Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (574)
The king is dead
When the British paid their last respects to George V, the longest reigning king in modern British history, other countries that fell under British rule of control, like Egypt, did likewise. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk sees how the monarch was eulogised When the British paid their last respects to George V, the longest reigning king in modern British history, other countries that fell under British rule of control, like Egypt, did likewise. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk sees how the monarch was eulogised
"According to experts, King George V was the poorest king among monarchs of his stature. Out of the £513,000 accorded to him by the state, the obligatory expenses of his office left him with only £1,000 per year for his personal expenditures." Thus concluded the brief biography that Al-Ahram featured marking the death of George V, "king of Great Britain and Ireland and emperor of India," on 21 January 1936.
George V was the longest reigning king in modern British history. He ruled for 26 years, in contrast to his father, Edward VII, who ruled for nine, and in even starker contrast to his son, Edward VIII, who ruled for less than a year -- 325 days to be precise -- before abdicating in order to marry the American divorcee, Wallis Simpson.
British queens, on the other hand, seem to have a flare for longevity on the throne. Victoria ruled for 48 years (1853- 1901) and Elizabeth II still occupies the throne, having passed the half-century mark two years ago. The former's longevity kept her son, Edward VII, from ascending to the throne until he was 60, which will probably be the case with Prince Charles, supposing, that is, that he outlives his mother.
George V had been a living embodiment of that mediaeval practice of intermarriage between royal houses, the purpose of which arrangements was to cement interests and preserve the purity of "blue-bloods". Al-Ahram observes: "George V was called 'Europe's nephew' because of his many marital connections of his ancestors to the kings of Europe. Had such marital bonds been capable of preventing war, as was their purpose, the swords of war in Europe at the beginning of this century would have been transformed into the scythes of agriculture. Unfortunately, 1914 proved the truth of the age-old adage: 'Relatives are scorpions.'"
And relatives there were aplenty. Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany was the son of an aunt on his father's side; Czar Nicholas II of Russia was the son of an aunt on his mother's side; King Hakon VII of Norway, son of the king of Denmark, was a brother-in-law; King Alfonso XIII of Spain and husband of Princess Ina Patenberg was another in-law; George I of Greece who had been killed in Salonika in 1913 was an uncle on his mother's side; while his father, King Constantine, had been married to Sophia, sister of Wilhelm II and another of George V's cousins. Finally, Queen Helmina of Holland was distantly related to the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha line from which was descended the family of Queen Victoria's husband and George V's grandfather.
George V's reign (1910-1936) was an eventful one, the most important being World War I (1914-1918), which had two important consequences on the British throne. The first was the decision of the monarch to shed the overtly German connection in his family's lineage and change it to the "House of Windsor". The second was its post-war success in taking over control of Germany's colonies in Africa, which it added to the mandates awarded to it by the League of Nations over the former possessions of the Ottoman Empire in the Levant in exchange for granting nominal independence to Egypt and Ireland.
Al-Ahram notes that the behaviour of this king during the war helped him become "close to the hearts of his subjects". "He shared in their austerity. He deprived himself of that of which his subjects were deprived by circumstances of war. He went to the front in France, descended into the trenches and attempted to lift the morale of his soldiers to the best of his ability. On one occasion he was thrown from his horse and the horse fell on top of him, almost killing him. He was rushed to the mobile hospital on an ordinary stretcher and most of those who saw him had no idea that this was the king of England and emperor of India."
Egyptians, however, had a different image of the king, who was the occupant of the British throne at the time of the 1919 Revolution. To Egyptian nationalists, George V was the symbol of British colonialist tyranny. When Saad Zaghloul met Milner in London on 25 October 1920, the Egyptian nationalist asked the British negotiator, "Who shall appoint the Egyptian negotiators?", "The Egyptian government," Milner responded, to which Zaghloul famously said, "then George V will be negotiating with George V."
Following these brief introductory observations, we now return to Sadringham House where George V was lying in state, to monitor the events following that ancient cry -- "The king is dead! Long live the king!"
