In 1857 the 16-year-old Albert Edward, Queen Victoria’s first son and so heir to her throne, was set an essay on “whether kings should be elected”. Yes, he wrote, “it is better than hereditary right because you have more chance of having a good sovereign; if it goes by hereditary right, if you have a bad or weak sovereign, you cannot prevent him reigning.” This, however, didn’t stop him accepting the throne when it passed to him by hereditary right 44 years later – indeed, 20 years too late in his view. Many readers of this splendid new biography by Jane Ridley may find it hard to disagree.
He was late, of course, because his mother hung on interminably. One reason might have been that she didn’t trust the prince to succeed her. “It is useless to think he will come to the throne,” her daughter reported her saying. The monarchy would then come to an end. This was predicated on the assumption that the Victorian model of monarchy was the only one available: based on the pattern of a highly moral “royal family” acting as an example to the nation. There was no doubt that “Bertie” could never conform to this. Ridley pinpoints the exact moment of his “fall”, as it was called at the time, to 6 September 1861, when some young army officers in Ireland fixed him up with a prostitute called Nellie Clifden. “How could you?” his father, Prince Albert, wrote to him. “To thrust yourself into the hands of one of the most abject of the human species, to be by her initiated into the sacred mysteries of creation, which ought to be shrouded in holy awe until touched by pure & undefiled hands!”
Marriage two years later to a Danish princess, Alexandra, scarcely cramped his style. He seems to have loved her, after his fashion. “She is my brood mare,” he used to say. “The others are my hacks.” “Alix” in her turn certainly loved him, to the extent of tolerating his infidelities. Indeed, Ridley concludes: “Her loyalty was his most precious asset.” So the philandering went on. (One of Bertie’s nicknames as king was “Edward the Caresser”.) Much of this book is a record of his womanising – with prostitutes, society women and “professional beauties” – sorting out as far as is possible truth from the gossip that inevitably came in its train. Of the several illegitimate children attributed to him, for example, Ridley is certain only of one.
He also partied, gambled and ate to excess. (“Tum-tum” was another of his soubriquets.) He never read books, except the occasional novel; and had the reputation of a philistine, though it’s surprising to find how many Wagner operas he attended, presumably voluntarily. (Perhaps he had a crush on one of the Valkyries.) No wonder Victoria despaired, though it should also be said that Bertie’s dissipation can be seen as a response to her disparaging of him, which long pre-dated the “fall”, and that even if he had been the best little boy in the world he could never have matched up to Albert, whom she idolised beyond reason. It didn’t help, either, that she blamed Bertie’s goings-on for the latter’s death. (He caught a cold travelling to Cambridge to tick his son off, which turned into pneumonia.)
This book started out, Ridley tells us, as a short study of Bertie’s relations with these many women in his life (including of course his mother). It turned into something more comprehensive; but the women are still there, giving a crucial perspective to a man and a reign to which they are usually seen as frivolous adjuncts. Some were, and were treated badly by him – but not all. Women were “the joy of his life”, wrote Margot Asquith; and not only for the sex, which probably petered out towards the end in any case, but also for their conversation. Men who like the company of women are different from men who feel comfortable only among other males. Bertie liked “masculine” women (Valkyries?) more than flibbertigibbets. They didn’t turn Bertie into a feminist – he strongly opposed female suffrage – but they gave him a broader empathy with humanity. One in particular of his mistresses, Daisy “Babbling” Brooke, later Countess of Warwick, and a famous aristocratic socialist, taught him about the “social problem”: working-class poverty, housing and the rest. And so “the great womaniser was womanised”.
In a way this was a better preparation for kingship than Victoria’s narrower upbringing had been. Denied any useful role while his mother was alive, much to his frustration, Bertie was given 40-odd free years not only to philander but also to gain a wide experience of the world – both socially and geographically – from Parisian brothels to the Russian court. He was free from most of the prejudices of the class immediately beneath him: racism, for example, antisemitism and anti-money. (This made him appear “vulgar” to some.)
All this turned him into a surprisingly successful king when the chance eventually came to him, though not in the Victoria-and-Albert mould. He was both more British and more European than either Victoria or his successor George V, reacting against Victoria’s obstinate Germanism, partly as a result of his marriage with a Danish princess at the height of the Schleswig-Holstein dispute (“remember that your whole family are German and you are yourself half German”, as his mother wrote to him, complaining at how “John Bullish” he was getting). And he never warmed to the “imperial” impedimenta of his office, as George was to do. Needless to say, the “royal family” idea stood no chance under him – though it was revived later (not unproblematically). But Ridley thinks this only boosted his position and that of the monarchy. Not everyone in Britain was as bourgeois as his parents. “A virtuous king,” wrote Logan Pearsall Smith, “is a king who has shirked his proper function: to embody for his subjects an ideal of illustrious behaviour absolutely beyond their reach.” Edward had the popular touch. “You don’t understand me!” he roared to a courtier who questioned why he was inquiring after the republican Keir Hardie’s health. “I am king of all the people!”
Comparisons with Shakespeare’s Prince Hal are inevitable. (Disraeli seems to have been the first to think of it.) Ridley even gives Edward a Falstaff: Daisy Warwick, rejected by him on coming to the throne just as Henry V had spurned Sir John. Despite the excesses of his youth (and middle age), Edward came to enjoy being king, and was good at it. Among the achievements Ridley credits him with are dinner jackets, trouser turn-ups, silver weddings, the Order of Merit, and easing, at least, the Anglo-French entente.
The main one, however, was to restore the monarchy to public view – back in London after years of exile at Windsor, lots of public appearances, pomp and circumstance – and consequently to people’s affections, after that dreadful woman had died. As a result, there can be little doubt that if there had been an election for his post at any time in his reign, as the very young prince had favoured, he would have won it hands down. Whether that was in spite of or because of his earlier sins must be a matter for debate.
• Bernard Porter’s The Lion’s Share: A History of British Imperialism is published by Pearson.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010