Read an Excerpt
George V's Children
By John Van der Kiste
The History PressCopyright © 2011 John Van der Kiste
All rights reserved.
'A regiment, not a family'
On the evening of 23 June 1894, at White Lodge, the Duchess of York gave birth to a son.
'At 10.0 a sweet little boy was born,' the Duke noted in his diary. 'Somehow I imagine, 'the prince recalled some fifty years later, 'this was the last time my father was ever inspired to apply to me that precise appellation.' Queen Victoria made a special visit to Richmond to see her great-grandson, whom she pronounced 'a very fine strong boy, a pretty child'.
'You rejoice as I do, indeed,' she wrote to the Empress Frederick, 'and as the whole nation does, to the most wonderful degree, at the birth of dear Georgie's boy. It is a great pleasure and satisfaction ... it is true that it has never happened in this country that there should be three direct heirs as well as the sovereign alive.' The Prince of Wales was host that evening at a ball in the Fishing Temple at Virginia Water, Windsor Great Park. On being told the news, he stopped the orchestra for a moment so he could proudly announce the birth, and propose a toast to the young prince.
The Duke and Duchess of York had wanted to call their first son Edward, in memory of Eddy. They had reckoned without Queen Victoria, who intended his first name to be Albert, after his great-grandfather. As a compromise, Albert became the second name of seven with which he was christened on 16 July – Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David. Although always known to the public as Prince Edward, en famille he would be called David.
Prince Edward of York had entered the world during midsummer and Ascot Week, when society was en fete. For the next occupant of the nursery at York House, the omens were less propitious. The second son of the Duke and Duchess of York had the misfortune to be born on 14 December 1895, eighteen months later. It was the double black-edged anniversary of the Prince Consort's death in 1861 and that of Princess Alice, the first of his and Queen Victoria's children to pass away, in 1878. 'Darling May was safely confined of a son at 3.30 this morning both doing well,' the Duke telegraphed in some trepidation to his grandmother. The Prince of Wales had to admit that 'Grandmama was rather distressed', but he himself trusted that the young prince's birth would 'break the spell' of the unlucky date. He advised his son that it would be tactful to invite the Queen to be the baby's godmother, and to call him Albert. 'It is a great pleasure to me that he is to be called Albert, but in fact, he could hardly have been called by any other name,' the Queen commented to her eldest daughter. To the family, he would always be 'Bertie'.
The two elder York children suffered from two handicaps in their earliest years – firstly, undemonstrative and not particularly understanding parents; secondly, a most unsuitable nanny.
As parents, the Duke and Duchess of York were much more strict than their own had been. The Duke was by nature less tolerant and less easy-going than his father, while the Duchess was curiously unmaternal. Her earnest, seriousminded character was at odds with the informal and carefree upbringing meted out by her mother and mother-in-law, and she was determined that her own children would be treated differently. Yet, according to some, the future King George V's reputation for paternal strictness verging on bullying has been exaggerated over the years. It was never denied that the boys enjoyed many a rough-and-tumble, riotous games of golf with scant regard for the rules, and boisterous cycle rides around the Sandringham estate. A few years later, they were not too afraid of their father to play occasional practical jokes on him.
Perhaps the fairest verdict on the Duke and Duchess as parents was that of the latter's lady-in-waiting Mabell, Countess of Airlie. She praised them for conscientious devotion to their children's upbringing, but thought that neither had any understanding of a child's mind. For George, who lacked imagination, it was never too soon to try and inculcate the highest standards of behaviour and principle in them. Moreover, he was given to 'chaffing' them, but his bark was worse than his bite. 'Where have you been?' he would ask his sons. 'Cutting up the paths with your bicycles, I suppose.' Such rebukes probably sounded less severe in everyday speech than the written word suggests.
Much has been made of King George V's comments that he was always frightened of his father, and that it was only right that his sons should be frightened of him. His remarks have been handed down from speaker to speaker, and doubtless distorted in the retelling. None the less the King was never afraid of his father, whose outbursts of rage in front of courtiers could be terrifying, but who was never anything less than a devoted father, particularly to his second son. In their letters, King Edward frequently admitted that they were more like brothers than father and son.
All the same, Alexander Hardinge, later a private royal secretary, was less inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. It was a mystery, he was once moved to remark, why King George, in other respects such a kind man, was 'such a brute to his children'.
In the case of Edward and Albert, problems were compounded by a sadistic and incompetent nurse. She showed a marked preference for the elder of her charges, and in order to demonstrate the superiority of her power over him to that of his parents, she would twist and pinch Edward's arm before bringing him into the drawing room each evening just before he said goodnight to his parents. He bawled and screamed at them to much that they would impatiently order her to take him away at once.
