Essay / Culture

Royal Duty: The King Behind the Speech

St. Joseph, spouse of the Virgin Mary and Foster-Father of Christ, has always fascinated me. He comes on the scene, plays his role, and then is never mentioned again in the gospel narratives. He is a man who is called to do one task, difficult, for sure, but one that does not win him any earthly glory. He is a man who is called to simply put one foot ahead of the other in the performance of his duty, and he does that one thing very well. While he gained no earthly glory in performing that one task, his fame echoes through eternity. My father once told me that it doesn’t matter how many people know you at your death, as long as those few who knew you remember you as a man who did his duty, in loving service to his family and his friends. The quiet influence of one human being on another has eternal ramifications, for both good and ill.

Then there are others who are called to play their role in a bigger, more public arena.

If you have seen the film on Queen Elizabeth II, The Queen, starring Helen Mirren, you may remember a candid conversation she has with her Prime Minister, Tony Blair, where she reveals that she was raised with this lesson in life: “Duty first, self second.”

Where did she learn this? She learned it from no less a source than her own father, whom she adored–King George VI. Her father was a man who was not particularly groomed for a life of kingly duty, and with ailing health and a stammering condition, didn’t have much by way of a physical constitution for the job.

His brother, Edward, as the eldest of the two, was the heir to the throne, and succeeded after the death of their father, Edward VII as Edward VIII. Nevertheless, his marriage to Wallace Simpson necessitated his relinquishing throne and crown, and by 1938, George found himself, ill prepared and not quite ready to make public speeches, to succeed his brother and perform the royal duties inherent in his office.

The stresses of royal service were compounded when on September 1, 1939 Germany invaded Poland, thus breaking the Soviet-Non-Aggression Pact signed by Vyacheslav Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop, Stalin’s and Hitler’s respective foreign ministers. This brought Great Britain into war with Germany, since promises were made to Poland that Great Britain would come to its defense in the event of a German attack. Not only was Germany at war with Russia, but also with Great Britain and its allies.

All who have seen The King’s Speech know how King George VI had overcome this impediment with the help of his speech therapist, Lionel Logue. What many don’t see is the remarkable way in which he exercised his royal duties in the midst of German fighter planes raining bombs on London. Rather than follow the advice of some to relocate to Canada with his family, he, with his family, stay put in Buckingham Palace, thus facing the same risks his other subjects faced. Bear in mind that this was a man who was not always in the best of health, and yet there he was, visiting his subjects and comforting them in their most frightful and sorrowful moments. The palace itself was bombed nine times, but he continued to live there throughout the Blitz, facing the possibility of death in solidarity with his people.

He did not survive long after the war, for in 1952, after a life of dedicated service and duty that wore him down, he died in his sleep on February 6. His funeral was held at St. George Chapel, where he lies to this day. Winston Churchill, his wartime Prime Minister, gave the eulogy.

Much is rightly made of Prime Minister Churchill’s strengthening of the people’s resolve to fight for their homes and freedom. Now let’s hear how this sickly king whom he served inspired him and his subjects:

When the death of the King was announced to us yesterday morning there struck a deep and solemn note in our lives which, as it resounded far and wide, stilled the clatter and traffic of twentieth-century life in many lands, and made countless millions of human beings pause and look around them. A new sense of values took, for the time being, possession of human minds, and mortal existence presented itself to so many at the same moment in its serenity and in its sorrow, in its splendour and in its pain, in its fortitude and in its suffering.

The King was greatly loved by all his peoples. He was respected as a man and as a prince far beyond the many realms over which he reigned. The simple dignity of his life, his manly virtues, his sense of duty – alike as a ruler and a servant of the vast spheres and communities for which he bore responsibility – his gay charm and happy nature, his example as a husband and a father in his own family circle, his courage in peace or war – all these were aspects of his character which won the glint of admiration, now here, now there, from the innumerable eyes whose gaze falls upon the Throne.

We thought of him as a young naval lieutenant in the great Battle of Jutland. We thought of him when calmly, without ambition, or want of self-confidence, he assumed the heavy burden of the Crown and succeeded his brother whom he loved and to whom he had rendered perfect loyalty. We thought of him, so faithful in his study and discharge of State affairs; so strong in his devotion to the enduring honour of our country; so self-restrained in his judgments of men and affairs; so uplifted above the clash of party politics, yet so attentive to them; so wise and shrewd in judging between what matters and what does not.

