of courage was to make a speech over the radio, to be broadcast throughout the Empire. In it he told his subjects that by serving them in the coming years he hoped to demonstrate his appreciation of them. The new king vowed to put his kingdom ahead of all personal desires, and acknowledged that his wife would be at his side throughout the difficult days and years ahead. He said this in part, because of the political climate in Europe at that time. Hitler and Mussolini were growing in power and the number of their supporters was growing. England knew that something""possibly war""was coming.

When the war began, England stood alone against Hitler and Mussolini and their forces. When the Germans began to bomb England, and especially London, the king and his family remained in Buckingham Palace. Even after Buckingham Palace was bombed in 1940, the king and queen continued with their duties as usual. On Monday, September 23, 1940, the king spoke to the people of his realm from the underground shelter at Buckingham Palace, in the midst of an air raid. In his speech, he praised the spirit of Londoners who continued to maintain their resolve to endure against the devastating enemy attacks. Three months later, Edward VIII gave an interview in which he said that it would be a tragic thing for the world if Hitler were overthrown. In Edward's opinion, Hitler, whom he regarded as a great man, was the right and logical leader of the German people.

The completely divergent opinions of Hitler between the two kings""one former, one present""is astonishing. While George saw Hitler's Germany as an aggressor nation with whom England could not at that time discuss peace, Edward continued to admire not only Germany, but its Fuhrer as well. In the face of what was happening to Germany's neighbors""and to his own country""it is puzzling that Edward had not changed his opinion of Adolf Hitler, an opinion that could have been very dangerous if held by the King of England. George VI, on the other hand, recognized the danger posed by Hitler and was determined to stand against him. He turned his full attention to the dire situation in Britain: the war, the blitz, and the morale of his subjects. Britain was under siege. German bombers raided nightly, destroying entire blocks of major cities. Rationing was in full effect. Shortages of sugar, butter, meat, coffee, tea""all the staples of life""made everyday cooking difficult. Clothing was rationed. Gasoline was almost impossible to come by. Even coal for stoves was not readily available. Every day, the citizens of Britain became a bit more threadbare, a bit hungrier, and a bit colder.

Families made brave, but heartbreaking, decisions to evacuate their children to places in the country where they might be safer from the nightly bombings. The British had two sources of inspiration to carry them through these dark days. They had a prime minister""Winston Churchill""whose words filled them with resolve, and they had a king""George VI""whose actions inspired them all to endure and prevail.

George, a man who had lived his life in the shadow of his glamorous and popular brother, now stepped out into the light and began to shine as an inspiration to his people. George and his wife were devoted to each other and to their country. The British people knew that their king and queen could have fled to safety, as so many others in their position could""and would""have done. But they stayed in London, living each day side-by-side with their countrymen. During the six years that Britain fought against the German war machine, the king and queen stayed with their people. They shared all the ordeals that their subjects endured. Their food and clothing were rationed, and even though their home was Buckingham Palace, they spent many nights underground in the air raid shelter. They even experienced the bombing of their home and they used this experience to bond them even more closely to their subjects.

During the war years, the king's devotion to duty was matched by that of the queen. Queen Elizabeth was always busy: mailing thousands of thank-you letters to those who had received evacuees from the cities, leading a working party which met twice a week to make comforters and surgical dressings for the troops, and traveling""sometimes alone and sometimes with the king""to visit areas shattered by German bombing. When she visited the bombsites, the queen always gave substantial thought as to what clothes to wear. She wore clothes which were restrained and muted in color and which served a dual purpose: they were practical, as they did not show dust or dirt from the damaged buildings, and sympathetic and sensitive, since they would not seem too light-hearted a choice to the victims of the bombing. The king was a firm believer in hard work and World War II gave him ample opportunity to work hard. He was indefatigable in his succession of duties, and was the first king to insist on personally decorating all ranks with service medals. He made numerous visits to the fighting troops in Britain and overseas, and was even more enthusiastic than ever before in his visits to factories. He also tried to be of practical use: when he discovered that there was a shortage of components for anti-tank guns, he had a lathe installed at Windsor Castle. He spent many weekends working on it. The king took his responsibility to the war effort as earnestly as any ordinary citizen, even recycling and patching his own clothes, rather than buying new ones. He made do, just as his subjects were doing.

Edward VIII and Wallis, now the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, meanwhile, spent the war in the relative safety of the Bahamas. He spent many of the war years quibbling with the British government and his family about what he considered to be personal affronts against his and Wallis' position of importance. They often appeared to be more concerned with the privileges and perquisites to which they felt entitled. While George VI and Queen Elizabeth were enduring their country's rationing and visiting bombed out rubble, the Windsor's spent a relative comfortable, boring life in Nassau. Their greatest hardship was the hot, sultry Bahamas weather about which they complained incessantly. Wallis contribution to the war effort was to pack little boxes of supplies to be sent to soldiers at the front. The duke did a good job of governing the Bahamas, although it was not quite as challenging as what his brother was doing. It was fortunate that they were so close to Florida, as they often felt the need to get away from Nassau and escape to the social circles of Palm Beach and Miami.

While the King of England might not have any actual political power, he did have the ability to instill in his subjects an overwhelming desire to persevere and win against the enemy. The fact that George VI underwent the same wartime hardships as his subjects made him truly one of them. He and his people were bonded in their fight against domination by dictators. His presence on the throne could have been a deciding factor in Britain's resolve to endure throughout some of the most desperate years of its existence.

Thus, George VI, was raised in his elder brother's shadow, never trained for nor expecting to be any more than Duke of York. He anticipated a quiet life with his family in which he would carry out routine royal duties and, for the most part, remain out of the glare of the public eye. Instead, he was catapulted into the highest position in the land at a time when the danger of war was threatening across the Channel in Europe. This timid, shy man became an example of bravery and an inspiration to the English people as he remained in London during the war, visited cities and villages throughout war-torn England and raised his people's spirits s they went through their darkest times. This king who had a dread of public speaking because of his stammer, spoke simple words to his subjects, giving them the strength and courage to fight on against all odds. This unheroic man and his family became heroes, not only to his subjects, but also to people around the world.

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