George v and the British Crown

‘Knowing the difficulties of a limited monarch, I thank Heaven I am spared being an absolute one.’

— King George to Walter Hines Page

‘I am not much on kings, but if you must have a king, give me George.’

— Familiar conversation of Walter Hines Page

IN May of this year the British Empire will celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the accession of King George V. He came to the throne on the death of his father, Edward VII, on May 6, 1910. His grandmother, Queen Victoria, had become the sovereign of the United Kingdom in 1837. Together, then, grandmother, father, and son have reigned almost a century.

Now this century has witnessed the fall of most of the world’s thrones. It has seen republics substituted for monarchies in France, in Spain, and in Portugal, and dictatorships take the place of empires in Germany and in Russia. It has seen the separation of the countries which for so long were united under the sceptre of the ancient Hapsburg dynasty. But the same century has seen the British monarchy become more firmly established. The British Crown appears to the historian much stronger in 1935 than it did in 1835, or even in 1875, a time when many Englishmen, among them Joseph Chamberlain, openly called themselves Republicans. One could wonder very seriously in the nineteenth century whether the son of Queen Victoria would actually reign; it would be rather surprising to-day for an Englishman to entertain doubts that the children of King George will enjoy their royal heritage.

Loyalty to the monarchy in England is not a question of party. The Laborite feels it equally with the Conservative. In 1928, at the moment when King George was so gravely ill, Mr. Ramsay MacDonald came to Paris to address a group of French Deputies, for the most part Socialists, on the policies of the Labor Party. As he rose to speak he said: ‘Gentlemen, before taking up our subject I think it wall seem fitting to all of you if we pause in silence and pray to God for the recovery of our King, who at this very moment is fighting against death.’ Many among those present were taken by surprise. They would not have been had they known England. There affection for the royal family is perhaps even stronger among the masses of the people than among the nobility. Bernard Shaw, in one of his dramatic prophecies, has imagined an England gone Communist in which the King still remains the most popular of men. It is not an impossible hypothesis.

It is interesting to inquire what permanent qualities and what special circumstances have worked together to preserve the British monarchy. What is the place of the King in the British system of government? What services does he render? Before examining the personal reign of George V, let us try to answer these general questions.


Like most great human institutions, Constitut ional Monarchy did not come into being as a result of the conscious reasoning of men. Because George I, the King who came from Hanover, did not speak English, the King gave up presiding over the Cabinet of his Ministers as early as the eighteenth century, and thus, without conflict, there came about a first division of the executive power. Because Queen Victoria was a woman, devotion to the Crown has become a chivalrous sentiment. Because she married Prince Albert of Saxc-Coburg, who possessed all the family virtues, the royal family has become for a religious people an object of affection, and even of tenderness. Because three successive sovereigns — Victoria, Edward VII, and George V — were reasonable, moderate, and capable of playing the rôle of impartial arbiter, the usefulness of the monarch has become universally apparent. A sovereign who, in the nineteenth century, had attempted to rule as an absolute monarch would speedily have made England a republic. But the family of the Coburgs, in England as in Belgium, understood to perfection the delicate mechanism of constitutional monarchy.

What is this mechanism? The mainspring is that the King, in order to remain a neutral umpire, must never assume responsibility for an act of government. This power belongs to the majority in the House of Commons, and is exercised by the Cabinet. The King must accept the recommendations of the Prime Minister. ‘He must sign his own death warrant,’ says Bagehot, ‘ if it is presented to him after a vote of the two Houses.’ Mr. Asquith wrote in a celebrated memorandum: ‘The Crown must act according to the advice of the Ministers who at a given moment possess the confidence of the House of Commons, whether or not this advice agrees with the personal judgment of the sovereign. The Ministers will always listen with the most profound respect to all the criticisms or objections of the monarch and will examine them with the most serious attention, but the final decision remains with t he Cabinet, since it is the Cabinet and not the Crown which is responsible to Parliament. It is only by adhering scrupulously to this doctrine that it is possible to keep the Crown above the storm and stress of political battles.’

In return, it is an unpardonable fault for a Minister to compromise the King. Not only must he refrain from quoting publicly the w ords of the King, not only must he never try to enroll the King in a party, but the duty of the Prime Minister is to assume entire responsibility for his acts and never to take shelter behind the throne.

What, then, are the functions of the King? As Bagehot says, he retains three rights: to be consulted, to encourage, to warn — and a sensible King will not wish for more. Nothing can be done in the realm without the King’s being informed of it, and English sovereigns have, with reason, demanded that this prerogative remain intact. Thanks to information received from his Ministers, and which he can, in grave circumstances, supplement by listening to (but not asking advice from) the leaders of the Opposition, the King is always put in a position to pass judgment as an impartial observer. But he cannot prevent things being done. ‘Mark my word,’ he says to the Prime Minister, ‘you are embarking on a dangerous course. I remember this or that distressing precedent. Of course, it is you who are responsible, and if you insist I shall sign. But I warn you, you are making a mistake.’

