A Spare Who Spared Himself Nothing

Sally Bedell Smith’s “George VI and Elizabeth: The Marriage That Shaped the Monarchy” explores a wholly different epoch in the Windsor saga.


While the impending coronation of Charles III is meant to usher in a glorious new chapter for the House of Windsor, the obsessive tabloid attention it has garnered has merely aggravated a growing case of collective royal fatigue. In these turbulent times do we not, after all, have better things to think about than the latest bit of pageantry or pettiness, splendor or scandal, emanating from the world’s most famous surviving monarchy? And when we consider the key players in this narrative, what lessons do they really have to teach us, except that royal privilege seldom makes better people of those who have, crave or lose it?

Sally Bedell Smith’s latest book, “George VI and Elizabeth,” offers a different lesson. The author of such works as “Diana in Search of Herself,” “Prince Charles” and “Elizabeth the Queen,” Smith avoids the murky waters of Megxit. Instead, she makes the refreshing choice to focus on an earlier Windsor “spare,” Bertie, Duke of York — the second son of George V — and his Scottish-born wife, née Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. This pair, the parents of Elizabeth II, stand as an inspiring, if unlikely, counterpoint to their present-day descendants. The throne to which they unexpectedly acceded brought out their most, rather than their least, admirable traits: “qualities of duty and service,” as the author puts it, “in the most challenging circumstances.”

While the couple’s story has been told many times before, it assumes newfound freshness against the backdrop of today’s relentless press coverage of the Windsor dramas. Smith’s lively account reminds readers that at its finest hour — whatever the historic sins or abiding iniquities of the British Empire itself — the crown managed to stand for selfless leadership, resilience and compassion for its people.

Bertie’s and Elizabeth’s love story had improbable beginnings: She turned him down twice before finally agreeing to marry him. But Bertie persisted, and they wed in 1923. The deep and lasting mutual devotion they came to feel for each other helped them weather the many difficulties they faced throughout their marriage — starting with the constitutional crisis occasioned by Edward VIII’s abdication in 1936.

Known within the royal family as David, the latter was a charismatic but spoiled playboy with a weakness for Nazi politics and married women. Given the king’s capacity as titular head of the Church of England, it had been clear from the outset that Wallis Simpson’s status as a soon-to-be two-time divorcée disqualified her for marriage under the constitution. Yet David spent his 326 days as monarch attempting to ignore, contravene or circumvent this rule, only to conclude in his infamous radio address that he was unwilling to sacrifice “the woman I love” for duty’s sake. Indeed, his decades of coddled leisure as heir apparent (one courtier speculated that “certain cells in his brain have never grown up”) seemingly left him unwilling to sacrifice anything for duty’s sake.

Smith describes how during his short rule, 42-year-old David balked at the simplest “routines of kingship — audiences with officials, signing government documents in his daily dispatch boxes” — and performed them cavalierly, if at all. He complained about being “cooped up in Buckingham Palace all the time within the iron bars” and railed against the “artificial nonsense” of ceremonial royal engagements. Wallis emerges as more a symptom than a cause of the king’s discontent, though she would bear much of the blame for his defection.

Edward VIII’s renunciation of the throne sent shock waves through the United Kingdom and the House of Windsor. It dealt a particularly shattering blow to Bertie, a painfully shy, earnest family man who lacked his brother’s natural star power and blithe self-assurance, and who so dreaded the prospect of succeeding him as king that when he finally learned he must do so he broke down and sobbed on his mother’s shoulder. The fact that he stammered when nervous, making public speaking an agony, further heightened his angst.

Yet Bertie did not, in contrast to his older brother, view the obligations of his high position as inseparable from its privileges. Reluctantly but bravely he committed, as he put it in a letter to David, to “taking on a rocking throne and trying to make it steady again.” His wife — outwardly sweet but steely — was crucial to this effort: a tireless supporter of her husband, his primary confidante and a protective bastion of normalcy in a world gone mad.

George VI’s commitment to duty assumed heroic proportions with the outbreak of World War II, when England stood alone in Europe against the Nazi menace. Like their compatriots, he and his consort endured the hardships of wartime: bombings, blackouts, food shortages and separation from their daughters (who were dispatched to the relative safety of rural Windsor). With their stalwart presence in London throughout the Blitz, and their tireless visits to and palpable empathy for the individuals hit hardest by the German war machine, the royal couple earned the respect and affection of their subjects, who, according to one journalist, came to see them as friends “whom they know to be one with them not in heart only but also in experience and in toil.”

For their part, the king and queen found unexpected fulfillment in their effort to support their people and lead by example. When considering a group of Britons whose towns the Luftwaffe had razed, Elizabeth reflected: “If one can help those gallant people, everything is worthwhile.” Although she is said to have privately blamed the stress of the unexpected burden of kingship for her beloved husband’s premature death — and resented David and Wallis to the end of her very long days — this selfless ethos became her daughter Elizabeth II’s watchword and the key to her enduring popularity. To what extent her own children and grandchildren choose to honoror ignore this legacy remains to be seen.