In January 1936, King George V died. Everyone thought it was natural causes, and they continued to believe that for fifty years. Here’s what really happened, and how the royal family kept it quiet.
Most movies, TV shows, and even books written about the British royal family show King George V dying of old age in a rather uneventful fashion. It’s always fascinated me how some seedy elements of British royal history (particularly those involving George’s eldest son) are heavily exaggerated or even made up out of whole cloth while equally interesting stories that are completely true are either ignored completely or treated as a minor footnote.
Most reasonable biographers will not completely ignore how George died, but they certainly won’t explore the full implications of it. The trashy books will explore the issue to some extent, but give little thought to it unless it fits into the conspiracy theory they’re trying to sell.
Before we continue, let me tell you exactly what happened to old George. At 11 p.m. on January 20, 1936, he was injected with of three-quarters of a gram of morphine and one gram of cocaine by his doctor, Lord Dawson. This was a fatal dose, and was intended to be such. He died at 11:55.
It was an act of regicide; the deliberate murder of a monarch. There’s really no way you can present this where it isn’t murder. No one has ever presented any piece of evidence that George was consulted about his death, or that he’d ever given any indication he wished to die. Quite the opposite; George had been drugged with morphine earlier in the evening to make him sleep and everything I know about King George V, his personality, and his beliefs, makes me convinced he would have vehemently opposed any measures to end his life. He was very stubborn, old-fashioned, and religious. He would have believed suicide was a mortal sin. I could quite easily imagine him being horrified at the idea his doctor or someone else might try to “do him in” and even taking precautions to prevent such action.
Almost all murders start with a motive. Lord Dawson gave two. The first was to give his king a more peaceful and dignified death. Well, that seems quite honorable, until you hear the second motive. The second motive was to make sure George died in time for his death to make The London Times, instead of a “less dignified” evening paper. I also strongly believe there was a third motive. About an hour before the fatal injection was given, Lord Dawson issued a bulletin to the press stating, quite simply: “The King’s life is moving peacefully to its close.”
In Tudor times, you could be executed for speculating on the death of a monarch. But in the media-driven twentieth century, the public wanted to know if and when King George would be leaving them. Making a statement of that nature is highly unusual, though. Claiming that a famous person’s health has worsened is not unusual, nor is stating they’re terminally ill. But saying, without a qualifier like “may” or “could,” that their life was moving to its end is quite a bold statement. In 1936, Lord Dawson was one of the most respected doctors in his country. Once he publicly stated King George was going to die, in order to maintain his reputation he had to produce a corpse. The sooner the better. His statement had interrupted movies, and been broadcast widely on the radio. The British people were expecting to hear of the death at any moment.
Now, George had been sick. He had bronchitis, among other conditions, and was not expected to live long. But it was not his first time he had been sick. King George had had similar illnesses before, the worst of which was in 1929. In 1929, like in 1936, the king had been expected to die. His family was called to his bedside; two of his sons were forced to cut short a trip to Africa to be present when their father died. The public was informed of his illness, and most seemed to think it would be fatal, as is demonstrated by the rumors that began to spread about the succession. But George pulled through, though many thought he never fully recovered. Wallis Simpson, who never met the king, but knew more about the situation than most, was under the impression he was an “invalid” in the years leading up to his death. Most of the royal “inner circle” kept quiet on the king’s condition. The king did, however, make several very high-profile public appearances in the year preceding his death, including at his silver jubilee. Many in the family felt that the stress of the jubilee, coupled with George’s distress over the death of his beloved sister, Toria, may have helped cause his final illness. But who is to say whether or not, without Lord Dawson’s intervention, it would’ve been George’s final illness. He could have easily “bounced back” as he did before. He did not seem to show any yearning to die, or give any indication he felt his life was over. Given his frequent complaints about his eldest son, David, and his wish to prevent him succeeding to the throne, George was probably determined to hold on as long as possible. We’re expected to take Lord Dawson’s word that the king would’ve died soon anyway; the king himself was not awake so it could not be ascertained how he was feeling or how much pain he was in when the decision was made, and Lord Dawson gave no indication he called in another physician to give a second opinion. In modern countries where euthanasia is legal (which, to be clear, it was not in 1930s Britain) you normally need more than one physician to sign off on it. When Lord Dawson asked the king’s nurse to administer the fatal injection, she was horrified by his request and vehemently refused, so Dawson had to do it himself.
