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The Heir Apparent: A Life of Edward VII, the Playboy Prince

The Heir Apparent: A Life of Edward VII, the Playboy Prince

4.0 13
by Jane Ridley

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This richly entertaining biography chronicles the eventful life of Queen Victoria’s firstborn son, the quintessential black sheep of Buckingham Palace, who matured into as wise and effective a monarch as Britain has ever seen.



This richly entertaining biography chronicles the eventful life of Queen Victoria’s firstborn son, the quintessential black sheep of Buckingham Palace, who matured into as wise and effective a monarch as Britain has ever seen. Granted unprecedented access to the royal archives, noted scholar Jane Ridley draws on numerous primary sources to paint a vivid portrait of the man and the age to which he gave his name.
Born Prince Albert Edward, and known to familiars as “Bertie,” the future King Edward VII had a well-earned reputation for debauchery. A notorious gambler, glutton, and womanizer, he preferred the company of wastrels and courtesans to the dreary life of the Victorian court. His own mother considered him a lazy halfwit, temperamentally unfit to succeed her. When he ascended to the throne in 1901, at age fifty-nine, expectations were low. Yet by the time he died nine years later, he had proven himself a deft diplomat, hardworking head of state, and the architect of Britain’s modern constitutional monarchy.
Jane Ridley’s colorful biography rescues the man once derided as “Edward the Caresser” from the clutches of his historical detractors. Excerpts from letters and diaries shed new light on Bertie’s long power struggle with Queen Victoria, illuminating one of the most emotionally fraught mother-son relationships in history. Considerable attention is paid to King Edward’s campaign of personal diplomacy abroad and his valiant efforts to reform the political system at home. Separating truth from legend, Ridley also explores Bertie’s relationships with the women in his life. Their ranks comprised his wife, the stunning Danish princess Alexandra, along with some of the great beauties of the era: the actress Lillie Langtry, longtime “royal mistress” Alice Keppel (the great-grandmother of Camilla Parker Bowles), and Lady Randolph Churchill, mother of Winston.
Edward VII waited nearly six decades for his chance to rule, then did so with considerable panache and aplomb. A magnificent life of an unexpectedly impressive king, The Heir Apparent documents the remarkable transformation of a man—and a monarchy—at the dawn of a new century.

Praise for The Heir Apparent
“If [The Heir Apparent] isn’t the definitive life story of this fascinating figure of British history, then nothing ever will be.”The Christian Science Monitor

The Heir Apparent is smart, it’s fascinating, it’s sometimes funny, it’s well-documented and it reads like a novel, with Bertie so vivid he nearly leaps from the page, cigars and all.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
“I closed The Heir Apparent with admiration and a kind of wry exhilaration.”The Wall Street Journal
“Ridley is a serious scholar and historian, who keeps Bertie’s flaws and virtues in a fine balance.”The Boston Globe
“Brilliantly entertaining . . . a landmark royal biography.”The Sunday Telegraph
“Superb.”The New York Times Book Review