Under the headline, "From the legacy of British tradition: how the death of a king is announced and his successor proclaimed," Al-Ahram of 22 January 1936 relates that on the day following the British monarch's death, the crown prince delivered a brief address to the Privy Council announcing the death of the king and pledging to follow in his predecessor's footsteps in the service of the nation and its subjects. George V followed this custom upon the death of his father, Edward VII, and Al-Ahram cited a passage from his speech to the Privy Council: "Our beloved king, when he stood here before you, said that as long as he had a breath of life he would work for the good and prosperity of his people. To follow in his footsteps in this and to support the constitutional system of this country will be my sincere purpose in life. I deeply feel the responsibility cast upon my shoulder and I know that I can depend on parliament and on the people of these islands and in the British kingdoms overseas to help me undertake my difficult duties. I pray to God to grant me courage, strength and guidance, and in my dear wife I will have a constant aide in all our efforts on behalf of the welfare of our people."
After the speech, the members of the Privy Council swore the oath of allegiance to the new king. The town criers were sent out to spread the following proclamation: "God Almighty has called unto his mercy our king and master of glorious and blessed memory and with his passing, the right to the imperial crown of the United Kingdom in Great Britain and Ireland falls to His Highness the Crown Prince. We, the lords of spiritual and temporal power assembled here today, with the assistance of His Majesty's Privy Council and other outstanding men, and the mayor and keeper of London, hereby declare that, with the passing of our former king, happy may be his memory, His Highness shall henceforth be our lawful master and our refuge with the blessing of God, the King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain, Ireland and Britain's possessions overseas, the defender of the faith, and the emperor of India. He we recognise and to him we devote our loyalty and obedience with all our heart, with our greatest sincerity and with our supplication to God, under whose ordinance kings and queens rule, to bless the royal prince and to grant him a long and happy reign over us. Long live the king!"
Al-Ahram of 22 January 1936 goes on to provide a biographical portrait of the late George V. Born on 3 June 1965 to Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, eldest daughter of King Christian IX of Denmark, George V enlisted in the Royal Navy in 1877. In the navy "he rose through the ranks on the merit of his demonstrated skill and mastership until he attained the rank of vice admiral." In 1892, his elder brother, the Duke of Clarence, died, placing him in direct line to the throne. The following year, at the behest of Queen Victoria, he married the fiancee of his late brother, Princess Victoria. After ascending to the throne in 1910, he and his queen travelled to India where he was crowned emperor in a grand coronation ceremony that was reported to have cost half a million pounds.
Further along in the biography, the newspaper relates that, in 1929, the king fell critically ill from having stood bare- headed before the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier during the commemoration of International Armistice Day. Only by grace of the government's "gargantuan efforts to bring in the best possible physicians and medicines from everywhere" was the life of the king spared for another seven years. It also mentions that the king had been so enamored with the US that he named his palace in London the "White House". Nonetheless, because of Britain's established custom to leave the conduct of policy to elected governments, "he did not demonstrate his pro- American sympathies to the Americans, nor did he attend their parties in London or fling open his doors to them. Indeed, he strictly observed the protocol in his nation's relationship with the United States, precluding all possible scope for criticism on this matter."
Also in this edition, an Al-Ahram reader, Amin Gharib, contributed some interesting and perhaps little- known facts about the customs and traditions of the British monarchy. Britain, he said, was both a very religious country and one that clung tenaciously to tradition. One of these traditions was that the king could not be Catholic. Therefore, the law stipulated that if the king died before the crown prince reached the age of maturity, his widow, the queen and custodian of the throne, would be forbidden to marry a Catholic. "Curiously, there is nothing in the law to prevent her from marrying a Muslim, Jew, Buddhist or Orthodox Christian. Only marriage to an adherent to the sect of the Pope of Rome is anathema to the circles around the British throne. This law is a remnant of those distant days when the sole threat to the authority of the British monarch was the pope."
