Almost thirty years ago, news broke on November 27, 1986 that Queen Elizabeth II’s grandfather had been involuntarily euthanized fifty years earlier, on January 20, 1936, when she was nine years old and he was seventy. The deed had been done by the Lord Dawson of Penn, the king’s physician.
King George V had called her Lilibet. She had called him Grandpa England. The king had been so fond of his oldest granddaughter, Princess Elizabeth, that the Bishop of London, Arthur Foley Winnington-Ingram, was astonished one day when he arrived for an audience to find the king crawling about with the little princess on all fours.
In 1986 when the truth came out about the circumstances leading to the death of her grandfather King George V, reporters were not able to reach the Queen to find out her reaction. A Buckingham Palace spokesman replied to those who called, “It happened a long time ago, and all those concerned are now dead.”
A Murder of Convenience
Most of the world only came to know about the involuntary euthanasia of the King of England in 1936 because the notes of Lord Dawson, the royal physician who killed the king, were finally revealed by his biographer in 1986. His biographer had discovered those notes when he was writing his life of Lord Dawson in 1950, but he and Lord Dawson’s widow decided not to include the king’s euthanasia in the biography.
King George V’s final words had been publicized as, “How is the Empire?” and his reported words were often repeated with reverence and sorrow for how touching it was that the king was concerned for the health of the realm as he lay dying. But, according to Lord Dawson’s notes, the king’s final words actually had been, “G-d damn you!” and they were addressed to his nurse, while she was injecting him under the supervision of Lord Dawson with a non-fatal dose of morphine to put him to sleep.
I wonder, did he curse at his nurse because he suspected what they were going to do? After that first shot of morphine that evening, he never regained consciousness again.
The “mercy” killing took place later that evening. At 9:30, Lord Dawson wrote a medical bulletin that declared, ”The King’s life is moving peacefully toward its close.”
After the king was unconscious, Cosmo Lang, the Archbishop of Canterbury, came and prayed by the king’s bedside. After the Archbishop left, Lord Dawson prepared two fatal injections. The king’s nurse refused to cooperate, so Dawson administered the injections, the first containing three-quarters of a gram of morphine and the second containing one gram of cocaine.
According to his notes, Dawson coolly arranged the king’s death to occur before midnight, in order for the announcement to appear first in the morning edition of The Times and not in some lesser publication later in the day. To make doubly sure the story got into the Times morning edition the next day, Dawson phoned his wife in London during the evening to tell her to alert the Times to hold the press.
“At about 11 o’clock it was evident that the last stage might endure for many hours, unknown to the patient but little comporting with the dignity and serenity which he so richly merited and which demanded a brief final scene. Hours of waiting just for the mechanical end when all that is really life has departed only exhausts the onlookers and keeps them so strained that they cannot avail themselves of the solace of thought, communion or prayer. I therefore decided to determine the end and injected (myself) morphia gr. 3/4 and shortly afterwards cocaine gr. 1 into the distended jugular vein […]”—Lord Dawson’s physician’s notes
Lord Dawson’s notes also stated that he had been told by Queen Mary and the Prince of Wales, who was to become Edward VIII, that they did not want the King’s life needlessly prolonged if his illness was clearly fatal.
Someone should have pointed out to Lord Dawson that it hardly needs saying that there is a vast moral divide between “needlessly” prolonging a life and matter-of-factly ending a life on time to get the death notice placed in the morning edition of the times.
The Times headline the next morning read “A Peaceful Ending at Midnight.”
The story “Death of the King” in the middle-brow Daily Express provided lots of details, some of which may have been fanciful. The story reported that the queen and the prince were at the king’s bedside when he died. “Three doctors and three nurses, at his bedside almost constantly since the illness began, did all that they could do. [Sic] In vain. The King became unconscious; passed from unconsciousness to death.”
The Year of Three Kings
The Daily Express on the day after King George V’s death also noted that Princess Elizabeth was now second in line for the throne, after her father Albert, the Duke of York, but that if her uncle Edward, the new King Edward VIII, married and had children those children would take precedence. As it turned out, there were no worries needed in that department.
It’s a bit eerie how in 1935, the king had accurately predicted the fall of his son Edward: “After I am dead, the boy will ruin himself within 12 months.” And he said this about his second son Albert (Bertie) and his beloved granddaughter Elizabeth: “I pray to God my eldest son will never marry and have children, and that nothing will come between Bertie and Lilibet and the throne.”
Before the year was out, as his father had predicted, Edward VIII threw over his throne to marry the twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson. They never had children, but any children would not have been in line for the throne after his abdication in any event. When Edward abdicated before the end of 1936, Princess Elizabeth’s father, Albert, became King George VI.
And that’s how 1936 came to be referred to as The Year of Three Kings.
After Princess Elizabeth’s father King George VI, died in 1953, Elizabeth was crowned Queen of England.
During this year of Our Lord, 2016, which is the year that marked the 80th anniversary of King George V’s death on January 20, Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her 90th birthday on April 21 to great fanfare. Back in December of 2007, she had passed her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, to become the longest-lived British monarch, and she became the longest-reigning British monarch in September of 2015. She is the longest-reigning queen regnant in the world, and the world’s oldest reigning monarch. Not just for her endurance, but also for her decorous personal life and her high standards of service, her Grandpa England would have been quite pleased.
