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We grovel before fat Edward — [E]dward the Caresser,
as he is privately named...But I mourn the safe
and motherly old middle-class queen...Henry James to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.January 1901
The print shops are full of scurrilous caricatures and infamous things relative to the Prince's conduct," Jane Austen wrote to a friend about the future George IV, who succeeded to the throne at fifty-seven. Her remark would as aptly have described the next Prince of Wales. Few sovereigns had to wait as long to come into their inheritance as Prince Albert Edward. Born in 1841, he became Edward VII in 1901. His mother, Queen Victoria, niece of the unsavory George IV, had reigned for nearly sixty-four years after succeeding to the throne, at eighteen, in 1837.
Reigning may require some on-the-job preparation, and the Prince of Wales had ample time for it, but his royal mother would give him nothing to do. She did not trust him. Not measuring up to his high-pressure educational regimen, he had been a slow learner as a boy, and a rapid learner of all the wrong things as a young man. She even blamed him for his sainted father's early death, although Albert, the Prince Consort and a true worthy, had died of an affliction far more grave than anguish over his son's unseemly sexual initiation.
The less that Bertie had to do, the greater the challenge to fill the time on his hands. He attended both Oxford and Cambridge and took no degrees. He did nothing whatever and was given a doctorate in Law. He underwent military training to no effect, and was incapable of leading a platoon, yet he became a field marshal. He was easily bored. He read few books and rarely wrote letters. He governed nothing. The news he made was seldom fit to print. He was guest of honor at uneventful receptions and his presence guaranteed attendance at tedious public dinners.
The Prince gourmandized voraciously, often consuming five meals a day. He hunted foxes and stalked deer, and shot partridges and grouse by the thousand. He traveled abroad, sometimes frenetically and usually with huge entourages. He accepted domestic hospitality for long weekends, his lavish requirements sometimes bankrupting his hosts. When the whim suited him, he was a volunteer London fireman and let the social barriers down, as he also did when overseeing unlawful prize-fighting matches. He raced thoroughbreds, often purchased with borrowed money he never repaid. He acquired and raced yachts he could not afford. He played cards obsessively, sometimes illegal games like baccarat, for high stakes. The focus of fashion, he sometimes created his own styles. He drank whisky, brandy and champagne in large quantities. He smoked large cigars, alternating them with strong cigarettes. He patronized the opera and the ballet, seldom arriving before the performances began, as well as frequenting houses of much less discreet entertainment. He soaked off his many culinary sins and fleshly dissipations in steamy, sulphurous spas.
As a teenager touring Canada and the United States the Prince of Wales became an immense celebrity, the first ever in the New World. He proved equal to it. Within a few years he was the First Gentleman in the Kingdom, and validated his title. By the time he was thirty, his reputation, even across the Atlantic, was so discredited that when he rallied from a grave illness, a newspaper in Indiana commented acerbically that "his pig-headed obstinacy in refusing to die when the doctors gave him up" had caused it to postpone publication of his obituary. Reform, however, even for someone seemingly recalled to life, was out of the question. His insatiable appetite for women sometimes led to his siring children he then stood for as godfather, his only recognition of the relationship. A husband's social success was, on occasion, predicated upon the covert pandering of his pretty wife to the Prince of Wales. Inevitably, he was summoned to testify in seamy divorce and gambling scandals, and pressured to pay blackmail. Being the unemployed heir to the throne of the greatest empire in the world was an arduous occupation.
Was anything that the Prince of Wales did during his extended education worth the doing? Did travel broaden anything but his prodigious bulk? Did he come to the throne prepared for whatever duties remained to the sovereign after democracy had left little to the throne but the throne? This biography attempts to confront these questions. Albert Edward's is a compelling story. From the start, little was expected of him, and often that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. That he confounded the critics and the doomsayers may have been as much a surprise to him as to them.
The familiar photographic image of the Prince of Wales shows a rakish and already world-weary playboy, looking older than his early thirties. Beneath the tilt of his tall silk hat loom hooded eyes which appear already to have witnessed the darker side of sophistication, and a bearded face from which juts the inevitable cigar or cigarette. While the Queen went on and on, his beard would gray, his back would become more stooped with the years, and his coats would require miracles of tailoring to conceal his avoirdupois. His occupation was to wait. Filling in the time in his own fashion, he waited.
