King George V’s sense of duty was unwavering, but he was not a monarch who sought to flex his power to define government policy. Nevertheless, he was instrumental in instigating a major change to the British Royal Family that would redefine its image and which remains central to its identity today.
George Frederick Ernest Albert of the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha was born on 3 June 1865. George was the second son of Edward VII and Alexandra of Denmark, and therefore second in line to the throne after his brother Albert.
He was never expected to rule, and was enrolled in the Royal Navy training academy at the age of 12, alongside Albert, after an early childhood of being nannied and tutored together. The siblings went their separate ways in 1883, when George pursued a career in the Royal Navy while Albert continued his studies at Trinity College, Cambridge.
The brothers’ destinies changed dramatically in 1892, when Albert succumbed suddenly and tragically to a bout of influenza - thereby leaving George behind as heir apparent in his stead. As a result, George left the Navy, received the title of Duke of York, then was given a swift education in British politics and made a member of the House of Lords.
King Edward VII died on 6 May 1910, and George became King George V. He instantly found himself plunged into a constitutional crisis, in light of Conservatives and Unionists in the House of Lords having voted down David Lloyd George’s budget the previous year. As a result, George V was put in an awkward position when Lloyd George and Liberal Prime Minister H.H. Asquith requested that the King threaten to create more Liberal peers to push the budget through the House of Lords. Reluctantly, George V did so, causing the Conservatives to cave and pass the budget.
Four years later he would face another issue; the spectre of the First World War caused a surge in ill-will towards the Germans, with whom George V was associated by his ancestry and the Germanic name of Saxe-Coburg of Gotha. He committed doubly to his duties as the British King, and made personal visits to his subjects fighting on the front lines, where he paid tribute to those fighting for their country and those that had been injured in the process. Demonstrating the extent to which he was attuned to his country’s mood - and to supporting his people with every fibre of his being - George V made the decision to change the name of the House of Saxe-Coburg of Gotha to the more emphatically British House of Windsor, taking the name from the most iconic and historic castle in the United Kingdom.
In a further effort to cement his British identity, George V also chose not to offer his cousin Tsar Nicholas II and his family political asylum during the Bolshevik Revolution. As a result, the Tsar and his family were brutally assassinated - most likely on Lenin’s orders - on 17th July 1918.
The abrupt need for an heir of his own led to George marrying Princess Victoria Mary of Teck, who not only happened to be his cousin, but had also been Albert’s fiancée prior to his death. Together, the royal couple had six children; five sons - Edward, Albert, George, Henry, John - and one daughter, Princess Mary.
Although blessed with an abundance of male heirs, not all were entirely suited to royal life in the eyes of their parents. The eldest, Edward, was considered by Edward VII to be so ill-behaved that he would wish it were his second son Albert who was in line to the throne. In fact, this is precisely what eventually ended up happening after the abdication of Edward VIII in 1936 and Albert became George VI (the current Prince George will become George VII when he eventually takes the throne). Prince John, meanwhile, was epileptic, leading George to decide to distance him from the rest of the family and keep him out of the public eye. Prince John died from a seizure at the age of 13.
The British Empire underwent some drastic changes during the time of King George V, with a number of territories across the world seeking to regain their independence from Britain - a dynamic that would continue well into the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, and would be a driving force in modernising the British Royal Family.
Ireland received an independent Irish parliament following rebellion in 1916, and in the wake of the First World War other parts of the British Empire began to pull away from the colonial structure as well. South Africa, New Zealand, Canada and Australia all obtained the right to self-govern, and in 1931 established the Commonwealth of Nations.
While visiting his troops during the First World War, George V fell from his horse and fractured his pelvis, leading to lifelong chronic pain. This was later compounded with difficulty breathing, and further exacerbated by heavy smoking. In 1925 he was found to be suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, putting George V’s decline well and truly in motion.
George V, along with his subjects, celebrated his Silver Jubilee in 1935, and the public response made clear his popularity as a monarch, who recognised his wholehearted commitment to his country and its people. His reign marked a shift away from a royal family that aligned itself with the aristocracy to one that more closely identified with the upper middle classes, and this was reflected in his building of ties with the Labour Party and unions during the 1930s. He died on 20 January 1936, after an injection of cocaine and morphine administered by his doctor.