While Elizabeth, Charles and Diana tend to hog the spotlight in documentaries about Britain's Royal Family, just as many enthralling stories sit further up the family tree. The reign of King George V and Queen Mary is no exception.
The Royals who Rescued the Monarchy is a two-part BBC documentary that opens our eyes to England’s most unlikely power couple – a relatively oddball pairing that forever changed the course of history. With part I focusing on George – part II will take a closer look at Mary.
The reluctant king
George V never considered he would end up wearing the crown, and with good reason. Not only was his older brother, Edward, next in line to the throne, but George was quiet, shy and terrified of appearing in public. Uneducated and lacking cultural exposure, the young man matured as a navy man, cultivating a sense of self through the strict structure and dependable logic of his cadetship.
Edward’s young life, however, was fraught with recklessness and scandal. He was rumoured to be a homosexual, a cross-dresser who frequented gay brothels under the name Victoria and even, wait for it, Jack the Ripper. Their grandmother Queen Victoria set up Scandalous Eddie with a young woman named Mary of Teck (known to her friends as "May" and later to become Queen Mary) in the hope it’d force him into line. Their union wasn’t to be, as Edward developed a severe flu and passed away.
Marrying his dead brother’s fiancée
Queen Victoria was unsentimental, a fact never made more clear than when she ordered May to forget Edward and become betrothed to brother George. May was of “good Anglo-German stock”, and her sense and sensibility was deemed a necessary support to George’s hesitancy. In reality, both parties were almost painfully reserved and rigid – a status quo that made for an uneasy courtship.
Surprisingly, despite being an arranged marriage, George and May developed an affection for each other, and in keeping with their formal personalities, grew closer through the writing of letters. And while Victoria kept the future king and queen holed up in a relatively modest house far away from the public eye, they managed to fulfil their dynastic duties and rear six children over the course of a decade.
Shunting family in favour of the people
War on an unprecedented scale would be difficult enough on a willing king, so imagine how painful it was for George to end up heading an empire at the outbreak of World War I. To make matters worse, as the war progressed and anti-German sentiment enveloped England, George had to deal with the fact that the royal family’s lineage was, up until this time, proudly German.
This would be the moment George stepped up and surprised all around him by turning his back on centuries of family history in the name of the nation he was tasked to lead. He ordered all German titles be dropped, and renamed his House and family as Windsor. This single decision transformed a potentially dangerous national climate into one of reassuring patriotism.
The royal revamp
Prior to George V's rule, the monarchy was plagued by Edwardian shenanigans – his father, Edward VII, was in and out of court during divorce and gambling trials. George decided the House of Windsor would become bound by no such negligence and began a campaign to instil the importance of monogamy. Famously, he clarified to the people: “I am not interested in any wife except my own."
Bringing the sense of order from his navy days to the crown, George enforced domesticity and routine. He reached into the more respectable days before his father’s reign in order to move forward.
This was only the beginning, however. In the final years of WWI and the first few of relative peace, George would develop a ruthlessness in culling the system of monarchies so as to remove anything that would threaten the progress of the nation. This mindset was revolutionary, but came at a hefty price.
Watch The Royals who Rescued the Monarchy on SBS On Demand now: