Kate Williams enjoys a long-awaited biography of Edward VII
In his English Constitution, journalist Walter Bagehot wrote that “whatever is most attractive, whatever is most seductive, has always been offered to the Prince of Wales of the day. Temptation is applied in its most trying form at the frailest time of human life.” Of all the Princes of Wales in history, one of the most eager to be lured was the young man who became Edward VII.
Prince of Wales for 59 years, Prince Albert Edward gathered a fast set of glamorous mistresses and hunting men, spent wildly and ignored his mother’s complaints about the “luxury and idleness of the aristocracy”. And yet, as Jane Ridley’s fascinating and scholarly book shows, Edward was an engaged king when he ascended to the throne in 1901, and his attempt to create peace with France in 1903 was a significant intervention in foreign policy.
Ridley has long been at work on researching the king and she has been toiling hard in the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle, finding marvellous letters that illustrate her judicious examination of Bertie’s life. Beautifully written with an enjoyable dry wit, objective and superbly researched, this is an indispensable investigation into a complex man.
“Our poor strange boy,” said Queen Victoria of her son. The heir to the throne was not a favourite. Poor Bertie was constantly falling short of his elder sister, Vicky, who spoke French by three and was learning Latin at four. As he declared: “Vicky will be mama’s successor... Victoria the second.” It was something of a surprise to learn that matters would proceed differently.
The prince, as Ridley shows, was good-hearted and meant well, but a lack of understanding from his father in particular pushed him towards rebellion. Two years after the death of Albert, in 1861, Bertie obeyed his mother’s desire and married Alexandra of Denmark. Attractive and gentle but often ill after a series of pregnancies, she was no competition for the society women of the day. Some women gained from an association with Bertie. Others did not, such as Harriet, Lady Mordaunt, abandoned by her husband and stowed in an asylum to save her family’s reputation.
Victoria’s worries about the debauched aristocracy had political import. For the queen, such behaviour recalled “the time before the French revolution”. But when he did ascend, the wheezing, exhausted king was popular. He moved back to Buckingham Palace and travelled widely – becoming the first reigning monarch to visit Russia. He did, however, fail to make particular rapprochement with his nephew, Vicky’s son, Wilhelm II. Four years after Edward’s death, the Great War broke out and the Europe governed by his relations was gone.
“I would have liked it 20 years ago,” Edward sniffed, when he came to the throne. We have been waiting for some time for a full biography of Edward VII. Ridley’s erudite and enthralling work is a major contribution to our understanding of the Edwardians and the man who was their king.
Kate Williams is the author of Young Elizabeth: The Making of Our Queen (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2012)