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - John Sutherland
Ridley's superb book is the fruit of a decade's immersion in the royal archives, a privilege rarely granted. And her work was all the trickier because, at least in the past, royal archivists have often seen their role as not merely preserving documents but burying material deleterious to the interests of the throne…To penetrate the protective murk, Ridley has applied detective as well as scholarly skills.
Publishers Weekly
★ 09/23/2013
After researching in the royal archives at Windsor Palace for more than five years, Ridley, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and professor of history at Buckingham University, wove together this marvelously rich biography of Edward VII (1841–1910). Called Bertie by his family, Edward’s inner life is teased out by Ridley through the correspondence of those around him. The resulting portrait is remarkably thorough, quite a feat considering the bulk of information that comes from the colossal, dramatic, and one-sided diaries and letters of Bertie’s mother, Queen Victoria (1819–1901). Victoria more often than not disapproved of Bertie and the archives reveal that this neglected child was driven by the need to be worthy of his parents. Continually dismissed, he becomes a closed-off youth, taking great joys where he could find them—far away from Victorian respectability. Ridley shows that for as much as Bertie is portrayed as a slovenly gambler and womanizer, by the time he ascended to the throne in 1901, at age 59, he had matured to play a significant role in reforming Britain’s monarchy. Readers both general and specialized will delight in Ridley’s work; it raises the bar for royal biographies to come. (Dec.)
Library Journal
★ 12/01/2014
There would be no Edwardian era without Queen Victoria's son Bertie, who lived life to the fullest while waiting to ascend the throne. Like the era he lent his name to, Bertie was a fan of good living, fancy parties, and quiet yet passionate liaisons. Still, he became a model king whose reign helped move Britain into the modern era. Meticulously researched and unsurprisingly dishy, Ridley's biography is the definitive work on this fascinating historical figure. (LJ 1/14)
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2013-09-28
A highly readable, definitive biography of Queen Victoria's son, the "black sheep of Buckingham Palace" who matured into an effective monarch. Originally aiming at a short life of Edward VII (1841–1910), the eponymous British king who gave his name to an age, Ridley (History/Buckingham Univ.; Young Disraeli, 1804- 1846, 1995) unexpectedly received unrestricted access to Edward's papers in the Royal Archives, a privilege not granted in 50 years. This proved irresistible; the author spent 10 years writing this top-notch life of the king. Edward's mother, Queen Victoria, turns out to be not at all Victorian, but highly sexed, hysterical, as politically assertive as her grandfather and a terrible mother. Readers will flinch at the brutal educational regimen inflicted on her nine children, documented as if it were an affair of state. Unlike his siblings, Edward was not bright enough to absorb it or clever enough to sidestep the worst features. During a long, frustrating adulthood, he achieved some independence but never escaped the baleful influence of his mother. Until her death, when Edward was nearing 60, she persistently hectored him for his idle, irresponsible life while refusing to allow him any significant political duty on the grounds that he was idle and irresponsible. His playboy image was largely deserved during his youth, less so when he matured, both in years and in his treatment of women. Ridley emphasizes that not only did he become a wise and reforming king, but that his achievements have been underestimated through efforts of contemporary leaders, such as Arthur Balfour and H.H. Asquith, to suppress his contributions. There is no shortage of biographies of Edward VII, but this thick, lucid and lively history deserves pride of place on the shelf.
From the Publisher
“If [The Heir Apparent] isn’t the definitive life story of this fascinating figure of British history, then nothing ever will be.”The Christian Science Monitor
The Heir Apparent is smart, it’s fascinating, it’s sometimes funny, it’s well-documented and it reads like a novel, with Bertie so vivid he nearly leaps from the page, cigars and all.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
“I closed The Heir Apparent with admiration and a kind of wry exhilaration.”The Wall Street Journal
“Ridley is a serious scholar and historian, who keeps Bertie’s flaws and virtues in a fine balance.”The Boston Globe
“Brilliantly entertaining . . . a landmark royal biography.”The Sunday Telegraph
“Superb.”The New York Times Book Review

“A top-notch royal biography . . . The title of Ridley’s biography of King Edward is appropriate to the popular sense of the monarch, that his life was defined by his many years as the indulged and indulgent Prince of Wales. But significant research stands behind the author’s more judicious understanding of the man, that the ‘dissipated prince evolved into a model king.’”Booklist (starred review)

“[A] marvelously rich biography of Edward VII . . . Readers both general and specialized will delight in Ridley’s work; it raises the bar for royal biographies to come.”Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“A highly readable, definitive biography of Queen Victoria’s son, the ‘black sheep of Buckingham Palace,’ who matured into an effective monarch . . . [A] top-notch life of the king . . . There is no shortage of biographies of Edward VII, but this thick, lucid and lively history deserves pride of place on the shelf.”Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“[A] splendid new biography.”—The Guardian
“Profoundly learned and a cracking good read.”—The Spectator
“Ridley has written a marvellous biography. Her book is racy and pacy, filled with delicious descriptions of grand Edwardian shooting parties, cutting-edge fashion and, of course, a string of beautiful society women. But she is never trivial, and nor is her Bertie.”—The Mail on Sunday
“Ridley’s definitive biography is a remarkable achievement. Entertaining, readable and illuminating, this much-anticipated reappraisal of a fascinating life is a brilliant tour de force.”—Bridlington Free Press
“Bertie, as he was universally known, couldn’t do anything without it being commented on and often distorted. Though the gossip columnists had plenty of material to work with, they only told part of the story. [Ridley] does an excellent job of redressing the balance.”—Financial Times

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.56(w) x 9.48(h) x 1.54(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Victoria and Albert


“Not feeling very well again and had rather a restless night,” wrote Queen Victoria in her journal on 17 October 1841. She was heavily pregnant with her second child.

Next day, the royal obstetrician, Dr. Locock, examined the Queen and pronounced the birth to be imminent. Much against her will, she traveled from Windsor, where she was comfortable, to Buckingham Palace, which she disliked. Fat as a barrel and wearing no stays, the twenty-­two-­year-­old Queen expected her confinement daily. She felt “wretched” and too tired to walk. Prince Albert watched his wife anxiously. He wrote in bold black ink in his large childish hand to the prime minister, warning him to be ready to appear at the palace at the shortest notice, “as we have reason to believe a certain event is approaching.” It was a false alarm, the first of many.

