Royal family dysfunction is nothing new, especially in the British royal family. Generations of British kings and queens have faced difficulties — real or imagined — with their offspring. Queen Elizabeth II has often been criticized, including by some of her own children, for her distant mothering style, a trait that can be traced back through generations of her own family.
Edward VII endured a difficult childhood
The eldest child of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Edward VII was criticized and frequently belittled by his parents for his perceived lack of intelligence and moral scruples. He developed a frosty relationship with them both, which was only exacerbated after his father fell ill and died shortly after a quarrel with his son over a rumored affair with an actress. A grief-stricken Victoria never forgave her son, and she bristled over his well-deserved reputation as a pleasure-loving, decadent playboy. Victoria would have highly tempestuous relationships with all of her children, who found themselves constantly battling for her love and acceptance.
Despite — or perhaps because of — his own painful upbringing, Edward proved to be a more caring father. He and his beautiful wife, Alexandra, bucked conventions of the era, especially among the upper class, spending ample time with their five surviving children and often refusing to punish them. The ever-critical Victoria cast a judgmental eye towards her rambunctious grandchildren, writing, “They are such ill-bred, ill-trained children.” Edward, remembering his own childhood, defended his and Alexandra’s parenting, writing to his mother, “If children are too strictly or perhaps too severely treated they get shy and only fear those whom they ought to love."
But Edward’s obvious affection for his children was countered by his notoriously short temper, and even those closest to him developed a wariness of getting on his wrong side. And his constant philandering and the pain it caused their beloved mother left his children, especially his second son George, with conflicted feelings for their father.
George V proved to be very different from his father
An uninspiring student, George V followed his beloved elder brother, Eddy, into naval training as a young teen, where the once “ill-trained” child quickly grew to adore the regimented formality and discipline of military life. After his brother’s premature death in 1892, George married Eddy’s fiancée, Mary of Teck, known as May.
The couple were devoted to each other, and they were determined to live a far more respectable life than George’s father, who became king following Queen Victoria’s death in 1901. Where Edward collected mistresses, his son developed a passion for collecting stamps. The charming, amiable king thrilled to visit the continent, where his fluency in several languages made him a beloved figure. His taciturn son considered foreign languages and travel frivolous, only rarely leaving England and his beloved game hunting.
One of the most striking differences between Edward VII and George V was their parenting styles
Although George had grown up in a permissive royal household, his own children were not so lucky. He was a demanding parent, whose quick temper (like his father’s) and strict military training made him a near martinet. His wife, May, was a somewhat more forgiving figure but admitted that she was emotionally ill-equipped to deal with her six children. The children saw their parents just twice a day and were primarily raised by nannies. George and May were so uninvolved in their children’s daily lives that it took them several years to discover that one nanny was inflicting emotional and sometimes physical abuse on the eldest boys, Edward and Albert (the future King George VI), known to family and friends as David and Bertie.
George V was particularly hard on these two sons
Perhaps sensing echoes of his own worldly father, George harshly criticized Edward, who in time would develop a reputation as a stylish, capricious, cosmopolitan figure — not at all the solid, respectable heir George and May expected. Shy, Albert, meanwhile, proved to be no more promising in his parents’ eyes. He suffered from a series of digestive ailments and was knock-kneed, an abnormality that George fixed by forcing Albert to wear painful braces. The left-handed younger son was also forced to use his right hand, and George had little patience for the pronounced stammer that Albert developed as a young child, barking at him to speak up as the poor child struggled to choke out his words.
George and May were also criticized over their treatment of their youngest child, John. An epileptic who was likely also developmentally challenged, John was eventually sent to live in his own household with a full-time caretaker. Although he lived on his family’s estate, his parents rarely visited him, and never spoke of him in public, as if to airbrush him from the history books. His brother George was one of the few family members to have contact with him before his death, aged just 13, in 1919.
A 1959 book by Randolph Churchill, son of Winston Churchill, attributed an infamous quote to George V: “My father was frightened of his mother. I was frightened of my father and I am damned well going to see to it that my children are frightened of me.” While the quote has proven to be apocryphal, it certainly sums up the multi-generational discord that ran through the family.
Albert and Edward reacted very differently to their strict upbringing
An almost emotionally shell-shocked Albert found the stability and support he craved with Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (the future Queen Mother). A member of the British nobility, she and her nine siblings were raised in a warm, fun-loving and often prank-filled household. A popular debutante, she was reluctant to take on royal life, initially turning Albert’s proposal down before finally accepting. After their marriage in 1923, the couple settled down to they hoped would be a life of quiet domesticity, eventually joined by two daughters, the future Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret. “We four,” as Albert would dub them, adored each other’s company, and his family proved to be a solace to him for the rest of his life.
Edward, however, refused to settle down. Affairs with a series of society women (many of them married) continued to infuriate his parents. His fastidious style and good looks made him a style icon. And although it would later be revealed that he harbored disturbingly conservative views on race and class, he was a popular Prince of Wales with the British public. Popular though he was, Edward chafed at his royal duties, or what he called, “princing.”
Much like his grandfather Edward VII, he preferred the nightlife and lavish parties he threw at his home in Windsor. While he did have his admirers within the court, many found him capricious and weak-willed, and considerably vulnerable to the much more dominant women in his life, including American divorcée Wallis Simpson, who Edward met in the early 1930s. Friends, family and officials also whispered about Edward’s emotional intelligence, with many convinced he was nothing more than a stunted adult.
George V despaired about his oldest child’s fitness to rule
Government officials and royal courtiers had their doubts about Britain’s heir, but few were as openly dismissive about his fitness for the throne. George reportedly said that he hoped his eldest son would never have children, paving a path for the more dutiful (if dull) Albert to eventually reign. As George’s health began to decline, and with his eldest son nearing 40, he openly feared what came next, telling Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, “After I am dead, the boy will ruin himself in twelve months."
In the end, of course, George proved to be right. Edward assumed the throne as Edward VIII in January 1936, following his father’s death. His mercurial behavior earned him few friends in government. Although his ongoing relationship Simpson was largely kept out of the British press, American newspapers covered it extensively. The Church of England, of which Edward was the head, categorically refused to consider his marriage to a now twice-divorced woman. The crisis came to a head that December, resulting in Edward’s abdication less than a year after becoming king. Stammering, shy Albert, who had also chafed under his strong-willed father’s control, reluctantly became the dutiful king the family had wished for, ruling until his death in 1952 with the support of his loving family.