The Queen’s Dolls’ House, designed by Edwin Lutyens, was put on display at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924. A twee descendant of Victoria and Albert’s Crystal Palace, three feet tall, it advertised the ingenuity of Britain’s manufacturers to the world. Its Palladian shell lifted off to reveal a miniature vision of upholstered modern life, as well as the tastes of its royal owners, Queen Mary and King George V. There was a working toilet made by John Bolding and Sons, and a gun room stocked with Purdey shotguns powerful enough to shoot flies. Artists created hundreds of paintings and books for its clubby, masculine library. Harold Nicolson gamely contributed a tiny treatise on ‘The Detail of Biography’. In it, he wrote that ‘I am stirred with envy for the biographer of 2023’ who would ‘gaze upon the detailed domestic appliances of 1923’ and gain insight into the house’s owners. Yet for all its cosy appurtenances, the house is curiously dead: there are no dolls of family members, and the strongroom rivalled the nursery in size.
Three decades later, Nicolson was made George’s official biographer. The main problem, he found, was the fact that the king had been a ‘stupid old bore’. Surveying the private papers, Nicolson concluded that George had done nothing but ‘kill animals and stick in stamps’ while waiting to ascend to the throne, reflecting the inertia that Britain now expected of its constitutional sovereigns. Faced with the prospect of representing him as a king with no idea how to use his residual powers, Nicolson ended up following the royal household’s advice that he produce a ‘mythological’ George, the modest father of his people. Jane Ridley’s new biography pushes back against the idea that nothing lay behind the imposing façade of George’s kingship. She not only suggests the discreet charm of her subject’s character, but argues that he was ‘the founder of the modern monarchy’. In doing so she explores the extent to which the monarchy’s stability has depended on the lives of those who have embodied it.
Ridley brilliantly captures the timbre of George’s dullness and its causes. Even so, she picks up enough ‘humour’, even ‘magic’, from his comprehensive but terse diaries to make him seem almost human. It may have been royal men who struggled most with life in the dolls’ house. Ridley’s biography of George’s father, Edward VII, showed how as prince of Wales he sank into an analgesic round of gargantuan meals, card playing, shooting and ponderous intercourse with society ladies. Unwilling to become the signing automaton of constitutional theory after his accession, Edward kept his self-respect by inverting the relative weight of political realities and their kingly representation. In his hawkish policing of the honours system and the details of court dress, Edward felt himself to be working hard. George, by virtue of being uxorious rather than promiscuous, monoglot and parochial rather than cosmopolitan and Francophone, was superficially different from his father. Yet he too had to learn how to live a role rather than a life. The navy helped with this – aged twelve, he was packed off with his elder brother, Albert Victor, to a naval training vessel. The circumnavigation of the globe he later undertook to complete his training left no mark on him, except the tattoos he acquired in Japan and Jerusalem. More significant was the lifelong punctilio about dress and deportment he learned from his superiors, which shaped his peculiar combination of rigidity and passivity.
Shooting filled the gap left by his departure from the navy. George’s was not the pastoral sport imagined by Trollope, the squire picking off snipe while rambling in ancestral fields. As popularised by his father and his plutocratic chums, it involved blasting away for hours as expensively reared birds were driven towards a line of waiting guns. This was joyless carnage: it was the tabulation of kills that was all-important. George wasn’t just a superb shot – better even than Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who chalked up half a million kills before his assassination at Sarajevo – but a manic one. He shot with such intensity that a member of his party once had to have a lie down under a hedge before he could resume the slaughter; on another occasion, George’s hand was shaking so badly after a shoot that he could barely hold a pen to write letters. As Ridley suggests, the sport was a cure for royal anomie because its cruel ritual pointed to nothing beyond itself. It’s tempting to see these grim battues as anticipating the industrial death at the Somme, but in fact George had resented the outbreak of the Second South African War as an interruption to his shooting (family funerals ditto), and he kept up the slaughter during the First World War, sending pheasants as gifts to military hospitals.
Marriage was another refuge from inanition. Since Mary of Teck had been engaged to his brother before Albert Victor’s premature death in 1892, George’s marriage was hardly a love match. Although he proved faithful, he struggled to express affection other than in written notes. George was now next in line to the throne after his father, but the young duke and duchess of York soon found that royal powerlessness began at home. It took them years to rescue their eldest sons from the clutches of a sadistic nanny who cut short the boys’ meetings with their parents by administering cruel pinches. For all that, it was at home that George and Mary evolved a governing style: a deliberate ordinariness. York Cottage, on the Sandringham estate, reminded Nicolson of an overgrown Surbiton villa, filled as it was with reproduction paintings and furniture from Tottenham Court Road. Even after his father’s death in 1910, George left his mother in possession of Sandringham and stayed where he was.
