King George V of Great Britain was born on June 3, 1865, the unpromising second son of Edward VII. Initially, he sought a career in the British Navy, but the untimely death of his brother, Albert, placed him on the throne. He became king in 1910 and played an active role supporting the troops during World War I. Though lackluster in personality, he won the loyalty of the middle class and many in Great Britain with his steadfast dedication to his country.
Britain’s George V was the grandson of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and the second son of Edward VII and Alexandra of Denmark. George Frederick Ernest Albert of the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was born on June 3, 1865. From 1910 to 1936, he oversaw tremendous transformation within the British Empire and the world. Starting a Career in the Navy As the second royal son, George wasn’t expected to take the throne. In his early years, he was educated alongside his older brother, Albert, by tutors and nannies. At age 12, George and Albert enrolled in the naval training academy. Afterward, Albert went on to Trinity College, and George remained in the Royal Navy, intending to make it his career. In 1892, Albert suddenly died of influenza. George assumed the role of heir-apparent and left the Royal Navy. He was given the title Duke of York, along with an education in British politics, and became a member of the House of Lords.
In 1893, George married his German cousin (and his late brother’s fiancée), Princess Victoria Mary of Teck. During their marriage they had five sons: Prince Edward, Prince Albert, Prince George, Prince Henry, Prince John and a daughter, Princess Mary. Their youngest son, Prince John, was diagnosed with epilepsy as a child and was largely kept apart from the royal family. His condition deteriorated as he aged and he died after having a seizure when he was 13. By most accounts George was a strict father with all his children, but was especially critical of his wayward son Edward, once saying he hoped his second son, Albert, would take the throne. His wish would be granted when Edward abdicated the throne in 1936 and Albert was crowned George VI.
On May 6, 1910, Edward VII died. George became king and immediately faced a constitutional crisis, known as the budget controversy of 1910. In an unprecedented move, Tories in the House of Lords rejected the budget proposed by Liberals in the House of Commons. George V threatened to create enough Liberal nobles in the House of Lords to pass the measure, and the Tories gave in. George V’s threat foretold future actions where he would support the middle class over the gentry.
When World War I broke out in July 1914, George V took great effort to personally support the troops, visiting the front and military hospitals many times. On one such visit, his horse rolled over him, fracturing his pelvis and giving him pain the rest of his life. In 1917, in response to deep anti-German sentiment in Britain, George V replaced his Germanic name with the name of Windsor (after the castle of the same name). That same year, he made the controversial decision to deny political asylum to his cousin and ally Tsar Nicholas II and his family, after the Bolshevik Revolution. Many in Britain were shocked, but he felt it important to distance himself from the autocratic Russian regime. By the end of World War I, George V was one of few European monarchs who had not fallen to revolution and war.
Vast Changes Within the Empire
The reign of George V saw many changes within the British Empire. Rebellion in Ireland in 1916 resulted in an independent Irish parliament and later a geographic division along religious lines. The post–World War I period also brought change to the empire itself as Canada, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa demanded and received the right of self-governance and formed the Commonwealth of Nations in 1931. India followed, achieving some degree of self-determinism in 1935.
Illness and Death
World War I also brought changes to George V’s health. After his serious fall from a horse in 1915, he experienced breathing problems. His heavy smoking didn’t help, and by 1925 he was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. A few years later, he fell seriously ill with an inflammatory disease. He never fully recovered, and in his final year he was often administered oxygen. On the evening of January 15, 1936, George complained of a cold and retired to his bedroom. It was apparent he was gravely ill, and the doctor was summoned. The king slipped in and out of consciousness for five days. After receiving an injection of morphine and cocaine by the royal physician, he died on January 20, 1936.
In 1935, King George V celebrated his Silver Jubilee, to much public rejoicing. He had become a popular king by cultivated good relationships with the Labour Party and unions during the economic depression of the 1930s. While he lacked intellectual curiosity and sophistication, he was hardworking, deeply devoted to Great Britain and widely admired by the British people. He established a standard for British royalty that reflected the values and virtues of the upper middle class rather than the aristocracy. Though he probably neither understood nor fully appreciated the changes that occurred in his empire, he used his influence as a voice of reason and moderation to help Britain weather the changes of the early 20th century.
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