03 July 2008

Famous People: King Edward VII

By Anne Whitfield

Edward, eldest son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert was born in Buckingham Palace in 1841. He was educated privately and at Edinburgh University, Oxford University and Cambridge University.

In 1860 Edward became the first member of the royal family to tour the USA. When he returned to England he was involved in a scandal with a Irish actress. Prince Albert died a few weeks later and Queen Victoria blamed her son for her husband's death. Victoria later declared that was never able to look at the boy without a shudder.

After the death of Prince Albert, Edward took his seat in the House of Lords as the Duke of Cornwall. Edward, who spoke French, German, Spanish and Italian, toured the world on behalf of the royal family. This included trips to Italy, Spain, Canada, India, Egypt, Denmark, France, Germany, Belgium and Russia.

In 1863 Edward married Alexandra, eldest daughter of King Kristian IX of Denmark. Alexandra had six children, Albert, Duke of Clarence (1864-1892), George (1865-1936), Louise (1867-1931), Victoria (1868-1935), Maud (1869-1938) and Alexander, who died soon after being born.

Edward had a regular annual routine. He spent Christmas at Sandringham, three of four weeks at Buckingham Palace, Biarritz in February and March, Easter at Windsor Castle, summer in London with regular visits to the racecourse, an official tour of a foreign country, country-house visits for grouse-shooting, three weeks at a foreign spa, October at Balmoral and November and December at Buckingham Palace. Prince Edward had a great appetite eating five large meals a day. These meals often consisted of ten or more courses. By the time he was middle-aged he had a waist of forty-eight inches. Edward also smoked twelve large cigars and twenty cigarettes a day.

Queen Victoria disapproved of Edward's interest in horse-racing, theatre-going and yachting. Edward had several mistresses including Lily Langtry, Alice Kepple, Lady Brooke, Princess de Mouchy and Princess de Sagan. Edward was involved in several scandals. On one occasion it was discovered that he had been playing in an illegal card-game and in 1870 he was accused in court of having an affair with Lady Mordaunt. Victoria was horrified by her son's behaviour and warned that evidence of a pleasure-loving and immoral aristocracy might provoke the working class into adopting radical political ideas.

The Edwardian period, which covered Edward's reign and was named after him, coincided with the start of a new century and heralded significant changes in technology and society, including powered flight and the rise of socialism. Edward played a role in the modernisation of the British Home Fleet, the reform of the Army Medical Services and the reorganisation of the British army after the Second Boer War. His work in fostering good relations between Great Britain and other European countries, especially France, for which he was popularly called "Peacemaker", was unable to prevent the outbreak of World War I in 1914.

As king, Edward VII proved a greater success than anyone had expected, but he was already an old man and had little time left to fulfil the role. In his short reign, he ensured that his second son and heir, George V, was better prepared to take the throne. Contemporaries described their relationship as more like affectionate brothers than father and son, and on Edward's death George wrote in his diary that he had lost his "best friend and the best of fathers...I never had a cross word with him in my life. I am heart-broken and overwhelmed with grief".

Edward received criticism for his apparent pursuit of self-indulgent pleasure but he received great praise for his affable and kind good manners, and his diplomatic skill. As his grandson wrote, "his lighter side...obscured the fact that he had both insight and influence." "He had a tremendous zest for pleasure but he also had a real sense of duty," wrote J. B. Priestley. Lord Esher wrote that Edward was "kind and debonair and not undignified–-but too human".

Edward VII is buried at St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle. As Barbara Tuchman noted in The Guns of August, his funeral marked "the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last."

Edward had been afraid that his nephew, the German Emperor William II, would tip Europe into war Four years after his death, World War I broke out. The naval reforms and the Anglo-French alliance he had supported, and the relationships between his extended royal family, were put to the test. The war marked the end of the Edwardian way of life.

Funeral procession of King Edward VII, Windsor, 1910