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“My Job Is to Be King”

By (March 1, 2011) 3 Comments

Society reserves a spotlight for them unlike any it shines on other celebrities: they are the royal House of Windsor – famous, powerful, fabulously wealthy, revered, scorned, romanticized, vilified, and even taken for granted. Their gaudy, moving spectacle has played out alongside the entire 20th century – and continues into the 21st. In this year-long feature, we’ll examine the lives of the men and women whose stories comprise a Year with the Windsors.

In 1901 a schooner with its flag at half-mast glided by a wharf on which stood the erstwhile Prince of Wales. He called out to the vessel, asking about the lowered flag. “The Queen has died,” came back the answer. “The King of England yet lives!” was the angry retort, and the flag was raised to full height.

The magnificent portrait of Edward VII by Arthur Stockdale Cope

Forty-one years earlier, in 1860, When Prince Albert Edward, age 19, he visited Boston. He stayed at the Revere Hotel, toured Bunker Hill where colonial militiamen had fought a pitched battle against the troops of his grandfather George III, and he was feted by the city’s leading lights. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles Sumner, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and dozens of Boston Brahmins (as well as a horde of unsavory but unavoidable press men) sat to several elaborate dinners in Boston and Cambridge with the prince, and they were quickly amazed. Some of them had read in advance about this stout, handsome young man; they knew of his dilatory ways, his gambling debts, and perhaps they speculated as to how much his indolence pleased his hard-working royal parents. They expected to find in “Bertie” the confirmation of all their condescensions. But the young man confounded them. True, he seemed to love laughing and did it often; true, he ate and smoked prodigiously (even at this age he seemed disinclined to heavy drinking); but he also loved good, fast-paced, detail-oriented talk, and more than one guest noticed that he was very, very good at it. He made direct eye contact, listened carefully, answered comprehensively, and kept the whole table involved. He was not stiff, and the fact that he didn’t stand on his dignity made that dignity all the more apparent.

Late on the night of one such banquet, after the prince and his entourage had retired and the kitchen staff were busy clearing the tables, a weary, fascinated Oliver Wendell Holmes leaned back in his chair and sighed, “What a perfect demonstration of why we divested ourselves of the monarchy.”

“I fail to see what you mean,” his companion remarked. “That young man seemed perfectly charming. Indeed, he carried all before him.”

“So you understand me after all,” Holmes said.

“Bertie” had been met with similar (if less ambiguous) approval at every stop on his North American tour, the first such tour any British heir apparent had ever made. He was the toast of Wall Street, the boisterous guest of President Buchanan in Washington, and the darling of all the ladies of Halifax. This had been the hope – though perhaps not the expectation – of his stern, reserved father, Victoria’s Prince Consort, Albert. He had envisioned the younger Albert’s tour as a duty, a way for the prince to see something of the larger world (and in Canada, of course, to see something of the far-flung empire he would one day rule), to foster good will for the British throne even in republican America where memories of two wars with England could still be living things. Victoria and Albert might have had the aim of improving their wayward son with this dose of royal responsibility, but there was another element at play, and if they were unaware of it, their councilors and ministers weren’t. Writing in 1933, E. F. Benson hints at it:

The Prince Consort’s ideal of an English sovereign was a mechanism of flawless industry. He looked upon popularity as as mere breeze, pleasant if it came your way, but he did not understand that popularity is an enormous asset in the equipment of a king and in the stability of a monarchy. Perhaps he was unaware of his own unpopularity with the Queen’s subjects …

For all that Albert would inculcate a sense of duty into the royal house, and for all that Victoria would later become a legend in her own lifetime, neither of them could win the hearts of foreign nations – or indeed their own people – as their “Bertie” could.

Like most charmers throughout history, he came to his skill by default: besides his talents for shooting and the races, he had precious few other things to do. That trans-oceanic tour was something of a gaudy rarity: for most of his life, Bertie was intentionally kept well away from the workings of state – he and his eight brothers and sisters were admonished repeatedly by their mother that they could never hope to be more than a patch on the paragon their father was (she still urged them to try to be the best patches they could be, however). When that paragon died in 1861, Queen Victoria went into deep and fetishistic mourning – and she took the keys to her dispatch-boxes with her.

