21 February 2017

Mistresses: Daisy Greville, Countess of Warwick

by Heather Domin

Prince Albert of England (later King Edward VII) was well known for his string of mistresses and liaisons, who ran the gamut from madams and actresses to the wives of English aristocrats (including Winston Churchill’s mother). But one of his most famous paramours earned her place in history not just for her affair with the Prince, but for how she used her fame once her royal affair was over. She was Daisy Greville, the indomitable Lady Brooke, Countess of Warwick.

Daisy Greville in 1897, at the height of
her relationship with Prince Albert
Born Frances Maynard in 1861, the vivacious girl known as Daisy burst onto the English social scene as a teenager, when she was briefly considered as a bride for Queen Victoria’s youngest son Prince Leopold. At age 20 she married Francis Greville, Lord Brooke, who a few years later became the Earl of Warwick. Marrying a peer elevated Daisy into the highest circle of English society, which was notorious for its decidedly un-Victorian culture of idle hedonism, lavish parties, and extramarital sex. She soon began affairs with several men, which raised no eyebrows – but it was her refusal to hide these affairs that raised many. Daisy paid no heed to the strict rule of silence and became infamous for the only true sin of the day: indiscretion. She told tales, named names, made scenes, and even wrote jealous letters to her lovers’ wives. Fellow socialites dubbed her “Babbling Brooke”, a play on her title of Lady Brooke. But despite her impetuous nature she remained at the pinnacle of the English social scene, as famous for her style, wit, and charm as she was for her occasional lapses in judgement. It was only a matter of time before she came into contact with the Playboy Prince himself, Albert of Wales, heir to the British throne.

Their affair began after Daisy appealed to the Prince (known as Bertie to friends and family) to help control a scandal with another of her lovers, which had of course been caused by her own recklessness. His royal influence eventually put an end to the public drama, and the prince fell in love with the damsel he had rescued from distress. Soon Daisy was Bertie’s official mistress. She threw him fabulous parties and hosted his entire social circle, the “Marlborough House Set”, on long getaways in the country; he called her ‘my darling Daisy’ and shared her enthusiasm for bicycling, a fad which was quickly becoming a symbol of early feminism (see the image of the Gibson Girl with her split riding skirt and modern, independent lifestyle). In a lifetime full of liaisons and rendezvouses, the Prince considered Daisy one of the three great loves of his life, and listed her among his closest confidantes.

Daisy and Bertie’s sexual affair only lasted a few years, but after it ended she did not fade away or sink into obscurity. On the contrary: though the Prince’s ardor for her cooled, they remained close friends. After he became King Edward VII in 1901, he visited Daisy often during his decade-long reign to get away from court life, seeking her advice on family matters and even his relationships with her successor mistresses. She too moved on to enjoy other high-profile relationships that fueled society gossip, including the long-standing rumor that her two youngest children were not fathered by her husband. But in the Victorian aristocracy all this adultery did not necessarily mean one’s own marriage was unhappy; Daisy and her husband were on good terms and stayed together until his death in 1924.

By that time a life of high-society partying had drained Daisy’s coffers, and as a widow facing poverty with neither husband nor royal benefactor (King Edward had died in 1910), she made a rather desperate move: she threatened to publish her most private letters from Bertie unless the current King paid for her silence. George V did not take the bait, but in the end Daisy was allowed to publish a censored version of her memoirs to avoid bankruptcy. She ended up writing over a dozen books, not just her autobiography but works on various social themes, history, and even gardening. Her two memoirs, Life's Ebb & Flow and Discretions, are now regarded as some of the best-written of the Victorian era. 

In later life Daisy became a staunch advocate for social justice. She was in favor of women’s suffrage, founded a women’s college, and contributed to women’s charities. As she had in her younger days, she refused to conform to society’s expectations and lived life on her own terms. She even ran for Parliament in 1923, but lost to Anthony Eden. 

Daisy & Bertie's relationship was profiled in two books I highly recommend: Leslie Carroll’s Royal Affairs and Jane Ridley’s The Heir Apparent. There’s also The King in Love by Theo Aronson, which is on my to-read list. And of course, there are Daisy’s own memoirs. The Countess of Warwick was a fascinating study in contrasts, embodying the shifting sands and conflicting mores of the late 19th and early 20th century. She even managed to get a song named after her: 'Daisy Bell', also known as 'A Bicycle Built for Two'.

Daisy Greville at Wikipedia
Edwardian Promenade: Daisy, Countess of Warwick
History of Bicycling: Daisy Greville

Heather Domin writes historical, romantic, and speculative fiction, including the Valerian's Legion series set in August Rome. She has been a contributor and assistant moderator at Unusual Historicals since 2011.  heatherdomin.com