‘We grovel before fat Edward — Edward the Caresser as he is privately named,” Henry James wrote. A “corpulent voluptuary,” sneered Rudyard Kipling.
They were talking about the new British king, Edward VII, who took the throne in 1901 at 59 after the death of his mother, Queen Victoria. Talk about a hard act to follow. Mother was, and remains, Britain’s longest ruling monarch and not much was expected of the son.
Bertie, as he was universally known, was infamous for his gambling and gamboling, insatiable appetite and love of smoking. (His forever-expanding waistline earned him the nickname “Tum Tum.”)
The Heir Apparent: A Life of Edward VII, the Playboy Prince
Fastidious about dress, he was a sartorial innovator; cross him on protocols of style, and you’d find yourself banished and blacklisted. He was very fond of other men’s wives and had an endless string of mistresses. He was never very far from scandal — and now he was king.
Well, “fat Edward” turned out to be a much more impressive ruler than expected. (The not exactly svelte James was one to talk.) “Confounding the naysayers, he was very good at it,” Jane Ridley concludes in her new biography. His reign was brief — he died in 1910 — and by the end he managed to transform himself into a beloved “peoples king.”
He had no need for books but was fanatically hard working. Well traveled — he was comfortable on the continent, unlike his predecessors — fluent in French and German, bound tight by family ties to important European royals, “he possessed the best address book in Europe and his own superior sources of intelligence.”
He navigated the complex geopolitics of Europe on the eve of World War I, even if he could never rein in his ornery nephew, Kaiser Wilhelm, who loathed his uncle with a passion. We hear the rumbles that will eventually build to war.
The “Heir Apparent’’ is the product of a deep immersion in the royal archives. There is plenty of tittle-tattle, some of it sexually graphic, in this vastly peopled chronicle — the endless party-going and country house carousing may prove exhausting for some. But Ridley is a serious scholar and historian who keeps Bertie’s flaws and virtues in fine balance.
Yes, he was a “sexually rampant” serial adulterer, but the ruthlessly scrupulous Ridley splashes plenty of cold water on unfounded rumors. He was said to have fathered numerous illegitimate children, but Ridley can find evidence of only one such instance, “and even so, the child cannot be traced.”
Then again, Bertie was equally ruthless about covering his tracks. His diaries are terse and spare; he, along with his private secretary, Francis Knollys, destroyed reams of letters from the women in his life. So we may never now know the whole truth.
Ridley is excellent on the women in Bertie’s life. There were many, not just mistresses. His mother, who thought him a dimwit, practically shredded her diary fretting about him and his proclivities. His relations with his several sisters were alternately fractious and loving.
Wife Alix, a Danish princess, endured physical ailments, among them the onset of deafness, and Bertie’s callous behavior. Then there were the dalliances galore — with Lilly Langtry (even so, more cold water here — the actress and beauty exaggerated a great deal, says Ridley), Jenny Churchill (mother of Winston), Daisy Warwick, and Alice Keppel, who was a constant companion in late life. It was a long list. (Gladstone was deeply concerned that his capers were a threat to the integrity of the throne.)
But again, Ridley is frequently circumspect. Yes, Bertie, carried on. But he also enjoyed the company of woman. He paid visits to their houses, but what really went on in these meetings? “Most probably an abrupt lunge would be followed by a kiss smelling of tobacco and a hasty grope.”
Fair enough. Bertie’s decades long tenure as Prince of Wales — he became “the first modern gossip-column prince” — makes this a necessarily lopsided book. Only the last quarter deals with his time as king. Ridley makes high claims about Edward’s rule. “Like Shakespeare’s Prince Hal, the dissipated prince evolved into a model king.”
The author sticks up for Edward VII’s diplomacy, which, she says, historians have downplayed. His visit to Paris in 1903 helped bring about the entente cordiale between France and Britain. His ease with French ways won raves with the press — it was a publicity coup. He was an emollient presence on the domestic political scene. He took his duties seriously. “I am king of ALL the people,” he once roared at a critic. And indeed he was.
Matthew Price is a regular contributor to the Globe. He can be reached at mprice68@ gmail.com.