When, after Queen Victoria’s death, the couple glumly toured the world as Edward’s representatives or, after George’s accession, impersonated Mughal emperors at the Delhi Durbar, they were the Crown. But in their humdrum drawing room they were a family. York Cottage wasn’t just a refuge from their public duties, but a model of private virtue. George and Mary were deeply concerned with the prospects of their other, royal ‘house’. Ridley observes that both their favourite hobbies involved the sedulous cultivation of dynastic consciousness. As Britain’s leading philatelist, George limited his extravagant expenditure to British and imperial stamps: family likenesses that were literal heads of state. Mary, whose family had forfeited royal status through a morganatic marriage, spent her days tracing genealogies and cataloguing and acquiring Hanoverian heirlooms.
After George took the throne, the royal couple concentrated on minimising their exposure to political risk. Ridley does her best to show that George wasn’t just a ‘cipher sovereign’. At critical junctures, he could insist on his understanding of constitutional norms, and was encouraged by his secretary Arthur Bigge to think of himself as a neutral facilitator of consensus. He brokered conferences on the future of Ireland in 1914 and 1921, though with mixed results. In 1931 his support helped Ramsay MacDonald hold on to office and form the National Government. Yet George always fell into line with whatever Bigge said the politicians wanted and often facilitated outcomes with which he was privately unhappy, such as the formation of the first Labour government in 1924.
If there was ever a question as to whether George ruled or merely reigned, the First World War decided it in favour of the latter. The king’s appeals to the kaiser and the tsar to prevent war tugged on family ties, but were scripted for him by Asquith’s government. The one time it was suggested that George had taken a lead, the palace panicked, rushing to deny that he had told a Prussian prince that Britain was determined to remain neutral. In Ridley’s telling, the war sidelined George. Once Asquith and Lloyd George had dropped the pretence of consulting him on military appointments, it was difficult to fulfil even the attenuated role that Walter Bagehot had reserved for constitutional kings: to be consulted, to encourage and to warn. Able to lead only by example, George engaged in stunts. Lloyd George bounced him into signing up the royal household to a temperance pledge, only for no one else to follow suit. Injury followed insult when, on one of his trips to the Western Front, George fell off a frisky horse and fractured his pelvis. This left him in permanent pain, but the troops who observed the accident were unsympathetic, having already nicknamed their sovereigns ‘Fertile and Futile’.
By 1917 George and Mary were as dug into their position as any entrenched division. They had abandoned their obtuse insistence that it was acceptable to go by ‘Saxe-Coburg and Gotha’ while warring with Germany. At Bigge’s suggestion, they became the Windsors, took down the German banners in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle and stopped corresponding with German relatives. Ridley amplifies a discovery made by Kenneth Rose, whose biography was published in 1983, that the responsibility for rescinding the offer of asylum to the deposed Romanovs lay directly with George. Once captured by the Bolsheviks, the Romanovs couldn’t have escaped Russia anyway, but George’s reasons were revealing. The safety of Nicholas II and his family was as nothing in comparison with the stability of George’s throne, Bigge having convinced him that the tsar’s arrival in Britain might inflame republicanism. A handful of incendiary newspaper articles had been published and it was impossible for Bigge to be sure that they didn’t express the public mood, no matter how successful royal visits to hospitals, factories and battlefields seemed to be. Mass Observation, with its pioneering social reporting, did not exist until 1937: revealingly, it was created to investigate the puzzling spasm of national emotion which greeted the abdication of George’s son Edward.
By the end of the war, many politicians had dismissed George as a nonentity, but things started looking up. His and Mary’s task was now much clearer: to emote, rather than to do. At the Cenotaph and on pilgrimage to war cemeteries, George brought a muted poetry to his new role as chief mourner of the imperial war dead. His niceness to Labour politicians assuaged fears of a frontal confrontation between socialism and monarchy. And, from 1932, he began to speak as well as to feel. The importance of radio to the democratisation of monarchy is well known, but George’s inaugural Christmas message for the BBC has rarely been described so well as it is by Ridley: his table covered with thick cloth to disguise the sound of his nervous hands; his chagrin when his son sauntered off to play golf before he had begun speaking; the tears of his scriptwriter, Rudyard Kipling, who tuned in to hear the king address those ‘so cut off by the snows, the desert or the sea, that only voices out of the air can reach them’.
