Bertie: A Life of Edward VII, By Jane Ridley

This is one of the strongest royal biographies ever – but it still has a 'fundamental flaw'

Piers Brendon
Thursday 30 August 2012 16:36 BST

This is not only the best biography of King Edward VII (Bertie to his family); it's also one of the best books about royalty ever published. It is attractively written and avoids retrospective sycophancy, the curse of the genre. It is based on prodigious research in myriad archives, from which Jane Ridley has unearthed long-buried treasures such as the journal of the Prince of Wales's doctor.

It throws light on murky episodes like Bertie's treatment of Susan Vane-Tempest, whom he made pregnant in 1871 and ruthlessly discarded. And it is often funny: Ridley notes that the courtesan "Skittles" lived opposite the valetudinarian Florence Nightingale in Mayfair and that both women "did much of their work in bed".

Vivid, detailed and original though her portrait is, however, it has a fundamental flaw. This stems from Ridley's determination to depict Bertie in Shakespearean terms, as a latter-day Prince Hal who duly turned into a model monarch.

The first part of the story is entirely convincing. Disciplined by Prince Albert, Bertie responded with childhood rages and youthful flings. Scolded by Queen Victoria for dullness, laziness, frivolity and other sins against Balmorality, he dissimulated manfully. In fact he lived for pleasure, gourmandising, gossiping, gambling, pursuing the social round, smoking a dozen cigars a day, and dressing and undressing, which, as one biographer said, gave him some kind of occupation. He also haunted continental brothels as well as exercising droit de seigneur at home over any lady who caught his gooseberry eye. All told, Bertie did much to justify WT Stead's view that he was a wastrel and a whoremonger.

Inevitably he got into scrapes, having to deny any "improper familiarity" with Lady Mordaunt during her sensational divorce case in 1870 and to express "horror" at the illegal practice of betting on baccarat, despite his addiction to it, during the Tranby Croft scandal of 1891. But the Establishment closed ranks, his beautiful wife Alexandra of Denmark supported him, rich friends such as Sir Ernest Cassel paid his debts and politicians tried to give him something useful to do. Their efforts were bootless: Bertie found that work interfered with social life and though serving on one or two public bodies he spent much of his time doodling Union Jacks. His private secretaries complained that 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."

All this changed, according to Ridley, when he inherited the throne in 1901. Not only did Bertie invest monarchy with majesty, making himself the star of a dazzling royal pageant, but he took his other duties seriously. At home he laboured assiduously, paying particular attention to the sovereign bounty and military reform. In foreign policy "he exercised influence and powers which none of his predecessors had dreamed of". His crowning achievement was to make the entente cordiale with France in 1903, earning the accolade "Edward the Peacemaker".

Ridley overstates her case. Bertie reigned with dignity but he did not rule in any sphere except the domestic. Most political leaders concluded that he had no political judgement and was constitutionally indiscreet, and they withheld confidential papers from him. Bertie certainly encouraged others to support his charities but (as a courtier said) he lacked the qualities of a philanthropist, earning as King more in stud fees (for his horses) than he spent on good causes.

As Lord Esher observed, his military concerns were puerile. Bertie fussed about medals, buttons and uniforms, deploring "hideous khaki". He thought promotion by merit in the navy socialistic; and, to quote the Kaiser's sneer, the nearest he came to war was taking part in the Battle of Flowers at Cannes.

As for his intervention in foreign affairs, Balfour was right to say that it amounted to little or nothing of significance. Ridley half-concedes the point: "the elaborate system of royal visits was no more than a façade behind which the powers continued to pursue their real agendas." Bertie's role was essentially ceremonial. He was good at smiling, waving and bowing. As the Duke of Windsor noted, his grandfather would "sit in an open landau, receive an address, snip a ribbon and declare something open, returning to Knowsley to dine with his girl friends". Pace this superlative study, Edward VII was nothing like Henry V. He remained a Falstaffian roué.

Piers Brendon's 'Eminent Elizabethans' is published this month by Jonathan Cape

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