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Edward VII


A.N. Wilson doesn't mince his words in The Victorians: He claims the monarchy survived in Britain in the late nineteenth century because Queen Victoria lived as a recluse following the death of her husband Albert.

"... the widow of Windsor, living as a virtual recluse for years and performing almost no constitutional function, helped to lead the monarchy into a position where it was not worth abolishing." (P244) There might be something in this, but the idea of an institution surviving because it had no worth seems far fetched. Philip Zeigler suggests in Crown and People that Victoria's retirement turned her into an almost mystical symbol, generating the same kind of fascination that might surround a reclusive rock star. Once again there might be something in this. But it is perhaps more likely that the monarchy survived because it was actually fulfilling some kind of useful purpose. Although Victoria largely retired from the world after 1861, her son Edward, Prince of Wales in many ways stepped into her public shoes, before becoming king on Victoria's death in 1901. His life indicates much modern hostility to monarchy, but also demonstrates clear advantages which would explain the monarchy's survival.

Albert Edward, known as Bertie to his family, and Edward to history, was born on 9th November 1841, first son of Queen Victoria and Albert Saxe-Coburg. There was great rejoicing at the birth of a son and heir, but his parents' early pride was soon to fade. Edward was a lively, friendly little boy who was bored by school work. Edward was educated at a time when the country as a whole was moving to an organised education system for all children. Children had to fit into a kind of educational structure that had never been widely applied before. Some benefited, and some like Edward, suffered within the imposed restrictions. His father, Albert was hard working, able, controlling and dour. Dana Bentley-Cranch presents a view of Edward's education in which academic success was the only kind that mattered. This might not be entirely fair. Monica Charlot in Victoria the Young Queen mentions that during stays at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, Edward was given practical work to do. After purchasing Osborne in 1844, the house was being completely rebuilt. Edward, and his younger brother Alfred, worked with labourers for two or three hours a day. They had a foreman who insisted they work properly, and who filled in their timesheet. This sheet was then taken to Albert who paid them the going rate. Similar paid work was done in the gardens at Osborne. Edward's first biographer wrote: "This was undoubtedly a wise way of teaching them to sympathise with the lot of the working class" (quoted by Monica Charlot in Victoria the Young Queen P287). Edward was to grow up with a refreshing lack of snobbery, and perhaps these hours building and gardening at Osborne helped. But generally speaking Edward had an academic education that was unsuited to him.



By the age of seventeen Edward was interested in an army career. This idea was rejected by Victoria and Albert, and in order to get such silly thoughts out of his head, Edward was sent on a cultural tour of Rome. A diary was meant to be kept recording all the profound thoughts a young man might have as he wandered around looking at Rome's wonders. Albert was to be distinctly unhappy with the superficial diary that resulted. But Edward was showing other abilities. The prince impressed the poet Robert Browning with his friendliness, and had the American historian John Lothrop Morley writing to his mother: "I have not had much to do with royal personages, but of those I have known, I know none whose address is more winning, and with whom one feels more at ease" (quoted in Edward VII Image of an Era by Dana Bentley-Cranch P8). While Albert was fretting about academic achievement, Edward was in fact acquiring just the sort of social skills he would need as Prince of Wales, and then king. All this went unacknowledged, however, as the reluctant scholar was sent off to Holyrood House in Edinburgh for cramming, before going to Oxford and Cambridge. Fortunately for Edward, he was taught in Edinburgh by the sympathetic Leon Playfair, who inspite of Albert's detailed instructions regarding what and how his son should be taught, still managed to put the young man at his ease and bring out the best in him. Edward did quite well, and in October 1860 went to Christ Church College Oxford. He was not allowed to mix freely with other students, and was kept under strict supervision by Albert who made frequent visits.


In the summer of 1861 Edward had his first taste of life beyond the strictures imposed by his father, when he went on a tour of Canada and America. As in Rome, Edward continually impressed with his unfailing friendliness and charm. On HMS Hero, the ship which took him to Canada, he was given earnest lectures about the political implications of his visit. Edward would listen politely, and then go off and do some "sky-larking", which according to Bentley-Cranch consisted of "sitting cross-legged on the upper deck with his telescope in his hand, signalling the other ships in the escort and sending humorous messages" (P21). There was great excitement in Canada at his arrival. After all the earnest lectures on his conduct, it is perhaps more relevant that people were fascinated by what Edward was wearing. Edward was already becoming a leader of fashion, which was to be important in his life to come. His frock coats, light coloured trousers, smart waistcoats, walking cane, umbrella and light coloured or white top hats were all "eagerly observed and quickly copied" (Bentley-Cranch P22). People wanted to buy the clothes Edward was wearing, which was very useful to all the many people who had to make and sell them.


