Historical Notes: A perfect and popular royal mistress

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
"WHERE'S ALICE?" the crowds would shout if Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, ap-peared in London's theatreland without the Hon Mrs George Keppel in his entourage. A leader of the fashionable set and one of the best-known society hostesses of the Edwardian era, Alice Keppel entertained most of the influential members of the political elite and the diplomatic and civil service of her day. She was one of the readily recognised royal mistresses of any age. Keppel unashamedly used her access to the monarch to further her own ends, and became a well-consulted link between sovereign and establishment.

The youngest daughter of a retired admiral and Scottish MP, the 30-year- old Alice Keppel met the 57-year-old Prince of Wales in 1898, and as Sir Philip Magnus-Allcroft was to note in his biography of Edward "an understanding" was formed between them "almost overnight". Alice became Edward's mistress for the rest of his life. She was perfect for the job. She was a royal confidante who knew not to gossip about what she heard in the inner royal circle. She had great skill in mollifying her royal lover, whose temper was uncertain and his patience thin. She understood his character and his physical and emotional needs, and helped calm him down when he might say unguarded things about foreign policy or domestic affairs in his kingdom. She was able to turn the often bored, petulant, aggressive, immature, selfish and rude monarch into the genial, tolerant and witty sovereign that his people loved.

Through her royal associations, Alice became a rich woman, the king encouraging his rich friends like Sir Ernest Cassel to help her build funds that would keep her social position secure. Yet Alice's society skies were not cloudless. She was not welcome at certain houses like that of the Duke of Norfolk at Arundel, or the Duke of Portland at Welbeck Abbey; and William Waldorf Astor stopped inviting her to Cliveden when, as he said, Alice "had sunk to the level of a public strumpet". Others frowned on what they saw as her rapaciousness: Virginia Woolf described Alice as an "old grasper: whose fists had been in the moneybags these 50 years".

Queen Alexandra accepted Alice Keppel as her husband's royal mistress, in a long line of such. In time though, the lonely, neglected Queen became depressed and her congenital deafness caused her to withdraw from society functions; this was exacerbated by her irritation at the constant presence of Alice at the King's shoulder on photographs of country-house weekends. Alexandra refused to go with her husband to his favourite haunts in and around Biarritz. So Alice went, with her children Violet and Sonia, every year around March. Alice's progress through France was enjoyed in some grandeur as functionaries at border and station treated her with the respect and dignity the French had always shown royal mistresses. Only at Biarritz could Alice and the King act as husband and wife.

No royal mistress was devastated as Alice was at the death of King Edward VII in 1910. Severely depressed, she informed her society friends of the scene at the dying King's bedside. Her words were pure fantasy. Alice averred that Queen Alexandra had summoned her; and, when Alice left, the sobbing Queen clung to her arm promising that the Royal Family would look after her. The King's physician, Sir James Reid, and his private secretary, Francis Knollys, told a different story. The King had barely recognised her and Alice had been ushered from his bedside in a state of hysterics. Yet Alice's version persisted for decades.

Alice Keppel remains in history as the perfect royal mistress. In an age when the House of Lords is to be crammed with "people's peers" she might have earned the position of "People's Mistress".

Raymond Lamont-Brown is the author of `Edward VII's Last Loves: Alice Keppel & Agnes Keyser' (Sutton Publishing, pounds 19.99)