King George VI reigned for 15 years, saw his nation and empire through the Second World War, witnessed the end of the imperial might of Britain, and had his face all over one of the world’s pre-eminent currencies. Yet, since his death in 1952, the diffident monarch, made all the more retiring by a debilitating speech impediment, has largely been confined to the footnotes of history. George has been overshadowed by his predecessor and brother, the feckless Edward VIII, and by his daughter and successor Elizabeth II; even his wife’s charm and warmth pushed his shy personality into the background. If that weren’t enough, his prime ministers—Baldwin, Chamberlain, Churchill, Atlee—had dominating personalities of their own.
But the forgotten king is emerging from the shadows, thanks in no small part to the film The King’s Speech (opening Dec. 10) and the book of the same name by Peter Conradi and Mark Logue, grandson of the monarch’s speech therapist, Lionel Logue. George VI’s struggle to tame his stammer, and his dutiful acceptance of a throne for which he was woefully unprepared, won him the loyalty of a generation scarred by the Depression and the abdication crisis. He now appeals to their descendants and historians alike.
The second and “spare” son of George V, Bertie, as his family called him, was not groomed to be king. While everything fell effortlessly into place for his older brother, Bertie’s life was a struggle. His childhood was one of neglect, bullying and fear, especially of his father, who famously said: “My father was scared of his father, I was scared of my father and I’m damned well going to see that they’re scared of me.” Bertie’s stammer started early.
Scraping through the Royal Naval College, placing 68th out of 68 on its final exam, the future king saw action during the First World War, but his service was cut short by stomach complaints—a lifelong problem started by improper feeding by a sadistic nanny. After the war, while his brother dallied with married women and partied, Bertie set up summer boys’ camps that mixed youths from all strata of British society, and worked on activities to benefit workers. Determined to have a happy home life, he set his sights on Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, but had to propose three times before she would accept him.
His uncontrollable stammer meant speaking in public was a nightmare he grimly tackled—his princely address to the Empire Exhibition in 1925, which opens the movie, was torturous. George consulted expert after expert, without success. So, when he met Australian Lionel Logue in 1926, he was desperate. In three months the royal couple were embarking on a tour of Australia, during which Bertie would have to give speech after dreaded speech. But Logue changed all that. He may have entered his office with “tired eyes,” as the Australian later recalled, but “when he left you could see there was hope once more in his heart.”
For the first time, Bertie believed that the defect was physical, not mental. The new book, based on Logue’s recently discovered diaries, recounts how the therapist improved Bertie’s breathing, suggested less tongue-twisting words—“calamities,” with its difficult “k” sound, turned into disasters—and built needed pauses into texts. Logue’s efforts and Bertie’s perseverance paid off. Soon, newspapers reported the difference: “He has practically conquered his impediment of utterance,” one remarked.
As if the ordeal of public speaking wasn’t enough, in December 1936, following Edward VIII’s abdication, Bertie became George VI. The new king had never been involved in the inner workings of government and found the workload and pressure overwhelming, especially during the war. His speech impediment continued to weigh on him. In 1940, he confided to Logue that he’d woken “at one o’clock, after dreaming I was in Parliament with my mouth wide open and couldn’t say a word.” The sovereign’s health was broken from the stress, and he died in 1952, aged 56. Hundreds of thousands of his subjects stood silently in the damp February cold waiting for the funeral cortège of a king who has come to personify duty.