Two summers ago Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her Diamond Jubilee. And it really was a happy celebration, despite the English weather, with a great procession of boats down the Thames and street parties and bonfires across the land. This was only the second such sixtieth anniversary any British monarch had ever reached, following Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in June 1897, and in early September of next year the queen will break Victoria’s record of sixty-three years and seven months, to become the longest-reigning monarch in British or English history.
For the queen’s eldest son Charles, Prince of Wales, there had been a gloomier milestone in early 2011. He passed the mark of fifty-nine years as heir to the throne set by his great-great-grandfather, Victoria’s eldest son, the Prince of Wales who was known as Bertie to his family, who became King Edward VII in 1901, and who is the subject of Jane Ridley’s exceptionally good new biography. Bertie was fifty-nine when he inherited the throne and Charles is now sixty-five. The queen is eighty-eight, but her own mother lived to be 101, and our prince might yet have a long wait, if indeed he does inherit the crown.
One thing the queen doesn’t face today is the possibility of a European war, while dynastic politics matter no more (except in the United States). And yet, at this somber centenary, the fascinating BBC documentary Royal Cousins at War reminds us that when the Great War began in 1914, no fewer than nine European countries were ruled by descendants of Queen Victoria, and that the monarchs of three of the combatant great powers were first cousins, Kaiser William II, Tsar Nicholas II, and King George V, the last having succeeded his father when Edward VII died in May 1910. The war ended with the collapse of the first two men’s monarchies, and with exile for one and death for the other, but the British monarchy survived. Ridley’s book helps explain why.
After Victoria succeeded to the throne in 1837, at just eighteen, a husband had to be found for her, by way of the innumerable Protestant principalities of Germany. The choice fell on Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha; he and Victoria married in 1840, both aged twenty. An arranged marriage became a love match, but not a happy family. Not the least important of the many social changes during the queen’s very long reign was that, as natality statistics plainly show, by the 1890s the higher classes in England were practicing birth control by one means or another. That had not been so in the 1840s, but if any woman would ever have been grateful for the Pill it was Victoria, who hated pregnancy and childbirth as much as she relished passionate nights with Albert. Sad to say, she took it out on her children.
Although far from stupid, she and Albert were appalling parents, harsh, censorious, and utterly unimaginative. The first-born Victoria got off lightly, partly because she escaped at seventeen when she married Prince Frederick William of Prussia. Bertie was born in 1841, and became the chief victim of his parents’ emotional obtusity. The waspish diarist Charles Greville heard enough to suggest that “the hereditary and unfailing antipathy of our Sovereigns to their Heir Apparent seems…early to be taking root.” It’s true that Bertie was “a very difficult pupil,” almost ineducable, and all his life he barely read a book. But “our poor strange boy,” as Victoria called him, had so little encouragement or affection from his grim parents that they were lucky he didn’t turn out even stranger.
In 1860, Bertie visited the United States. The visit was a triumphant success, revealing not for the last time a deep American fascination with royalty. Three thousand were invited to a ball for him at the New York Opera House and five thousand came. Bertie had “whispered sweet nothings” to the girls he danced with, The New York Herald reported, and “had already yielded to several twinges in the region of his midriff.” Since Albert had a file marked “Bertie’s Marriage Prospects,” and had decided on Alexandra of Denmark—Alix to her family—that was not what he wanted to hear.
He wanted even less to hear the news the next year when Bertie was sent for a brief sojourn with the army at the Curragh camp west of Dublin. His engagement diary records “6 Sept Curragh N.C. 1st time,” and then a second and third time. “NC” was Nellie Clifden, a superior tart. Some of the younger officers had sportingly smuggled her into a hut in the camp, where she introduced Bertie to the joys of sex. Lord Torrington, a lord-in-waiting to Queen Victoria, maliciously repeated the rumors to Albert, with devastating effect. Victoria never forgot: “Oh!! That heavenly face of woe and sorrow which was so dreadful to witness!”
In a letter of terrible reproach, Albert told Bertie how shameful it was
to thrust yourself into the hands of one of the most abject of the human species, to be by her initiated in the sacred mysteries of creation, which ought to remain shrouded in holy awe until touched by pure & undefiled hands.
It’s hard to imagine such a letter written by a father to a son in 1961, or in 1761 for that matter, and even at the time Albert’s close friend the worldly Lord Granville said that all Bertie had done was to lose “that which few men, well fed with animal spirits long retain.” But months later Albert fell seriously ill, in December he died, at only forty-two, and “for years afterward, Victoria blamed Bertie for Albert’s death.”
All in all, Bertie’s upbringing was a total failure in view of his parents’ hopes. He did not become an earnest public man like his father. He did not grow up chaste, but reacted into a lifetime of libertinism. And far from shunning “the independent, haughty faultfinding fashionable set” Victoria and Albert abhorred, that was precisely the society he would relish.
Nonetheless Bertie and Alix were wed. Among those present in Windsor was a three-year-old boy delightedly wearing “my Scottish dress” or kilt, with a dirk which he noisily threw on the chapel floor. This was Prince William of Prussia, Bertie’s nephew, who would play a large part in his life, and in European history. Alix bore Bertie three daughters and three sons, but she was a chronic invalid, deaf and infirm by her late twenties. Bertie’s eye would doubtless have wandered anyway, at home and abroad. Victoria loathed “that horrid Paris” under the Second Empire, with its “frivolous and immoral court,” which was just what Bertie liked about it. In Nana, Zola portrays “the Prince of Scots” eyeing the actresses at the Théâtre des Variétés, as Bertie did.
When Jane Ridley began work more than ten years ago, she had intended a study of King Edward VII and the women in his life, from his mother to his wife to his mistresses. She began research in the Royal Archives at Windsor, where she enjoyed the wonderful experience of finding far more and richer material than she had imagined, and she realized that it had to be a full-dress biography. Even so, a life of Bertie can scarcely ignore the women.
The règle du jeu supposed that his mistresses should be upper-class married women, and that they should be absolutely discreet, but this wasn’t so easy in practice: “If he expected that he could use women for sex and then discard them, he was to be disillusioned…. Blackmail, pregnancy, even court cases were to return to haunt him.”
Today we’re less likely to be shocked by Bertie’s unchastity than by his treatment of women. The worst case was Lady Susan Vane-Tempest. Bertie probably became her lover in 1867, and in 1871 she brought the disastrous news that she was pregnant, at which Bertie effectively abandoned her to her fate: “Coldly and efficiently, he saved his princely skin from contamination.”
Then again, some husbands were less complaisant than others, as Bertie found when he took up with Lady Mordaunt. In a scene too lurid for the trashiest episode of Downton Abbey, Sir Charles Mordaunt returned unexpectedly from a fishing holiday in Norway to find two white carriage ponies in front of his country house, and his wife Harriet talking to the Prince of Wales, who had given them to her. Bertie left hurriedly while Harriet rushed indoors, but she was dragged back outside by Sir Charles to watch as he shot the ponies.
He then brought divorce proceedings, and in 1870 the prince was obliged to appear in court and deny that he had committed adultery. Soon afterward he was hissed in public. Republican feeling had been stimulated by “the widow of Windsor’s” disappearance from public life: “To speak in rude and general terms,” said Gladstone, the prime minister, “the Queen is invisible and the Prince of Wales is not respected.” What rescued Bertie was the appallingly insanitary conditions at Lord Londesborough’s house in Yorkshire, where he went to shoot in 1871. Several guests contracted typhoid, Lord Chesterfield died, and Bertie nearly did. His grave illness and then recovery swung around fickle opinion.
