No Sympathy for Horrid Women: On the History of George V and the Demands of the Suffragettes
Jane Ridley Considers the King's Callous Treatment of Radicalized Activists
For the opening of Parliament in March 1913 George V wore his crown. No sovereign had done this since Queen Victoria before Albert died, and George was so worried about it that he asked the Cabinet’s advice. “As we none of us cared what he wears,” wrote the Liberal minister Charles Hobhouse, “we agreed to the crown.” In The Mall on the way there, five suffragettes rushed out and tried to present petitions to the King calling for votes for women. “Of course the police caught them,” wrote May, “but it caused a scene & looked undignified.” The suffragettes were more than a nuisance; they targeted the monarchy for good reason. Not only did this tactic guarantee publicity, but they claimed an ancient right to petition the sovereign.
At the Epsom Derby on June 4th the suffragette Emily Davison dashed out of the stands as the horses thundered round Tattenham Corner and tried to catch the bridle of Anmer, the King’s horse. She was knocked unconscious with a fractured skull, and both horse and jockey were sent flying. Davison never regained consciousness, dying four days later. The suffragettes constructed her as a martyr who had deliberately laid down her life in an attempt to petition the King. But she had a return train ticket in her pocket, and it was doubtless a lucky accident that the horse which caused her death was the King’s. To single out and throw herself at a particular horse galloping downhill at 35 miles per hour would have been an almost impossible athletic feat.
The royal party left before the last race ended, “their Majesties and everyone else feeling very depressed.” In his diary George showed no sympathy for Miss Davison. He thought her jump “a most regrettable & scandalous proceeding,” and he sympathized with the jockey (who recovered) and the horse (which was unhurt). May called her “a horrid woman,” but, to be fair, when she wrote that she was under the impression that Davison was “injured but not seriously.”
The lack of sympathy shown by the royals to Emily Davison seems callous today. But the anger of the King and Queen was in line with opinion at the time. Tommy Lascelles recalled that the incident made a profound impression: “it seemed the most outrageous interruption of sacred proceedings since Jenny Geddes threw her famous stool in St Giles’s Cathedral.”The suffragettes were more than a nuisance; they targeted the monarchy for good reason.
Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, daughter of the deposed Maharajah Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, daughter of the deposed Maharajah Duleep Singh, lived in a grace-and-favor house at Hampton Court. She was a suffragette, and to demonstrate her sympathy for Emily Davison she stood outside the gates of Hampton Court selling the Suffragette newspaper. This enraged the King, who wanted her evicted, and he asked Lord Crewe who, as secretary of state for India, was responsible for Sophia’s security, to expel her. Crewe refused, claiming that the India Office was not answerable to the King; but the King dared not evict Sophia himself for fear of the adverse publicity. So George fumed, and Princess Sophia continued her campaign. When the Daily Mail printed an account of her appearance in court, Crewe sighed: “Buck Pal will probably write again full of rage and grief. They read the Mail assiduously there.”
By the spring of 1914 George and May were almost under siege from the suffragettes. On May 21st Emmeline Pankhurst led a march of 200 suffragettes on Buckingham Palace to present a petition to the King. It ended in violence and 57 arrests. Lawyers dismissed the suffragettes’ claim of a right to petition the monarch as fiction, but the attacks continued nonetheless.
On June 4th during an evening court a young woman named Mary Blomfield, daughter of the architect Sir Reginald Blomfield, fell on her knees before the King. In a loud, shrill voice which could be heard all over the Throne Room, she cried: “For God’s sake, Your Majesty, won’t you stop torturing the women?” Before she could finish her sentence, this protestor against the forcible feeding of jailed suffragettes was “gently escorted out” by Sir Douglas Dawson, the comptroller of the Lord Chamberlain’s Department. According to The Times, Their Majesties carried on with the presentations with “dignity and composure.” “I don’t know what we are coming to,” was George’s comment in his diary on Miss Blomfield’s outburst.
May described the suffragettes as “horrid” and “tiresome,” though it would be wrong to infer that she was opposed to women’s rights. She dreaded being the target of suffragette attacks. When George and May toured Scotland in July they were mobbed. At Dundee a suffragette ran up to the royal carriage, brandishing an umbrella at the Queen, and at Perth another rushed on to the running board of the car, and “it took several police to get her off.” As May told her aunt, the women were “a constant & additional anxiety to our Tour & tho’ outwardly I mercifully look calm, inwardly my heart goes pit a pat when a female dashes out to throw papers into the carriage.” Perhaps the surprising thing today is that the King and Queen appear to have had no security to protect them from the radicalized women.
From the book: GEORGE V by Jane Ridley. Copyright © 2021 by Jane Ridley. Reprinted courtesy of Harper Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.