Victoria Bridge, Montreal. This image is by Colocho and is copyright free

Edward opened the Victoria Bridge across the St Lawrence Seaway, and laid the cornerstone of Parliament House in Ottawa. He met thousands of people, tactfully keeping the peace with protestants in Kingston, who wanted to welcome Edward as the descendent of William of Orange. The royal party avoided the town for fear of showing partisan loyalty, and Edward showed considerable ability in smoothing the incident over. Once the royal party returned to England even Albert grudgingly remarked on Edward's success. It was now agreed that Edward could be sent away for a short period of army training at Curragh Camp near Dublin. This was another cramming exercise, with the prince expected to progress from ensign to brigade commander in ten weeks. Poor Edward still found time for some fun, which included a youthful escapade with an actress called Nellie Clifton who was smuggled into the camp. This harmless fling was to cause huge problems when news of it reached Albert.

Following Edward's short sojurn in the army, plans went ahead for his marriage. Edward himself bravely said that he wanted to marry for love, but his parents ignored such youthful nonsense. They created a short list of princesses, which was whittled down to one candidate, sixteen year old Alexandra, daughter of Prince Christian of Denmark. An "accidental" meeting was arranged at Speyer Cathedral in September 1861. Alexandra was beautiful, while Edward was reserved. Back in Cambridge, where he was now studying, Edward was already unpopular with his parents for not being more enthusiastic about Alexandra. Then gossip about Edward's amorous adventure in Dublin reached Albert, who typically completely overreacted. There was a major scene in Cambridge. A walk in the rain brought an uneasy reconciliation between father and son. Albert was already ill with typhoid as they walked. He returned to Windsor Castle, and declined quickly, dying on 14th December 1861. Victoria blamed Edward. For years afterwards Edward would be described as a dissolute womaniser, an image which his anxious parents had done much to encourage in their over reactions. For those who were hostile to the crown it was convenient to play up this image of Edward, and hostility could come as much from politicians competing for the limelight as from republican groups. Edward was married to Alexandra on 10th March 1863 and had a relatively successful and happy marriage.

No doubt the marriage of Edward and Alexandra did not aspire to perfection. There were affairs, and "scrapes" as Edward called them. But these were not always what they seemed. One of the worst "scrapes" was the "baccarat scandal" of 1891, which involved an officer cheating at cards at a house party which the prince had been attending. In society cheating at cards was considered the height of dishonour. It was agreed the lapse would be kept secret as long as the man concerned never played cards again. Edward put his name to the agreement. But the secret somehow got out, the officer brought a case against his original accusers, and Edward got dragged into court. To today's eyes this "scandal" is laughable, and it did not involve Edward in any dubious dealing anyway. Edward was really on trial for his way of life, and because he liked gambling, of which the more puritanical wing of society did not approve. A scandal was created almost out of nothing. Then there are the claims made in many general histories that Edward was involved in divorce cases. It is true he was involved in a divorce case, but it was a case involving one of his close friends, a naval officer Lord Charles Beresford, who had committted adultery with a beautiful married woman, Lady Brooke. Lady Brooke unfortunately wrote a letter to her lover telling him off for giving too much attention to his wife, which by an unlucky chance fell into the hands of Lady Beresford. Lady Brooke appealed to Edward to help her, and Edward did his best, but only succeeded in being dragged into the whole mess. So although Edward was involved in a divorce case it was as a character witness for Lady Brooke. Of course Edward almost certainly had his own affairs. Mrs Alice Keppel, wife of George Keppel, son of the Earl of Albermarle, was a favourite for many years. But at this time when arranged marriages were fairly common, there was a general sense that extramarital affairs were quietly condoned, as long as they were discreet. Edward was discreet, and he looked after Alexandra, and his other ladies. This was not unusual behaviour, except in the sense that Edward was much nicer to his women than most men. The idea, then, that Edward lived the dissolute life of a playboy is hard to justify. And if Edward had lived a steady and blameless life he'd be in the situation facing Edward's son George V, who is dismissed by A.N. Wilson and others as a boring stamp collector. In many ways the intellectual community of the twentieth century was in tune with the puritanical section of late nineteenth century society which did not like kings and were looking for sticks to beat them with. It all depends on how you want to look at things. There are many stories to tell. This was an age of newspapers where a new story was needed every day. The royals made money for people by providing stories, and different stories could come from different angles. The writing of history is the same.


