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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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.