Apparently she never liked Bertie. In her rather warped fashion, she seemed to resent the arrival of another infant who might compete with his elder brother for everyone else's attention. She neglected him in the nursery, and gave him his bottle when taking him out each morning and afternoon in his pram, an unsprung vehicle which made for extremely rough rides around the paths of Sandringham. When he was ready to begin eating soft foodstuffs, she would snatch the bowl away from him at meals, telling the shocked under-nurse Charlotte ('Lalla') Bill, that he had had quite enough for one day. Such treatment resulted in chronic stomach trouble, and perhaps laid the foundations for the gastric complaint which afflicted him throughout life.
At length, Miss Bill could stand this mentally unbalanced woman's treatment of her infant charges no longer. Although fearful that if she spoke out, the senior nurse would vent her anger on the children, especially Albert, Miss Bill told the housekeeper all. On investigation, it was established that the half-crazed woman had not had a day off for three years, and that she was unable to have children herself and had been deserted by her husband, and in short was suffering from frustrated and warped maternal instincts. However, she had trained as a children's nursemaid before marriage, and as a result of working for the Duke and Duchess of Newcastle, she obtained a good reference which led to her being employed in the York nursery. When the truth came out, early in 1897, she was dismissed at once and her place taken by the more understanding Miss Bill, who sought to alleviate the mental damage already inflicted on the two small boys.
On 25 April 1897 May gave birth to her third child and only daughter. It was suggested by her grandfather and great-grandmother that she might be named 'Diamond', as she was born in the latter's Diamond Jubilee year, but wiser counsels prevailed. The parents pointed out tactfully that in later life she would not relish carrying the year of her birth forever. Instead she was named Victoria Alexandra Alice Mary, and known in the family as Mary, to distinguish her from her mother.
Now that Miss Bill presided over the nursery, peace and contentment reigned for a while. The Duchess of York was allowed a brief respite from childbearing, and her three elder children, born within a space of less than three years, formed a tightly-knit group. Edward was a high-spirited child, and as the eldest was a natural leader in nursery games. Mary was something of a tomboy, and as the only girl she was much petted and spoilt. In particular her disciplinarian father treated her more leniently than the others, although she was easily embarrassed and his teasing sometimes made her blush to a deep shade of red.
As the middle child, Albert was at a disadvantage. By nature shy, nervous and affectionate, easily frightened and more prone to tears than the others, he compared unfavourably with both. It was significant that Queen Victoria noted in her journal, after a visit from 'the dear little York children' in May 1898, that 'David is a delightful child, so intelligent, nice and friendly. The baby is a sweet pretty little thing.' There was no reference to Albert.
On 31 March 1900 May gave birth to a third son, christened Henry. 'I think I have done my duty & may now stop,' she wrote to her Aunt Augusta, 'as having babies is highly distasteful to me tho' when once they are there they are very nice! The children are so pleased with the baby who they think flew in at my window & had to have hs wings cut off!' This explanation of the baby's arrival at York House came from the Duke, in response to what he called 'some very funny questions' from Prince Edward. The six-year-old boy's sleep was disturbed for weeks afterwards, he later claimed, by the nightmare vision of his baby brother's bleeding wings.
At the time Britain was embroiled in the second Boer war, and Lord Roberts and the German Emperor William were invited to act as the baby's godparents. They were appropriate choices, for this prince would be the only one to pursue a military career.
He was also the last of the family whom his great-grandmother was to see. Among the last photographs taken of the ageing Queen is one showing her on the lawn outside Osborne House that summer, apparently holding Prince Henry on her lap, while the three others stand or sit beside her. By this time, she was so frail and so afraid of dropping her baby great-grandson that Miss Bill concealed herself behind the chair and supported her arm until the photographer's exposure was completed.
When they were small, the Duke of York saw little of his children. Most of his indoor leisure time was spent reading The Times, writing up his game book, looking after his guns, or working on his stamp collection in the library, a forbidding room furnished with a large desk and well-worn leather sofa, its most conspicuous item being a closet with a glass door containing his prized shotguns.
A conventional Victorian father, the Duke considered his children primarily his wife's responsibility. When at home the Duchess used to rest in her boudoir before dinner, and she set an hour of this time aside for her family. At 6.30 p.m. each evening they were brought in from the nursery or schoolroom, and as they sat on wooden chairs beside her on the sofa, she would read and talk to them. The years she had spent abroad as a young woman, her eldest son recalled, had 'mellowed her outlook; and reading and observation had equipped her with a prodigious knowledge of Royal history.' Members of the household of those days would paint a cosy picture of the atmosphere at York Cottage, the children gathered round a lamp-lit table playing some educational card game, usually one with the counties of England.
