Edward VII

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: King Edward VII made the British monarchy fascinating and thereby brought to it an appeal which contributed greatly to its popularity in the twentieth century. He exercised little influence in politics, but he used his natural talents to promote his country’s foreign policy.

Early Life

Edward VII, who was christened Albert Edward, was obliged as a child to follow a most exacting plan of study. His parents, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, expected him, the heir to the throne, to become a model of morality, piety, and intellectual accomplishments. Edward was ill-suited for such a regimen, however, and the early educational pressures did not produce the desired results. Indeed, for the rest of his life Edward sought pleasure and avoided work. He schemed for indolence. The future king seldom read a book and tried to avoid “intellectuals” and clever people.

Victoria and Albert were bitterly disappointed in their son, but they admitted that he was gentle and good-natured, and had a gift for languages, although he always spoke English with a slight German accent. Very early, too, Edward developed a reputation for gaiety and charm, qualities which would be associated with the Edwardian monarchy. Perhaps the charm was superficial, a façade with little behind it, but it was a façade which left a lasting impression.

Five feet, seven inches in height and with protruding blue eyes, Edward had a fine figure as a child, as well as curly hair and a fresh complexion, but an enormous appetite for rich food made him plump as a young man and portly at the time of his accession. Always smartly dressed, Edward as prince and as king was known for his courtly manners and zestful energy. He also had a captivating smile and was invariably cheerful in public.

The Princess of Wales, whom Edward married in 1863, added to his aura of charm. The future Queen Alexandra, who shared her husband’s love of fun and his lack of interest in anything serious, had a beauty and presence which made her a fitting centerpiece for Edwardian court life. As a mother, however, Alexandra was anything but frivolous. She gave her children the same intense affection she had received as a child in Denmark, and her influence was central in the formation of her second son, the future George V. His devotion to family and other simple virtues came in large part from his mother.

Although Edward’s charm and gaiety were widely acknowledged, most Victorians undoubtedly shared their queen’s view that these were not sufficient qualifications for a future king. Reservations about the Prince of Wales were reinforced by a number of scandals in which the prince became involved, including the suggestion of matrimonial irregularity and a fondness for card games and light, irresponsible companions. Most of England probably shared William Ewart Gladstone’s view, expressed in a celebrated remark in 1870: “To speak in rude and general terms, the Queen is invisible and the Prince of Wales is not respected.” Accordingly, Edward’s accession was greeted with little enthusiasm. His charm was well-known, but his personal life and character raised doubts about his fitness to be king.

Life’s Work

Albert Edward succeeded his mother in 1901, at the age of fifty-nine. He at once asserted his independence by announcing that he was taking the name of Edward rather than retaining, as his mother had wished, the two names of Albert Edward.

The new king made other changes in keeping with his personality. Most important, there was a new visibility for the sovereign. During Edward’s reign, Parliament was regularly opened in person by the king, a custom that has been followed ever since by his successors; Victoria had rarely done so. On Valentine’s Day, less than a month after his mother’s death, Edward drove to Parliament in George III’s state coach. For Londoners this magnificence was new, and the king heightened the effect by having all the peers who possessed state coaches drive to Parliament in them.

Another early act of the king was to move into Buckingham Palace, a place Victoria had disliked and seldom used. The rooms of the palace were cleaned, and everything was made ready for the ostentatious entertainment which so well suited the new king. At Windsor, meanwhile, women were required to wear tiaras every night, while the men wore court dress with decorations. As the king willed, his court radiated formality and glitter.

Edward’s style was a public relations triumph. The English of all classes seemed ready to accept as king a very human, genial figure of faintly disreputable past who made monarchy fascinating and glamorous...

(The entire section is 1942 words.)