This was a perfect recipe for scandal, and Bertie made the most of it. There was the gambling and the aforementioned debts, and the late-night carousing, and there were many, many affairs – how many we will never know: either the number was robust and exaggerated by rumor, or the palace censors were especially efficient and the true number would stagger even a posterity accustomed to uninhibited lust. In any case, the young man was the despair of his parents, and after Prince Albert’s death, Victoria was heard to comment that she thought stress over Bertie’s misbehavior had fatally weakened her husband. In the days after Albert’s death, Victoria couldn’t stand even to look at her eldest son.

Her affections gradually returned – she could scarcely help but be moved at the alarm the entire country felt when the prince fell seriously ill with typhoid fever in 1871 and looked unlikely to survive (he awoke one day out of his delirium, asked for a glass of beer, quaffed, and immediately began improving). She herself withdrew from active life after the death of the Prince Consort, but as one of her ministers once exclaimed, “She knows absolutely everything – I’m dashed if I know how!” She certainly knew of the popularity her sociable and gregarious eldest son enjoyed.

For a wastrel and a womanizer, that eldest son was remarkably dutiful – and as patient as a pine tree. He had to be: Victoria lived and reigned for a very long time. She didn’t make that time easy for him; it was only when physical debility was finally encroaching on her that she allowed it advisable for her son, now a fifty-year-old married fixture of society, both in London and throughout the Continent, to approach the actual business of his future. Her son once called Victoria one of the most remarkable politicians who ever lived, and it was true in at least one key axiom: she suffered no rivals near the sources of her power. Victoria’s death was a liberation for Bertie, who took the throne in 1901 as King Edward VII.

The last Edward, four hundred years previous, had come to the throne at age nine; Edward VII was now sixty, a stout, bald, bearded figure in impeccable clothing, with piercing blue-gray eyes under heavy lids. His coronation had to be postponed while he underwent potentially life-threatening surgery for appendicitis, and there’s something faintly desperate about the stubborn avidity with which he clawed his way back to health and a full calendar of commitments.

After Queen Victoria’s semi-seclusion of so many decades, Edward’s resplendent omnipresence struck London – and indeed, all Europe – like a shaft of bright sunlight. Here was a jovial-seeming king, a rotund bearded fellow who always dressed perfectly, loved pomp and show, expected deference and rewarded it with a nod, a smile, a phlegmy, ebullient laugh. He opened hospitals (and was far more liberal toward them and all other charities than any king since Norman times), presided at horse shows, roared with laughter at dance halls and concerts and stage plays, spoke at exclusive lunches, awarded prizes, and he did it all with a gusto that was infectiously likable. Xavier Paoli, a security agent sometimes attached to the crown, spoke for almost everybody when he said of Edward, “He was more than the right man in the right place: he was the right man in every place.”

Queen Alexandra

Edward VII was also refreshingly unhypocritical. The industrious regimen of amorous adventures that had made his pre-accession days such a public relations nightmare (“Edward the Caresser,” as Henry James popularized the nickname) continued without even so much as the courtesy of a blush after he became king. His beautiful Danish wife Queen Alexandra (rabidly anti-German, deaf, and long-suffering) bore these infidelities with infinite and at times marvellous open-mindedness. The King’s foremost mistress throughout his nine-year reign was Mrs. Alice Keppel, a lively, striking, worldly woman of great wit and even greater discretion (Giles St. Aubyn describes her as “the most perfect mistress in the history of royal infidelity”) who was routinely invited to royal events right alongside the Queen. The public liked everything about King Edward but perhaps nothing more than his assumption that congenial immorality was the province of the monarch. In any case his license perfectly fit his time, as George Dangerfield so adroitly put it in his classic The Strange Death of Liberal England (1961):

Edward VII represented, in a concentrated shape, those bourgeois kings whose florid forms and rather dubious escapades were all the industrialized world had left of an ancient divinity: his people saw in him the personification of something nameless, genial and phallic, the living excuse for their own little sins. And he had been a good king, after his fashion. The blood of his ancestors, agitated by so many crises and so many loves, had taught him to combine duty with indulgence; every beat of it was a warning to constitutional behavior. He was never tyrannical, he was never loud, or ill-mannered; he was just comfortably disreputable. …Englishmen had never cared for a respectable monarch: witness the fate of King Charles, whom the Commons executed, or of King Arthur, who, in idyll after idyll, received a mortal wound from Lord Tennyson.

