Thursday, 6 February 2014

The shy prince who became a great king

The death of George VI, on February 6th 1952, was unexpected and caused a wave of grief that would have been hard to predict when this shy man became king just sixteen years before.  King George, who was 56 at the time of his death, had been unwell and had looked unwell for some time.  But the news that he had passed away sent his fellow citizens into shock - perhaps because he had won such huge affection in his comparatively short reign.  On the day he became king there weren't many who thought his name would rank among the giants of the British monarchy.  But on the day his passing was announced, sixty two years ago today, there weren't many who would disagree that George VI had been a great king.

The last photo taken of George VI, King and Emperor, who died on February 6th 1952

George became king against his own wishes on the abdication of his brother, Edward VIII, in December 1936.  Edward had been glamourous, handsome, charming and more than at ease among the huge crowds that turned out to see him.  He was hard to outshine and his magnetism only made his younger brother's awkwardness and shyness more obvious.  And yet it was the second brother to take the throne who won a nation's love long term.  George VI's insistence on staying in England during World War II played a huge part as did his down to earth personality and his determination to overcome many of the issues that made taking on such a high profile role so daunting for him - like his stutter - only won him more fans.  On the morning his death was announced, grief really did sweep a nation.

George VI as a young man.  He was seen as the brother least likely to succeed and lived much of his early life in the shadow of his siblings

His death was made more poignant by what had turned out to be the last glimpse of the king.  On January 31st, quite clearly ill, he had waved his daughter and heiress goodbye at London Airport as Elizabeth departed on an overseas tour.  Just six days later, and thousands of miles away, Elizabeth would be told that her father was dead and she was now Queen.  

George VI waves goodbye to his daughter, Princess Elizabeth, on January 31st 1952.  They would never see one another again.

A photograph of a daughter in mourning, transformed from princess to monarch while she slept, was released to mark the 60th anniversary of her accession.  The sadness on the Queen's face in this early picture perhaps illustrates best of all why Elizabeth II prefers to stay at Sandringham these days until this anniversary has passed.  February 6th isn't just the day she became Queen, it is the day she lost her father and the British monarchy lost a man who, against all the odds, had become one of its giants.

The Queen photographed on the plane back from Kenya after she had learned of her father's death

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