On 20th January 1936 King George V died of influenza at the age of 70, having been on the throne since 1910. A mystery has always surrounded his death, with the suggestion being that it was hastened by his personal doctor who gave him an overdose of morphine. The reason for so doing, it is alleged, is that if the king died early enough (it was about 11pm) there would be time for The Times to announce it the following day; however, if the death was later than this the deadline would be missed by The Times but not necessarily by the tabloid newspapers.
There is no absolute proof that King George died at a time of someone else’s choosing but it is entirely possible given the class system that was rife at the time. For The Times to be beaten to the punch by the working-class Daily Mirror would have been seen as a terrible social faux pas.
King George was not the most inspiring of monarchs. He had no great personal or social qualities and no intellectual gifts, although by the end of his life he was highly respected by the mass of the British people for his honesty and decency, especially when compared with his wayward son the Prince of Wales, who would succeed him as King Edward VIII.
Despite his lack of the common touch, King George did institute a custom that has lasted down to the present day, namely the annual Christmas Day sovereign’s broadcast to the nation – originally just on the radio, of course. It was probably this single inauguration that did most to endear him to his people.
A black mark against King George was his refusal to grant political asylum to the royal family of Russia when the Bolsheviks took over in 1917. Tsar Nicholas was George’s first cousin and there was a remarkable family resemblance between them (see photo). The imperial family had visited the British royal family in the past, but when the crunch came George took fright at the thought that such a move would not play well with the British people and so he barred the escape route of the Russian royals, who were all murdered the following year.
King George’s last words are also up for grabs, depending on the version one wishes to believe. They might have been the high-sounding request: “How is the Empire?” or they might have been the more earthy “Bugger Bognor” in response to his doctor’s encouraging suggestion that when the king was well enough he might be able to recuperate at that resort in Sussex, to which he had been before and which was thenceforth known as Bognor Regis. However, had the doctor just given George a fatal shot of morphine he would have known that the suggestion would never become reality.
All I know is that when, in 1978, I took up a post at a library in Bognor Regis, my leaving card from my previous employment was inscribed: “We commend to you the dying words of King George V”!
© John Welford