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A Life of Edward VII

by Jane Ridley

In the last years of the 19th century, Queen Victoria cut a very peculiar figure. A black-clad recluse, the elderly monarch lived in an atmosphere of stultifying silence in her Balmoral castle. She saw her staff as little as possible; if they wanted to tell her something, they put it in writing inside a sealed envelope, and if they came across her in the gardens, they were expected to hide behind the nearest bush.

For all her eccentricities, Victoria was the figurehead of the greatest empire the globe had ever known. When she died in 1901, it was as though the world has lost its moorings. Her 59-year-old heir, Edward VII, known as Bertie, was widely regarded as a spoilt playboy. Victoria herself thought he was quite incapable of ruling: even 40 years earlier, she had pitied her 'poor country with such a terribly unfit, totally unreflecting successor!' Like our current Prince of Wales, Bertie had spent years waiting for his moment. But the longer he waited, the more people convinced themselves that he was totally unfit for the task. Infamous for his endless affairs, his gargantuan appetite and his monstrous 48in waist, he struck Rudyard Kipling as a 'corpulent voluptuary'. Even Bertie himself, wiping away the tears at his mother's deathbed, is said to have remarked: 'It has come too late!'

As Jane Ridley shows in this exhaustively researched, richly colourful and wittily observed biography, it was not surprising that everybody wrote poor Bertie off. All his life people had underestimated him. Even his parents, Victoria and Albert, thought he was lazy, short-tempered and immature. 'You cannot imagine the sorrow and bitter disappointment and the awful anxiety for the future which Bertie causes us!' his mother wrote to his older sister Vicky when he was still only in his teens. The worst, though, was yet to come. In 1861, when Bertie was almost 20, he visited the military camp at the Curragh, where the officers arranged for him to lose his virginity to an Irish actress, ­Nellie Clifden. Upon hearing rumours of the incident, Prince Albert immediately took his son for a long walk in pouring rain, determined to have it out with him. Already a sick man, Albert returned soaked to the skin, and died of fever fewer than three weeks later. Afterwards, the grief-stricken Victoria blamed her son. 'Oh! that boy,' she wrote. 'I never can or shall look at him without a shudder.'

To Victoria, the incident confirmed everything she had suspected about her son's irresponsibility. For the next 40 years, while she retreated into the Balmoral shadows, Bertie was in limbo, an heir apparent without any meaningful role. Instead, like some grotesque caricature of a Hooray Henry, he devoted his energies to hunting, eating and having sex with other ­people's wives. And here Ridley's book, which is chock-full of astonishing details, really comes into its own. On a single morning in January 1865, we learn, Bertie and his friends killed a staggering 2,092 creatures, among them 1,000 pheasants and 948 hares. For breakfast, he habitually had roast chicken, rump steak, sausage and boiled eggs stuffed with truffles; lunch, meanwhile, might consist of rabbit curry, partridges, roast beef, foie gras, wild boar, apple pudding and rum baba. Booze featured heavily, of course: on a trip to India, Bertie and his entourage drank almost 1,000 bottles of champagne in a fortnight. As Prince of Wales, he could do - and drink - whatever he wanted. Visiting a friend in hospital, he generously brought champagne. 'Oh, after you sir,' his friend said. So ­Bertie opened the bottle and drank the lot.

Bertie's sense of entitlement was most obvious in the bedroom. Although he was happily married to the Danish princess Alexandra, his affairs were notorious: hence his nickname as king, 'Edward the Caresser'. His lovers almost certainly included the actress Lillie Langtry and Winston Churchill's mother Jennie, while his most famous mistress, Alice Keppel, turned up at his bedside when he lay dying. Ridley calls him 'the first modern gossip-column prince'; by comparison, Prince Harry looks a model of chastity. In 1870, Bertie even suffered the indignity of being dragged into the witness box during Sir Charles Mordaunt's divorce from his wife Harriett. In court, the prince admitted visiting ­Harriett in the afternoons while her husband was away, but denied any impropriety. Nobody, of course, believed him.

But he grew up. Indeed, the great achievement of Ridley's book is that it shows just how much Bertie grew into the role of king after his accession in 1901. True, he liked to play the grumpy old man, trying to ban from court women who rode astride (rather than side-saddle), and complaining ferociously when visitors wore the wrong kind of waistcoat. But the frequent comparisons with Shakespeare's dissolute Prince Hal, who famously grows into the all-conquering Henry V, were not far wrong. Indeed, ­Bertie proved an unexpectedly dab hand at international diplomacy; his visit to Paris in 1903, for example, completely defused French opposition to the entente cordiale, while his personal entreaties helped woo Russia over to the British side.

In domestic politics, too, he was a subtler and more sensible operator than his mother, who had become a ferocious reactionary. He got on splendidly, for example, with the reforming Liberal prime minister, Henry Campbell-Bannerman, despite their very different views and inclinations. After they had spent a fortnight eating and drinking at Marienbad, Campbell-Bannerman was so bloated and exhausted that he took to his bed for two days. The king, on the other hand, 'considered Marienbad a rest cure'.

Ridley makes a persuasive case that Bertie, far more than his mother, deserves to be regarded as the founder of the modern monarchy. Unlike the reclusive Victoria, he grasped the importance of putting on a big public show; unlike Victoria, too, he ­recognised that the monarchy must be above party politics. Quite unexpectedly, this unashamedly upper-class, philandering, ­gourmandising man turned himself into that most modern creature, a genuinely popular democratic monarch. On one occasion, when Admiral Jacky Fisher asked why on earth the king was asking after the health of the staunch republican Keir Hardie, Bertie went for him 'like a mad bull'. 'You don't understand me!' he exploded. 'I am king of ALL the people!'

By the end of his reign, his subjects knew it; and they loved him for it. After Bertie died in 1910, carried off by emphysema and heart trouble at the age of 68, his body lay in state at Westminster. Incredibly, the queue of people waiting to pay their respects was seven miles long.

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