George V was born George Frederick Ernest Albert to the Prince and Princess of Wales, the future King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, on 3 June 1865. He was their second child, their first being Prince Albert Victor. When George was twelve, he and his brother were sent to the Royal Navy’s training ship where they would spend three years visiting places including Egypt, the Caribbean, and East Asia. After years of travelling, Albert Victor went on to study at Trinity College, Cambridge. However George, who wasn’t expected to take the throne, stayed in the Navy, and the young prince intended to make that his career.
In 1891, George’s brother was betrothed to Princess Mary of Teck, often referred to as May. Not long after the engagement Albert Victor fell ill with influenza that developed into pneumonia, and he died on 14 January 1892. George was now second in line to the throne, so his aspirations of serving in the Royal Navy were put to rest. He was given the title Duke of York and began his education in British politics. Not only did George take his brother’s place as second in line to the British throne but he also inherited his fiancée.
Although George and Mary were usually shy and distant from each other in person, their real feelings for one another were revealed through the romantic love letters exchanged between the two. They were married on 6 July 1893 at the Chapel Royal in St James’s Palace. The marriage produced five sons and one daughter, including the future Edward VIII and George VI.
When Queen Victoria died on 22 January 1901, George’s father ascended the throne as Edward VII. In November of that same year, George was made Prince of Wales. While Edward VII was growing up, Queen Victoria tried her best to keep him uninvolved in state affairs. He made it his goal to attempt to prepare his son for his future role as king as much as possible; George was given access to almost all state documents.
When George’s father Edward VII died on 6 May 1910, he became King George V. He later wrote in his diary, “I have lost my best friend and the best of fathers…I never had a cross word with him in my life. I am heartbroken and overwhelmed with grief, but God will help me in my responsibilities, and darling May will be my comfort as she has always been. May God give me strength and guidance in the heavy task that has fallen on me”.
George and Mary were crowned on 22 June 1911 at Westminster Abbey. Later that year the King and Queen went to India for the Delhi Durbar. There they were formally made Emperor and Empress of India; they were the first monarchs actually to attend the event. In the past, they were usually represented by members of the aristocracy.
World War I began in July 1914 and George, having grown up involved with the Royal Navy, tirelessly visited battle fronts and military hospitals as much as he could. During one of these visits, a horse rolled over the king fracturing his pelvis, which caused his great pain for the rest of his life.
During the Great War, anti-German sentiments were rapidly growing. People were no longer using German products, German music was not played, and German people were treated with suspicion. George, having many German ancestral ties, had the surname of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. To appeal to the anti-German feelings of his people, he proclaimed that the name of the royal house would be changed to The House of Windsor.
During the war, a revolution was raging in Russia, which resulted in Tsar Nicholas II, George’s first cousin, being overthrown. The British government agreed to offer political asylum to the Tsar and his family however George was warned by his private secretary that by doing this their revolution might be brought to the British islands. So the Tsar and his family remained in Russia, and they were later murdered by Bolshevik revolutionaries.
The Great War not only took a toll on Great Britain, but it also took a significant toll on the King’s health. After the incident when the horse fell on him while reviewing troops, George often experienced breathing problems. His heavy smoking, a habit he probably picked up from his father who also smoked heavily, only made the problem worse. In 1925, he was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. During the final year of his life, his breathing became so bad that he often had to be administered oxygen.
On January 15 1936, not long after the death of his beloved sister Victoria, George retired to his room with symptoms of a cold and it was soon evident that he would not recover. A famous report was released to the public which stated ‘The King’s life is moving peacefully towards its close’. George V slipped in and out of consciousness and one of his surgeons, Lord Dawson, wrote in his diary that he had helped the King to die by giving him an injection of cocaine and morphine. George V died on 20 January 1936 and was succeeded by his son Edward VIII, who reigned for barely a year.
Throughout his reign, George V was entirely devoted to his people and the Empire that he had inherited. He also invented the modern monarchy that Britain enjoys today and started many new traditions such as the annual Christmas Broadcast which is a major point in the royal calendar today. He was much loved by his people, much to his surprise. During the celebrations of his Silver Jubilee, he reportedly responded to the crowd’s enthusiasm and cheers saying, “I cannot understand it, after all I am only a very ordinary sort of fellow.”
Photo Credit: King George V 1911 color-crop.jpg via Wikimedia Commons, NSRW George V when Duke of Cornwall and York.png via Wikimedia Commons, Mary of Teck 3.jpg via Wikimedia Commons, George Howell VC presentation via Wikimedia Commons.