Victoria had needed sixty years to name an era – Edward required only ten, mainly because his era so badly wanted to be named. It was a time of unprecedentedly accelerated upheavals on virtually every front – trade unions, the suffragette movement, the flourishing of the Labour Party, the horrifying escalation of military hardware (the King’s launch of the H.M.S. Dreadnought on February 10, 1906 has more than once been called the precise moment when the 20th century began), socialism, and the first faint pluckings of murky international tensions … all jumped to prominence during Edward’s brief reign. Samuel Hynes, in his 1968 masterpiece The Edwardian Turn of Mind, notes the cross-grained nature of the era:

The Edwardian period was a time of undifferentiated rebellion, when many rebellious minds seem to have regarded all new ideas as adaptable if only they were contrary to the old order; one finds individuals who thought it possible to be both Nietzschean and Socialist, fin-de-siecle and Fabian, Bergsonian and Post-Impressionist…

The King had his political opinions (he saw, for example, no reason why women should be given the vote), but unlike his mother, he refrained from imposing them or even expressing them. In his briefings with his various statesmen and ministers, he happily helped to fashion himself into the ultimate good-will ambassador abroad – the first time a monarch had ever played such a role. Edward was informally referred to as “the Uncle of Europe” because he had family relations with virtually every royal house anywhere in the Western world, and he exploited those connections every bit as cannily as Victoria had – and far more energetically. The King seemed always to be traveling, often incognito (how effective such a guise was when the traveler was escorted by half a dozen British warships may be questioned), making the circuit from Biarritz to Monte Carlo to the Cote de A’zur, taking trains to visit his far-flung kin, accepting honorary ranks in dozens of armies and having informal but extremely effective chats with rulers who ended up liking the man as much as his own subjects did. Edward prosecuted these duties tirelessly. In a famous Paris speech he proclaimed “Mon metier a moi est d’etre Roi,” and he referred often to the monarchy as his guild and to other monarchs as his fellow professionals.

The many burdens of Queen Alexandra

Some of them perhaps less professional than others. One of King Edward’s nephews grew up to be Germany’s maniacal Kaiser Wilhelm II, and Edward, never one to let sentiment blind him to reality, often remarked that he really thought his nephew hated him. In this he was entirely right (Wilhelm once remarked of him, “He is Satan: you can hardly believe what a Satan he is …”), and he only inflamed the Kaiser’s already pronounced paranoia when his efforts helped to form the Entente Cordiale with France in 1904, which had the German leader imagining all kinds of secret alliances designed to hem Germany in on all sides. The dark fantasies of Kaiser Wilhelm were summoning a future King Edward could only dimly glimpse – he went to his grave hoping a general European war would ultimately prove impossible.

That grave claimed him in May of 1910, mere months after the Liberals won a large victory in the country’s general election, signaling yet more change in the political atmosphere. In December of 1909 King Edward had refused to exercise one of his only constitutional abilities to create the multitude of new Liberal peers David Lloyd George needed to pass his “People’s Budget” through the House of Lords, but it had been a Pyrrhic victory, as Edward knew better than anybody: change was coming, and for all he knew, that change would eventually sweep the entire monarchy away.

King Edward VII with Caeser

He had done his best to prevent that. He had done his best to adapt the monarchy to a new role for a new century: more ceremonial, more suggestive, still mystical but less capricious, and above all the exponent of native patriotism rather than that patriotism’s often undeserving beneficiary. He had lived a large life, a king’s life, and for better or worse his age, the Edwardian Era, would be known to history as a time of glamorous excess, of parades and prosperity and epic meals and lawn parties. When the end came, he sat fading in his chair (like Elizabeth I, he showed a horror of actually going to bed while mortally ill, certain that it would hasten the end), accepting callers and trying to conduct business. The Queen was with him at the end, and at her invitation Alice Keppel also said her good-byes. The King was informed that his horse, “The Witch of the Air,” had won at Kempton Park, and this seemed to please him. The funeral was the last time in history that all the old monarchies of Europe would assemble in one place, marching in gaudy ranks behind the coffin carriage (and behind Caesar, the King’s faithful dog). The coming apocalypse would destroy most of those monarchies, but in England the succession seemed secure: the king’s second son, Prince George, would take the throne as King George V.
The fate of the king’s firstborn son and heir, Prince Albert Victor, the lost Windsor king, will be the story of our next chapter.

Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Columbia Journal of American Studies, Historical Novel Review Online, The Washington Post, The National and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.