Sometime during the early hours of February 6, 1952, King George VI died in his sleep. We do not know the exact moment when he passed away and his 25-year-old daughter, Princess Elizabeth, automatically became the new Queen.
He was just 56 years old, handsome, with the high cheekbones of a Hollywood star. His untimely death was blamed by his 51-year-old widow, Queen Elizabeth (who became the Queen Mother), on the events of 1936, when his older brother, Edward VIII, abdicated to marry the twice-divorced Wallis Simpson, and then became the Duke of Windsor. The brothers were 18 months apart in age, but the Duke of Windsor survived George VI by 20 years.
George VI was king during the traumas of World War II. The strain of those dark times wore him down and, as he drank and smoked all the more because of it, his health deteriorated. As early as 1947 he was losing weight and in the summer of 1951, he underwent an operation to remove a lung. When he waved off his daughter and her husband at the start of their Commonwealth journey in early 1952, he was a dying man.
The film The King’s Speech, for which Colin Firth won an Oscar for his portrayal of George VI, focused attention once again on a king who died too soon. Madonna’s film W.E. re-examines the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s relationship and their role in the drama that rocked the monarchy all those years ago.
People are endlessly fascinated by this period of British history, as they are by the tragedy of Diana, Princess of Wales. It was 20 years ago that the Queen endured her ‘"annus horribilis", when the marriages of three of her four children broke down very publicly amid wave after wave of scandal.
I have often wondered how her father would have reacted in the same circumstances. George VI used to be considered a weak man — it was the central reason for doubts over his ability to accede to the throne after his brother’s abdication. Yet, he proved a strong king with a profound sense of duty. So, would the man who refused to grant Wallis Simpson the coveted title of Her Royal Highness have tolerated the shocking events of the late '80s and early '90s? I very much doubt it. A few subtle postings overseas, out of the way of temptation, might well have been arranged.
When Prince William looks for a role model, he can hardly look to Charles, whose affair with Camilla caused his mother so much unhappiness and led to Diana’s own desperate searches for love. William can certainly look to the example of the Queen who managed to bring up her family as well as dealing with the burden of monarchy.
Maybe he will look to his great-grandfather, George VI, who created with Queen Elizabeth and their daughters, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, the ideal family unit that he referred to as ‘We Four’. The Queen is the only survivor of that loving little group — something else we should also remember as she celebrates her diamond anniversary on February 6.