Edward VII: a guide to the king who ruled over the Edwardian age
Despite his love of the finer things in life, King Edward VII was a skilled and devoted ruler who modernised Britain’s monarchy
When 59-year-old Edward VII came to the throne in January 1901, he couldn’t have been more different to his late mother, Queen Victoria. The king and former Prince of Wales was the complete opposite of the Victorian ideal of propriety; he lived for life’s excesses, and was renowned for his love of smoking, gambling and cavorting with his many mistresses.
Born on 9 November 1841, Albert Edward was the eldest son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Much to his parents’ dismay, the young Bertie – as he was known to his family – was a boisterous boy, and struggled to keep up with the strict educational regime imposed by his private tutors. Despite later flourishing in his studies at Oxford and Cambridge universities, he was at his happiest while partying in Parisian nightclubs and enjoying the company of his private court, which embodied the fashionable and high society elite.
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Overall, the prince had a strained relationship with his parents, and things would come to a head when Victoria blamed Bertie for his father’s death. While gaining military experience in Ireland, Bertie had spent three nights with an actress who had been smuggled into his camp. A furious Prince Albert visited his eldest son in November 1861 to rebuke him; three weeks later, the prince consort was dead from typhoid – his demise allegedly hastened by the stress his son had caused. Victoria would later write to her eldest daughter, Vicky, of Bertie: “I never can, or shall, look at him without a shudder.”
In 1863, Bertie married Alexandra, daughter of Christian IX of Denmark, and together they had five surviving children. Despite his mother’s misgivings (and his involvement in the occasional scandal), the people came to adore the genial heir, and his recovery from a severe bout of typhoid – almost exactly 10 years since the disease had claimed the life of his father – was greeted with relief across Britain.
In January 1892, the royal family suffered another major blow when Bertie’s eldest son Albert Victor died, aged 28. His second son, George, moved up the line of succession, and Bertie was keen to do everything he could to make sure the young prince was prepared for his future role as king. Even towards the end of her life, Victoria had attempted to prevent Bertie from carrying out certain royal duties, deeming him too lazy and irresponsible.
A sense of duty
Victoria’s exceptionally long reign meant that Bertie’s rule was brief. However, despite fears that he would be a bad king, he is widely considered the first truly constitutional British sovereign, who paved the way for the modern monarchy. A skilled diplomat and a talented linguist, he left a legacy of improved relations between Britain and France, and became the first reigning British monarch to visit Russia.
Importantly, he also made concerted efforts to present himself as a king for all men. At a time when anti-Semitism was rife, Bertie warmly welcomed Jews into his inner social circle, and he even enquired after the radical politician Keir Hardie – a staunch republican – when he heard the Scotsman was unwell.
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In March 1910, Bertie faced criticism for not returning from an overseas trip amid the turmoil triggered by the Liberal government’s People’s Budget, which was being blocked by the House of Lords. Unbeknown to the public, Bertie had suffered a collapse. Years of smoking and overeating had wrought havoc on his body, and he was now gravely ill.
Amid this constitutional crisis, Edward VII died, aged 68. On 6 May 1910, he suffered multiple heart attacks before falling into unconsciousness – his last words expressed his joy that his horse had won a race at Kempton Park. The novelist and playwright JB Priestley would later describe him as “the most popular king England had known since the earlier 1660s”.
This article first appeared in the September 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed
Emma Slattery Williams was <BBC History Revealed’s staff writer until August 2022, covering all areas of history – from Egyptian pharaohs and pirate queens to Queen Victoria and Marilyn Monroe. She also compiled HistoryExtra’s Victorian newsletter and interviewed historians on the HistoryExtra podcast.. She studied both History and English at Swansea University.