Good fellowship gilds the last summer of peace
MOST golden ages exist only in retrospect. Yet the hot days of the Edwardian summer were a gilded time for the young man who was later to become the only British monarch to relinquish his throne. The dark days of the abdication were, however, a long way off and the life of Edward, the young Prince of Wales, was a round of hunting, polo, balls, foreign travel and undergraduate capers. He was shaking off the restrictions of his childhood and gaining the confidence and composure which were to become his hallmarks.

He had gone up to Oxford in October 1912, aged 18, almost 50 years after his grandfather Edward VII had been an undergraduate there, his conduct regulated by strict rules laid down by his father, Prince Albert, the consort of Queen Victoria. "My grandfather was obliged to live apart in a rented house, with a large household, and to wear a special gown when he attended lectures," Edward later recalled. His classmates had to rise respectfully whenever he entered a lecture room.

"Fortunately for me all that had passed by the time I went to Oxford," he later wrote in exile. "I took my place freely among the other four thousand undergraduates - a circumstance that was hailed by the Press as fresh evidence of the innate democracy of the British Monarchical system".

But democracy extended only so far; Edward's room had a "tub" installed, making it Magdalen College's first undergraduate bathroom. Even in those days crowds of reporters and photographers descended upon the ancient precincts, to the irritation of Magdalen's fellows and undergraduates alike, to record for the popular Press the more intimate aspects of the prince's adjustment to university life.

The academic requirements were not strenuous. "The plain fact is, of course, that I was pretty much of a problem to Oxford," he recalled. "To be sure, I could box a compass, read naval signals, run a picket boat, and make cocoa for the officer of the watch. But these accomplishments, which the Navy had been at such pains to teach me, were manifestly without significance to Oxford's learned dons." He was taught history, political economy, French and German by some of Oxford's most formidable brains.

Yet despite the university's outlay of intellect, Oxford failed to make him studious and he spent his time socialising, at polo practice on Port Meadow, hunting with New College and Magdalen Beagles, or just riding - his father, horrified at his technique, instructed Edward's equerry, Major the Hon William Cadogan of the 10th Hussars, to make him ride four hours a week.

Then there were what Edward called the "mild games of roulette" and general carousing or larking with his undergraduate chums Johnners, Fergusson and Archie (the man with the blue tit on his head in Magdalen Quad and with his trousers off wading through some tributary of the Isis).

On Sunday evening after dinner they would repair to a musty little taproom at the foot of the stairway leading to the Junior Common Room where Gunstone, the plump, red-faced, bald-headed steward, dispensed beer and rough stories. "We never left," Edward later wrote, "until he had performed his famous banana trick - inserting a banana in the neck of a bottle filled with burning paper and watching the vacuum suck it down with a thud. The only time my father came to Oxford to see me I had Gunner perform this feat for his special benefit. `By God,' said the King appreciatively, `that is one of the darnedest tricks I have ever seen'."

Part of this varsity idyll consisted in joining the Oxford Battalion of the Officer Training Corps, in which the heir apparent reached the dizzy rank or corporal. He also chalked up two summer camps under canvas near Aldershot, including one in June 1914 in which he and his fellows were summoned to Laffan's Plain to see the King's birthday parade of the Aldershot Garrison. They watched the troops, in full-dress review order, march past the Commander-in-Chief, Sir Douglas Haig, before long to become Field Marshall Earl Haig. Little did they suspect that within a few months their ranks would be decimated in a war dogged by blunders by that same military leader.

In June 1914 it was all a jape. Undergraduates turned up at camp fresh from Henley in Leander blazer and boater, fumbled inexpertly with Lee- Enfield rifles, and buffed up their kit for Sunday inspection. Edward reported that the officer's mess in the 1st Life Guards was deserted the month before the War to End Wars began, because most of the officers had gone to Goodwood for the races.

War, when it came, fell suddenly. On 28 June, news came of the assassination of the man Edward had previously been called from Oxford to Windsor to meet. Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne, had arrived with his wife to visit George V: "I watched," Edward later wrote, "the Archduke, who could match my father as a wing shot, pull two hundred and seventy three birds down out of the sky. No suggestion of tragedy then touched the elegant couple who only seven months later would fall before the [Serbian] assassin's bullets in Sarajevo." That assassination touched off a series of events which, thanks to the entanglement of European alliances, inexorably pulled the Continent into war.

On 31 July Austria declared war on Serbia; on 1 August Germany declared war on Russia and France; and on 4 August Britain declared war on Germany. "Papa received news of Belgium's mobilisation," Edward wrote in his diary for 31 July. "All this is too ghastly and that we should be on the brink of war is almost indescribable; I am very depressed."

Two days after the outbreak of war he was commissioned in the Grenadier Guards. "this was a special honour since my modest 5ft 7ins failed by a conspicuous margin to meet the minimum height of six feet. I was a pygmy among giants."

Three days later the King and Queen reviewed the route march of the 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards as it passed Buckingham Palace, its wagons tarpaulined for the field of combat. The idyll was over.