George V.: There’s No Dull Moment

Jane Ridley                                                                                  Chatto & Windus £30


One could not have imagined that a biography about King George V would go with an album from Rod Stewart.

The title may be a little misleading. For years, the Queen’s grandfather has been regarded as deadly dull. Even his official biographer, Harold Nicolson, privately considered him ‘a stupid old bore’. 

Tommy Lascelles, latterly the King’s assistant private secretary, agreed that ‘He WAS dull, beyond dispute…’ before adding, in a phrase that gives this book its title, ‘but my God, his REIGN (politically and internationally) never had a dull moment’.

George V (above, right) mistrusted anything that smacked of the 20th Century: dining out, the French language and women who smoked and/or painted their fingernails

George V, (above, Right) was a mistrustful of everything that looked like the 20th Century. This included dining out, French language, and women who painted or smoked their nails.

It is possible to argue that George V brought his lacklustreness to a point where it made the world interesting. 

He mistrusted anything that smacked of the 20th Century, disapproving of, among much else, dining out, the French language (‘effeminate’), women who smoked and/or painted their fingernails, foreign travel (‘I must say I don’t care about going abroad, I never did’), short dresses and modern dance. 

His loyal wife Queen Mary had requested that a lady in waiting raise her skirt by one or two inches. The King said it was too short so he made it lower again.

However, his pleasures were much more restricted. Nicolson complained that, for 17 years before he became King, ‘he did nothing at all but kill animals and stick in stamps’.

His profession was that of a pedant. He started and ended each day tapping the barometer, and continued counting the steps, hands shaken, decorations, birds shot, and the number of steps he took. 

All the stories seem to confirm the established portrait of King George V (above) as stuffy and irascible - but Jane Ridley argues that there was much more to him

Although all the stories appear to reinforce the image of King George V above as being stuffy and incorrigible, Jane Ridley claims that there were more to him

Once, he managed to photograph 1,000 birds in one day. He thought it was too many birds. ‘Perhaps we went a little too far today,’ he concluded on the way back.

It lacks interest or colour. It was heavy going even for his biographer. ‘No one could describe the diary as a lively or enjoyable read,’ she admits.

He was a philistine, deeply suspicious of painters and authors (‘People who write books ought to be shut up’). Attending the opening of the Tate Gallery in 1926, he spotted a Cézanne and called over to his wife: ‘May! Here’s something to make you laugh!’ 

Eight years later he paid his first visit to the National Gallery and waved his stick at another Cézanne, declaring: ‘Turner was MAD, my grandmother always said so!’

His stuffiness was protected by his fierce temper. When a footman accidentally dropped a tray, he shouted: ‘That’s right – break up the bloody palace!’

Queen Mary, in the 1920s, wanted to master new dance moves. He was a mad man.

Evelyn Waugh once observed that the presence of Royalty was ‘as heavy as thunder in the drawing room’. 

King George was particularly bad-tempered with his sons, once famously declaring: ‘My father was terrified of his mother, I was terrified of my father, and I am determined that my own children shall be terrified of me.’

I suppose you could argue that George V (above, left) carried his dullness to such a peak that it became interesting

One could argue George V (above, right) brought his dullness up to the point that it was interesting.

All of these stories confirm King George V’s reputation for being irritable and stuffy.

Jane Ridley asserts, with fair success, that while these aspects are definitely part of George V’s personality, they do not negate the fact that there were many more. ‘George V was an ordinary man who achieved extraordinary things.’ 

His granddaughter and Queen has demonstrated that it is possible to not be boring, as she, too, has done over the course her reign.

George V was King from 1910 to 1935, an unprecedented period of turmoil. 

He was able to maintain a comforting and stable presence through all of the First World War.

Ridley makes the point that during Ridley’s quarter-century in power, 13 European monarchies collapsed, while the British monarchy survived. Much of this was due to George V’s doggedness, and his refusal to be driven off course.

His prime ministers had a tendency to downgrade him. Asquith once observed that ‘the poor little man isn’t up to his position’. Lloyd George treated him with condescension, calling him ‘my little German friend’, and often not even bothering to reply to his letters. 

After staying at Balmoral, Lloyd George said he was ‘a very jolly chap but thank God there’s not much in his head’. Later, he admitted to having treated King Absolutely.

For all his bluff anti-intellectualism – or perhaps because of it – on the international and political stage, George rarely put a foot wrong. Ridley claims, for example, that he understood the Irish problem better than Asquith.

It was his inability to imagine that made him a blessing. He saw himself as an anchor, even though the world is constantly changing. He felt a duty because of his puritanism and mistrust for entertainment, art, and fun. 

He was responsible for 400 troop inspections, 300 hospital visits, and made over 300 other trips during World War II. Ridley argues that in this way he revolutionised the institution of the monarchy, turning it into ‘a service monarchy, making direct contact with the people, similar to the institution it is today’.

Under his stoic exterior was a fierce instinct for self-preservation. It was evident by the manner he treated Nicholas his look-alike cousin after the Russian Revolution. 

Though he once described ‘dear Nicky’ as the best man he knew, he was adamant in refusing him and his young family refuge in Britain, lest his own position be placed in jeopardy.

While he can’t be held accountable for the assassination of their loved ones, it is clear that he was not concerned.

He also was unkind to his fellow monarchs. 

When Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands asked him to visit her country, which seemed to be on the verge of revolution, he declared: ‘I am not going to be used to bolster up monarchies which are shaky, that is not my metier.’

Though she concludes that George was ‘one of the most thoughtful and one of the most successful monarchs in British history’, Ridley is not blind to his failings, not least his damaging treatment of his eldest son, the future King Edward VIII.

Someone once said that ‘the House of Hanover produce bad parents. They are like ducks, they trample on their young’. This is still true in today’s world. 

George made a mockery of Edward’s independence and trampled upon him. Edward ran back to his father’s side once, after he had been told that his father was dying. 

King George greeted him by half-opening one eye and rasping: ‘Damn you, what the devil are you doing here?’ The intensity of his disapproval resulted in a rift that never healed. 

‘After I am dead, the boy will ruin himself within 12 months,’ George said to Baldwin. Although this prediction proved to be frighteningly accurate, Baldwin was not entirely to blame.

Nor was he much kinder to his gentler, more earnest and dutiful younger son, the future George VI, who would struggle with his stammer, only to have his father shout, impatiently: ‘Get it out!’

His daughter-in-law, the Duchess of York, who later became Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, was, by all accounts, fond of George V, yet she warned her husband against following in his father’s footsteps. 

‘Remember how your father, by shouting at you and making you feel uncomfortable, lost all your real affection. None of his sons are his friends, because he is not understanding & helpful to them.’

King George V grew a fondness for Elizabeth as he grew older. He would spend time at Buckingham Palace training his binoculars to view her house, 145 Piccadilly. Then he’d watch Elizabeth wave from her window and use them as his eyes.

‘I pray to God that my eldest son will never marry and have children, and that nothing will come between Bertie [the future George VI] and Lilibet and the throne,’ he said, shortly before he died.

Again, his intuitions proved correct. Although he was a deadly boring man, he can also be extremely accurate.