House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha: Edward VII (1901-1910)

An immensely popular, chubby-cheeked, convivial man, Edward VII was in all truth a mostly unremarkable figure with hardly a moral fiber in his insubstantial body. He was known as a frivolous “Prince of Pleasure,” a man all-too familiar with the sin of gluttony. His reign represented a minor nine-year epilogue to the Victorian Age, as if to offer the Ancien Régime one final sip of fine wine and a cigar before the long dark shadow of war crept over Europe. While personally he was a rather silly man, Edward VII still managed to transform the British monarchy from the cloistered and stoic brand of Queen Victoria, into the showy offering of public pageantry we see today.

Christened Albert Edward and known to his family as “Bertie,” the future Edward VII was a self-indulgent, intransigent young man. He rebelled against his father Albert’s strenuous educational curriculum and often landed himself in myriad scandals. Whereas Victoria and Albert were sober devotees of their solemn duty, Edward was loyal servant of his own personal pleasures –from fine wine, cigars, gambling, horse-racing, rich food, and especially women. He was dismissed as something of an irresponsible playboy, buttressed by his implications in various scandals ranging from public divorce proceedings to accusations of cheating at card games. He became known as “Edward the Caresser” having had many known conquests from actresses to aristocrats (including the Lady Randolph Churchill, mother of the future Sir Winston Churchill), all of whom were tolerated by his wife, Alexandra of Denmark. Of course, the British aristocracy has long held tolerance for these professional, discreet infidelities. After the first three children, their marriage was struggling. Night after night, Edward would galavant out at parties while his pregnant wife stayed home with the children, while growing increasingly sickly with rheumatic fever. Nevertheless Edward and Alexandra produced a total of five children: their eldest Prince Albert Victor duke of Clarence and Avondale, was first in line to the throne but being a frail man with numerous lovers and questionable mental health, he died of influenza in 1892 so the Crown fell to their second son, Prince George (the future George V).

At any rate, the aging Queen Victoria had no fondness for her son Edward. In fact, she blamed him for the death of her husband Albert, a man known for overworking himself who tragically died of typhoid while tending to yet another scandal facing Edward during his brief but lively year of academic study at Cambridge University. As a result, Victoria often refused to be in the same room as Edward, and the young man was ill-prepared for his eventual assumption of the throne.

Edward was fifty-nine years old when he became king, and he was already fairly well-known throughout Europe. Whereas his late mother was the regarded as “Grandmother of Europe,” Edward was known as the “Uncle of Europe.” His nine year reign began with a resolution to the war in South Africa (now known to us as the “Second Boer War” 1899-1902), and King Edward also managed to heal old wounds with Britains oldest arch nemesis –France– by building a new alliance much to the ire of the growing German Empire (ruled by Edward’s antagonistic and paranoid nephew Kaiser Wilhelm II). It seems at least something good came from Edward’s frequent visits to the Continent in order to indulge his many sexual fantasies (there are a panoply of stories of Bertie paying visits to other men’s wives, Parisian brothels, and finding himself in bathtubs filled with champagne alongside all manner of ladies-of-the-night). These frivolities somehow managed to forge an appreciation for French culture in the King, eventually culminating in a crucial new military alliance which would prove vital in the coming years.

According to fanciful nostalgists, the Edwardian Era was a brief but delightful bookend to nearly a century of Victorian Britain shortly before the outbreak of World War I. However, in truth Britain was undergoing vast changes at the time including the emergence of the modern welfare state, agitations regarding the expanding right to vote and emerging trade unions, as well as the rise of the newly formed Labour Party. A mere three Prime Ministers served under Edward VII, one of which was Arthur Balfour whose namesake later became the declaration for the creation of a Jewish homeland in the Middle East (today known as the State of Israel). Edward’s reign also oversaw a modernizing and expanding British military in response to expansive military technologies across the Continent, particularly the militarization of Germany.

During the last year of his life, Edward was immersed in a constitutional crisis brought about in the House of Lords when the Conservative majority refused to pass the Liberal budget of 1909. Edward died before the situation could be resolved (it would only end the following year when the Liberal party was swept to victory in the election of 1910).

In the end Edward’s many addictions brought about the end of his life. After years of ill health, reportedly smoking twenty cigarettes and twelve cigars each day, he increasingly suffered cardiac issues and with a failing body he ultimately passed due to bronchitis on May 6, 1910. His death was regarded as a swan song of old Europe. Curiously, despite his many moral failings, Edward was widely mourned by his people and has often been fondly remembered as “The People’s King.” At his lavish funeral procession from London to Windsor Castle, Barbara Tuchman makes note in her classic book The Guns of August of how the vast assemblage of European royalty present was unlike any event that had been witnessed in any prior age.

For this reading I used David Starkey’s Crown and Country, and Ian Crofton’s referential writings on the Kings and Queens of England. Peter Ackroyd’s Dominion: The History of England From The Battle of Waterloo concluded with the death of Queen Victoria and I have not yet read his next installment entitled Innovation: The History of England Volume VI (published in September 2021). It also should be noted that Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples ended its chronology with the death of Victoria.

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