"The King's Speech": King George VI Wasn't the Only Royal Stutterer





Charles Carlton, Professor Emeritus of History, North Carolina State University, is the author of "Charles I: the Personal Monarch" (Routledge, 1995).

The Oscar-winning film, The King’s Speech, does an excellent job of showing how George VI’s stammer affected his life and reign.  With the help of the Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue, Bertie (as he is called in the movie) explores the roots of his speech impediment which lay in his childhood, particularly in his relations with his martinet father, George V.  “My father was scared of his father, I was scared of my father,” George V threatened his sons, “and I’m dammed well going to see that they are scared of me.”

They were.  The king forced his left-handed second son to write with his right hand, and put splints on him to strengthen his knocked knees.  His nanny (who name is not recorded) tyrannized the baby Bertie, pinching him before handing him to his mother, the formidable Queen Mary, so that he started to cry, prompting her to thrust him back into his nanny’s malignant care.  Being a second son Bertie felt inadequate when compared to his brother, the empty, yet charismatic Edward VIII.  (After he abdicated, Alistair Cook called him  “a Prince Charming who was at his best when the going was good.”)

George VI was not the only British monarch who stammered badly.  As a child Charles I (1625-49) had such a severe stutter that his father, James I, threatened to cut the cord beneath his tongue to try and cure it.  He also threatened to make the boy wear iron braces to cure his rickets.  While Charles had a loving nanny in Lady Elisabeth Carey, when James inherited the English throne his family deserted the three-year-old Charles, leaving him in Scotland when they moved to London.  Three years latter, when he rejoined them, Charles, a priggish boy, had to live in the decadent court of his homosexual father.  The first thing Charles did after James died in 1625 was to clean up his father’s court.  His older brother, Henry, bullied him so badly that Charles tried to buy him off with presents.  After Henry died when Charles was eleven, he still lived in his brother’s shadow:  few thought he could ever replace the charismatic lost heir.  For instance, at Charles’s installation as Prince of Wales, the Bishop of Ely made the slip—surely a Freudian one—of praying for Prince Henry and not Prince Charles.

Charles’s mother, Queen Anne, never gave him the nurturing love he needed.  Her claim that he was her favorite child is believable only because her relations with her other children were especially venomous.  His father had little time for him.  When, during a trip to Cambridge University, a don said how much the fifteen-year-old heir resembled the king, James stormed out in a rage, much to Charles’s embarrassment.  Even though he was straight-laced, Charles was so frightened of his father that he let the king’s lover, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, act as his protector against James’s wrath.

After such a difficult childhood and adolescence (which in many ways resembled George VI’s) is it any wonder that Charles stuttered for the whole of his life?  This severely interfered with his ability to win public support.  He could not address Parliament, leaving that crucial task to minions.  Neither could he give his troops pep speeches (as did Henry V before Agincourt) during the English Civil War.  He lost that war, and eventually was put on trial and was publicly executed in January 1649.

Amazingly, at his trail, and on the scaffold before his head was chopped off, he spoke without hesitation.  Why he lost his stammer is a matter for speculation.  It could be that he had stuttered because of an intense inner anger that went back to his earliest days and bedeviled his life.  By accepting martyrdom he overcame this anger:  he won by losing his head.  On the scaffold minutes before he died, he declared without a hint of a stutter, “I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown, where no disturbance can be, no disturbance in the world.’



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