In 1875, Bertie toured India, showing him at his worst and his best. He traveled with the gruesome cronies he had accumulated, who left behind “a trail of adultery and scrapes.” While they were away, another scandal broke, involving Lord and Lady Ayelsford, her lover, Lord Blandford—who wanted Lord Ayelsford to divorce her—and his brother, Lord Randolph Churchill, who was strongly opposed to the divorce. The situation had elements of a Feydeau farce, but it turned all too serious when Randolph first asked Bertie to forbid the divorce and then tried to blackmail him by revealing his letters to Lady Ayelsford. Bertie responded by challenging him to a duel. It was a bitter quarrel that lasted for years, although Bertie later became a friend, and maybe lover, of Jennie, Lady Randolph Churchill.
Even allowing for changing sensibility, there is a displeasing flavor to that gilded age. Not only were the poor very poor and the rich very rich, but the rich were distinguished by vulgar philistinism and sheer excess, from gross overeating to the new passion for shooting, on a grotesque scale: one of Bertie’s shooting parties extirpated 8,463 pheasants in four days. On his Indian tour he shot an elephant in Ceylon and then set off with a retinue of 2,500 men for tiger-shooting in the Himalayan foothills, where he killed twenty-eight tigers, including a pregnant female with three cubs. The queen was repelled, and told her son that there was “a very strong feeling amongst all classes” about the slaughter.
And yet Bertie was himself angered, by the racial contempt of so many of the British rulers of India: “Because a man has black face and a different religion from our own, there is no reason why he should be treated as a brute.” Victoria had been dismayed by the un-Christian ferocity with which the Indian Mutiny was suppressed, and from then until now, the royal family would be more enlightened about race than many other English people of all classes.
Just as striking was Bertie’s philosemitism, from when he befriended “Natty” Rothschild as a young man to later years when he added Baron de Hirsch and Sir Ernest Cassel to his circle. The cynical explanation was that these rich Jewish friends supported Bertie financially, which was certainly the case. Rothschild lent him £100,000 in 1889, Cassel later absorbed £300,000 of royal debts, and those huge sums were then forgiven or forgotten. It was also convenient to stay with plutocratic hosts when the ruin of English agriculture had drastically reduced the income of many of the older aristocracy and made the cost of entertaining the prince less attractive. But Bertie genuinely liked these men, and he didn’t mind outraging the local nobility by staying with Hirsch in Hungary. Much more to the point, he remonstrated with Tsar Nicholas about the pogroms when visiting Russia in 1908.
In the last decades of Victoria’s reign Bertie began to take public affairs more seriously, serving on the Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes and more generally contributing to the invention of the “welfare monarchy.” He still dallied with his maîtresses en titre, now Daisy Warwick, now Alice Keppel, although what “mistress” really meant by then is another matter. Declining to dance in 1890, he said, “I am getting too old and fat for these amusements,” but he may well have been past it in the bedroom as well as the ballroom. Fat he certainly was: his tailor’s records show his waistline expanding from a youthful 29 1/4 inches to 48 inches in his sixties, which is not surprising given his immense meals.
Scandal still haunted Bertie, with the Tranby Croft affair, a slander action resulting from a house party in Yorkshire where a young officer was supposedly—to this day no one knows the truth—detected cheating at cards. Once again Bertie appeared in court, and Methodists were shocked to learn that the heir to the throne gambled for high stakes. But he not only survived, he had a considerable effect on social life, as a bon vivant and a sportsman—his horses won the Derby three times—who helped to spread a new spirit of hedonism and overthrow the stifling evangelical puritanism with which his parents had been so closely identified.
A biographer is entitled to her pet theme, and Jane Ridley’s is that when Bertie became King Edward he was far more politically significant than his contemporaries or posterity have allowed. His prime minister from 1902 to 1905 was A.J. Balfour, whose foreign secretary was Lord Lansdowne. In 1915 Balfour wrote to Lansdowne about the late king: “So far as I remember, during the years when you and I were his ministers, he never made a suggestion of any sort on any large questions of policy.” Ridley tries to refute this, but with doubtful success.