Such opinions are received with great respect, first because the prestige of the sovereign is immense, and then because, through the permanence of his office, the King soon acquires a larger experience than that of most of his Ministers. To explain this rôle of the King, Sir Maurice Amos employs an excellent analogy. ‘Suppose,’ he says, ‘that the nation were a jointstock company. Its affairs are carried on by an Administrative Council, which is Parliament. The King is the original proprietor of the business, and he remains president of the Administrative Council. Having given over almost all active participation in the management, he no longer has the right to vote, but he is still the most respected of advisers. Everything is done in his name.’

And what advantage, one may ask, is there in retaining the original proprietor in this capacity? The advantages are many. The indubitable success of constitutional monarchy as it is found in England and in Belgium rests, in the last analysis, on four facts: —

1. It makes for intelligent government. The masses have a natural and inevitable tendency to put their faith in a man. A legislature or a party appeals to ideas which are too abstract. Even in democracies public opinion centres about an individual. For the average American, the New Deal is Roosevelt; in the eyes of the entire world, Fascism is Mussolini. The same thing is even more true among primitive people. During the war, when I was a liaison officer between the French and British armies, there were serving on the British front Kafir chieftains who had come from Africa with thousands of their native soldiers; I saw these chieftains refuse to renew their contract except in the presence of the King. At the moment King George happened to be at Abbéville, and advantage was taken of this circumstance to lead the chieftains before him.

2. The activities of the royal family, followed with interest by the people, operate to put sovereignty on the same level with the private life of each subject. A royal marriage is a great national event because, for most men and women, a marriage is more interesting than a decree of state. If the marriage is romantic, if the princess possesses great beauty, as was the case with Queen Alexandra, the Duchess of York, and Princess Marina, a sentimental intoxication, inoffensive and healthy, takes possession of the crowds. Superannuated virgins and nondescript men then live, by proxy, the most beautiful of romances. It was in the same fashion that most religions were built about holy families.

3. The royal family, consecrated by hoary tradition and held by the rules to a precise order of succession, finds itself lifted above the basest of passions — jealousy and spite. Legitimacy is the fountainhead of serenity among rulers and of respect among nations.

4. Finally, a royal family, if it knows how to play its part, makes itself, for the entire society of its country, a social and moral centre. It preserves customs and acts as a check upon a too rapid change in manners. In this field the royal house of England functions to perfection.


Such, in general, is the role of a constitutional monarch. In England the King must also, in certain well-defined circumstances, take an active part in affairs of state.

In principle, the King chooses the Prime Minister. As a matter of fact, when the majority of the House of Commons consists of a single party, the leader of the party automatically becomes Prime Minister, and the King cannot put him aside for another. Queen Victoria, who had no love for Mr. Gladstone, tried in vain to give preferment to some of his subordinates. Naturally her overtures met with refusals, and in the end Gladstone headed the Cabinet. But in certain instances some measure of choice is possible. When a large party splits up into factions, when the nominal leader of the party no longer commands the support of the majority, the King is able, not to impose his own will, but to guide the hesitant wishes of the factions. That is what happened when Mr. Bonar Law, in 1923, was compelled by illness to resign. Lord Curzon was convinced that the new Prime Minister could be none other than himself; Mr. Balfour and other Conservative leaders indicated to the King that Lord Curzon’s character did not seem to them compatible with the post; in consequence, it was Mr. Baldwin and not the nominal head of the party who was summoned to Buckingham Palace. The King had cut the knot.

In theory the King has the sole right to dissolve Parliament. In fact, he cannot do so except on the advice of the Prime Minister, but here too circumstances sometimes make the problem more complex. If there are three parties in Parliament instead of two, it may happen that the party of the Prime Minister represents a minority of the House; he might ask for a dissolution at a moment when the other two parties were prepared to join forces and take over the government. In such circumstances the King would have the last word.

The King has the sole right to create peers. This gives him the power, limited though it is, to propose or to refuse certain names each year when the Honors List is prepared. The chief value of this right lies in the fact that the Government must appeal to the King whenever the House of Lords opposes the will of a liberal House of Commons. On occasion, in order to force the Lords to approve the budget, the Government has had to threaten them with the creation of new peers, enough to change the majority in the upper House. To make good this threat the Prime Minister must obtain the assent of the King. This raises an extremely awkward problem for a sovereign who, on the one hand, considers himself the natural head of his nobles, and who, on the other hand, wishes to act in a strictly constitutional manner. We shall shortly see how George V, faced with just such a crisis, conducted himself with both dignity and honor.

