King George V, 1910-1936
by Arthur Bousfield
“How is the Empire?” These famous words were almost the last spoken by King George V as he was dying. Nothing indicates more the importance the King attached to his role as Sovereign of all the peoples of his vast Empire-Commonwealth, which encompassed a quarter of the world, and his concern for them. George V was a great constitutional monarch. His quarter century reign was packed with events that re-shaped both Canada and the world.
The King’s conception of his role as a global one was conditioned by his education. His father, the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), still under the impression of his great tour of British North America, decided that his sons should have an education that familiarised them with the overseas parts of the Empire. Prince George and his brother were therefore sent into the Royal Navy. Prince George first served on HMS Canada. Naval service enabled him to tour Quebec and Ontario in 1883 when his aunt, Princess Louise, was living at Government House in Ottawa, her husband, the Marquis of Lorne, being Governor-General. He was back again in 1890 and 1891.
Prince George of Wales was the second son. His elder brother, Prince Albert Victor, known to the Royal Family as “Prince Eddie”, was the second in line to the Throne. In 1892 Prince Albert Victor died suddenly and Prince George became second in line. This altered his life. He was created Duke of York and became engaged to his dead brother’s fiancee, Princess May of Teck, and married her the following year. After the succession of his father to the Throne in 1901, the Duke, now Duke of Cornwall and York, and the Duchess made a coast to coast and back tour of Canada as part of their great Empire-wide voyage.
The Duke unveiled Hebert’s statue of Queen Victoria on Parliament Hill and held investitures on behalf of the King. “The federation of Canada stands pre-eminent among the political events of the century just closed for its fruitful and beneficent results on the life of the people concerned”, he said in his speech at the unveiling. “An Indian is a true man”, he wrote in reply to loyal addresses from the tribes of Southern Alberta, “his words are true words; he never breaks faith; and he knows, too, that it is the same with the great King, my father … nothing shall come between the love there is between the King and you, his faithful children”.
Created Prince of Wales the year of the 1901 tour, His Royal Highness subsequently presided at the great Tercentenary of the founding of Quebec City in 1908, knighting the Mayor of Quebec City during the celebrations. By then the Duke knew Canada well. “I am thinking, sir, of sending my son to Canada” someone said to him after he became King, “Is life there really hard?” “It is”, replied the Sovereign, “But it’s a man’s life. If your son is a man, he will like it”.
When he succeeded to the Throne, the King had Parliament change the Monarch’s Accession Declaration to omit wording insulting to Catholics. Among his acts as Monarch of Canada were granting the designation “Royal” to the new Canadian Navy and the new Canadian Air Force in 1911 and 1924, respectively. He bestowed honours on many Canadians; people such as Banting, Macmillan and Borden, and gave royal recognition to bodies such as the Canadian Institute, which he created “Royal” in 1914. His personal financial adviser was Sir Edward Peacock, a native of Glengarry, Ontario.
The King was in close touch with his Canadian Armed Forces in World War I. “The general appearance and physical standard of the different units are highly creditable”, His Majesty said in a message to the first Canadian troops arriving overseas in 1914. “I shall follow with interest the progress and work of my Canadians.” He paid six visits to the war zone, each time visiting Canadian troops. After the Canadian capture of Vimy Ridge in 1917, he knighted Sir Arthur Currie, the commander of the 1st Division, on the battlefield. Currie shortly afterwards became the first Canadian to command the Canadian Corps. On Armistice Day, 11 November, 1918, His Majesty wrote in his diary, “Today has indeed been a wonderful day … the Canadians took Mons which was the place where we first came in contact with the Germans 4 years ago”.
During the great conflict, the King suffered a severe accident on 28 October, 1915 while inspecting troops in France, when the cheers of the troops caused his horse to rear and throw him. The effects and pain from this injury lasted the rest of his life. While convalescing, His Majesty was cared for by Vivian Tremaine, a Canadian nurse. The King provided important leadership during the war but at the same time used his influence to promote compassion and decency, opposed reprisals, insisted on fair treatment of prisoners of war and a humane attitude towards conscientious objectors. He wrote thousands of letters to families that had lost members in battle.
In 1917 the King attended a special service at Westminster Abbey to mark the Fiftieth Anniversary of Confederation. With the appalling sacrifices of the war in mind, His Majesty chose the colours white and red, signifying bandages and blood, to be the colours of Canada when he assumed separate Royal Arms for the Dominion of Canada in 1921. Years later white and red would be used as the colours of the National Flag of Canada.
King George V appointed Canada’s first foreign diplomatic representatives. They were the delegate to the League of Nations in 1920 and the Minister to the United States in 1926. He gave Royal Assent to the Statute of Westminster, which established the equality of Canada and the other Dominions with the United Kingdom and created the Commonwealth of Nations, on 11 December, 1931. This gave Canadians full independence in international law. By the Statute of Westminster the King, as King of Canada, became a separate person from his status as King of the United Kingdom. Legally he became the first Canadian, independent of being British, in international law, because nationality and citizenship flow from the Crown.
“Canada is a great country”, His Majesty said on opening Canada House in London in 1925, “alike in the literal sense of vast extent from ‘sea to sea’ and great in achievement and promise”. Similar pride and faith in the country were expressed in his message on the Diamond Jubilee of Confederation in 1927. “In sixty years the boundaries of the Federation have been extended tenfold, and its Government are now responsible for the welfare of nearly ten million inhabitants. By the labours of peace and the sacrifices of war Canada has become a mighty nation.”
For the celebration of George V’s Silver Jubilee in 1935 seven hundred prisoners of Canadian penal institutions were released by royal amnesty. Though it was the height of the Great Depression, the King George V Silver Jubilee Cancer Fund for Canada raised $450,000. This led to the formation of the Canadian Cancer Society, which was financed from grants from the Jubilee Fund. Millions of Canadians heard the King’s history-making Christmas radio broadcast in 1932 that began a tradition followed to this day. His Majesty’s creative use of the new medium of radio was copied by such figures as the American President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
On appointing John Buchan, Lord Tweedsmuir, as Governor-General of Canada in 1935, the King gave hiim sound advice. “One thing he impressed upon me was to be sympathetic to the French people in Canada, and jealously to respect their traditions and their language”, Tweedsmuir recorded.
George V was a most effective practitioner of constitutional monarchy. He exercised his right to be consulted, his right to encourage and his right to warn to the full. He never hesitated to use his political neutrality and impartiality to suggest solutions and conciliation to this ministers and other public figures. The King was a shy, kindly, home-loving man with a gruff exterior. He laboured diligently and effectively at his vocation, proving that steadiness and common sense are the qualities most needed for a successful constitutional monarch.
Copyright (c) 2013 Arthur Bousfield