Uncle to Europe in an age of monarchies because his prolific mother had been grandmother to Europe, he had links to thrones from St. Petersburg and Copenhagen to Berlin and Lisbon. He did not live to see two world wars dispose of most of them. An anachronism in many ways, in others he was a modernist. In his own lifestyle, he shunned the stifling morality that made sexual indulgence a hidden hypocrisy, and the stubborn social prejudices that barred Jews and even Catholics from Establishment offices and drawing rooms. (At one of the Prince's dinner tables, a guest observed with incredulity, sat a Cardinal and a Rothschild.) His contemporaneity revealed itself by his utter lack of religious belief — except where its show was publicly useful — and his trust in the new science, about which he understood little. That he was an early bicyclist and automobilist identified him less as a backer of modern technology than a beneficiary of it.
The problem of what to do with the heir to the throne while its occupant will relinquish none of its emoluments is, in Britain, a recurring one, whenever the succession comes early to a sovereign, as it did with George III and Victoria, and again when Elizabeth II became Queen as a young woman in 1952. It has no successful alleviating precedents. No monarch wants to encourage a rival Court. When the heir was as shrewd, as spendthrift, as conspiratorial and as troublesome as George III's eldest son, the dilemma was agonizingly acute. Inevitably, some impatient critics would compare the aging sovereign unfavorably with the inexperienced heir, as did W. E. Gladstone when, sorely tried as Victoria's prime minister, he said of the Prince of Wales, at the time little more than thirty, "He would make an excellent sovereign. He is far more fitted for that high place than her present Majesty now is." But the Prince remained unemployed for the best part of three further decades.
The dynamism of the brief Edwardian age was already stirring in the Victorian 1880s and 1890s. Looking forward to the new kingly era, which came almost symbolically with the dawn of the new century, even ordinary people saw the possibilities of real change for the better in a new reign. A contemporary music-hall lyric caught this mood of optimism:
Father's going to change his socks and Auntie have a bath,
On the day King Edward gets his crown on.
While much material new to biographies of Prince Albert Edward appears in the following pages, the basic contours of his life, if not its inner complexity, remain unaltered. As heir apparent he was a walking argument for the defects of primogeniture. Although the Queen's self-imposed purdah threatened the values inherent in monarchy, her son's accession was anticipated by the Establishment with alarm from the moment of his majority, as if he were a time-bomb ticking under the throne. Those apprehensions, it will be seen, were more than justified; yet the monarchy survived, and weathered further familial embarrassments and crises throughout the century.
Since I am probably the first American to research a life of the delinquent heir whom Benjamin Disraeli called Prince Hal (after the gross Sir John Falstaff's errant young friend), I have mined many hitherto unexplored American sources, which have shed further light on how a nineteenth-century Prince Hal turned, in some ways, into a Falstaff. Many Americans, newly affluent and footloose in the later decades of the nineteenth century, aspired to be Victorian Yankees at Queen Victoria's Court, and, in his own interest and their own, the Prince of Wales was a ready intermediary, especially if pretty ladies were involved. Pragmatically, some Americans were less interested in the old Queen than in the future king, the likely fountain of perquisites and privilege in the new century. Their letters, diaries, notebooks, memoirs, and reportage provide a relatively unexploited lens through which to observe Edward VII when he was only Albert Edward. Americans, except when currying favor with the Prince, were a notoriously irreverent lot, whose perspective inevitably reflects this.
No one, however, did a greater disservice to the future king than he himself. Like a child engaged in something forbidden, yet perversely satisfying, the Prince savored his wrongdoings, weighed each of them lightly, and hoped for the best. Eventually, he assumed, his accession would expunge all memory of princely misbehavior and he would be remembered warmly as king. History has almost validated that, for biographies of Edward VII generally devote as many pages, or more, to his nine years on the throne as to his fifty-nine years' waiting for it. In these pages, however, he is the exasperating Prince of Wales living through his miseducation and misdemeanors, and emerging in dubious and unexpected dignity as king. Shakespeare's Hal — Henry V — having succeeded to the title he coveted, warns Falstaff:
Presume not that I am the thing I was,
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turned away my former self.
Not so Victoria's Prince of Wales. Time, rather than title, had turned opprobrium away. This life examines Edward VII's former self.
Copyright © 2001 by Stanley Weintraub