Although Albert’s death at only forty-two almost deranged Victoria and poisoned her relations with Bertie, Ridley ruthlessly suggests that it might have been for the best: a strong-willed prince consort with decided opinions could have been an embarrassment in the emerging British democracy. Over the course of Victoria’s reign, the residual power of the Crown sharply diminished, as parliamentary government and organized parties took shape, whether the monarch liked it or not.
In her later years, Victoria very much did not like “that half-mad firebrand” Gladstone, and she became grossly partisan toward Disraeli and the Tories. Bertie was by contrast mildly Liberal in his sympathies, and much preferred Gladstone to Disraeli, whom he thought a sham. Ridley occasionally lapses into cliché—Bertie was “a loose cannon”—but when she turns her own phrase she does it admirably well. She has Gladstone treating the queen “rather as he did his sister Helen, who was mad,” and it would be impossible to improve on the “camp obsequiousness” with which Disraeli treated the queen.
While Bertie was growing up, Albert had had a great project in view: to see Germany united, under Prussian leadership, with English support, and on liberal principles. Ten years after his death, a German Reich was created, but it was not liberal. The chronology is bleak. In December 1861, Albert died; in September 1862, King William of Prussia appointed Otto von Bismarck minister president; in March 1863, the Prince of Wales married Alexandra of Denmark; in February 1864 Prussia attacked Denmark, in the first of the three cynical wars by which Bismarck created his Reich, taught the Germans the value of force, and began, some would say, a cycle of aggression that ended only in the rubble of Berlin in 1945.
Not surprisingly Alix was strongly hostile to Germany, and Bertie also formed an aversion to Bismarck, as he told the French politician Léon Gambetta. That was in 1878, the year of the crisis that might have taken England to war with Russia, and which bequeathed us the word “jingoism.”1 For the moment Bertie was a jingo himself, but as Count Schouvaloff, the astute Russian ambassador in London, tried patiently to explain to St. Petersburg, the views of the monarch or crown prince simply did not matter in England as they did in Russia or Germany.
In its early years, the new Prussianized Reich was restrained by Bismarck, under the first kaiser, the aged William I, who died at ninety in 1888. He was succeeded by his son Frederick, a liberal after Albert’s heart, who ruled for all of ninety days before dying of cancer. In the television show Royal Cousins at War, the historian Margaret MacMillan, author of the admirable The War That Ended Peace,2 discusses one of the great “ifs” of history: What if William had died sooner, or Frederick had lived longer? As it was, he was succeeded by William II: Bertie’s nephew, that little boy with the dirk in the chapel.
While the near-psychopathic new kaiser railed against the French and the Jews and the Social Democrats, personal relations between him and his uncle deteriorated. One incident in Vienna left them barely on speaking terms, and things were not much improved when the kaiser, with his boorish tactlessness, invited himself to the Cowes Regatta, an enjoyable event until then, and turned up very much unwanted at Victoria’s deathbed.
After he became king in 1901, Edward spent much of his time traveling: Biarritz in the spring, a Mediterranean cruise with visits to one country or another, an annual cure at Marienbad that was also an informal summit meeting, so many were the crowned heads and statesmen found taking the waters there in August. Much the most important of these tours took place in the spring of 1903, planned by the king on his personal initiative. He stopped in Portugal (whose noblemen, the king thought, looked “like waiters at second-rate restaurants”) before Italy, where he said somewhat absurdly that he would go ashore incognito. As his private secretary Sir Frederick Ponsonby observed, few ordinary tourists were accompanied by “eight battleships, four cruisers, four destroyers and a dispatch vessel.”
As Prince of Wales, Bertie had three times visited the pope in the Vatican, but the London government now tried to stop him from visiting the nonagenarian Pope Leo XIII. He went ahead anyway, paying a private call. Nor did the Cabinet want the king to go to Paris, but that had been his intention all along. After the Fashoda incident only five years before, when a distant clash high up the Nile brought the two countries close to war, and then the Boer War, there was acute hostility in France toward England.
