When Edward VIII abdicated, not only did he weaken the monarchy, he left behind a trail of chaos and misery. People throughout the British Empire worried whether the new King - who had never been groomed for the responsibility - could actually do the job.
It didn’t help when Cosmo Lang, then the Archbishop of Canterbury, gave a radio address the day after the Duke of York became King George VI. For whatever reason, he mentioned the King’s “occasional and momentary hesitation in his speech.” People wondered: Was the King an epileptic, like his youngest brother John (the deceased, “lost prince”)? Was he fit for duty?
Eighteen months after David (thereafter called the Duke of Windsor) left Britain to live the rest of his life in exile, his mother (Queen Mary) wrote to him:
I do not think you ever realised the shock which the attitude you took up caused your family and the whole nation. It seemed inconceivable to those who had made such sacrifices during the war [that is, WWI] that you, as their King, refused a lesser sacrifice. (Robert Rhodes James, quoting Queen Mary’s letter, in A Spirit Undaunted, at page 114.)
Becoming Queen against her wishes, Elizabeth also reacted to her brother-in-law’s decision to abandon his country:
I don’t think we could ever imagine a more incredible tragedy, and the agony of it has been beyond words. And the melancholy fact remains still at the present moment, that he for whom we agonised is the one person it did not touch. (A Spirit Undaunted, page 115.)
Worse - far, far worse - days were still to come for Britain and King George VI (who continued to struggle with giving speeches, as depicted in this 1938 video).
As the gathering clouds of another great war hovered over Europe, Britain concluded a mutual assistance agreement with Poland. On the 1st of September, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, triggering the terms of the Anglo-Polish treaty. If Germany did not remove its occupying forces from Poland, Britain would declare war on Germany.
Despite all his efforts to appease Hitler, and avert war, Neville Chamberlain - then Britain’s Prime Minister - knew he had failed. Hitler had looked Chamberlain in the eye, then lied to his face. There would be no “peace in our time.” Germany would neither back down nor remove its troops from Poland. On the 3rd of September, 1939, Chamberlain announced that the two countries were at war.
That announcement would be followed by the King’s speech. Singularly important, George VI had to address, and calm, a troubled people. Hundreds of thousands of children, uprooted from their families, were being evacuated to the countryside. It had only been twenty years since the first world war was over. What would happen to Britain now? Could the country withstand a Nazi onslaught?
Writing in his diary, the King expressed his personal thoughts. In its first entry, he said:
At the outbreak of war at midnight of Aug 4th-5th 1914, I was a midshipman, keeping the middle watch on the bridge of H.M.S. Collingwood somewhere in the North Sea. I was 18 years of age ... We were not prepared for what we found a modern war really was, & those of us who had been through the Great War never wanted another. Today we are at War again, & I am no longer a midshipman in the Royal Navy ... (Quoted in A Spirit Undaunted, at page 171.)
During the afternoon of September 3, 1939, Lionel Logue was summoned to Buckingham Palace. He was expecting the call. The King, wearing his admiral’s uniform, would deliver his speech at precisely 6 o’clock that night.
As their rehearsal neared its end, the Queen came into the King’s private study where the two men were finalizing their preparation. (The music which plays during this scene, in the film, is the 2nd movement of Beethoven's 7th Symphony.) Always an encouragement to her husband, Elizabeth knew this speech had to be perfect.
After working with Logue for the better part of a dozen years, the King knew what he had to do. Stepping up to the microphone, to deliver his speech in a standing position (as he always did), he said:
... For the second time in the lives of most of us we are at war ... I now call my people at home and my peoples across the seas, who will make our cause their own. I ask them to stand calm, firm, and united in this time of trial.
The task will be hard. There may be dark days ahead, and war can no longer be confined to the battlefield. But we can only do the right as we see the right, and reverently commit our cause to God. If one and all we keep resolutely faithful to it, ready for whatever service or sacrifice it may demand, then, with God’s help, we shall prevail.
May He bless and keep us all.
Britain and her Allies did prevail, after nearly six years of conflict, although the King significantly disagreed with the American Ambassador, Joseph P. Kennedy, during the war's early days. (By 1940, FDR also disagreed with Kennedy so much that the Ambassador had little choice but to resign.)
The weight of office, however, and the King’s role in the war itself, took a very heavy toll on His Majesty’s health. Still friends with his speech therapist - whom he called "My Dear Logue" in a December 16, 1951 letter - Albert (the name he used in his letter to Logue) had developed lung cancer, requiring major surgery.
In 1952, as he slept during the night of February 5th-6th - just days after his last public appearance - King George VI died. He was 56 years old.
Britain was stunned at the sudden loss of their much-loved King. Churchill, Prime Minister again, told the story - for the first time - how the King and Queen had narrowly escaped serious injury when their home (Buckingham Palace) was bombed in September of 1940. Sharing the fate of other London families, they had refused to live in a more secure location or to send their daughters elsewhere.
Elizabeth - known as “The Queen Mother” when her daughter became Queen Elizabeth II - survived her husband by fifty years. She agreed that the story of “The King’s Speech" could be told, but only after her death. The memories, of her beloved Bertie - and all he’d been through to overcome his profound stammer - were still too painful for her.
The Queen Mother died, having never remarried, on March 30, 2002 at the age of 101. Lionel Logue, who died on 12 April 1953, survived the King - his very good friend - by just fourteen months.
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