George was seventy when he died, which was a typical age of death for that era. He was a life-long smoker and drinker, and he carried with him the kind of bitterness and repression that’s guarenteed to shorten your life by a few years. At the time of his death, George was on good terms with three of his five children. According to Lord Dawson, he consulted George’s wife, May, and eldest son, David, before taking action to end his life. Dawson indicates they agreed with his decision. At first I found this fairly believable, given the strained nature of Windsor family relations and Queen Mary’s strong belief in the dignity of the monarchy, which could have made her feel her husband having a prolonged death could damage the prestige of the Windsor dynasty. But the more I thought about it, the less sense it made. May was deeply religious, and furthermore she believed in the divine right of kings. She genuinely believed her husband was placed on the throne of Great Britain by God himself and that God’s will was exercised through the monarchy. It would not make any sense for her to have agreed to have her husband’s life ended by artificial means. While the idea of her husband’s death happening in time for the more “dignified” morning papers would have been more appealing to her than anyone else, I doubt she would have seen it being worth the cost of murdering a reigning monarch. On David’s part, he was a “sensitive soul” as his future wife put it. The idea of signing off on his father’s death would have made him incredibly uncomfortable. Though they never got along, David did not handle his father’s death (or the idea of becoming king) well at all. Though he hated his father’s criticism and attempts at controlling his life, David did not welcome the changes his father’s death would bring to his own life. He also saw his father as the ultimate authority figure. However he felt about euthanasia (the only indication I can find that might indicate his attitude was the fact that during his brief time on the throne he pardoned a number of condemned prisoners because of some personal discomfort with the death penalty) the idea of having any part in such a decision would have been very unappealing to him.
Lord Dawson specifically cited two members of the family as agreeing to George’s life being ended, but I cannot imagine either of those two possibly doing so. It simply doesn’t fit with what it known about either of their characters. The secret of George’s death was revealed in 1986, by Dawson’s official biographer, who had learned of it from reading his notes decades earlier, but had kept quiet about it on the request of Lord Dawson’s widow. But by 1986, everyone involved was dead, and the issue could be brought out. Little is known of Queen Elizabeth’s reaction to the revelation; Buckingham Palace released a statement simply to the effect that everyone involved was dead. I have heard most who knew the parties involved were fairly shocked by the story.
The only other source I’ve ever seen on the matter is a rather interesting letter written by David to Kenneth de Courcy, a well known royal hanger-on:
“Later that evening, after dinner, Dawson came in to see my mother and myself and said to both of us “˜You would not wish him to endure any undue suffering?’ My mother said that we did not and I concurred; only very much later, as I reflected upon the situation, did it occur to me that Dawson intended to ease my father’s departure from this earth. I was truly horrified when I discovered that Dawson had administered not one but two lethal injections. It was certainly not my intention to give him such authorisation when I agreed that my father should not be subjected to a great deal of suffering”¦ Effectively, Dawson murdered my father.”
Now, this letter was written before anyone outside the most inner circle of the royal family was aware of how George really died. My general feeling is that the only people who were likely aware of the situation were May, her three eldest children, perhaps some of their spouses, and a few of the highest ranked courtiers. Now, one could argue that David’s version of events, where he and his mother had no idea what Lord Dawson was going to do until the deed was done, is a lie intended to make him and his mother look blameless. But the story was, at that point, a closely guarded secret. Even if Kenneth de Courcy was aware of what had happened (and I suspect he was the one who brought the subject up, or hinted that he’d heard something) unless he was there personally he probably had little clue who was involved and exactly what happened. If David was lying to protect his reputation, he could’ve denied knowing anything about his father’s death, or at least deny having been told anything by Lord Dawson before his father died. He could’ve even pinned the whole thing on his mother who at that point he was nearly estranged with.
