Royal File

Britain’s Last Great King: The Epic Life and Indulgences of Edward VII

This is the ultimate Christmas read for all you Downton Abbey fans: the fantastic life of Edward VII, the son of Queen Victoria, who was as famous for his mistresses as for his diplomatic skill.

Time Life Pictures/Getty

It is not every historian who manages to combine meticulous scholarship with an unbridled appetite for salacious stories and speculation in the best tradition of royal gossip in the modern British tabloid press, but Professor Ridley manages to carry this unusual mixture off with splendid results for the reader. This very readable biography of King Edward VII, Queen Victoria’s oldest son and second child, grandfather of another “Bertie,” King George VI (the central figure in the film The King’s Speech) and great-grandfather of our present Queen, is like bacon-flavored chocolate, a canny blending of opposites, and surprisingly satisfying.

Perhaps it cannot be said that most people on this side of the pond have been waiting breathlessly for a good biography of Edward VII, but that is their mistake, and anyway here it is. I remember reading that when Violet Trefusis—the future lover of Vita Sackville-West—was a child, her Nanny would turn her face to the wall at home when they encountered a gentleman coming downstairs in the late afternoon, and that Violet always remembered the stately tread of a portly man, and the odor of expensive eau de Cologne and good Havana cigars. It was of course the King, since Violet’s mother, Mrs. Keppel, was the last great mistress of his life—indeed she played such an important role in the King’s life that when he was dying the Queen asked Mrs. Keppel to visit him on his deathbed, and hold his hand. My own Nanny, Nanny Lowe, was old enough to have seen the King alighting from his motor car (he was an early enthusiast of the automobile), puffing on his cigar and perfectly dressed, with a cane and a rakishly tilted hat, to enter a house in Belgravia in the late afternoon, no doubt for one of his cinq à sept assignations.

Bertie, which is published in the US under the rather better title of Heir Apparent, since like Prince Charles, poor Bertie seemed condemned to live forever as the Prince of Wales—he did not reach the throne until the age of sixty—is at once a splendid romp through endless stories of royal scandal and a solid, serious biography, full of meticulous and rewarding research, some of it unearthed from the archives for the first time that I am aware. This is that rare book which is at once worthwhile and great fun.

At its center, or very close to it, are the King’s awful parents Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, passionately in love to a degree which blinded them to the needs of their children—indeed Queen Victoria seems to have deeply resented her children both as rivals for her beloved husband’s attention, and as unwelcome interruptions in her physical relationship with Albert, which was clearly the dominant emotion of her life. Her letters and diaries portray a strong blooded and lushly romantic woman who differs sharply from the popular impression of her as a plump, severe, and forbidding royal personage with a frown on her face and a crown on her head.

Her opinion about her son the Prince of Wales was formed by the time he was a schoolboy, and never changed: “The poor country,” she wrote in her inimitable prose, “with such a terribly unfit, totally unreflecting successor! Oh! That is awful. He does nothing!… Bertie (I grieve to say) shows more and more how totally unfit he is for ever becoming King.”

In Victoria, once it was awoken, the sexual passions of her father and her “wicked uncles,” with their innumerable mistresses and illegitimate children, ran deep; she was a product of that lusty Hanoverian blood (her grandfather George III sired fifteen children, and her uncle and predecessor on the throne King William IV was attended by his ten illegitimate children at his coronation in 1830), and despite her reputation for stern morality, she fell head over heels in love with Albert at first sight, and in her inimitable gushing prose wrote with unusual frankness about the intensity of their physical relationship, which began on her wedding night, and its importance to her.

Though the word “Victorian” has come to be synonymous with prudery, the Queen was in fact a deeply passionate woman with intense physical needs, whose life was centered on Albert from the moment she first set eyes on him at the age of seventeen—she was, in that favorite phrase of Victorian novels, “swept off her feet,” though not so much that she ever forgot that while he was her husband, she was The Queen. Her oldest son could never win from her the kind of affection he craved: his besetting sin was that he was not his father, and he learned early on in life that nothing he did could earn her approval. To top it off she even blamed Prince Albert’s early death on the young Prince of Wales, as if it had been brought on by grief over his scandalous behavior. Perhaps one of Sir Max Beerbohm’s greatest cartoons is the one showing the portly figure of the Prince of Wales standing in a corner in disgrace, with the figure of the Queen, in her familiar widow’s weeds and crown, sitting in the foreground enforcing his punishment, representing Beerbohm’s view of the rare, and rather awful visits of the Prince of Wales to his mother.