And yet all was transformed by the king when he reached Paris. In the foyer of the Théâtre Français he saw the famous actress Jeanne Granier, kissed her hand, and said in faultless French, “Oh, Mademoiselle, I remember how I applauded you in London. You personified all the grace, all the esprit of France.” The whole of Paris heard this, and the next day he spoke impromptu at the Hôtel de Ville about his delight in revisiting the lovely city “où je me trouve toujours comme si j’étais chez moi.”
“All those years of dissipation as Prince de Galles were not in vain,” says Ridley. President Émile Loubet and Théophile Delcassé, the foreign minister, soon visited London in return, and the following April the Anglo-French Entente was concluded. It mainly concerned imperial points of friction and was not a military alliance, although it would one day seem as though it had anticipated the war ten years later when the two fought together. This was no doubt the great moment of Bertie’s public life—but was it really what Ridley claims, a personal intervention of high moment? The king would not have claimed as much, since he knew, sometimes to his annoyance, that in the end policy was made by his ministers and not by him.
The real truth, and the real problem, was a reciprocal misunderstanding. On their side, the British never fully grasped that the Bismarckian Reich had only the appearance of constitutional government, while on the other side, the kaiser supposed quite wrongly that King Edward wielded the same degree of power as he himself did. He already called his uncle “Satan.” He was frustrated and enraged by Edward’s foreign tours, “the more vexed,” as the historian Sir Robert Ensor nicely observed about a period he had lived through, “because King Edward’s visits usually left a much pleasanter impression than his own.” And the kaiser supposed that those visits must have some purpose. What could that be if not encircling Germany with hostile alliances?
But King Edward never had any such aim remotely in view, and his great gifts weren’t political at all, but simply personal, his sheer amiability and charm. These are not to be despised, and they were particularly notable in his case since they made him such a contrast to any of his recent predecessors, to most of his contemporary monarchs, and even to some of his descendants.
Compare Bertie, Prince of Wales, with Charles, Prince of Wales. Bertie didn’t have his father’s strong views, whereas the present heir apparent has all too many, as The Royal Activist, a recent BBC radio program, reminded us, with stories of his frequent badgering of government ministers over his pet obsessions, which he sometimes voices in public as well. Indeed, when our prince holds forth—on genetically modified crops and contemporary architecture (he’s against them) or alternative medicine and grammar schools (he’s for)—I am reminded of what the Duke of Wellington said when explaining why he deplored the practice of soldiers’ cheering their officers: “It comes dangerously close to an expression of opinion.”
What matters is not whether he’s right or wrong or whether one agrees with him. It simply isn’t the place of a constitutional monarch—or heir apparent—to voice such strong views in public, or even in private when likely to be repeated, as recently when we learned that the prince had told a stranger that Putin was acting like Hitler. One hopes that the present Russian ambassador to the Court of St. James’s has followed Schouvaloff’s example.
That was what King Edward did grasp. When he died, to an outpouring of authentic public grief, the country was in an increasingly volatile state, with bitter party strife, suffragist militancy, violent labor disputes, a crisis over the House of Lords, and an incipient civil war in Ireland looming. One stable element was the monarchy, after a reign in which the king had been both highly visible and at last respected. So were Edward’s son and grandson George V and George VI. So is the present queen—but not her eldest son, alas. Queen Elizabeth has famously never expressed any controversial or even interesting opinion, never uttered in public any words her ministers had not written for her, which is why she has been such a successful constitutional monarch.
For what that institution is worth—and George Orwell, in his London Letter to Partisan Review in 1944, quoted a French journalist who thought that the monarchy was the one thing that had saved England from fascism—it has passed through difficult and then better times, weakened by the abdication in 1936 but strengthened by George VI and the queen during the war, having been strengthened before by the reign of King Edward VII. Will it survive the reign of King Charles III?