Albert Frederick Arthur George, known as Prince Albert during his early life, was never expected to ascend to the throne and become King George VI. As the second son of George V, one of George VI’s brothers Edward was ahead of him in line of succession - but the twists and turns of history had unforeseen destinies for them both.
Prince Albert, Duke of York, was born on 14th December, 1895 on the Sandringham Estate in Norfolk - the same place that he would die as King George VI, on February 6th 1952. His parents, Prince George, Duke of York (later King George V) and Mary, Duchess of York had already had a son - Edward - the previous year.
Prince Albert (the future George VI), took part in the long tradition of military service undertaken by the Royals, serving in the Royal Navy for four years between 1913 and 1917, the Royal Naval Air Service from 1917 to 1919, and the Royal Air Force in 1920. He then attended Trinity College, Cambridge from 1919 to 1920, studying history, economics and physics. In 1923, he married Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon after a determined courtship on his part, and in 1926 his love of tennis led to him taking part in the Wimbledon Men’s doubles alongside Louis Grieg. They lost in the first round.
Throughout this time, the prince was very much in the shadow of the heir apparent, the future King George VI’s brother Edward. Prince Albert was happy being out of the spotlight; he had a stammer that meant he hated public speaking and appearances.
The Duke and Duchess of York had two children: Princess Elizabeth in 1926, who was known as Lilibet (later to become Queen Elizabeth II) and Princess Margaret in 1930. They grew up in relative normality for members of the British Royal Family; the lack of interest in Prince Albert - and the lack of awareness that he would later become George VI - meant they could escape the scrutiny that Edward suffered; Prince Albert, for example, had a surprising amount of freedom in choosing a non-Royal wife.
The scrutiny of Edward’s love life is what ultimately scuppered his short-lived time on the throne. After his ascension to the throne on 20th January 1936, Edward VIII’s intention to marry divorcee Wallis Simpson - and the fact that he was forbidden from doing so - led to his abdication from the throne. As a result, the reign of King George VI began on 11th December 1936 - the day after his brother’s abdication - and his coronation took place on 12th May, 1937. The line of ascension had been altered, and the fact George VI had no male heir meant that Lilibet would one day become Queen Elizabeth II with her consort Prince Philip by her side.
King George VI put his kingdom in good stead for World War II by forming good ties with France and a close friendship with US President Franklin D. Roosevelt prior to the outbreak of hostilities. Nevertheless, George VI faced some retrospective criticism for supporting Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasing Adolf Hitler. The subsequent appointment of Winston Churchill to the premiership went against George VI’s wishes, but he remained duty bound to the role of his office and supported Churchill’s wartime leadership without question.
King George VI became a powerful figurehead for Britain during World War II, famously displaying his bravery, resilience and solidarity with his subjects by refusing to relocate his family to the safety of Canada. Not only that, but he actively entered more dangerous situations by visiting his armed forces on a number of battlefronts - for example Normandy, ten days after D-Day. The King and Queen also visited bombed areas of London during the Blitz, taking a keen interest in what was being done to repair the damage caused by air raids. The need to provide more of a public presence to support the British people led to King George VI becoming determined to overcome his severe stammer - a struggle that was immortalised in the 2010 film The King’s Speech. After the war, he supported and oversaw the development of Great Britain as a welfare state.
Aside from his strong and inspirational leadership as a wartime figurehead, King George VI is also credited with driving the transformation of the British Empire into the Commonwealth of Nations, becoming formally recognised on 27th April 1949 as head of the Commonwealth of Nations by the governments of the member states. In doing so, he put into effect a chain of events that would be seen as one of the defining characteristics of his daughter Queen Elizabeth II’s reign; a modernising ceding of independence to huge swathes of what had once been the British Empire.
King George VI’s death was a shock to the nation. Only six years after the death of King George VI’s brother Prince George, by 1948 the health of George VI was deteriorating as a result of stress and heavy smoking, culminating in a diagnosis of lung cancer and a number of other ailments. On 23rd September 1951, he underwent an operation that removed his entire left lung in an attempt to rid him of a malignant tumour. On 6th February 1952, he was found dead in his bedroom at Sandringham House, having suffered a coronary thrombosis at the age of 56.