The prince’s father Albert was stiff, demanding, German, delegating his son’s education to unsuitable tutors and stifling the boy’s need for friends and boyish adventure, with the result that the prince excelled at nothing except French and German—both of which would play a large role in his success as a diplomat—and began early on to chafe under the bit, and yearn to kick up his heels.

Jane Ridley recreates perfectly the unsteady, but enduring rise of the fun loving young man into unrepressed adulthood, enlivened by innumerable (and often very difficult) mistresses, the list of which includes Winston Churchill’s glamorous American-born mother, as well as a beautiful, devoted and long suffering wife, and friendships at every level of society—for Edward VII loved everything his parents feared, society, parties, great beauties, rich food, horse racing, card playing, gambling of every kind, and indulged himself on a heroic scale, while at the same time acquiring the affection of his people, and a startling mastery of politics and diplomacy that would make him, in the nine years he reigned, perhaps the last British monarch to play a significant role in world affairs, and certainly the most able diplomat ever to sit on the throne.

This is a long book, but I could have wished it even longer. It is full of wonderful stories, it recreates a whole age of Britain (and Europe) at its lush apogee of wealth—a world, in fact, on the brink of the great war that would destroy it all—in which Edward VII reigned supreme both as the king and the center of society. He had many of the normal faults of British Hanoverian monarchs, a flaring temper, an eagle’s eye even for the smallest detail of wrong dress or deportment, obstinacy, and impatience with his own children (his son George V would remark that he had been afraid of his father and he would make damned sure his sons were afraid of him, with calamitous and predictable results on the Prince of Wales and future King Edward VIII, the Duke of York and future King George VI, and the Duke of Kent, who had a much whispered-about affair with Noel Coward), but in other ways he was a model king, affable, courteous and more than able to deal with his royal relatives who included Czar Nicholas II and the Kaiser, and almost single-handed to win over the French to an unlikely alliance with l’Albion perfide, and thus to oppose the ambitions of Germany and its bumptious monarch.

Jane Ridely brings all this to life with scrupulous attention to detail, but with a gift for narrative that keeps one reading breathlessly as if this were a novel, except that no novelist could imagine such a rich background, so vast a cast of famous beauties and royals, and so improbable a story, not “rags to riches,” of course, by any means, but the inexorable rise of a put-upon and apparently second-rate child to full maturity as a decidedly first-class world figure, who rose far above his parents’ expectations, and perhaps his own, to become by far the most interesting (and most human) of Britain’s kings since the demise of Charles II, and a mover on the world stage of genuine achievement, a figure who evokes admiration, sympathy, occasional roars of laughter, and a constant sense of humanity behind the mask of royalty. One would hope that the present Prince of Wales will come into his own when he succeeds—he has many of Edward VII’s weaknesses, but not, so far as one can tell, all of his strengths—but he, like his great-great-grandfather would probably agree with George III’s oldest son, the future Prince Regent and George IV, that the Prince of Wales is not a position, but a predicament, that at bottom the job consists of waiting for age, history and time to bring one to the throne, sometimes at an age when one no longer aspires to it. . . Oddly, however long he had to wait for it, and however full of errors and mistakes his life was, Bertie at sixty was singularly well-prepared for kingship, and approached it with energy and zeal. One can only hope we will be as lucky this time.

In the meantime this is a book that would make a perfect Christmas present for anybody who enjoys history and biography, and for which Jane Ridley deserves even more awards and honors than he has already won.

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Come to that it wouldn’t make a bad TV mini-series at all, much richer than Downton Abbey, and on a bigger scale, perhaps with Kenneth Branagh to play the King! I hope somebody at the BBC is already thinking about it.