His disadvantages were considerable. He was not particularly intelligent, had a short attention span, and was easily bored. His temper was notoriously untrustworthy as a small boy and did not much improve. His mother was irritated by his weak chin and hang-dog appearance. His liaisons were numerous, his taste raffish, and his set fast. While prince of Wales, he was subpoenaed in one divorce case and, even worse, was involved in an unpleasant legal action about cheating at baccarat.
It has often been suggested that his parents were much to blame and could have handled him more tactfully. It is certainly true that Albert and Victoria were earnest, and the queen's manifest disappointment that her son was not more like his beloved father must have been a cross to bear. Yet earnest parents were not unusual in the 19th cent. and some of his problems may have been genetic. His Hanoverian great-uncles had been choleric and eccentric and his son Eddie, who died as duke of Clarence, was even more sluggish mentally.
Nevertheless, he had certain assets which came to the fore when he became king. He enjoyed company and had a gift for making graceful impromptu little speeches. He could be amusing and considerate when he wished and he looked good in uniform. He had a good memory for names and faces and an excellent command of both French and German. Not least of his assets was his Danish wife Alexandra, whom he married in 1863. Graceful and slender, with a natural dignity, she was an admirable foil to Edward's flamboyance.
Two incidents at the start of his reign in 1901 indicated that the new king would be his own man. The captain of the vessel bearing him and the queen's coffin from the Isle of Wight was sharply reprimanded for flying the royal standard at half-mast: his stammered explanation ‘but the Queen is dead, sir’ was met with ‘But the King of England lives.’ Secondly he announced that he wished to be known, not by his first name Albert, but as Edward—thus frustrating the deepest hopes of his fond parents—though, characteristically, he explained neatly that Albert had been so great that his name should stand alone.
Over the years, Edwardian England has acquired the image of an Indian summer, a golden age of tranquillity before the horrors of the Great War. It was in fact turbulent. There was a marked increase in industrial unrest and in working days lost by strikes. The militant phase of the women's suffrage movement began in 1905 when Sir Edward Grey was shouted down at Manchester. The rise of the Labour Party, returned in numbers for the first time at the general election of 1906, heralded a move towards class politics, which the king greatly deplored. The Liberals, after their great election victory, were pushed leftwards by Labour and the Irish, and by the intransigence of their Conservative opponents. The rejection of Lloyd George's budget in 1909 by the House of Lords and the counter-threats to emasculate the Upper House drew the king into the political arena. Edward made it clear that he was unwilling to create 500 Liberal peers to carry the Parliament Bill, regarding it as a shabby manœuvre, exploiting the royal prerogative of honour for party ends. Whether he could have sustained that position under pressure may be doubted, but he died in the middle of the crisis, leaving Asquith to wring a grudging promise from his inexperienced son George V.
Internationally, the reign was marked by the abandonment of isolation, splendid or otherwise, which had proved so uncomfortable during the Boer War. First, an alliance was reached with Japan in 1902; next, in 1904 the Entente was formed with France, and lastly an attempt was made to bury differences with France's ally, Russia. By the time of the king's death, Britain was firmly in the Entente camp, ranged against the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria, and Italy.
The more extravagant claims for Edward's influence may be dismissed. He was credited, in some quarters, with skilful diplomacy and the Kaiser, who was his nephew, thought his uncle a monster of guile. But the encirclement of which the Kaiser complained so frequently was of his own making, and the rapprochement between Britain and France owed more to Tirpitz's naval programme than to Edward VII's evident relish for French cuisine and French music-halls.
In two respects, his influence was of some consequence. He took a keen interest in the armed forces, supported Fisher's naval reforms, and encouraged Haldane's overhaul of the army, which the humiliations of the Boer War had rendered so necessary. Since the Great War was a close-run thing, it is possible that Edward's interventions were decisive. Secondly, he raised the profile and the publicity of the monarchy. In this he had some luck. Any ruler who succeeded an 81-year-old widow was bound to have a residue of goodwill to draw on. His great successes on the turf did him no harm at all with the average citizen: he won the Derby three times with Persimmon (1896), Diamond Jubilee (1900), and Minoru (1909), and the Grand National with Ambush II (1900).