Sandringham from across the lake

Following Albert's death Victoria retreated into mourning, but resolutely refused to allow her son any role in government. Denied any official role Edward became a leader in a social sense. From his new home of Sandringham in north Norfolk, Edward created a social scene centred around the "country house weekend". This involved a wide range of people being invited to a weekend at Sandringham where time would be spent eating, engaging in country sports, and dressing up. For women in particular there could be four costume changes per day. As ever a developing industrial society was watching for aspirational trends it could profitably copy. Country house weekends and their associated fashions became generally popular. This drove shopping, and production and made a lot of people a lot of money. Edward and Alexandra had a very direct influence in this sense. For example if you've ever enjoyed a hotel breakfast then you can thank Edward. You'll recognise the experience from the following description of breakfasts served to guests at Sandringham:

"At Sandringham guests were expected to come down for breakfast between nine and ten o'clock. This was served at small tables, an innovative departure from the 'long board'... Breakfast was a substantial meal; on the side board spirit lamps kept hot huge silver dishes of porridge, eggs, bacon, devilled kidneys, finian haddock, kedegree. Another sideboard held a variety of cold meats, pressed beef, ham, tongue and game. China and Indian tea, coffee and chocolate, bread rolls, toast, scones and muffins, jams and preserves and fresh fruit were all laid ready." (Bentley-Cranch P 78)


Tower Bridge

The Sunday roast is another tradition which has its origins in a desire to emulate royalty. Edward liked English food, and his own family would generally have a dinner of roast beef, roast potatoes, horseradish sauce and Yorkshire pudding on a Sunday. Soon this was copied widely, and still is today. Edward also had a profound effect on clothes and fashion. His puritanical father made accusations of dandyism, and this accusation has been made by cheerless historians ever since, but the dandy prince must have been quietly thanked by many thousands of people who worked in the clothing industry. As Bentley-Cranch says: "Everything he did, and especially everything he wore, was closely scrutinised and copied."

On a long hot sea voyage to India Edward found that evening dress was uncomfortably hot. So he replaced the heavy "tails" jacket with a short light-weight jacket, now universally known as the dinner jacket. Alexandra also set fashion trends, some of which are still seen. She loved jewellery, and devised the choker, a wide necklace, usually of pearls, worn tightly around the neck. Unfortunately women also tried to copy Alexandra's slim figure, and this resulted in widespread use of the corset, which must have made many women very uncomfortable. The fact that women were willing to put themselves through the discomfort of wearing corsets demonstrates the power of aspiration which the royals could inspire. The fact that photography was developing during Edward's lifetime allowed his and Alexandra's images to be easily distributed, which spread their influence even more widely. Towns and industrial concerns soon picked up on the ability of Edward to make money for them. A visit from Edward was a sure way to boost income, and there was a great competition to secure his services. The Tyne Improvement Commission put in a request for Edward to open their New Dock at South Shields in 1882. The dock was not due for completion until 1884, but it was wise to book Edward at least two years ahead. Edward opened the New Dock, as one of an endless round of official visits. He laid the first stone of Tower Bridge, and opened it in 1894. He also opened the first section of the London Underground, which ran from Stockwell in south London to King William Street in the City. The hotel trade also benefited. We've already seen that some aspects of his country house weekends survive in hotel traditions today. Edward opened London's first grand hotel, the Langham in Portland Place in 1865. Finally the development of the motor car owes much to Edward, who was an early, and enthusiastic motorist. Many were to follow his example.

Whether in the long run this desire to emulate supposed social betters is a good thing is debateable. The economist Adam Smith thought that aspiration for fashions and possessions of the rich was "the most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments" (Wealth of Nations 1.111.3). But on the other hand economies were driven by people wanting to buy things. And the things they wanted to buy were the things which the rich, and especially royalty, were using and wearing. It's just the same today, as clothing manufacturers who give free samples to celebrities know only too well.