As his grandmother Victoria had used print to offer glimpses of Balmoral, in Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands, George used the ‘marvels of modern science’ to draw his subjects into his ‘home’ at Sandringham. Listening to his bronchial burr on YouTube, I realised how difficult it must have been to place him socially in interwar Britain – an asset at a time when most people viewed class conflict as a social evil. He extended these experiments with the common touch, first initiated before the war when he undertook tours of colliery districts, by becoming a fixture at FA Cup finals. His patchy education meant that he had little trouble in locating Britain’s middlebrow. He was curious enough to start reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover and conventional enough to throw it onto the fire when teased about it.
The shortcoming of Ridley’s graceful, funny book is simply its form. Even the best royal biographies exaggerate the impact of monarchs on the fortunes of monarchy – an understandable failing when discussing this most ad hominem of institutions. But we cannot fully understand monarchy without considering what the British public wanted from it and how that changed (or stayed the same), and by studying the politicians, clerics and courtiers who responded to these demands by mobilising old supporters, such as the Church of England, or new ones, such as the mass media. Ridley offers fine-grained and astute sketches of members of the king’s entourage as they came and went, but rarely gives the reader a broader sense of how their activities were informed by, and in turn informed, political and especially religious understandings of monarchy. The resilience of the Windsors looks less like a personal coup when set in a European context: monarchies which had enjoyed a potent hold over popular imaginations collapsed in early 20th-century Europe as the result of military defeat, something the Windsors were lucky to avoid.
Heather Jones’s book places George in the broader historiography of European monarchy to explain the way the pressures of the First World War remade his dynasty. Although keen to establish the king as a player in wartime decision-making, most notably when he was championing Douglas Haig, Jones sees his contribution as having less to do with what he did than with his status, which made him the object of generous patriotic feeling. During the mass mobilisation of 1914-16, men joined up to fight for ‘king and country’, with ‘king’ uppermost. Any king was bound to be the metonym of a multinational and religiously plural state which – unlike France, say – could not call on a unitary democratic nationalism in times of crisis. Despite the growing sophistication of contemporary thinking about British and imperial citizenship, British and colonial troops alike fought the war as George’s subjects, while the Defence of the Realm Act gave him extensive powers to defend his kingdom. By personally pinning on fifty thousand medals during the conflict, George showed that he remained the national fount of honour, at a time when honour inspired many (if far from all) men.
If these fictions of state do not explain why Britain went to war, they do show how it did so. They were fictions people died for, and it was in this context that George’s mild acts of bravery and self-denial mattered. It mattered – at least to Methodists – that he not only gave up alcohol but swapped meat for vegetable pies and rationed marmalade at Buckingham Palace. It mattered that he was never out of khaki, was photographed working in a tent and often prowled the Western Front. By contrast, his cousin the kaiser was rarely in earshot of gunfire and did not stint himself caviar. Of course, victory retrospectively exaggerated the weight of such decisions. When George rushed to the front in March 1918 as it buckled under the Ludendorff offensive, he revealed an anxiety that he might lose his throne along with the war, vegetable pies notwithstanding. Two years earlier, the Easter Rising, which as Jones rightly argues posed a greater threat to the royal war machine than Russian republicanism, had shown how quickly discontented subjects could kick through the iconography of kingship.
The monarchical conception of the warfare state nonetheless died hard. In 1921 the British negotiators seeking to end the Irish War of Independence were adamant that the new Free State must remain a dominion whose legislators would swear their faithfulness to the king. As the symbolic ‘fulcrum’ not just of a kingdom, but of a multiethnic empire, George’s closest analogue among European sovereigns was probably the Habsburg emperor Franz Joseph. As king-emperor, George took part in activities designed to encourage all his peoples to assist in the war, regardless of race or religion. He inspected the wounded Indian troops who were being treated at Brighton Pavilion and in July 1917 addressed Black South African labourers at Abbeville, thanking them for their service on the Western Front, though passing over the racism that had confined them to non-combatant roles. The evidence suggests that George’s respect was often reciprocated. It was white troops from the colonies who were most cynical about the king’s usefulness to the war effort. Yet if the war boosted the national assertiveness of the dominions – their leaders signed the Treaty of Versailles in their own right and in 1931 they gained legislative independence through the Statute of Westminster – the result was a new vision of empire as a bundle of multiple monarchies, tied together by their relationships with George.
