Who was George VI?
George VI was born Albert Frederick Arthur George on 14 December 1895, during the reign of his great-grandmother Queen Victoria. As the second son of King George V and Queen Mary, his older brother Edward was expected to inherit the throne. His childhood was plagued by chronic stomach issues and the development of a stammer that was a source of insecurity throughout his life.
In 1910, Albert’s father became King George V, meaning Albert was now second in line to the throne behind his brother Edward. After serving in the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force during the First World War, Albert married Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon in 1923. The pairing was considered unusual for the time seeing as Elizabeth was not of royal birth. They went on to have two daughters, the future Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret.
The path to the throne
As is now well documented, Albert’s public speaking duties led him to hire a speech therapist, whose breathing and vocal techniques helped dampen the extremity of the impediment. The improvement was evident when Albert opened the new Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, as part of a tour in 1927. In 1936, George V died and Albert’s brother became King Edward VIII.
Before his death, George V had expressed his concerns regarding Edward’s suitability for the role of king. Less than a year after Edward’s coronation, his father’s fears materialised when Edward abdicated in order to marry the American socialite Wallis Simpson, who was on the cusp of her second divorce. Amid public gossip that he would be incapable of taking on the role, Albert prepared for a radically altered and unwelcome new phase of his life.
A change of name
In a move to achieve continuity with his father as well as out of respect for Queen Victoria’s wish that no future monarch use her husband’s name, Albert assumed the name King George VI on his coronation in 1937. The early part of his reign was overshadowed by lingering questions about his brother’s sudden abdication. With the looming prospect of World War II on the horizon, the king and queen toured America and Canada in 1939 in an attempt to gain support for any future conflict. When war did break out, the royal couple remained in London despite the threat from bombing raids. Their connection to the public was strengthened through visits to munitions factories, troops and bomb sites.
After overseeing the breakup of the British Empire following the end of World War II, a diagnosis of lung cancer and other health issues led to many of George’s duties being taken on by his daughter and heir, Princess Elizabeth. He died on 6 February 1952, with his funeral taking place at St George’s Chapel, Windsor. Despite his unexpected and undesired role as king, his serious, unassuming approach proved to have a steadying influence in a period of turmoil for Britain and its monarchy.