Queen Victoria’s eldest son Albert Edward, who reigned from 1901-1910 is a historical figure that the public feels it knows well. The landmark BBC television miniseries Edward the King portrayed “Bertie” as a well meaning Prince of Wales who would have spent less time at the races and more time devoted to affairs of state if his mother, Queen Victoria, had not had such a low opinion of his capabilities. Edward the King was the first film portrayal of Queen Victoria to include aspects of her volatile personality such as her conflicts with her husband, Prince Albert, during her pregnancies and repeated arguments with her son over his role within the monarchy. Despite his weaknesses for gambling, mistresses and large meals, the fictional Bertie is a likable figure, and his success and popularity as King during the last decade of his life comes as little surprise to the audience.
Dr. Jane Ridley’s exhaustive research reveals a historical Bertie who was both better and worse than his fictional counterpart. In contrast to Charles II, who flaunted his mistresses and provided dukedoms for the children born outside his marriage, Bertie was fiercely protective of his private life. There are no surviving letters from women in the King’s private papers preserved in the Royal Archives at Windsor. Ridley, the author of previous works of nineteenth century British history including The Young Disraeli and Edwin Lutyens: A Life, looks at the letters he wrote to the significant people in his life and little known sources such as Queen Alexandra’s letters in Danish to her sister, Empress Marie of Russia to reconstruct his complex character and motives.
The result is a biography of self centered, callous young Prince who matured in his middle age into an likable, conscientious figure who would achieve success as an elder statesman during his brief reign. The young Bertie appears to have resented his arranged marriage to Princess Alexandra of Denmark, despite the affectionate relationship that developed between them, and took numerous mistresses. The Prince was criticized in the press for his apparent indifference to his wife’s health when she was crippled by rheumatic fever five years after their marriage. Poignant letters addressed to Bertie by Lady Susan Vane-Tempest, the only one of his mistresses known to have given birth to his child, demonstrate that he displayed equal indifference to the feelings to the other women in his life.
As a middle aged Prince of Wales, Bertie’s dealings with the people closest to him changed, suggesting a new found maturity. After giving Alexandra much of the responsibility for the upbringing of their five surviving children, Bertie developed a close relationship with his son George as an adult. The loving relationship between Bertie and George stands out as the other Hanoverian and Saxe-Coburg monarch were famous for quarrelling with their heirs. Bertie also became more solicitous of Alexandra’s health and enjoyed long term stable relationships with his later mistresses, Alice Keppel and Daisy Warwick.
In addition to her nuanced portrayal of the private Bertie, Ridley also takes dynastic politics seriously, demonstrating how the marriages of the Danish princesses influenced the European alliance system. This aspect of nineteenth century diplomatic history is often dismissed by historians because the Congress of Vienna ended the practice of national borders changing to reflect royal marriages. Although Bertie neglected his wife in private, he shared her anti-Prussian sentiments and was drawn closer to Russia by his warm relationship with Alexandra’s sister and brother-in-law, Tsar Alexander III. The personal relationships between European monarchs had a strong influence on European affairs prior to the First World War and enabled many of Bertie’s successes in foreign policy when he became King Edward VII.
The future Edward VII’s evolution from a self indulgent Prince to a mature King is at the heart of Ridley’s well researched and well written biography. She captures the complexities of his personality and his crucial place in nineteenth and early twentieth century British history. If Bertie had expressed open opposition to Queen Victoria’s seclusion after the death of Prince Albert or refused to marry a Danish princess opposed to Prussian interests, the history of the British Isles would have unfolded differently in the years prior to the First World War.