A Catholic Response
Some observers characterize the ongoing campaign for euthanasia as a laudable part of the attempt to free our society of all Christian moral principles and to replace what they say are irrational Christian principles with strict adherence to modern day rational opinions of what things are right and wrong.
In contrast, the Catholic Church continues to point to what the Ten Commandments say, “Thou shalt not kill,” repeats that our lives and deaths are in the hands of God, and teaches the unpopular and difficult to swallow truth that our sufferings can be joined with the sufferings of Christ to help redeem the world.
To the modern ear it sounds like lunacy when we hear how many saints have told us that if we knew how good sufferings are for us spiritually and how much good that our suffering can do for the salvation of others, we would willingly seek them out.
Following for example, is a long quote about the last days of Mother Mary Angelica, founder of EWTN, who was almost unique in our times in her teaching about the value of suffering when it is united with the sufferings of Jesus. She told her biographer, Raymond Arroyo, that the years during which she was unable to talk after a stroke were for her purification. And she wanted to offer her sufferings to help in the redemption of the world.
…. Mother Angelica gave instructions to her caregivers to administer no pain relievers or drugs — despite her increasing suffering — that might unintentionally shorten her life because, as he said, she wanted to consciously suffer and offer her suffering to God.
“Most of us would not think that way. We would think, ‘Get me out of here…’ What’s taken out of that picture is the love of God,” said [Father Joseph Mary] Wolfe as reported by AL.com.
“Catholics believe that every human life, young or old, healthy or sickly, carefree or suffering, has intrinsic value, meaning, and purpose in the eyes of God. Following St. Paul, who powerfully teaches that Christians actually partner with Christ in his redemptive action by offering their sufferings to God, Catholics see suffering not only as something to be patiently endured, but something that, when lovingly united to Christ, helps to redeem the world.
“It was on Good Friday…Mother began to cry out early in the morning from the pain that she was having. She had a fracture in her bones because of the length of time she had been bedridden. They said you could hear it down the hallways, that she was crying out on Good Friday from what she was going through.
“These two people said to me she has excruciating pain. Well, do you know where that word excruciating comes from? Ex, from, cruce, from the cross. Excruciating pain,” he said.
Fr. Wolfe said that Mother Angelica saw suffering as an opportunity to make an act of love to God. ‘She saw something that most of us don’t see … that she could say, you don’t know the value of one new offering, one new act of love of God, one suffering that is united to Christ and offered to him. You don’t know the value of that,’ he said.”–“Mother Angelica’s passion: How the EWTN foundress embraced suffering in her final days as a gift to God”
Outrage in 1986 and Beyond
Euthanasia may seem like a recently trending topic. However, as the killing of the king in 1936 proves, support for euthanasia in one form or another had currency at least among the English upper classes for a lot longer than we might realize. Support for euthanasia ebbs and flows.
By recording what he had done in his notes, Lord Dawson seems to have assumed that history would praise him as having been far-sighted in what he must have thought was his superior wisdom in ending the life of the King for the convenience of everyone around. But in 1986, the public reaction against Dawson’s murder of the King in the name of mercy killing was outrage.
What had changed? At the end of the 1930s and the start of the 1940s dawned, many in the United Kingdom and the United States thought that euthanasia would become the norm. But when news of Nazi atrocities against mental patients, handicapped children, and many others who the Nazis thought of as undesirable, including, priests, Poles, and Jews, came out in the late 1940s, the euthanasia movement fell out of favor. Euthanasia proponents found it difficult for some decades afterwards to convince people that the form of euthanasia they supported was not the same as Nazi murder of the unfit, the inconvenient, and the undesired. The topic went underground pretty much for decades.
The kind of euthanasia Dawson practiced and advocated when he spoke against a bill legalizing euthanasia in the House of Lords (as will be described in more detail in my next post on this topic) was involuntary euthanasia, which was the putting to death of a patient by his doctor without the patient’s knowledge and consent. In the late 20th and the start of the 21st century, public support has grown for another form of euthanasia, in which a doctor provides the means for the patient to end his or her own life, which is more correctly called assisted suicide.
Public opinion also gradually became more accepting of allowing the doctor to take a patient’s life, upon the request of the patient, which is voluntary euthanasia.
Today most people are still opposed to the idea of involuntary euthanasia, as Lord Dawson practiced it, in principle, but first-person stories I’ve heard and experienced about how some hospices and hospitals routinely misuse morphine to induce death seem to indicate that involuntary euthanasia in the name of pain management is quite common and routinely accepted, without being talked about much.
The Truth Was Known, At Least By Some
Bizarrely enough, it came out that while Dawson was still alive, there had already been some scuttlebutt about the actual truth behind the so-called peaceful and presumably natural death of the King. In 1986, when the news came out in The Daily Telegraph of what the long-dead physician’s notes revealed, a reader wrote in recalling a doggerel verse that had been in circulation during Dawson’s life:
“Lord Dawson of Penn
Killed many men.
That’s why we sing
‘God Save the King.’”
Stay tuned for more about Lord Dawson and the acceptance of euthanasia among the British upper classes in Euthanasia Story #2, coming soon.