The Hedonist King Who Knew His Place

Royal Cousins at War

a BBC documentary directed by Richard Sanders


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.

National Portrait Gallery, London
The Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, 1871; photograph by Alexander Bassano

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.…

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