Royal biographies serve a multitude of purposes, and Americans seem to be no less interested than the British in the lives of the British kings and queens—perhaps, paradoxically, a little more. As we're admonished when a member of the royal family appears in our midst and all hell breaks loose: We fought a revolution to free ourselves from monarchy; what's the appeal, what's the point—and why is everybody screaming and scrambling for a glimpse of Prince [fill in the blank] or Elizabeth II?
Jane Ridley's new biography of the present queen's grandfather, George V—pointedly subtitled "Never a Dull Moment"—offers some useful and instructive answers. As she explains in her opening sentence, George's reign (1910-36) spanned "more than twenty-five of the most tumultuous and eventful years faced by any twentieth-century British sovereign … [managing] to steer the monarchy through the perils of a constitutional crisis, the First World War, the Russian Revolution, the collapse of dynastic Europe, Irish Home Rule, strikes, Bolshevism, the rise of the Labour Party, and the Great Depression."
Which is to say that King George was on the throne at the dawn of our modern geopolitical world and confronted events and ideologies and mass movements—not to mention mass media—with which we still contend.
Of course, the powers of Britain's first modern monarch were constitutionally limited; and the gruff, bearded, grouse-shooting, stamp-collecting king himself was a resolutely unmodern man. Still, one of the strengths of George V is the author's skill and industry in revealing the surprising extent to which George really did exercise political influence—subtly and wisely, for the most part, and sometimes by restraining his natural impulses—and invented the conventions of modern British royalty, thereby assuring its survival. This is no less impressive in the case of a monarch who arrived on the throne in middle age, essentially untrained and certainly uneducated for the unexpected role that history thrust upon him.
Born in 1865, Prince George Frederick Ernest Albert, grandson of the recently widowed Queen Victoria, was the younger son of the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) and, as such, not expected to succeed to the throne. Accordingly, at age 12, he was dispatched with his older brother Albert Victor to the naval training ship HMS Britannia at Dartmouth, where their differing personalities revealed themselves. Prince Albert Victor, second in line of succession, did not thrive at Dartmouth; but Prince George did, and dutifully embraced the spartan training for an officer in the Royal Navy. In subsequent years he served in the Caribbean and Mediterranean, in Australia, East Asia, and South America. He acquired a dragon tattoo on his arm in Tokyo, saw much of the British Empire, commanded vessels.
Indeed, his exposure to the wider world was extensive and might have shaped a certain cosmopolitan nature, if not intellect. But the young prince, a disciplined and capable officer, always retained the habits of behavior and mind—including certain prejudices, not least against intellect itself—reflecting (in the author's view) "the cultural and educational attitudes of the Tory landed aristocracy with military connections." It's not difficult to imagine George contentedly pursuing a naval career, rising irresistibly to high rank and, following the path of other secondary royals, serving with distinction in largely ceremonial posts.
All that changed, however, in 1892 when Albert Victor, recently engaged to the Anglo-German Princess Victoria Mary of Teck, died in an influenza pandemic. Now second in line to the throne, the 26-year-old George left the navy with reluctance and, united with his brother's fiancée in grief, found himself in love with her, married the princess, and settled in at snug York Cottage on the royal Sandringham estate in rural Norfolk. For the next 17 years, in the words of one of his earlier biographers, the prince "did nothing at all but kill animals and stick in stamps."
That, of course, is a slight exaggeration. George was an exceptional shot and, for much of his life, organized his off-duty existence around the seasons for bagging grouse, pheasant, and other unfortunate creatures, often in abundant (and, to modern sensibilities, shocking) quantities. But he and his wife—who subsequently dropped Victoria from her title and would later become the estimable Queen Mary of royal folklore—also produced in rapid succession six children, five boys and one girl, projecting an image of domestic bliss and family happiness, of simple devotion in the shadow of grandeur which, in contrast to certain forebears and successors, had much to do with the couple's (and monarchy's) enduring popularity.
Prince George was no philosopher, was largely devoid of aesthetic interests, and was remarkably ill-prepared for the manifold challenges of a constitutional monarch when he succeeded his worldly-wise, pleasure-seeking, crowd-pleasing father Edward VII in 1910. But during the quarter-century of George's reign, the temperament of the reputedly dull, notoriously dyspeptic, and rigidly disciplined ex-naval officer rose to the challenge in a long, seemingly unremitting, series of domestic crises and foreign calamities, all faithfully recorded in laconic diary entries and occasionally expressed in his loud, indiscreet voice.
Yet, in practice, King George turned out to be a fair-minded, even sagacious, monarch whose allegiance to duty and pursuit of common ground and harmony was both responsive to his onerous duties as sovereign and mindful of the perils and prerogatives of his dynasty.
As king, in the budget standoff of 1910-11, he was immediately confronted by the determination of the incumbent Liberal government to diminish the ancient powers of the Tory-dominated House of Lords, and served as midwife to a compromise solution. In 1914, as Ireland stood on the threshold of home rule, he sought to avoid civil war between Irish nationalists and Ulster loyalists. In the Great War, establishing a royal pattern repeated in World War II, he tirelessly toured battlefields, met and encouraged soldiers in the front lines, and exercised his limited constitutional powers by persuasion in civilian and military affairs.
Above all, with the radical expansion of the vote and subsequent electoral transformation in Britain, the king played his part in ensuring that the transformation was peaceful, refusing to deny Labour's rightful claim to office when Labour supplanted Liberals as Britain's principal left-wing party. His famous diary entry when Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald formed Britain's first Labour government—"Today 23 years ago dear Grandmama [Queen Victoria] died, I wonder what she would have thought of a Labour government"—reflected his mixture of private concern and public magnanimity. In the General Strike of 1926, when the organizers were widely characterized as revolutionaries, George V advised, "Try living on their wages before you judge them."
King George V has been served well by his biographers, but the celebrated works of the diarist-diplomat Harold Nicolson (1952) and the diarist-journalist Kenneth Rose (1983) did not entirely dispel the king's enduring status as bland, inflexible, and etiquette-obsessed. Jane Ridley begs to differ, and makes an entertainingly persuasive case not only for the democratic benefits of constitutional monarchy but for George's humor, humanity, sound judgment, and standing as "one of the most thoughtful and one of the most successful monarchs in British history."
George V: Never a Dull Moment
by Jane Ridley
HarperCollins, 560 pp., $35
Philip Terzian, a contributing writer at the Washington Examiner, is the author of Architects of Power: Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and the American Century.