It was also the custom of British monarchs and their families not to accept gifts. "Every gift that is sent to them, whether on the occasion of a holiday, a marriage or birthday, is sent immediately back to the sender with a note of gratitude and apology," writes Gharib. "And although it is the most ardent wish of every theatre in the country to have the patronage of the members of the royal house free of charge, they will never enter a theatre without paying the price of a ticket. The same applies to their personal trips on the railways." There were, however, some exceptions. The lions sent by the king of Ethiopia were donated to the London Zoo and the gold and silver dishes sent by the kings of the Orient, and especially from India, were routinely placed in the British Museum.
The death of a king was also time to air some of those personal details that were best left unmentioned while he was still alive. In this regard, Gharib informs Al-Ahram readers that George V was something of a dandy, unlike his father who was more reclusive. He was also excessively fond of beer and whiskey although he generally drank by himself. "It is said that once, on a ship, he was overheard drinking a toast to himself and responding to himself with a toast in gratitude to that honour." On the other hand, George V detested cards and forbade anyone playing cards in his presence. In this, too, he was the opposite of his father who was obsessed with card games.
Another personal detail from the life of George V was that his brown shoes seemed to shine more brightly than anyone else's. Curious members of the court eventually learned that the king's personal attendant had invented a special varnish for brown shoes but refused to reveal the secret of its composition. His Majesty also hated to have his pockets filled with keys. He never had more than one key with him at all times. This was the silver key to his box of personal papers which he kept attached to his watch chain. In addition, the king had 24 suits and 36 pairs of shoes made for him per year, and he always had the upper buttonhole of his jacket embroidered with a large rose. Oddly, this lavishness on clothes jars with the image of the "poor king" that we were given at the outset.
Gharib concludes his article on personal facts about the king with the problem his death had created for some insurance firms. It appears that some people in Europe took out insurance policies against the death of a monarch because of the potential losses they would suffer in the event of that death. So it was with George V and his father. "An ordinary person in any country of the world could go to an insurance company and take out a life insurance policy on the king of England. It is said that when Edward VII suffered from appendicitis and had to have an emergency appendectomy, the premiums on the insurance policies on his life soared to 80 per cent of the indemnity. In other words, a person who had insured himself to the value of £1,000 in the event of the king's death suddenly had to pay £800 in the hope of gaining £200 should the king die. The same phenomenon occurred upon the illness of George V, which culminated in his death."
From Sadringham House the bier of the king was transported by train to Westminster Cathedral. The ceremonies included a speech by the prime minister who said that among George V's greatest achievements was his reconciliation between monarchy and democracy, "producing a unique system that has given permanence and stability to British policy which most countries would give everything they have in their possession to obtain."
While the British were bidding farewell to their monarch, other countries that fell under British rule or control were doing likewise, including Egypt. Under the headline, "The Egyptian royal court and government declare official mourning upon the death of King George," Al-Ahram reports that King Fouad I had sent his chief secretary to the residence of the British High Commissioner to convey his condolences and that Prince Farouk had sent a telegram expressing his condolences to King Edward VIII. In addition, "at 11am the cabinet members, in formal dress, assembled at the home of the prime minister and from there proceeded together to the high commissioner's residence to offer their condolences in the name of the Egyptian government. The presentation of condolences lasted a quarter of an hour."
Political leaders from across the political spectrum followed suit. Of particular note was the Wafd Party leader Mustafa El-Nahhas who expressed his sorrow and that of the Egyptian people over the death of King George V who, he said, was a "great king who knew how to win the love of his people and the respect of the world", adding, "his death was not just a loss for Britain but also for Egypt."
In addition to such expressions of sorrow, Egypt sent an official delegation to take part in the funeral. Heading the delegation was Crown Prince Farouk, "prince of Upper Egypt," as he was called.