The Duchess was inclined to treat them as young adults. When they behaved well, she accepted it as quite normal. When they did not, she was surprised. With some astonishment, she noted on one occasion that Edward was 'jumpy' yesterday morning, however he got quieter after being out, what a curious child he is.' It seems far more curious in retrospect that she should have been startled at the restless energy of a child not yet aged two, only fidgeting because he wanted to go outside and play in the fresh air. Just as odd was another comment she made on him at the same age; one evening at tea he was in 'a charming frame of mind'. She really believed, she wrote, 'he begins to like me at last, he is most civil to me.'
The children were much happier when at home with her, and their father was not present. When they were small, his teasing or 'chaffing' questions were a regular cause of embarrassment. Although their mother always backed him up where parental discipline was concerned, she never shrank from taking their side whenever she thought he was being too harsh with them. Though not in awe of her husband, she accepted the prevailing nineteenth-century view that the father was head of the family; his word was therefore law. All the same, when he overstepped the bounds beyond fairness, she did not hesitate to speak out.
The boys were terrified in the presence of Queen Victoria, though whether it was she who struck fear into their hearts, or the formidable Indian servants who waited upon her, nobody knew. But when left to sit with her they would burst into tears, much to her distress and that of their parents. Crossly she would ask the Duke and Duchess of York 'what she had done wrong now'.
In January 1901 Queen Victoria died and King Edward VII ascended the throne. Among the first decisions made concerning his family was one regarding a tour to be made of the British Empire by the Duke and Duchess of York. Shortly before the late Queen's last illness, plans were made for them to visit Australia to open the first parliament of the new federation. The King was reluctant to see them go, being unwilling to have the life of his only surviving son 'unnecessarily endangered for any political purpose', but his ministers insisted. The heir and his wife therefore set sail in March from Portsmouth for Australia.
During their eight-month absence, the children were at last allowed a prolonged respite from their parents' strict upbringing. King Edward and Queen Alexandra had spoiled their own children when they were small, and were even more indulgent with what the Queen called 'the Georgiepets'. The King eagerly allowed them to race pats of butter down the seams of his trousers, taking bets on whose would win. One day at lunch, he persistently told Edward not to interrupt him while he was talking. Having finished what he wanted to say, he turned to the boy to ask what he wanted. Triumphantly, the lad told Grandpapa that there had been a slug on his lettuce. Now it was too late to warn him as he had eaten it.
Though Edward's cheerful habit of answering back and his precocious charm made him a favourite, the King went out of his way to pay attention and write short, grandfatherly letters to Albert. As a second child himself who had been overshadowed at the same age by a lively, intelligent elder sister, he must have appreciated that his second grandson found it difficult to compete with the winning ways of his brother, and found the inevitable comparisons frustrating.
Lessons were cheerfully disregarded. Many an afternoon the King and Queen were too engrossed in turning up at York House, to play with the children or read them the latest letter from Mama and Papa, to allow their unfortunate governess Mlle Bricka to interfere. She was dismissed with a wave of the regal hand, and on one family visit to Sandringham she was left behind fuming, in London, 'lest she should spoil the fun'. An angry letter of protest was dispatched overseas to the Duchess of York, who replied in tones of similar annoyance to Queen Alexandra. Needless to say, May could have spared herself the effort, for all the effect it had.
On 1 November, the Duke and Duchess returned, landing at Portsmouth. With a twinkle in his eye, King Edward had told the youngsters that their parents would return with black skins after their exposure to the tropical heat, and they were relieved to see Mama and Papa tanned but still recognizable.
It was a relatively undisciplined, cheerful group of children who greeted their parents on their return home. Four-year-old Mary, the apple of their eye, could be forgiven, and Harry, not yet two, was likewise considered too young to be ready for anything in the way of 'character moulding'. However Edward and Albert, it was decided, had reached an age when they could no longer be controlled by feminine supervision. Their days in the nursery under the indulgent eye of Miss Bill were almost over.
On New Year's Day, 1902, they were told that they would now be in the care of Frederick Finch, formerly nursery footman. He was to be a kind of male nursemaid, who heard their prayers every morning and evening, who tucked them up in bed, and when necessary smacked them. Fortunately he was neither a bully nor an excessive disciplinarian; the boys liked and respected him, treated him as a trusted confidant as they became older, and he went on to serve Edward as valet and steward until his retirement in 1935.
Excerpted from George V's Children by John Van der Kiste. Copyright © 2011 John Van der Kiste. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.