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The Four Kings of the Twentieth Century

Queen Victoria's son Edward was crowned King Edward the Seventh of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and Emperor of India in August 1902. He was sixty years old and only reigned for 9 years. He had been something of a playboy prince and had many affairs. Nevertheless, he was a popular king and reintroduced many traditional ceremonies, such as the State Opening of Parliament, which gave his people a sense of connection to him.

Fluent in French and German and very charming, King Edward promoted good relations with Britain's European neighbours and with countries further afield. He supported the signing of the Entente Cordiale with France, bringing 800 years of intermittent conflict between the two nations to an end. However, his relations with his German relative Wilhelm the second were less successful. Kaiser Wilhelm's nationalist and racist views and ill-judged foreign policies would eventually lead his Germany into the First World War.

King Edward the Seventh supported the modernisation of the British Army and Royal Navy, partly to counter the growing strength of Germany. He also strongly condemned racism and anti-Semitism at a time when both were common. However, he opposed Irish home rule and women's suffrage.

Edward was a heavy smoker and suffered from severe bronchitis in the final years of his life. In March 1910, he collapsed, and in May that year, he suffered a series of heart attacks. He died soon after.

King Edward the Seventh was succeeded by his son George who was crowned George the fifth, King of the United Kingdom and British Dominions, and Emperor of India in June 1911. He was 51 years old.

King George the Fifth reigned through turbulent times with the First World War, the rise of communism and fascism, the Great Depression, and Irish independence.

In July 1914, he attempted to broker a settlement between the Conservative and Unionist Party, the Liberal Party, and the Irish Nationalist Party who held 73 seats in Parliament. The meeting ended without agreement, and the outbreak of the First World War prevented further discussion of the issue of Irish Home Rule.

King George had close ties with Germany, with many relatives there. During the First World War, he gave up all his German titles and changed the family name to Windsor. When George's cousin, Tsar Nicolas of Russia, was overthrown in the Russian Revolution in 1917, King George opposed the idea of rescuing the Russian royal family fearing it might provoke a communist revolution at home. However, some members of the extended Russian Royal family were rescued after the execution of Tsar Nicolas and his immediate family.

During the war, King George and his Queen promoted the war effort and made hundreds of visits to factories, shipyards, and hospitals and to inspect troops. King George created the Order of the British empire to recognise civilian contributions to the war. He also visited the Western Front on several occasions, and his two eldest sons served in the army and navy.

Immediately after the First World War, the Irish War of Independence began. A breakaway parliament was formed, and the IRA began an armed conflict against British Forces. The British Government retaliated with a brutality that horrified King George. He appealed for conciliation in 1921, and both sides agreed a truce that partitioned Ireland between the Irish Free State in the south and the six counties of Northern Ireland, which remained part of the United Kingdom.

The Representation of the People Act 1918 extended the right to vote in the United Kingdom to all men over the age of 21 and to women over 30. This increased the male electorate from around 5 million to nearly 13 million and allowed the vote to 8 ½ million women. Women eventually gained electoral equality with men in 1928.

During the General Strike of 1926, King George advised conciliation, and he cultivated friendly relations with Labour politicians of the age. He also encouraged measures to lessen the hardship caused by the Great Depression. King George saw the threat from Nazi Germany early on and in 1934 advised politicians and senior government officials to be wary.

George's relationship with his eldest son Edward was strained, with the king appalled at his son's affairs with married women. He doted on his eldest granddaughter Princess Elizabeth who was born in 1926.

A heavy smoker, King George suffered severe bronchitis like his father. He fell seriously ill in 1928 and retired from public life. He never fully recovered and died in January 1936.

George the Fifth was succeeded by his eldest son Edward who was proclaimed King Edward the eighth of the United Kingdom and British Dominions, and Emperor of India in January 1936. He was never formally crowned and abdicated 11 months later.

As Prince of Wales, he had served with some distinction during the First World War, being awarded the Military Cross in 1916. He traveled extensively in the 1920s representing the Crown and becoming a popular celebrity. However, his womanising threatened scandal. In 1930 Edward met the American divorcee Wallis Simpson and became infatuated with her.

King Edward became the first British monarch to fly a plane shortly after his accession to the throne – he had gained his pilot's licence in 1918. The King's affair with Wallis Simpson continued, and he expressed a desire to marry her in November 1936. The Prime Minister and senior clergy opposed the marriage. The Prime Ministers of Australia, Canada, and South Africa made their opposition to the marriage clear. King Edward chose to abdicate in December 1936 so that he could marry Mrs. Simpson.

Edward took the title Duke of Windsor and married Wallis Simpson in France. No members of the royal family attended the wedding, and relations between Edward and the royal family became strained. Against the advice of the British Government, Edward and his wife visited Nazi Germany in 1937 and were treated as royal. Edward gave Nazi salutes on several occasions during the visit.

During the second world war, Edward and his wife were moved to the Bahamas to limit his influence as he was suspected of pro-Nazi sympathies. He certainly held racist and anti-Semitic views.

After the war, Edward Duke of Windsor lived in France and became something of a celebratory in the United States. He was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1971 and was visited by Queen Elizabeth the second shortly before his death in May 1972. His wife died in 1986.

King Edward the eight abdicated in December 1936. His younger brother, called Albert, was crowned King George the Sixth King of the United Kingdom and British Dominions, and Emperor of India in May 1937. He was 41.

Known as "Bertie" to his family and friends, Albert served in the Royal Navy during the First World War, seeing action at the Battle of Jutland. He later served with the newly created Royal Air Force, qualifying as a pilot in 1919.

Albert was created Duke of York in 1920 and married in 1923. He had two children, the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret.

At his coronation, Albert took the name King George the sixth to emphases continuity with his father and restore confidence after Edward's short reign.

With war looming, King George toured Canada and the United States and sought to build support in the event of war.

During the Second World War, the king and his wife stayed in London despite German bombing raids, which damaged Buckingham Palace. This act of solidarity with the British people, along with their many visits to factories and to meet bombed-out civilians, made the royal family hugely popular. They were even subject to rationing restrictions. Their high profile made them a symbol of national resistance.

King George the Sixth develop a close relationship with Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and they met often to discuss the war. The king visited troops in France and North Africa early in the War and in Normandy shortly after the D Day landings. Later in 1944, they visited southern Italy and the Netherlands after those countries were liberated.

After the War, the countries that had been dominions of the empire gradually became independent states and the King relinquished the title of Emperor of India in 1947 as India and Pakistan became independent. During a tour of South Africa, King George was appalled when told he could only shake hands with whites.

A heavy smoker, King George developed lung cancer in 1949. His left lung was removed in September 1951, and he died of a heart attack in February 1952. His daughter, Princess Elizabeth, was on a tour of Africa with her new husband, Philip, at the time. She was summoned home to take the throne.

Thank you for listening to this lesson. In our next lesson, we bring our history up to the present day with the reign of Queen Elizabeth the second.

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Written by

Ross Maynard