As though to take the maxim, "do not speak ill of the dead," to its furthest extremes, the Al-Ahram editorial of 22 January attributed every conceivable virtue to the late British monarch. Under the headline, "A quarter of a century on the throne", it wrote that the legacy of the great king's reign was "vaster than any one writer could describe". The editorial writer described King George as "democratic in spirit, unaffected and down-to- earth in appearance and behaviour, fond of his people, indefatigable in the service of his country and compassionate for the poor and oppressed. He had great perspicacity and foresight; he was as expert in the affairs of his nation as he was in the state of his own home; he was wise and lenient in everything that had a bearing on principle, yet bold when the situation required boldness; and he respected all who assisted him, and never begrudged anyone their due."
As was only natural, the British community in Egypt undertook its own preparations to take part in the funeral ceremonies for George V. The British garrison in Cairo would be wearing black mourning sashes on the day of the funeral, no music would be played and all evening parties were to be cancelled. In addition, Al-Ahram reports, on the day of the king's death, "the British garrison in Abbasiya sounded a 70- gun salute in commemoration of the number of years of the late king's reign. The following day it fired off a 21-gun salute in honour of the new king."
On the new king, Al-Ahram of 27 January relayed to readers a lengthy The London Times report on Edward VIII. "Few are the new king's subjects who could vie with him in the number of acquaintances he has made during his journeys to virtually every part of the Empire," wrote the British newspaper. "King Edward VIII, as Great Britain and its dominions know him, is of sterling character. Everyone who has followed his actions closely would agree that his courage, without a doubt, is that trait that most inspires others to respect." But the new king had many other salient virtues. He was entirely free of all forms of pretense and snobbery, and he had a keen and unerring eye for discerning the difference between self-confidence and pomposity. "No-one is keener than he to win friends and more conscientious than he in the duties of friendship."
Unfortunately, these were difficult times in which Edward VIII had ascended to the throne. Although he was four years younger than his father was at the time of his ascension, he had to contend with very delicate and unstable circumstances in international relations. Nevertheless, the Times felt he was well equipped for the tasks that lay ahead. "The breadth of thought with which our new king is endowed has its roots in his extensive and diverse education. In his youth, he acquired organisation and perfection in the course of his service in the fleet, after which the University of Oxford instilled in him the love of freedom and learning in the company of men of his own age." Evidently the venerable British newspaper had succumbed entirely to the sentiments of the circumstances, for ordinarily it was not the sort to fawn unquestioningly on those in power.
Preparations soon got under way for the coronation ceremony of Edward VIII. Al-Ahram surmised that as the occasion would bring hundreds of political leaders and other personages from the far-flung corners of the empire to London, British officials would have to announce the date of the event soon. At the same time, officials in London decided to postpone the Imperial Congress until the following year so that representatives from the dominions would not have to undertake two long overseas journeys in the same year. The newspaper also reported that following the coronation ceremony, the new king would travel to Edinburgh, Belfast and Carnavon, after which he would travel to Delhi to be crowned emperor of India.
Another important portion of the occasion was the speech which Edward VIII broadcast to the Empire at 4pm on 1 March 1936. Writing from the British capital on that day, the Al-Ahram correspondent in London noted how difficult it was to estimate the number of people around the world who had tuned in to their radios to listen to the speech. "Nevertheless, it is estimated that the audience numbered in the hundreds of millions; it was reported that a fleet of 150 fishing ships located 500 miles out in the Atlantic Ocean gathered in a single location to listen to the speech in spite of the spray from the heavy waves that soaked them to the bone while they were listening."
It was not that long afterwards that Edward VIII stunned the world with the news of his romantic liaison with the American divorcee, Wallis Simpson then in the process of getting a divorce from her second husband. The British public was incensed, to the extent that Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin felt compelled to caution the king of Great Britain and Ireland and the emperor of India that the British people would not tolerate this relationship. To this Edward VIII responded that he intended to marry Simpson after her divorce and that he was prepared to abdicate in order to do so. After all efforts to persuade him against the marriage or to make some kind of compromise failed, the king came on the radio on 11 December 1936 to announce his abdication. Within 10 months of his coronation speech, Edward VIII had entered the annals of history as one of the world's most passionate romantics and one of Britain's shortest reigning monarchs. He was succeeded by George VI who subsequently reigned for 16 years.