Queen Victoria by BassanoAs the twentieth century began, Victoria had been on the throne for 62 years as Queen and later Empress of the British Empire. She was elderly and was remote from her people. Following the death of her husband Prince Albert in 1861, she usually wore black when seen in public. She was identified with strict standards of personal morality. She died in 1901.

Edward VII

When Queen Victoria died, she was succeeded by her eldest son, Edward, and his Queen, Alexandra. Edward was seen in public much more than his mother had been. He re-introduced traditional public ceremonies, which his mother had brought to an end when her husband died. He also broadened the range of people with whom the royal family socialised. He was a friendly and kind man, who was respected for his diplomatic skills in helping his governments to improve relations with other nations, particularly the 1904 Entente Cordiale with France which resolved an historic animosity.

George V

Edward VII was succeeded by his son, George, and his Queen, Mary. When his reign began, the nation was in the middle of a constitutional crisis between the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The King was keen not to be seen to favour the privileged Lords and the crisis was resolved by his involvement in a law which gave the House of Commons supremacy over the House of Lords.

An English identity

The surname of the royal family was Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, being German in origin. During the First World War, there was widespread hatred across the United Kingdom of anything related to the German enemy. King George therefore changed the family name to the more English-sounding Windsor, after the historic royal castle.

A democratic touch

As a result of the First World War, the United Kingdom was the only major nation in Europe which retained its monarchy. However, socialism, which often favoured a republican system of government, was becoming more popular in Britain with the rise of the Labour Party
Although King George was most comfortable in the company of naval officers and wealthy landowners, in order to preserve the monarchy he consciously associated with representatives of the working class. In particular, during the General Strike of 1926, he urged his government to have some understanding of the views of the strikers. This less aloof approach greatly increased the popularity of the monarchy.
An important step in the King becoming more accessible to his people came in 1932 with the first Royal Christmas broadcast on radio. Initially George was against the idea, but it was so popular that it became an annual event.

Public regard

In 1935, King George celebrated his Silver Jubilee and he was genuinely amazed at how well-loved he was. He was a hard-working monarch whose lifestyle seemed more like that of the upper middle-class, rather than that of the upper class. Although he was a traditionalist in his attitudes, he sought to be neutral in public and saw his role as a mediator rather than a decision-maker. He died in 1936.

Edward VIII

In January 1936 Edward replaced his father George V as King. From the start, he caused concern because he wanted to rule in his own way, rather than follow tradition. Just a few months into his reign, he caused a constitutional crisis by proposing marriage to woman with whom he had been in a relationship for some time, a recently divorced American called Wallis Simpson. The government was against this marriage. They argued that:
  • The British people would not accept a divorcee as the King's wife
  • Marriage to a divorcee would conflict with Edward's role as Head of the Church of England. The church at that time opposed the remarriage of a divorced person if their former spouse was still alive.

The abdication

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, the government threatened to resign if Edward went ahead with the marriage, which would provoke a political crisis. In December 1936, Edward therefore gave up his position as King, signing papers of abdication, accompanied by a radio broadcast to the nation, so that the marriage could proceed. He was King for just eleven months.
Edward's behaviour split the nation:
  • Some people saw his story as romantic and supported him
  • Others felt betrayed because he had chosen his own happiness over his duty to the nation.
The monarchy had seemed to be something secure in an insecure world, but Edward was perceived to have undermined its position.

George VI

George became King at the end of 1936 when his brother, Edward, abdicated, at a time when public faith in the monarchy was low. He was a shy man who had no personal desire to undertake the role of King. However he felt it his duty to do so and, with the support of his Queen, Elizabeth, worked hard to repair the damage done to the monarchy by his brother.
During the Second World War, he was praised for refusing to leave London, even when Buckingham Palace was bombed. Throughout the war, he travelled around the United Kingdom, visiting bomb sites and weapons factories. He also visited his armed forces abroad.
In the years following the Second World War, he increasingly suffered bad health and he died, aged just 56, in 1952. He was seen by many of his subjects as a dutiful family man and a man of personal courage. By the time of his death, he had firmly restored the popularity of the monarchy.

Elizabeth II

Queen Elizabeth II (March 2015) image available under the Open Government Licence v3.0In 1952 Elizabeth and her consort, Prince Philip, succeeded her father, George VI. She was just 26 years old and her reign seemed to herald a new era for the United Kingdom. From the start, she continued her father's practice of making the monarchy more accessible:
  • Her coronation in 1953 was the first to be broadcast live on television
  • In 1957, her Christmas broadcast was televised for the first time
  • In the late 1960s, she permitted the making of a television documentary, portraying the life of her family.
One indication of how the monarchy was changing is that none of her four children married royalty – indeed, only one spouse came from the British nobility (Lady Diana Spencer), the rest being commoners.

Popularity and discontent

Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee in 1977 was a time of genuine celebration. But in the 1980s the personal and working lives of her children came under increasing criticism, and this affected her own popularity. Discontent with the monarchy reached new heights in 1997 in the immediate aftermath of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. She was the former wife of Prince Charles, the Queen's heir. The situation eased when the Queen broadcast live to the world a few days after Diana's death.
Queen Elizabeth’s Golden Jubilee in 2002 and her Diamond Jubilee in 2012 were both occasions of great celebration. 2012 was also the year of the London Olympics and the Queen delighted people around the world by participating in a James Bond sketch as part of the opening ceremony. It is impossible to imagine any of her predecessors doing such a thing. The succession of the monarchy seems assured, with the Prince of Wales having a popular heir, Prince William and grandson, Prince George.
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