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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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.