Historical Notes: The lamentable legacy of royal parenting
Monday 15 February 1999
Morshead was George V's librarian. The sailor king has been typecast over the years by forgiving biographers as a flawed but fundamentally decent man, bluff rather than brutal. Yet he was a lamentable parent, at his worst with his sons, whom he alternately scorned and neglected.
The heir to the throne, Edward, known to his family as David, hated the role of "princing" which was his destiny. His younger brother, Albert (later to become George VI), had been reduced by his childhood experiences to a stammering, knock-kneed invalid. He suffered chronic abdominal trouble and was plagued by an uncontrollable temper.
George V's inability to curb his own temper terrorised his offspring. The royal children lived on edge, in fear of their father's retribution. Serious misdemean-ours resulted in a summons to the library. The thrashings their father administered there can have done little to foster a love of literature in the young princes though here too George V was following established Hanoverian royal practice. Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's beloved Consort, was even-handed in whipping his daughters as well as his sons.
The young Prince Albert, the future George VI, developed a stammer and became as physically incapable of expressing himself as his parents were emotionally uncommunicative. His father, who did not like to see what he considered weakness, was impatient with his affliction. "Get it out," he would bellow as the child struggled to speak. The result, in a highly-strung boy, was crippling insecurity. As late as his teens, Albert would sit by himself in a dark room, rather than draw attention to himself by asking one of the innumerable servants to light the gas.
An unimaginative, blinkered martinet as a parent, George V was nevertheless deferred to and wholeheartedly supported by his wife. Princess May had endured an uneasy childhood with chronically impoverished parents. Her engagement to Prince George rescued her from the shame. She never forgot to whom she owed her magnificent jewellery, her status, the clothes she adored. She obeyed George, revered him and colluded with him against their children. Had May married some minor German princeling, the natural warmth which some old friends occasionally glimpsed in her might have been allowed free rein. As it was she felt it incumbent on herself to be majestic.
The general opinion was that she was cold and stiff and unmaternal. "I have to remember," she rationalised the distant relationship she and George had with their children, "that their father is also their King". We shall never know what sort of parental legacy Edward VIII would have passed on. An adolescent case of mumps and his failure to produce children suggest possible sterility. In any case, his own lack of mothering led him to search for this from the women he bedded. At 25 he was addressing his mistress Freda Dudley Ward as his "very own beloved little Fredie mummie". In his forties, his latent masochism finally met its match in Wallis Simpson's need to control.
With all the circumstances of his brutal upbringing against him, George VI nevertheless managed to reverse the Hanoverian trend and to become a devoted and solicitous parent. In this he was helped by his wife, who brought with her the memory and experience of her untrammelled Scottish childhood, Together, they established a new, informal, almost domestic royal style - a world of horses and dogs and picnics and games of Snap and Happy Families. And while immensely proud of his eldest daughter, George VI was sensitive enough to remember his own upbringing and ensure that his younger child did not, like him, always feel second- best.
Kirsty McLeod is author of `Battle Royal' (Constable, pounds 20)
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