His version of events fits well with what we know of the situation. Lord Dawson did “consult” with May and David, but neither one of them understood his meaning. It’s easy to imagine that both of them would fail to immediately realize that Dawson seriously planned to end the life of a reigning monarch. What Dawson was intending was not legal, so he didn’t come out and state he was going to cause George’s death. He was vague enough that he could deny he intended to do anything wrong if they were offended by his suggestion, but he could still tell himself he had permission. May and David probably interpreted Lord Dawson’s remarks to mean he was going to give George some drugs to relieve his pain or knock him out for a while, as would have been expected.
How “horrified” the family was by Dawson’s actions is open to interpretation, given he maintained a position of honor in the royal family for several years afterwards, and treated many members of the royal family, including George’s sons and sister, Queen Maud of Norway. He was even given a title in the fall of 1936, though many decisions in regards to who receives such honors are made by courtiers and the monarch’s private secretary. It was unlikely that the possibility of firing him was considered, given that his abrupt dismissal could lead to a lot of rumors and speculation among palace staff. I suppose it’s also possible (but not particularly likely) that the only member of the family aware of Dawson’s actions was David, who was off the throne a year later and never had much control of his household; any serious decisions he made were undermined by his private secretary and high-ranking staffers. But I don’t find that possibility very likely; if he knew then his mother and at least one or two of his siblings were probably aware. The family was together constantly in the days surrounding George’s death. I also don’t buy him sitting on a secret that big; he probably would’ve told his younger brother Bertie, even if it was somehow kept from their mother, though it was generally known that nothing happened within the palace walls that she wasn’t aware of.
Some conspiracy theorists believe that the way George died points to a consistent habit of the Windsor family “doing away with” people. A couple of trash biographers have suggested Queen Mary, or even George’s youngest son John were murdered in a similar fashion. It’s even been mentioned as evidence the royal family would have had Princess Diana killed. But Lord Dawson was the one who did the killing, and given the king’s nurse was opposed to it and both then and now mainstream medical ethics opposes such action, I don’t buy that this would be something the royal family was regularly involved with. Furthermore, different members of the royal family, and even ambitious courtiers, have held different amounts of power and influence at different points. In early 1936, May was the primary decision maker in the family, but that was not a post she held consistently; earlier in her husband’s reign when he was in good health he would’ve been making these decisions, and into her son’s reign and granddaughter’s reign her daughter-in-law Elizabeth would have probably been the one consulted about any drastic measures. Also, I think this story demonstrates that all the speculating and theorizing really amounts to nothing; here was a big secret the royal family kept for fifty years, despite it apparently being well-known enough to have spawned gossip in the inner-circle, that no biographer or conspiracy theorist even guessed at. That’s not to say that this means no other member of the royal family was murdered by their doctor; it very well could’ve happened. But probably to someone none of us have even thought of. As for Princess Diana, even if the Windsors were in the habit of having people murdered I still don’t see why they would do it by way of a car crash in France. It’s not like there aren’t plenty of great ways to have someone murdered in Merry Old England.
Edwards, Anne. Matriarch: Queen Mary and the House of Windsor. New York: W. Morrow, 1984. Print.
Lelyveld, Joseph. “1936 Secret Is Out: Doctor Sped George V’s Death.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 28 Nov. 1986. Web.
Rose, Kenneth. George V. London: Phoenix, 2000. Print.
Ziegler, Philip. King Edward VIII. New York: Knopf, 1991. Print.
Crosspost from Vintage Royalty.