Victoria had not wanted this baby, and she was furious to discover herself pregnant again only months after the birth of her first child. She had a “vein of iron,” but though she was Queen of England, she could not rule her own biology. Feeling nauseous, flushed, and stupid, she was powerless to stop the control of affairs slipping from her fingers. Still more did she resent her enforced abstinence from nights of married bliss with her “Angel,” Albert.

On the morning of 9 November 1841, the Queen’s pains began. Only Albert, four doctors, and a midwife, Mrs. Lilly, attended the labor. At the prince’s request, the prime minister, his colleagues, and the Archbishop of Canterbury did not witness the birth but, contrary to custom, waited in another room. Albert, always conscious of appearances, had insisted that the Queen “was most anxious from a feeling of delicacy that it should appear in the Gazette that at her confinement only the Prince, Dr Locock and the nurse were present in the room.” His own attendance at the birth, which was widely reported, gave an example to English manhood of how a modern father should behave.

Delivering the royal baby was nervous work for Dr. Locock. Although this was the Queen’s second confinement, her first child had been a girl, and the possibility of a male heir to the throne meant that this birth was an important political event. The job of royal obstetrician was so risky that Locock was paid danger money—­an exorbitant fee of £1,000.

At twelve minutes to eleven, a boy was born. The baby was exceptionally large, the mother was only four feet eleven inches tall, and it had been a difficult birth. “My sufferings were really very severe,” wrote Victoria, “and I do not know what I should have done but for the great comfort and support my beloved Albert was to me during the whole time.”9 Albert, who (according to his private secretary) was “very happy but too anxious and nervous to bear his happiness with much calmness,” showed the baby to the ministers waiting next door. The healthy boy was the first Prince of Wales to be born since 1762, but for his mother this was not a cause for rejoicing.

The fate of Princess Charlotte, Victoria’s first cousin, could never have been far from the mind of Dr. Locock. Charlotte died in November 1817 after an agonizing fifty-­hour labor, having given birth to a stillborn son. Her accoucheur—­the fancy French title for what was little more than an unqualified male midwife—­shot himself three months later.

If Charlotte had not succumbed to postpartum hemorrhage, Queen Victoria would not have been born. Charlotte’s death detonated a crisis of succession for the Hanoverian dynasty. Not only was she the sole legitimate child of the Prince Regent, later George IV, but, incredibly, she was the only legitimate grandchild of George III—­in spite of the fact that he had fathered a brood of six princesses and seven princes. Not that the Hanoverians were an infertile lot. Three of the daughters of George III remained spinsters and the three princesses who married were childless; but the seven sons managed to sire an estimated twenty children between them. All except Charlotte were illegitimate. The sons of George III had failed in their fundamental dynastic purpose: to ensure the succession.

When Charlotte died, Lord Byron threw open the windows of his Venice apartment and emitted a piercing scream over the Grand Canal. She was the only member of the royal family whom the people loved, and with her death the credibility of the monarchy slumped. The Prince Regent, who reigned in place of his old, mad father, George III, was lecherous, gluttonous, and grossly self-­indulgent. How he had managed to father Princess Charlotte was a mystery. On his wedding night he was so drunk that he slept in the fireplace. He banished his wife and treated her with ostentatious cruelty, which made him deeply disliked. He and his brothers were the so-­called wicked uncles of Queen Victoria, and even by the rakehell standards of the day, they were dissolute.

Charlotte’s death forced these middle-­aged roués, with their dyed whiskers, their wigs, and their paunches, to enter into an undignified race to beget an heir. One by one they dumped their mistresses and hastened to the altar. Their choice of brides was limited by the Royal Marriages Act, introduced by George III in 1772, which made it illegal for the King’s children to marry without his consent. The royal family disapproved of princes marrying into the English aristocracy, as this involved the monarchy in party politics. Under the Act of Settlement of 1701, Roman Catholics were excluded from the succession. So the royal marriage market was effectively confined to the small Protestant German courts, which acted as stud farms for the Hanoverian monarchy.

Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, was the fourth son of George III. Neither dissolute nor vicious, he was large and talkative with a certain sly cunning. He smelled of garlic and tobacco, and he was always in debt. In the army he was a stickler for uniforms and a harsh disciplinarian, heartily disliked by the rank and file. He had lived contentedly for twenty-­eight years with his bourgeois French mistress, the childless Julie de St. Laurent. When the death of Princess Charlotte gave him the opportunity to supplicate Parliament to pay off his debts in exchange for trading in his bachelor status, the duke did not hesitate to discard Julie and marry a German princess. His choice was Victoire, the thirty-­year-­old widow of the minor German prince of Leiningen and the mother of two young children. She was also the sister of Prince Leopold of Saxe-­Coburg-­Saalfeld, the widower of Princess Charlotte.

The Kents shared a double marriage ceremony in 1818 with William, Duke of Clarence, the third son of George III, who married another German princess, Adelaide of Saxe-­Meiningen. Two weeks earlier, the seventh brother, Adolphus, the virtuous Duke of Cambridge, his mother’s favorite, had married yet another German princess, Augusta of Hesse-­Cassel. Ernest, the Duke of Cumberland, who had married a German princess four years before, and had as yet produced no children, was now hard at it. The race was on.

Kent won. On 24 May 1819, the duchess gave birth to a daughter, Victoria. This baby was fifth in line to the throne, coming after the Regent and his three younger brothers.

No one questioned Victoria’s legitimacy at the time, but the rogue gene for hemophilia that she carried throws doubt on her paternity. Two of her daughters were carriers of the gene for the condition, which impairs blood clotting, and one of her sons, Leopold, was a bleeder. Victoria’s gene was either inherited or the result of a spontaneous mutation. Hemophilia cannot be traced in either the Hanoverian or the Saxe-­Coburg family; and as the odds of spontaneous mutation are 25,000:1, Victoria’s gene has prompted speculation that the Duke of Kent was not her biological father. According to one scenario, the Duchess of Kent, despairing of her husband’s fertility, and desperate to win the race for the succession, decided to take corrective action and sleep with another man. Unfortunately, this lover happened to be hemophiliac.

This melodramatic hypothesis is entirely speculative, and there is not a scrap of historical evidence to support it. The Duke of Kent was not infertile; on the contrary, he is credited with at least two well-­attested illegitimate children.13 Victoria, along with her eldest son, inherited unmistakably Hanoverian features, such as a receding chin and protruding nose (her profile in old age is remarkably similar to that of her grandfather, George III), as well as a tendency toward obesity and explosive rages. Courts are hotbeds of gossip, but there was no whisper at the time that Victoria was illegitimate. Scientists believe that the faulty gene was a new mutation. At least one in four incidences of hemophilia are the result of new mutations, and this is especially likely in the case of older fathers; the Duke of Kent was fifty-­one when Victoria was conceived. So the odds are that the gene, which was later to wreak havoc with both the Spanish and the Russian royal families via marriages to Victoria’s granddaughters, originated in the testicles of the Duke of Kent in 1818. The genetic time bomb of hemophilia was the tragic price paid by his descendants when Kent won the race that the wits dubbed Hymen’s War Terrific.

Victoria’s doctors and family worried not that she was illegitimate, but, on the contrary, that she had inherited the Hanoverian insanity. Mention of the madness of George III was suppressed in the nineteenth century, largely because Victoria herself was sensitive on the subject, but the royal doctors were well aware of it. It blighted the lives of the daughters of George III, who, prevented from marrying, were confined to the so-­called nunnery at Windsor. In the 1960s, the mother-­and-­son medical historians Ida Macalpine and Richard Hunter made the diagnosis of the genetic disease porphyria. Symptoms include severe rheumatic pain, skin rashes, light sensitivity, and attacks of acute illness, but the diagnostic clincher for this rare metabolic disorder is red-­stained urine. The disease had apparently bedeviled the royal family since Mary, Queen of Scots, and James I, but only caused madness in extreme cases. A recent analysis of the hair of George III shows abnormal levels of arsenic. This was prescribed by his doctors, but the medication may have been counterproductive and made his illness worse.

Building on the work of Macalpine and Hunter, researchers have conjectured that most of the children of George III were afflicted by some of the symptoms of porphyria. The Prince Regent was laid low by bouts of acute illness and episodes of mental confusion, and he complained of a range of porphyria symptoms, which he self-­medicated with alarmingly large doses of laudanum. He and his brothers were all convinced that they suffered from a peculiar family disease. The medical history of Victoria’s father includes attacks of abdominal pain, “rheumatism,” and acute sensitivity to sunlight, all symptoms of porphyria. Earlier biographers insisted that Victoria was completely unaffected, but the picture is not quite so straightforward. One of her granddaughters, Princess Charlotte of Prussia, whose distressing medical history is fully documented, seems to have suffered from the disease. She may have inherited it through Victoria, though Victoria herself was asymptomatic, or at worst a mild sufferer.