Despite the continuum between George’s (and for that matter Mary’s) tours of the front and some prewar visits to industrial areas, Jones denies that the war was just another episode in the modernisation of the monarchy. In wartime, George’s subjects fell back on ‘traditional, even archaic’ – even ‘atavistic’ – ideas of kingship, making his growing accessibility to them quite compatible with his ‘deep-seated sacralisation’. For Ridley, George’s fall from his horse in 1915 is an example of how his missteps during the war came close to desacralising the monarchy. Jones, noting that the press glossed over the incident, argues the opposite. George’s subjects thought of royal bodies as tireless and perfect, and believed that the royal touch had the power to exhilarate or console, if no longer to heal. Postwar commemoration turned George into a ‘communicative symbolic channel’ to the dead – what Nicolson called the ‘hierophant’ of new rites of thanksgiving and sorrow.
Admittedly, Jones never quite decides what is sacred about sacralisation. Sometimes, she seems to mean whatever a society agrees to venerate, with no religious referent. At other times, the churches decide who or what is sacred. When on 11 November 1920 George processed bareheaded with the coffin of the Unknown Warrior to its interment in Westminster Abbey, he did so at the urging of the archbishop of Canterbury, who was unhappy that the king had agreed to inaugurate the ‘pagan’ Cenotaph on the same day. Ridley’s worldly sensibility plays down George’s piety, his many clerical friendships and most of all his activities as supreme governor of the Church of England, but they were vital elements of his authority: his humility before ‘the king of kings’ made him the ‘servant king’ in which many of his churchgoing subjects believed.
Just as often, though, George and his family were subject to sacralisation themselves. The circulation of stories about the ability of royal gift tins to stop bullets almost leads Jones to adopt what Kingsley Martin called ‘a magical theory of monarchy’, in which the awe the royals commanded wasn’t so much an expression of Christianity as a substitute for its decline. In the end, the slipperiness of sacralisation may be inherent to the sources. It may be helpful to think of George as hovering between the overlapping types of sacred kingship the historian Alan Strathern has identified in the premodern world: transcendent, where the righteous king is venerated insofar as he represents what a religion preaches; and immanent, where the king’s divinity channels the enchantment present throughout the social world.
So how archaic was George, as a ‘servant king’? Both the emotional archaisms and, for that matter, the innovations identified by Jones are thoroughly Victorian. Victoria had also toured military hospitals and, during Germany’s bloody wars of unification, her daughters Vicky and Alice had run some. She anticipated George’s fatherly concern for the injured, touching them, recording their wounds in her diaries with the same sensibility, and commissioning images of disabled Crimean officers. But George was more than merely the last Victorian. When Victoria’s son-in-law Henry of Battenberg died in one of her smaller wars, she put on an elaborate funeral and communicated her and her daughter Beatrice’s grief to the nation. When Beatrice and Henry’s son Maurice died on the Western Front, George was more reserved, denying Beatrice any special role at the Cenotaph ceremonies. Under the emotional regime of democracy, it was no longer the monarch’s feelings which were sacred, but rather their role as an austere, almost impersonal, conduit for mass grief. The language of archaism can impede our understanding of the political import of such tonal shifts by smothering them in timeless ‘awe’.
Edward VIII’s brief reign did considerable damage to the sacred aura the war had conferred on the monarchy. His experience of wartime service while prince of Wales had deepened his irreligious contempt for the sanctification of duty and sacrifice. He participated in the commemoration of the dead only reluctantly, and by abdicating to marry Wallis Simpson he showed that he had no desire to play the servant king. Yet with the accession of George VI, the Windsors resumed their habit of ruling for and with the support of the war dead, even if he didn’t enjoy the same prominence in the Second World War as his father had in the First. In 1923 George VI’s wife, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, who lost a brother at the Battle of Loos, had presented the Unknown Warrior with her wedding bouquet. It was an impromptu gesture that has endured: Kate Middleton, Meghan Markle and the princesses of York all sent their bouquets to the Warrior’s grave. The commemoration of the dead continues to provide one answer to the awkward question of why we need the monarchy. Inside the Queen’s Dolls’ House was a photograph of a Tommy, a sketch of the Cenotaph and a bust of Field Marshal Haig. One wonders how long the Windsors will keep living in it.