All this we saw and admired. His conduct on the Throne may well be a model and a guide to constitutional sovereigns throughout the world today and also in future generations. The last few months of King George’s life, with all the pain and physical stresses that he endured – his life hanging by a thread from day to day, and he all the time cheerful and undaunted, stricken in body but quite undisturbed and even unaffected in spirit – these have made a profound and an enduring impression and should be a help to all.

He was sustained not only by his natural buoyancy, but by the sincerity of his Christian faith. During these last months the King walked with death as if death were a companion, an acquaintance whom he recognized and did not fear. In the end death came as a friend, and after a happy day of sunshine and sport, and after “good night” to those who loved him best, he fell asleep as every man or woman who strives to fear God and nothing else in the world may hope to do.

The nearer one stood to him the more these facts were apparent. But the newspapers and photographs of modern times have made vast numbers of his subjects able to watch with emotion the last months of his pilgrimage. We all saw him approach his journey’s end. In this period of mourning and meditation, amid our cares and toils, every home in all the realms joined together under the Crown may draw comfort for tonight and strength for the future from his bearing and his fortitude.

There was another tie between King George and his people. It was not only sorrow and affliction that they shared. Dear to the hearts and the homes of the people is the joy and pride of a united family. With this all the troubles of the world can be borne and all its ordeals at least confronted. No family in these tumultuous years was happier or loved one another more than the Royal Family around the King.

No Minister saw so much of the King during the war as I did. I made certain he was kept informed of every secret matter, and the care and thoroughness with which he mastered the immense daily flow of State papers made a deep mark on my mind.

Let me tell you another fact. On one of the days when Buckingham Palace was bombed the King had just returned from Windsor. One side of the courtyard was struck, and if the windows opposite out of which he and the Queen were looking had not been, by the mercy of God, open, they would both have been blinded by the broken glass instead of being only hurled back by the explosion. Amid all that was then going on, although I saw the King so often, I never heard of this episode till a long time after. Their Majesties never mentioned it or thought it of more significance than a soldier in their armies would of a shell bursting near him. This seems to me to be a revealing trait in the royal character.

There is no doubt that of all the institutions which have grown up among us over the centuries, or sprung into being in our lifetime, the constitutional monarchy is the most deeply founded and dearly cherished by the whole association of our peoples. In the present generation it has acquired a meaning incomparably more powerful than anyone had dreamed possible in former times. The Crown has become the mysterious link, indeed I may say the magic link, which unites our loosely bound, but strongly interwoven Commonwealth of nations, states, and races….

For fifteen years George VI was King. Never at any moment in all the perplexities at home and abroad, in public or in private, did he fail in his duties. Well does he deserve the farewell salute of all his governments and peoples.

It is at this time that our compassion and sympathy go out to his consort and widow. Their marriage was a love match with no idea of regal pomp or splendour. Indeed, there seemed to be before them only the arduous life of royal personages, denied so many of the activities of ordinary folk and having to give so much in ceremonial public service. May I say – speaking with all freedom – that our hearts go out tonight to that valiant woman, with famous blood of Scotland in her veins, who sustained King George through all his toils and problems, and brought up with their charm and beauty the two daughters who mourn their father today. May she be granted strength to bear her sorrow.

To Queen Mary, his mother, another of whose sons is dead – the Duke of Kent having been killed on active service – there belongs the consolation of seeing how well he did his duty and fulfilled her hopes, and of knowing how much he cared for her.

Now I must leave the treasures of the past and turn to the future. Famous have been the reigns of our queens. Some of the greatest periods in our history have unfolded under their sceptre. Now that we have the second Queen Elizabeth, also ascending the Throne in her twenty-sixth year, our thoughts are carried back nearly four hundred years to the magnificent figure who presided over and, in many ways, embodied and inspired the grandeur and genius of the Elizabethan age.

Queen Elizabeth II, like her predecessor, did not pass her childhood in any certain expectation of the Crown. But already we know her well, and we understand why her gifts, and those of her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, have stirred the only part of the Commonwealth she has yet been able to visit. She has already been acclaimed as Queen of Canada.

We make our claim too, and others will come forward also, and tomorrow the proclamation of her sovereignty will command the loyalty of her native land and of all other parts of the British Commonwealth and Empire. I, whose youth was passed in the august, unchallenged and tranquil glories of the Victorian era, may well feel a thrill in invoking once more the prayer and the anthem, “God save the Queen!”


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