Much of this is speculative. The porphyria theory is known to be shaky and incapable of real proof, and it has come under attack from other medical historians. No one knows for certain what was wrong with the unfortunate George III. It is conceivable that contemporaries were right after all, and he really was mad. The latest theory is that he was afflicted by bipolar disorder.

Victoria’s father, the Duke of Kent, died unexpectedly of pneumonia when she was eight months old. Six days later, her grandfather, George III, also died, and she advanced from fifth to third in the line of succession.

Victoria was brought up in seclusion and (by royal standards) reduced circumstances by her mother, the Duchess of Kent, in an apartment in Kensington Palace. Her mother quarreled with George IV, “whose great wish,” as her uncle Leopold told Victoria, “was to get you and your Mama out of the country.” Had Victoria lived in Germany, as the King desired, she would have been perceived as just another German princess. The duchess, however, was an ambitious woman, and she took great care to ensure that her daughter was brought up as heir to the English throne.

The rift between the Duchess of Kent and George IV meant that her mother kept the young Victoria under constant surveillance. She was never alone without a servant. She was not allowed to walk downstairs without someone holding her hand. At night she slept in a bed in her mother’s room. She was allowed no friends. Even her half sister, Feodora, twelve years her senior, was banished, married off to the minor German prince of Hohenlohe-­Langenburg, where she lived in a freezing palace in a dull court. Louise Lehzen, Victoria’s governess, was appointed because she was German and knew no one of influence in England. Victoria was effectively a prisoner, with her mother acting as jailer.

In 1830, George IV died and was succeeded by his brother, the Duke of Clarence, now William IV. The Duchess of Kent became paranoid about the new King, whom she suspected of plotting to cut her out and promote Victoria as his heir. Determined to ensure that she should be regent, the duchess kept her daughter away from court. She refused to allow Victoria to attend the Coronation, and she enraged the new King by taking her around the country on quasi-­official royal progresses. She was aided and abetted by Sir John Conroy, her comptroller, a scheming Irish officer who was widely believed to be her lover. No Gothic novelist could have invented a villain blacker than Conroy. He terrified Victoria with tales of plans to poison her and promote the claims to the throne of her younger uncles. When, aged sixteen, she fell seriously ill with typhoid fever, he presented her with a letter appointing him as her private secretary, and stood over her sickbed demanding that she sign it. With precocious strength of will, Victoria refused.

Victoria’s isolated upbringing meant that her mother was entirely responsible for her education. Victoria spoke and wrote fluent French and German, and she excelled at arithmetic and drawing. She had lessons in history, geography, religion, music, and Latin (reluctantly).21 She learned more than most aristocratic girls, but she did not receive the instruction in subjects such as constitutional history considered necessary for princes. As Lord Melbourne remarked: “The rest of her education she owes to her own shrewdness and quickness, and this perhaps has not been the proper education for one who was to wear the Crown of England.”

Meet the Author

Jane Ridley is professor of history at Buckingham University in England, where she teaches a course on biography. Her previous biographies include The Young Disraeli and Edwin Lutyens, which won the prestigious Duff Cooper Prize. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Ridley writes book reviews for The Spectator and other newspapers, and has also appeared in several television and radio documentaries.

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The Heir Apparent: A Life of Edward VII, the Playboy Prince 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
ANGELRICHIE More than 1 year ago
This book was a pleasant surprise. It chronicles the life of playboy prince Edward VII. It is very well researched and expertly written. I really enjoyed it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was really good. What I liked so much about it was that the author didn't fall into the pit so many biographers do where they get bogged down in the politics of the time (which you could read about in a textbook), but she actually tells about his lifestyle, what he ate, what he wore, what he thought etc. That's what's interesting, getting to know what a person was really like, not what political action he took. This book was fascinating.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very well written. I have not read a whole lot about Edward VII but this gave an entirely different viewpoint from everythung I've come across. It paints Victoria and Albert in a very unflattering but believable light. Well written and intriguing.
SHUGI More than 1 year ago
The Heir Apparent Good read
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is very well written. It draws one into the life of Edward from a very human point of view. A must read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous 11 months ago
Bertie doesn't get interesting until his mother dies. Then he hasn't enough time to do what he knows needs doing. The dilemma of most of mankind. Good book!!
Anonymous 12 months ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
There is a chat at july result 1
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I would not recommend this book. The information is poorly organized. It seems as if the author just took all the information that she gathered and placed it willy nilly in the book. I have read a lot of both historical and biographical novels in the past, that I would highly recommend.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Boring, dry, total waste of time and money.