Biography of King George VI, Britain’s Unexpected King

King during WWII and father of Queen Elizabeth II

King George VI prepares a radio address
King George VI prepares a radio address to announce war with Germany in 1939 (Photo: Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Getty).

King George VI (born Prince Albert Frederick Arthur George; December 14, 1895–February 6, 1952) was King of the United Kingdom, Head of the British Commonwealth, and the last Emperor of India. He succeeded to the throne after his older brother, Edward VIII, abdicated. He is the father of Queen Elizabeth II, Britain’s longest-ruling monarch.

Fast Facts: King George VI

  • Given Name: Albert Frederick Arthur George
  • Known For: Served as King of the United Kingdom from 1936–1952, following the abdication of his brother Edward VIII. His reign saw Britain's victory in World War II as well as the end of the British Empire.
  • Born: December 14, 1895 in Norfolk, England
  • Died: February 6, 1952 in Norfolk, England
  • Spouse: Queen Elizabeth, nee Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (m. 1923-1952)
  • Children: Princess Elizabeth, later Queen Elizabeth II (b. 1926), Princess Margaret (1930-2002)

Early Life

George VI, who was known as Albert until he became king, was born to Prince George, then Duke of York (later King George V) and his wife, Mary of Teck. He was their second son, following the birth of his brother Edward the previous year. His birthday was also the 34th anniversary of the death of his great-grandfather, Prince Albert. To honor the prince—and in deference to Queen Victoria, who was reportedly upset upon hearing the news of the prince’s birth on that day—the family named the child Albert, after the late Prince Consort. Among family, Albert was known as “Bertie,” like his grandfather the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII).

As a boy, Albert suffered from several health problems, including bowed knees and chronic stomach ailments. He also developed the stammer that he would struggle with for the rest of his life. When Albert was fourteen, he began attending the Royal Naval College as a naval cadet; like many royal second sons, he anticipated a military career. Although he struggled in his early studies, he graduated in his training and progressed to training on board a ship in 1913.

Duke of York

In 1910, Albert's father became King George V, making Albert second in line for the throne behind his brother Edward, who quickly developed a reputation for his hard-partying ways. Albert, meanwhile, had just embarked on his full-fledged naval career when World War I broke out. Although he went through an emergency appendectomy in 1913, he recovered and rejoined the war effort, eventually being mentioned in dispatches for his action during the Battle of Jutland, the largest single naval battle of the war.

Albert suffered another medical setback when he had to have surgery for an ulcer in 1917, but he eventually transferred to the Royal Air Force and became the first royal to be a fully certified pilot. He was posted to France in the waning days of the war, and in 1919, after the war had ended, he became a full-fledged RAF pilot and was promoted to squadron leader. He was made Duke of York in 1920, at which time he began taking on more public duties, although his ongoing struggle with his stammer made public speaking difficult.

That same year, Albert crossed paths with Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, daughter of the Earl and Countess of Strathmore and Kinghorne, for the first time since they were children. He fell in love with her immediately, but the path to marriage wasn’t quite so smooth. She rejected his marriage proposal twice, in 1921 and 1922, because she wasn’t sure she wanted to make the sacrifices that being a royal would require. By 1923, however, she agreed, and the couple were married in on April 26, 1923. Their daughters Elizabeth and Margaret were born in 1926 and 1930, respectively.

Ascent to the Throne

Albert and Elizabeth lived a relatively quiet life by choice. Albert’s public speaking requirements led him to hire speech therapist Lionel Logue, whose breathing and vocal techniques helped the prince to improve his public speaking abilities. Albert and Logue's work together was depicted in the Oscar-winning film The King's Speech in 2010. Albert supported the improvement of working conditions, served as president of the Industrial Welfare Society, and ran a series of summer camps for boys from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds from 1921 until the outbreak of World War II.

In 1936, George V died and Albert’s brother Edward became King Edward VIII. Controversy immediately erupted, as Edward wanted to marry Wallis Simpson, an American who had divorced her first husband and was in the process of divorcing her second husband. The subsequent constitutional crisis was only resolved when Edward chose to abdicate rather than give up Wallis. He did so on December 10, 1936. Since Edward was unmarried and childless, Albert became king, taking the regnal name George VI in honor of his father. He was crowned in Westminster Abbey on May 12, 1937—the date previously slated for Edward VII’s coronation.

Almost immediately, King George VI was pulled into the controversy over the U.K.’s handling of Hitler’s aggression on the European mainland. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain continued to pursue an appeasement policy, and the king was constitutionally bound to support him. In early 1939, the king and queen visited Canada, making George VI the first British monarch to visit. On the same trip, they visited the United States and formed a rapport with President Franklin D. Roosevelt that would help solidify the American-British ties in the coming years.

World War II

On September 3, 1939, after Germany failed to respond to an ultimatum issued over their invasion of Poland, the United Kingdom, along with its European allies, declared war on Germany. In spite of constant air raids by the German Luftwaffe, the royal family remained in official residence in London throughout World War II, although they actually split their time between Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle.

In 1940, Winston Churchill took over as prime minister. Although he and King George VI had a rocky relationship at first, they soon developed an excellent rapport that helped bring the U.K. through the war years. The king and queen made many visits and public appearances to keep up morale, and the monarchy hit a high in popularity. The war came to an end in 1945, and the following year, London hosted the first assembly of the United Nations, with George VI making an opening address.

Later Years and Legacy

In the years after the war, King George VI turned to matters of his own empire, which entered a decline in influence and power on the world stage. India and Pakistan declared independence in 1947, and Ireland left the Commonwealth altogether in 1948. When India officially became a republic, George VI took on a new title: Head of the Commonwealth.

King George VI had suffered health problems all his life, and the combination of stress from the war and his heavy smoking habits led to a series of major health scares in the late 1940s. He developed lung cancer, as well as arteriosclerosis and other diseases, and underwent multiple surgeries. Princess Elizabeth, his heir, took on more and more of his duties, although she was recently married and starting a family with her husband, Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.

On the morning February 6, 1952, King George VI was found in his room at Sandringham, having died in his sleep. His daughter Elizabeth immediately became Queen Elizabeth II at the age of 25; she is the longest reigning queen regnant of all time. He is buried in St. George’s Chapel, and the remains of his wife Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and his younger daughter Margaret have since been interred alongside him. King George VI was never supposed to be king, but he reigned over the later years of Britain as an imperial power and saw the nation through one of its most dangerous eras.

Sources

  • Bradford, Sarah. The Reluctant King: The Life and Reign of George VI, 1895 – 1952. St. Martin’s Press, 1990.
  • “George VI.” Biography, 2 April 2014, https://www.biography.com/people/george-vi-9308937.
  • Howarth, Patrick. George VI: A New Biography. Hutchinson, 1987.
  • Smith, Sally Bedell. Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch. Random House, 2012.