Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in Issue #13 of the Anglotopia Print Magazine in 2019. Support great long-form writing about British History, Culture, and travel by subscribing to the Anglotopia Magazine. Every subscription helps keep Anglotopia running and provides us to the opportunity to produce articles like this. You can subscribe here.
Known as both the ‘Peacemaker’ and the ‘Playboy Prince’, Edward VII is an enigma. A thoroughly modern monarch Edward VII was the Uncle of Europe, the first truly constitutional British sovereign and also the last sovereign to exercise any real political power. Living for 59 years as the Prince of Wales, longer than any other monarch (though now Prince Charles has been waiting longer), Edward’s reign was short but influential. Dandy of the British upper classes Golden Age, Edward was loved by the British populace for his diplomatic skills, easy-going charm and, perhaps, his headline-grabbing transgressions.
- Edward VII was born on the 9th November 1841 at Buckingham Palace.
- He succeeded as King of Great Britain and Ireland and Emperor of India on the 22nd January 1901, aged 59.
- Edward married Alexandra, daughter of King Christian IX of Denmark on the 10th of March 1863.
- Edward died on the 6th May 1910 at Buckingham Palace of pneumonia and a heart attack having reigned just 9 years.
The eldest son of Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Edward was born the Duke of Cornwall and Duke of Rothesay. Christened Albert Edward but known to the family as Bertie, Edward was also the Prince of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Duke of Saxony and the Prince of Wales, a title he would come to hold longer than any of his predecessors. As direct heir to the throne, Edward was given an education fit for a King but did not take to his studies as well as some of his siblings and was thought to have rebelled against the strict severity of his parents and tutors’ methods.
In atonement for the wild and wicked ways of the previous long-time Prince of Wales, King George IV, Edward was expected to grow into a model constitutional monarch. But as soon as he was free of formal education Edward set about finding ways to enjoy himself and quickly found himself with a reputation as a playboy prince. This reputation was not helped when in 1861 under the guise of getting ‘army experience’ in Ireland Edward had a liaison with actress Nellie Clifden. Prince Albert found out, was furious and travelled to Cambridge to reprimand Edward. Albert died just two weeks after his altercation with his son and Queen Victoria is thought to have blamed Edward for her beloved Albert’s death.
During the rest of his mother’s long reign, Edward was side-lined and excluded from political power but, as his mother isolated herself in mourning after Prince Albert’s death, Edward took on most of Queen Victoria’s public duties and represented Britain throughout the world. Although Edward resented his mother’s withholding of political influence in foreign policy he used his position to his advantage, creating personal relationships with important players around the world and cultivating his many family connections in Europe. During an extensive tour of India in 1875, Edward pushed for the issuing of new guidance on the treatment of native Indians by British officials and, partly as a result of the tour’s success, Victoria was given the title Empress of India by Parliament.
By his early twenties, Edward’s marriage had already been arranged and following an extensive tour of the Middle East in 1862 he married Alexandra on the 10th March 1863 at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. Because of tension between Denmark and Germany, Edward and Alexandra’s marriage was unpopular with some but the marriage appeared to be a happy one and the young couple regularly entertained on a lavish scale. Edward became the pinnacle of London society spending his time gambling, shooting, sailing and enjoying good food and good wine.
Edward had six children with Princess Alexandra of Denmark, two of which sadly died, but in his devotion to a life of personal indulgence, he may have fathered many more children with a number of mistresses. Some of Edward’s mistresses were long-term, such as the actress Lily Langtry, but he also enjoyed short affairs and visiting prostitutes. Edward is said to have been a regular in a series of legal Parisian brothels, most famously Le Chabanais. During the middle years of his life Edward found himself in financial difficulties but thanks to some good investments and success as a race-horse owner he was finally made solvent.
An extrovert and a charmer, Edward made the monarchy more visible to the public than ever before by making constant ‘public appearances’, opening Thames Embankment, Mersey Tunnel and the Tower Bridge personally. A patron of the arts and sciences, Edward hoped to ease class tension in Britain with the opening of the Royal College of Music. But where Edward went scandal was never too far behind and thanks to a baccarat scandal in which the prince was accused of playing an illegal card game and endless revelations regarding intimacies with women other than his wife the relationship between Edward and his mother remained strained.
In January 1901, Victoria died and Edward stepped tardily up the throne as Edward VII. Edward’s coronation was held on 9th August 1902 and from the outset, Edward’s reign was focused on changing foreign policy. Known as the ‘Uncle of Europe’, Edward was able to use his family connections to most of European royalty to engineer alliances and agreements that were favourable to British interests. In 1903 Edward managed to gain the goodwill of the French, no small feat and lay the foundation of what would become the Anglo-French Entente Cordiale (1904) that ruled out any aggression between the countries over colonies in North Africa. Not only that, Edward convinced the French to begin active rearmament against the military aggrandizement of Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm II who, although he was his nephew, Edward thoroughly despised.
Edward was not as deeply involved with politics on home soil as he could have been but he did play an active role in initiating military and naval reforms. The failings of the Boer War had made it clear to everyone that the British Army and Royal Navy needed a complete overhaul. On social issues, Edward’s views were notably liberal although inconsistent. Edward repeatedly condemned prejudice and discrimination on the basis of race but did not support votes for women. He intended to vote for Gladstone’s Representation of the People Bill in 1884 but was persuaded to maintain an objective stance.
During the final year of his reign, Edward was involved in a constitutional crisis. The House of Lords majority, the Conservatives, refused to pass the Liberal government’s ‘People’s Budget’ and the King was forced to intervene. The January 1910 election resulted in a hung parliament eventually the crisis led to the removal of the Lord’s right to veto legislation.
Around 1908 Edward began to suffer from ill-health thought to be related to his heavy smoking habit. Already suffering from severe bronchitis, Edward VII had a series of heart attacks on the 6th of May 1910. He was put to bed, became unconscious and died peacefully in his sleep. His funeral held on the 20th May 1910 attracted 400,000 mourners including a delegate of the most high-ranking royals and politicians in Europe.
King Edward VII’s legacy is overwhelmingly positive. Although forced to wait in the wings as far as foreign policy went during Queen Victoria’s long reign, as heir apparent Edward was the first King to foster a truly public persona. The face of the British monarchy at home and abroad long before he took to the throne, Edward VII was a seasoned diplomat and a smooth talker. To the chagrin of royal biographers, Edward VII ordered for his letters to be destroyed after his death leaving much of the more colourful detail of his private life up for speculation. A devoted father, Edward prepared his son George for an uncertain future perhaps foreseeing that within four years of his death World War One would devastate Europe.
Film & TV
- The Lost Prince (2003) TV series
- Mrs. Brown (1997)
- 1871 (1990)
- Edward the King (1975) TV Series
- The Pallisers (1974) TV series
- Young Winston (1972)
- Mayerling (1968)
- Sixty Glorious Years (1938)
- Ridley, Jane (2013) Bertie: A Life of Edward VII
- Hattersley, Roy (2004), The Edwardians
- Thomas, Hugh and Hibbert, Christopher (2007) Edward VII: The Last Victorian King
- Bentley-Cranch, Dana (1992), Edward VII: Image of an Era 1841–1910
- Hough, Richard (1992), Edward & Alexandra: Their Private and Public Lives
- Lee, Sidney (1927), King Edward VII: A Biography
Locations to Visit
- Edward VII was born and died at Buckingham Palace, London
- Edward and his family lived between Marlborough House in London and Sandringham House in Norfolk. Both houses are open to the public.
- He is buried at St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle.