Wednesday Book: High life with Edward the Caresser

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MOST CROWNED heads are stuffed with nonsense. Sometimes nature is to blame: royal inbreeding, the ultimate form of snobbery, is not conducive to intellectual sophistication. Often nurture is at fault: a palace upbringing seldom equips its recipients to think about any question graver than (to quote Thackeray) "the button for a waistcoat or the sauce for a partridge".

Yet such is the mystique of monarchs that they are not only flattered in life but receive undue deference after death. This usually takes the form of exaggerating their qualities and mitigating their vices, in the manner of Gold Nibs in Waiting such as Harold Nicolson and Roger Fulford. But some writers, not content to inflate majesty, imbue their royal subjects with spurious might.

Andrew Sinclair, for example, produced a sadly misguided book depicting Queen Victoria as the head of a European spy-ring in which her children acted as royal agents. Now, in the same vein, Simon Heffer presents us with Edward VII as sovereign diplomat - a King who "for long periods acted as his own foreign secretary".

Far from being a mere dabbler in politics, as historians have assumed, Edward was, in Heffer's view, the last British monarch to enjoy the "wholesale exercise of true political power". Admittedly, he was not a "gifted intellectual" and his "high-profile role" was played "mostly out of the public eye". But it involved exercising "de facto control over the reform of the army" and taking the "initiative in international alliances".

Ministers often claimed credit for policies that the king, "in his roving diplomatic role, had instigated, shaped and executed". The most important of these was "the abandonment of the Salisburian ideal of `splendid isolation', and its replacement by a system of alliances with foreign powers, notably the entente cordiale with France in 1904".

Heffer is no fool. He has read well, if not widely. He was given access to the Royal Archives and makes good use of his research. He writes grammatically, though not epigrammatically. In what reads like a potboiler, he sustains his argument manfully. Yet the evidence against it is so overwhelming that one has to conclude that this is an exceptionally foolish book.

Edward lacked even the limited capacity required to be a politician. As a child he was described as not "normally intelligent" and though he learnt a lot about clothes, food, protocol and genealogy, he proved impervious to any real education. He could never concentrate, grasp details or cope with paperwork.

He was shatteringly indiscreet, quite capable of handing a confidential Foreign Office briefing to the Kaiser and passing private notes from his ministers round the dinner table. They retaliated by keeping him in the dark as much as possible.

They also complained about having to listen to "royal twaddle". Gladstone's view was shared by Salisbury, Balfour and Asquith. Edward had a "total want of political judgement, either inherited or acquired".

Edward was primarily interested in amusement, not politics. A "corpulent voluptuary" (Kipling's phrase), he loved wine, women and song, gambling, sailing and racing. As one of his private secretaries complained, they had to "catch snap answers from him as he goes out shooting etc. Then he runs off to Trouville where of course business is impossible."

Nothing was allowed to interrupt the fixed social round, not even the resignation of a Prime Minister. Campbell-Bannerman's successor had to travel to Biarritz to kiss hands. A June general election, Edward considered, was "a most untoward event in the middle of the London season!" As Margot Asquith observed, the King "devotes what time he does not spend upon sport and pleasure ungrudgingly to duty".

It is ludicrous to dignify Edward's whoring, gourmandising trips abroad as diplomatic missions. Certainly, he did much in the way of smiling and waving to improve relations with France. But his efforts, which were not more important than those of The Times, have been magnified by toadies then and later.

The entente cordiale did not stem from royal mediation. It was the product of hard political and economic calculation in Westminster and Whitehall about Britain's exposed position, notably vis-a-vis Germany, after the Boer War.

As R C K Ensor said in a proleptic demolition of the case advanced by Heffer (to which he does not refer), the king's constant absences abroad weakened monarchical influence at home. Here Edward did have a certain political nuisance value, especially since he fussed obsessively about promotions and decorations. But his interference - the attempt, for example, to stop soldiers exchanging redcoats for "hideous khaki" - was almost invariably futile.

By ability and inclination, Edward VII was a largely ornamental monarch. This was fortunate since most of the ideas that did find lodgement in what his mother called "that painfully small head" were reactionary to the point of absurdity. However tempting it may be to glamourise this dim royal roue as Edward the Peacemaker, the fact is that he did far more to earn the other nickname by which contemporaries knew him - Edward the Caresser.