The Magazine

Bertie the Good

The royal antidote to Victorian austerity.

Jun 16, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 38 • By EDWARD SHORT
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In 1871, when Albert Edward Prince of Wales (1841-1910) and his wife Alexandra lost their youngest child after a premature birth, Queen Victoria advised that they go into prolonged mourning. Bertie’s response exhibited one of the great differences between him and his notoriously woeful mother: 

Want of feeling I never could show, but I think it’s one’s duty not to nurse one’s sorrow, however much one may feel it. .  .  . You have no conception of the quantity of applications we get .  .  . to open this place, lay a stone, public dinners, luncheons, fetes without end .  .  . and all these things have increased tenfold in the last 10 years. .  .  . It is however gratifying that this wish exists in these Democratic days, as one must show oneself in public.

If Victoria, after the death of her husband Prince Albert, secluded herself, Bertie was ubiquitous, making the rounds not only of country houses and ceremonial dinners but theaters, operas, and music halls. As Jane Ridley shows in this superb biography, Bertie’s gregarious delight in people uniquely fitted him for his royal role, which he played with enthusiasm.   

Although sent to Oxbridge for his education, Bertie was the reverse of studious. After being found with a prostitute, he so scandalized his father that Victoria believed his “fall” had actually killed Albert. She never forgave her son, and for the rest of her life made sure that he received no government dispatches. Bertie responded by giving himself up to a life of pleasure—eating, drinking, shooting, and fornicating on a truly Olympian scale.  

Paying for this sybaritic life, which he led for 60 years before ascending the throne, required continual loans, but Bertie could always tap rich financiers, most of whom never required their loans to be repaid. Whenever he needed urgent rescue, he would write his friend Nathaniel Rothschild, beginning his begging letters “My dear Natty .  .  .” 

When he became king, he could boast to Parliament that “for the first time in history the heir apparent comes to you without a single penny of debt.” 

There have been two full-dress biographies of Bertie, an unduly reticent one (1964) by Gladstone’s biographer, Sir Philip Magnus, and a far superior one (1979) by a onetime Eton history master, Giles St. Aubyn, which takes stock of not only Bertie’s political and diplomatic achievements but the peculiar moral character of Victorian England. In one memorable passage, which Ridley substantiates again and again in her own biography, St. Aubyn observes:

There can be no advantage in pretending to virtue unless society values it. Hypocrisy only flourishes where standards are high. In permissive ages, where few things are unacceptable, there is little to hide. Because the Victorians made such strenuous moral demands they did not always practice what they preached. The dominating idea of English society was not to cultivate virtue but to avoid scandal. “Everything was all right,” claimed Lady Warwick, “if only it was kept quiet, hushed up, covered.”

However excellent a biography, though, St. Aubyn’s life lacks the richness and panache of Ridley’s magisterial work. Her command of her sources is masterly; she holds up the folly of her characters with patient tongs, and she recreates their plutocratic world with gusto. About Sandringham, Bertie’s country residence, for example, she writes:

It was hardly a normal country house. .  .  . Lunch at two thirty (the clocks were half an hour fast) was followed by tea, when the King scoffed poached eggs, petits fours, cakes and shortbread. A twelve-course dinner followed at nine, and the King would cheerfully swallow several oysters in minutes, and then devour at high speed course after course of pheasant stuffed with truffles, chicken in aspic, sole poached in Chablis, or quails and boned snipe packed with foie gras, the richer and creamier the sauce the better. 

Together with good food, good cigars, and impeccably cut clothes, Bertie reveled in the society of beautiful women. Ridley vividly recaptures his affairs with Lillie Langtry, Jennie Churchill, Daisy Warwick, Alice Keppel, and many others, all of whom prized their royal inamorato. Still, as Ridley points out, the prince did not have as many affairs as he was rumored to have had: One of the revelations of this book is the extent to which the prurience of 19th-century England required Bertie to be more debauched than he was. As Ridley nicely puts it, Bertie was popular with his compatriots precisely because he stood for “an ideal of illustrious misbehavior absolutely beyond their reach.”  

Still, Ridley has no illusions about the real character of adultery. The Countess of Warwick might claim that society made too much of sexual infidelity, but Ridley does not skirt the issue of how the countess’s own infidelities damaged both her children and other people’s marriages. Nor is she quiet on how destructive Bertie’s philandering was. Lady Harriet Mordaunt, whose dalliance with the prince led to her husband’s taking the unusual step of suing her for divorce after she gave birth to a child of dubious paternity, actually went insane as a result of the opprobrium she suffered at the hands of a society that might relish scandal but was often unmerciful to those caught out in it. (As for Sir Charles Mordaunt, Ridley is surely right to blame him for neglecting the good advice that Rosa Lewis always gave to litigious cuckolds: “No letters, no lawyers and kiss the baby’s bottom.”)

Something of Ridley’s wit, as well as the charm of her style, is apparent in her description of Queen Alexandra at Bertie’s coronation: “She was fifty-six, heavily made up, allegedly bald, and almost stone deaf, but she seemed like a queen from a fairy tale.” For this demure Danish princess, Bertie could be forgiven every offense. Indeed, she met her husband’s chronic infidelity with regal unflappability. After Bertie’s death, however, she “metamorphosed into a monster,” as Ridley notes, becoming “a spoiled and willful child” who turned her unmarried daughter Victoria into a “glorified maid”—the same daughter to whom the soon-to-be-prime minister Lord Rosebery had proposed before Alexandra refused to give her consent. 

As king, Bertie broke with his mother’s example by refusing to allow family life to become the focus of his reign. He made pageantry its centerpiece. His affairs might be public knowledge, but their details would always remain sketchy. Bertie also differed from his mother, and indeed from the Hanoverians, by never quarrelling with his heir. As Ridley remarks, “An obsession with punctuality, an addiction to smoking, a passion for uniforms, and a devotion to the competitive slaughter of game birds” were as characteristic of Bertie as of his son, George V. 

Another of Bertie’s virtues was his flair for diplomacy. According to Harold Nicolson, Bertie was a “supreme diplomatist.” His profound understanding of the German, French, and Russian courts, acquired during his time as prince of Wales, as well as his gift for languages, gave him great insight into those elusive subtleties that make comity possible. It may be argued, however, that his greatest diplomatic achievement, the Entente Cordiale, struck with France in 1904 after Britain had become isolated during the Boer War, was also his greatest liability, since it exacerbated the estrangement of Wilhelm II and Germany, which led to the First World War.  

The specter of the Great War hovers over nearly every page here. After Wilhelm dealt Bertie a deliberate diplomatic snub by refusing to meet him in Vienna in 1888, Alexandra—thinking, perhaps, of Denmark’s loss of Schleswig-Holstein to Prussia in 1864—wrote her son of his German uncle: 

Oh he is mad and a conceited ass—who also says Papa and Grandmamma don’t treat him with proper respect as the Emperor of all and mighty Germany! But my hope is that pride will have a fall someday!! Won’t we rejoice then.

One corollary of Bertie’s continental savoir-faire was his marked distaste for many of his compatriots’ prejudices, especially their anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism. At the same time, he was adamant about respecting the different traditions of his subjects: When his first sea lord, Admiral Fisher, marveled at his concern for the health of the socialist firebrand Keir Hardie, Bertie responded, “You don’t understand me. I am the King of all the people.”

Proof of this can be seen in the many charitable institutions he founded, including the Royal Society of Arts, the Royal College of Music, the Imperial Institute, St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, and the Putney Hospital for Incurables. He was often criticized for honoring millionaires such as the tea merchant Thomas Lipton, but, as Ridley sensibly observes, “The social sovereignty of wealth was not unconditional; the plutocrat must be validated by charitable works before he was rewarded at court.” In Lipton’s case, he gave £25,000 to Queen Alexandra’s fund to feed the London poor in 1897, and then another £100,000 to her restaurant for the poor. Another of Bertie’s rich friends, Sir Ernest Cassel, donated a good deal of his vast fortune to build the London Underground. Edwardian plutocracy produced more than self-indulgence and frivolity. 

Although Bertie worked well with his ministers, who appreciated his businesslike efficiency, he often found them a trial. When the absent-minded marquess of Salisbury showed up for an official function improperly dressed, Bertie exploded, asking his courtiers, “What can the Europeans think of a premier who can’t put his clothes on?” The aforementioned Lord Rosebery often struck Bertie as an inscrutable eccentric; Winston Churchill was a crude radical. H. H. Asquith was clever but vulgar; Arthur Balfour was clever but arrogant. Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman annoyed him by supporting the suffragettes. And as for Lloyd George’s fabled oratory, Bertie dubbed it “Celtic gas.”  

“Few kings have come to the throne amid lower expectations,” Ridley writes. Queen Victoria certainly had no high hopes, confiding to her daughter Vicky, “I often pray he may never survive me, for I know not what would happen.” Yet Edward VII confounded his critics by proving an exemplary king. In rediscovering the tradition of monarchy, he reformed and modernized it.  

He was also deeply appreciative of the obligations of constitutional monarchy. Unlike his mother, who sided with the Tory Benjamin Disraeli against the liberal William Gladstone, Bertie was punctiliously impartial. Once, in response to a letter from Churchill, he wrote, “His Majesty is glad to see that you are becoming a reliable Minister and above all a serious politician which can only be attained by putting country above party.” In his own dealings with successive governments, Bertie always put country before party, as he proved in 1909 in his even-handed response to Lloyd George’s Finance Bill, which rifled so many of his friends among the landed aristocracy. 

If Bertie’s inner circle consisted of the roués and financiers associated with Marlborough House, he came to personify the life of his people as a whole, even though the middle classes did not always know what to make of him. The poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt recognized this when he wrote of the newly crowned king: “He has certain good qualities of amiability and of philistine tolerance of other people’s sins and vulgarities, which endear him to rich and poor, to Stock Exchange Jews, to the Turf bookmen and to the Man in the Street.” The equerry Sir Frederick Ponsonby agreed, recalling that Bertie “was intensely human and .  .  . a great enough man to show his friends his true self with all the weaknesses of a human being. He never posed and never pretended to be any better than he was. The upper and lower classes loved him.”  

When Edward VII died, the British mourned him in unprecedented numbers. And for all of his cosmopolitanism, Ridley shows, Bertie certainly had a very English sense of humor, which always endeared him to his compatriots. At the Paris Opera one evening, the French police asked him if they should remove a brazen courtesan who made no bones about her familiarity with the playboy king.

“Not at all,” replied Bertie. The Parisians should never think it necessary, he explained, “to ignore the laws of gallantry in order to avoid offending my well-known taste for austerity.” 

Edward Short is the author, most recently, of Newman and His Family.