Finally, when the need arises, the King has the prerogative — very little understood because its use, though often effective, is almost always secret — of acting as a mediator between the political parties whenever their conflicts grow so bitter as to endanger the nation itself. King Edward, at the beginning of hostilities between the Lords and the Commons, did not hesitate to summon to Balmoral Castle both the Prime Minister, Mr. Asquith, and the leaders of the Opposition, Mr. Balfour and Lord Lansdowne; and he calmed their passions.

One sees, then, that the functions of the sovereign remain important and complex. He does not have the authority of the President of the United States, who is not only the head of the state, but also its active Chief Executive; on the other hand, the King of England has rather more power than the President of the French Republic, who can dissolve Parliament only with the consent of the Senate and who lacks the right to create new Senators. Add to that the immense prestige of the King, which allows him to intervene in certain questions of foreign affairs and in matters concerning the army, of which he is the head, and one will see that the sovereign plays a truly large rôle in the government of England.

Let us now try to find out how these royal functions have been exercised during the twenty-five years of King George’s reign.


George V was the second son of Edward VII, and did not become the heir to the throne until the death of his brother, the Duke of Clarence. He had been educated for a career in the navy, had lived most of his life away from the Court, and had been in personal command of a torpedo boat, then of a cruiser. Simple and unaffected, but with great natural dignity, he made the best possible impression on his Prime Minister at the time of his accession in 1910; Mr. Asquith returned from that interview ‘profoundly moved by the modesty and good sense’ of the new sovereign.

He inherited a difficult situation. In the foreign field, it was the period of naval rivalry between England and Germany. King George, unlike his father, did not look upon the Kaiser as his personal enemy, and for a time it was hoped that these ‘family’ relations would run more smoothly. The hope was speedily dashed. At home, the issue between the Lords and the Commons had reached the stage of sharp conflict. The Liberals, who had been in power since 1906, had pursued a double objective: to force acceptance of Lloyd George’s budget, and to modify the Constitution so as to deprive the Lords of their veto power over the Commons. The House of Lords had yielded on the first point, after a general election. The only way to make it yield on the second was to threaten it with the creation of three hundred new peers, and Edward VII had promised Mr. Asquith that he would consent to this, if need be, after another election.

The death of King Edward presented Mr. Asquith with a serious problem calling for tact and resourcefulness. The Prime Minister did not think it fitting to ask the new King to make painful decisions at the very beginning of his reign and during a period of mourning. In that we have an excellent example of the moderating influence of the Crown and of the process by which it ‘humanizes’ political warfare. Since the Opposition shared the same loyal sentiments, an effort was made to bring the leaders of the two parties together to see if they could not reach an agreement. But this conference, after long arguments, failed.

It now became necessary to find out whether King George would repeat his father’s pledge to the Prime Minister and promise the support of the Crown in creating new peers, in case the election to be held on this issue returned the Liberals to power. Was any other solution possible? If the King refused, the Cabinet would resign. If the King called on Mr. Balfour to form a Cabinet, the House of Commons would vote it out of office. Strictly speaking, the King might then grant the Conservatives a dissolution of Parliament, but to do so would be to involve the Crown in the election campaign and thus destroy the very principles of the monarchy. That was what Mr. Asquith wanted above all to avoid. Now if he went into the election armed with a secret promise from the King, the King’s position seemed safe. ‘ If I am beaten,’ said Mr. Asquith, ‘the promise will remain inoperative; if we have a majority, the Lords will yield, so that in any event the name of the King will not be mentioned.’

In spite of his dislike of this method, King George was wise enough to understand that there was no other. It was agreed that the royal promise would be closely guarded, and that the most determined efforts would be made by the Ministers to keep the King’s name out of the election campaign. When the election was over and the Liberals had been returned to power, the King insisted that his promise be made public. He was afraid of being placed in a false position if the pledge he had given to the Prime Minister was withheld any longer from the leaders of the Opposition.

The revelation was made, therefore, in a letter from Mr. Asquith to Mr. Balfour and Lord Lansdowne. The Opposition was indignant, but realized its helplessness. The creation of three hundred peers would be a lasting disgrace to British institutions and would undermine the prestige of the aristocracy. It would be better to yield the point without a struggle, and the Lords themselves passed the law which took away their veto power. The King emerged from this bitter struggle with his prestige not only intact but enhanced, for he had never deviated by a hair from his rôle as arbiter. For the Government he had been an adviser, a moderator, but not an obstacle; for the Opposition a friend, but not an ally.

The reign of George V was destined to be difficult. The problem of the House of Lords was hardly settled when the Irish question came to a head. Mr. Asquith, in order to obtain his majority in the House, had been forced into an alliance with the Irish Nationalists and had promised them Home Rule, which meant the virtual independence of Ireland. The Protestants of Ulster swore that they would never, under any circumstances, submit to being governed by Dublin. They demanded that they be left out of the Irish state. The Nationalists, on their side, trembled at the thought of losing the richest part of Ireland, the section on whose revenues they hoped to grow fat, and declared the Ulster proposal absurd and impracticable.

Mr. Balfour suggested that the King should intervene and proclaim that such a dismemberment of the Empire was a subject on which the country ought to be allowed to speak its mind in no uncertain terms. In other words, Mr. Balfour wanted the King to force upon Mr. Asquith a new dissolution of Parliament. Lord Rosebery, on the other hand, thought that for the sovereign to refuse his assent to a law voted by Parliament would be an abuse of power contrary to all principles and traditions. Throughout the winter of 1913-1914 the question was hotly debated. Self-appointed advisers drew up proclamations as models of the kind which, they said, the King ought to address to his people to prevent civil war. Some urged him to call for a referendum, others to refuse the royal signature, still others to dismiss the Cabinet.

King George was wise enough to turn a deaf ear to all of them. He remained calm, but he repeatedly reminded his Ministers that the situation was more serious for him, who, no matter what happened, would have to remain head of the nation, than for them, who, if public opinion shifted, would simply yield their places to others. Month after month he persisted in his effort to lead the irreconcilables to reason, requesting each of them in turn to temper his language and to take into account the difficulties of the other side. Inviting representatives of the opposing parties to Balmoral, he arranged to have Lord Crewe (Liberal) play golf with Mr. Bonar Law, the new Conservative leader. On this grassy and neutral ground Mr. Bonar Law became more tractable. At the King’s insistence, Asquith and Bonar Law met in conference — secretly, for their partisans would have censured them — and found each other more reasonable than either had imagined.

In March 1914, the Ulster Volunteers threatened to settle the question by force, and many officers of the regular army went on record as saying that they would not fight against loyal Englishmen to uphold the Irish Nationalists. Sir Arthur Paget, commander in chief in Ireland, instead of taking it for granted that his officers would obey any order issued by their superiors, authorized those of them who were in Ulster to take a leave of absence so that they could escape this moral conflict. Discipline was dangerously undermined; there was talk that the heads of the army were going to resign. The situation was extremely grave, with civil war becoming more and more likely every day.

Once more King George intervened; he called a conference of the conflicting parties at Buckingham Palace, under the royal roof. He himself opened the deliberations with a moving speech. But passions were too inflamed, and the conference ended in failure on July 24. Already the murder of Sarajevo had shifted the points of Europe’s destiny toward other battles, even more tragic. Thus the World War headed off civil war in Ireland.


On August 1, 1914, the King of England addressed an appeal to the Tsar asking him to halt the mobilization of Russian troops. This appeal had been drawn up by Asquith, with the help of officials at the Foreign Office. ‘When we had finished,’ said Asquith, ‘I called a taxi and, with Tyrrell, at one-thirty in the morning, had myself driven to Buckingham Palace. The King was summoned from his bed, and it is one of my strangest memories thus to have found myself before the King in his dressing gown, to whom I read the message.’

During the war the King insisted that the dietary schedule of the royal family be the same as that of the English masses. As soon as it was necessary to put the population on short rations, Buckingham Palace drew no more than the common food allowance; wine and even beer were banished from the King’s table. Several times King George went to France to review the troops and to see his son, the Prince of Wales, who was serving as an officer. At the close of the war Asquith paid his respects to the King in these words: ‘With thrones falling all around us, some founded upon injustice, others propped up by the fragile framework of conventions, the throne of this country remains unshaken, resting as it so largely does upon the will of the English people.’

Since the war new difficulties have arisen. The general strike and the victories of the Labor Party required the sovereign to demonstrate afresh his capacities as an impartial arbiter. He acquitted himself so well in these tasks that when, in 1928, he was gravely ill, the anxious crowds that stood watch at the gates of his palace outdid in affectionate solicitude those which in similar crises had gathered about his ancestors and predecessors.

George V has been and still is the most respected of arbiters. The Frenchmen who saw him preside at the London Conference were struck by his simple dignity and his authority. ‘He spoke only a few words,’ one of them said to me, ‘but they were uttered with inimitable grace and majesty.’ At Christmas 1934, a royal message delivered over the radio joined all the peoples of the Empire in a common sentiment. Only yesterday the leader of the most advanced wing of the Labor Party, Sir Stafford Cripps, declared that constitutional monarchy is destined for many long years to remain the best method for providing the head of the state. The jubilee of 1935 will be celebrated with one voice by a united people.