British Museum

As well as setting fashion trends which gave work to those in industry, Edward took a more direct role in social services. In 1884 prime minister William Gladstone asked Edward to serve as a member of the Royal Commission on Housing of the Working Class. He did so, and remarkably nominated the social reformer Octavia Hill, future founder of the National Trust, to serve with him. Edward was definitely not a feminist sympathiser, but he liked and respected women. His suggestion that Octavia Hill serve was ahead of its time, and was rejected by his horrified colleagues. It wasn't until he was king that Edward had the satisfaction of seeing Octavia becoming the first woman to sit on a royal commission. Edward also opened the Bethnel Green Museum in 1872, and as a trustee for the British Museum fought hard for Sunday opening so that working people had an opportunity to visit. Edward loved music, which he believed could foster peace and understanding in society. He was a driving force behind the creation of the Royal College of Music, which opened in 1894. Scholarships were offered to talented students who could not pay the fees. Edward's instinct for peace also informed his interest in international relations. On a tour to India 1875 - 76 he was not impressed with the manner in which some British officials treated Indian chiefs, and made official complaints to the prime minister, Lord Salisbury. It was in foreign affairs that Edward put most of his effort after finally becoming king when Queen Victoria died on 22nd January 1901. In many ways Edward's finest hour came in 1903 when Edward acting alone made a major contribution to repairing relations between Britain and France following the Boer War. France and the rest of Europe did not approve of Britain's war against the South African republics, which had seen the innovation known as the "concentration camp" devised by General Kitchener. Once the war ended in 1902, Edward quickly organised a European tour, which would take him to Paris. Initially the reception to the royal party was hostile. Reaching Paris on 1st May 1903 booing greeted the carriages travelling down the Champs Elysee. One of his entourage is supposed to have muttered: "The French don't like us." to which Edward replied: "Why should they?" But then Edward got to work, charming all the people he met, saying nice things about France, reports of which quickly spread through the city. Remarkably by the time Edward left Paris on 4th May he was being cheered and applauded wherever he went. This mission to France was then the basis for the Entente Cordiale of 1904.

And now we reach the point where Edward's successes probably gave rise to the political jealousies which contributed to the image of an idle playboy which in many ways endures today. Simon Heffer in his book Power and Place describes the way prime minister Arthur Balfour, resentful at the way Edward had successfully brought about the entente cordial, set about rewriting history. Following Edward's death after his short reign of nine years, the following entry was published in the Dictionary of National Biography:

"King Edward cannot be credited with the greatness that comes of statesmanship and makes for the moulding of history. Neither the constitutional checks on his power nor his discursive tasks and training left him much opportunity of influencing effectually political affairs. No originating political faculty can be assigned him. For the most part he stood with constitutional correctness aloof from the political scene at home. On questions involving large principles he held no very definite views. He preferred things to remain as they were... His aim as a traveller was pleasurable recreation and the exchange of social courtesies... He was a peacemaker, not through the exercise of any diplomatic initiative or ingenuity, but by force of his faith in the blessing of peace and by virtue of the influence which passively attached his status and his temperament... The external show of personal control which belongs to the Crown at home seemed at times to be obscured by his long sojourns in foreign countries... In his intercourse with foreign rulers and diplomatists, so far as politics came within the range of his conversation, he confined himself to general avowals of loyal support of ministerial policy" (quoted in Power and Place by Simon Heffer P298 - 299).

Edward's successor, his son George V, and his widow Alexandra lodged a complaint about this entry. Balfour made some vague noises about the article being misleading, and then received a letter from the writer of the article, Sir Sidney Lee, asking why Balfour had gone back on what he had said at an interview with the author. It seems that Balfour, probably resentful of Edward's success, had been Sir Sidney Lee's main source, and had tried to change public perception of the former king. Balfour made another vague statement about not remembering an interview with Sir Sidney Lee. The entry in the Dictionary of the National Biography was never changed. Besides it suited an academic community which through the twentieth century could not be described as royalist. Edward, a charming hard working king became a feckless playboy. There is, however, a much more positive story to tell about Edward as a king for the modern world, a story which explains, no less, why monarchy survived in Britain.