Edward was carried off in the middle of the House of Lords crisis by severe bronchial illness, exacerbated by a lifetime devoted to cigars and cigarettes. It is greatly to his credit that his son George V was infinitely better prepared for his royal duties than Edward had been, and mourned him as ‘my best friend, the best of fathers’. He was fortunate to die when he did. His reign was brief and he did not overstay his welcome. The great crises of Ireland and the Lords were only beginning to unfold. Though, with the advantages of hindsight, one can see the roots of the Great War growing, the age was not yet in shadow. The crowned heads of Europe—kings, emperors, tsars, and kaisers—still entertained each other at regattas, manœuvres, weddings, and funerals. The king was still head of society and there was society still to be head of. Great shooting parties assembled for long weekends at country houses and partridges by the thousand perished that gentlemen could demonstrate their prowess before the ladies. The landed aristocracy, to which the king was devoted, had not yet gone down before the twin perils of the Great War and penal taxation. Behind the gun-carriage which conveyed Edward to his resting-place at Windsor marched nine kings.
J. A. Cannon
Brook-Shepherd, G. , Uncle of Europe: The Social and Diplomatic Life of Edward VII (1975);
Hibbert, C. , Edward VII: A Portrait (1976);
St Aubyn, G. , Edward VII, Prince and King (1979).
EDWARD VII (1841–1910; ruled 1901–1910), king of Great Britain and Ireland.
Edward VII spent most of his life waiting. Born on 9 November 1841, he was the son of an extraordinarily long-lived mother, Queen Victoria. Edward lived for decades as the heir to the throne, and this shaped what he would become and defined his behavior, position, and rectitude in relation to his mother.
He arrived early in the reign of Queen Victoria, child to her and Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Christened Albert Edward, he did not please his parents. He was not much of a student, did not particularly like hard work, and frequently bullied his playmates. In a family where duty and hard work were watchwords, these traits were not well received. When his father died in 1861, shortly after journeying to Cambridge to get Edward out of a scrape, Queen Victoria blamed him, at least partly, for Albert's death. That chill eased somewhat when, in 1863, Edward married Princess Alexandra of Denmark, a solid match for the heir to the throne, and someone for whom Queen Victoria developed a fondness. Edward was not a particularly attentive husband, preferring instead the company of his friends and of a succession of mistresses. Alexandra could do little but accept the situation. They produced the required children—Albert Victor, George, Louise, Victoria, and Maud—and settled into something of a domestic life.
But the distance from his mother never wholly abated. The queen did not trust Edward to keep a secret, and thus did not include him in the daily business of the monarchy, refusing him access to state papers. Yet he became, in the 1860s and 1870s, something of the public face of the monarchy. Queen Victoria had retreated after the death of her husband into years of mourning, and Edward took her place in the popular eye. Edward seemed to stand for everything that Queen Victoria was not. She was stern and moral and the living embodiment of upright British values. He played cards, gambled, ran with a fast crowd, and was named several times in divorce suits, most particularly the Mordaunt case of 1870.
Edward's lengthy wait for the throne ended in 1901 when Victoria died. In a particularly telling choice, Albert Edward decided to ascend the throne as Edward VII and not Albert I, as his mother had wished. He was fifty-nine years old when he was crowned on 22 January 1901. As king, he largely continued in the way he had before reaching the throne. He was a public monarch and proud of it, living a riotous life out in the open. His horses won the Derby; his mistresses were public figures; he gloried in the ceremony of the throne. Edward pioneered the figure of the public monarch, whose daily life became the grist for a new mass media. The public accepted and even enjoyed his decadent lifestyle, and he was a signally popular king.
But even as the king became a central figure on the public stage, the monarchy's political powers continued their slow decline. His mother through force of personality and long endurance had sustained a measure of influence and respect. Edward lacked the interest or ability to do the same. Neither the Tories nor the Liberals paid him much more than surface attention. The sole exception to this was in the military, and Edward's support for both Richard Burdon Haldane at the War Office and John Fisher at the Admiralty helped ensure that Britain had a modern and modernizing military. Edward also had the good judgment to include his second son, George—heir after the death of Albert Victor in 1893—in the workings of the monarchy, helping prepare him for his stint on the throne.
