The great-grandson of Queen Victoria, King George VI was born on 14th December 1895. His father, the Duke of York would become King George V in 1910, and his mother, the Duchess of York, then became Queen Mary.
George VI was christened Albert Frederick Arthur George, and was always known as Bertie by those closest to him. The name Albert was chosen as a tribute to his great-grandfather, Prince Albert, to please Queen Victoria, who at the time of Bertie's birth was still mourning her husband's death.
As he had an elder brother, Edward, Bertie was not the direct heir to the throne and therefore relieved of some of the pressure which entailed; although he was, of course, still subject to strict royal protocols. This was unfortunate, as Bertie (or Prince Albert, as he was known following Queen Victoria's death in 1901) was by nature a nervous boy with a stammer, and prone to ill health. He was also left handed, but was made to learn to write right-handed, which was quite normal at that time.
Military service in World War One
Illness continued to plague Bertie's life. As a naval cadet, he was frequently seasick, but persevered to serve as a Royal Navy midshipman on HMS Collingwood during the First World War. Although mentioned in dispatches for his actions during the Battle of Jutland, his actual service period was relatively short, being interrupted first by having his appendix removed, and later for a duodenal ulcer.
As WWI moved into its final year, Bertie transferred to the Royal Naval Air Service, and subsequently to the Royal Air Force, where he successfully trained as a pilot – a first for a British royal.
After becoming a Squadron Leader in 1919, Bertie went to Trinity College Cambridge to study. Whilst there he was appointed Duke of York by his father, and increasingly took on royal duties. He took an interest in industry, becoming president of the Industrial Welfare Society.
Marriage – eventually
In 1923 Bertie – Prince Albert as he was properly known – married Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. He had met her again three years previously having first known her during childhood. Although their friendship was close, she was reluctant to marry him, knowing the burdens associated with marrying into the royalty. After she eventually agreed, they married in Westminster Abbey. There was a hint of controversy, as Elizabeth was not from a royal family – the more usual choice of spouse for a member of the British royal family.
Although Prince Albert still had many royal engagements, he was not a confident speaker, being constantly held back by his stammer. He undertook a course of speech therapy with an Australian Lionel Logue, an experience which was dramatised in the 2010 film The King's Speech. Albert's public speaking was much improved, but he was never totally at ease delivering speeches.
Bertie becomes King George VI
This was one of the main reasons why he became known as ‘The Reluctant King' which he became on the abdication of his older brother. Edward had become King Edward VIII in 1936 when his and Albert's father, George V died. He renounced the throne less than a year later in order to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson.
So at the age of 41, Albert became King. Why was he King George VI and not King Albert? Rumours that he was reluctant to become King (which were true) and incapable of fulfilling the role (which proved unfounded) had apparently diminished the public's confidence in him, so to counter that and emphasise that he was continuing his father's duties, the last of his middle names was chosen. The hesitant Bertie was crowned King George VI at Westminster Abbey on 12th May 1937, with his wife becoming Queen Elizabeth. They already had two children – Elizabeth, the current Queen Elizabeth II – born in 1926 and Margaret born in 1930.
Critical first duties
Even as the Coronation was taking place, the rise of nationalism and the Nazi Party in Germany were being regarded as a likely prelude to war. With this in mind, the new King and Queen toured Canada and the USA in early 1939, a move designed to help strengthen alliances which might be called on during a conflict. The tour was successful, and bonds were duly forged between King George VI and President Roosevelt, and the UK and US. These soon proved to be of vital importance.
The Second World War imposed enormous strain on the British people, including the King and Queen. As a show of solidarity with their citizens, particularly those in the East End of London who were heavily bombed in the 1940/41 Blitz, they officially remained resident at Buckingham Palace (although some nights were spent in the slightly safer Windsor Castle). Nevertheless, the King and Queen were actually present in Buckingham Palace when it was hit by German bombs in September 1940, and they were subject to the same rations as the rest of the nation.
King George VI developed a close working relationship with the Prime Minister Winston Churchill over the course of their weekly wartime briefing meetings. Despite his earlier reclusiveness, the King thoroughly embraced his wartime duties, with frequent morale-boosting visits to factories, bombed cities and troops both in the UK and abroad. By the end of the war, he had succeeded in repairing the damage caused by his brother's abdication and restoring the nation's faith in the monarchy.
In peacetime, the slow disbandment of the British Empire accelerated, most notably with India becoming a republic in January 1950. No longer Emperor of India or even King of India, George VI became Head of the Commonwealth.
During this period, the stress of rapid and unasked-for ascent to the throne, his wartime duties and his weak health (he was a heavy smoker), resulted in a number of serious illnesses, including lung cancer. His left lung had to be removed in 1951. As next in line, his daughter Elizabeth took on more of his royal duties, delaying a tour of Canada to be near King George whilst he had his operation.
Having only partially recovered, in January 1952 the King ignored his doctors' advice and went to a cold and windswept London Airport to see his daughter and her husband leave for a tour of Australia. "It is good to see His Majesty looking so well", enthused the British Pathé film narrator patriotically, but in truth his appearance was haggard and he was still very ill.
Elizabeth and Philip had only reached Kenya on the first stage of their tour when the news came through that her father, King George VI or Bertie as he was familiarly known, had died of a coronary thrombosis on 6th February 1952. She immediately flew back to Britain, as Queen. His funeral was held at St. George's Chapel, Windsor on 15th February.
George VI coins
The most valuable coins from King George VI's reign are the Gold Sovereigns and Half Sovereigns that were struck in 1937 as part of a four coin set to celebrate his coronation. The design showed Pistrucci's St George and the Dragon on the reverse and Humphrey Paget's portrait of the King on the obverse. These designs remained unchanged throughout his relatively short reign.
In 1952, South Africa minted non-circulating 1 Pound and ½ Pound coins to commemorate the King's passing. These have the same gold content as the British Sovereign and Half Sovereign.