Given his lack of influence, it is thus something of an irony that Edward presided over one of the more serious constitutional crises in twentieth-century British history. When open political warfare broke out in 1909 between the Liberal government and the House of Lords over the aggressive role the upper house had playing in nullifying the government's reforming agenda, Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith turned to the king for help. The Liberals, in Asquith's plan, would introduce a parliamentary bill sharply reducing the power of the Lords. If the House of Lords did not go along with this, Edward would elevate enough Liberal politicians to the peerage to overwhelm the Conservative majority in that house. It was a drastic threat, and Edward, whose sympathies were largely with the Lords and who, in any case, was not eager to be responsible for such a drastic action, was reluctant. He asked Asquith to hold a general election, the second such election in 1910, to show that the country was behind such an action. Asquith agreed to do so, but fate and years of smoking and good eating intervened. King Edward VII had a series of heart attacks in April 1910, and expired on 6 May. As Edward lay dying, news arrived that one of his horses had galloped home to win a race at Kempton Park.
Hibbert, Christopher. Edward VII: A Portrait. London, 1976.
Edward VII (1841-1910) was king of Great Britain and Ireland from 1901 to 1910. His short reign was marked by peace and prosperity.
Born on Nov. 9, 1841, at Buckingham Palace, Edward VII was the eldest son of Victoria and Albert. Bertie, as he was nicknamed, proved unresponsive to the elaborate educational scheme his parents imposed. He gained command of German and French, some skill in public speaking, and little else. Beginning in 1859, he attended Christ Church, Oxford, for four terms, interrupted by an American tour in 1860. Formal schooling ended in 1861 at Trinity College, Cambridge.
Dismayed by what Queen Victoria called "Bertie's fall," which occurred with an actress in Ireland in 1861, his parents considered travel and an early marriage the best remedy. Discussion of Princess Alexandra, whose father was heir to the Danish throne, as a suitable bride preceded the Prince Consort's death in 1861. After a trip to the Holy Land, Edward married Alexandra at Windsor on March 10, 1863.
Despite Victoria's early determination to initiate Edward into affairs of state, she withheld the key to Foreign Office boxes during his long tenure as Prince of Wales because of his indiscretion. Edward's imprudence persisted during his exclusion from apprenticeship: he had to testify in the Mordaunt divorce case (1870); he was deeply involved in the Aylesford scandal (1876); and the Tranby Croft affair (1891) brought him to court again, this time as a witness to cheating at baccarat. Understandably, the tone of the prince's set alarmed the Queen and offended nonconformist consciences. But his hearty self-indulgence had an appeal transcending classes. As a winner at the racecourse and as an arbiter of taste, the prince was genuinely popular. The European web of dynastic marriages familiarized Edward with other royalties. He relished the spectacular state visits required by British diplomacy, but he did not make foreign policy.
When he succeeded to the throne on the death of Victoria in 1901, Edward was a portly, balding, bearded figure. He created the Order of Merit and introduced automobiles as royal transport. Edward supported Lord Fisher's naval reforms and Lord Haldane's reorganization of the army, but he was not as close to any ministers as Queen Victoria had been to Lord Melbourne and Benjamin Disraeli. The great constitutional crisis of his reign— whether to promise the Liberal ministry a creation of peers sufficient to overcome the Tory majority in the House of Lords, and, if so, on what conditions—was unresolved at his death. Edward VII died of bronchitis followed by heart attacks on May 6, 1910, and he was interred at Windsor.
Sir Sidney Lee, King Edward VII: A Biography (2 vols., 1925-1927), may be supplemented by Philip Magnus, King Edward the Seventh (1964). For the flavor of Edward's reign see S. Nowell-Smith, ed., Edwardian England, 1901-1914 (1964).
Pearson, John, Edward the rake: an unwholesome biography of Edward VII, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975.
St. Aubyn, Giles, Edward VII, Prince and King, New York: Atheneum, 1979. □