God Save the King

One hundred and ten years ago today, Albert Edward, more commonly known as Edward VII, ascended the British throne after a record-setting wait and the death of his mother, Queen Victoria. Although he only held the throne for nine years, he left his mark and lent his name to an entire era.

Edward was born on November 9, 1841 at Buckingham Palace. He was the second child and eldest son of Queen Victoria and her beloved husband, Prince Albert. He was named Prince of Wales less than a month after his birth. He held the title and was heir apparent for longer than anyone else in history, although Prince Charles is now giving him a run for his money.

He didn’t have the happiest childhood–Edward wasn’t as intellectually astute as his elder sister, Victoria, and his parents often compared him unfavorably with her. Edward’s talents lay more in the social arena: he was known for being charming and sociable, though Benjamin Disraeli noted that Edward was intelligent and informed. Later, after he escaped from his parents’ harsh lesson plans and started studying at the University of Edinburgh; Christ Church, Oxford; and Trinity College, Cambridge Edward blossomed and came to enjoy his lessons and lectures.

In 1860, Edward became the first heir to the British throne to tour North America. His easy, outgoing manner made the tour a huge success. After his return to Britain, a minor scandal involving him and an actress named Nellie Clifton resulted in a visit from his father who, despite being ill, traveled to Cambridge to reprimand his son. Albert died shortly after of typhoid, and Edward’s inconsolable mother blamed him. “I never can, nor shall look upon him without a shudder,” she charmingly wrote to her eldest daughter. Thanks, mom!

Edward married Princess Alexandra of Denmark in 1863; they had a successful marriage and six children together. Like his ancestor Charles II, Edward also had a string of mistresses throughout his life, ranging from high-ranking society ladies to singers and actresses (one of those mistresses, Alice Keppel, is the great-grandmother of Prince Charles’s wife, Camilla). Edward conducted his liaisons so discreetly that it’s difficult to say which were actual affairs and which ladies were simply close friends.

After Victoria withdrew from public life after Prince Albert’s death, Edward stepped up and became the public face of the royal family. Queen Victoria refused, however, to allow him to have any part in the actual running of the country, because she was a control freak who apparently didn’t think it would be important for the future king to know how to do his job.

When Edward finally ascended the throne, he was said to be the most popular king since the 1660s. Although his reign was brief it was significant. His affability and family connections (he was related to almost every European monarch) enabled Edward to build alliances throughout Europe, although his relationship with his nephew, the German Kaiser, was never strong. He also refurbished several of the royal palaces, reintroduced court ceremonies that Victoria had ditched, and founded new orders of honours, such as the Order of Merit, recognizing contributions to the arts and sciences. He also supported a reorganization of the army command and the navy, as well as the creation of the Territorial Army. In an effort not to repeat his mother’s mistake, he made sure his son and heir, George, was involved and prepared to take the throne when his time came.

In March, 1910, Edward collapsed while on holiday in Biarritz. He was well enough to return to London on April 27, but on May 6 he suffered a series of heart attacks. He refused to go to bed, saying “no, I shall not give in; I shall go on; I shall work to the end.” His health declined swiftly; later that afternoon, his son told Edward that his horse, Witch of the Air, had won at Kempton Park. “I am so glad,” Edward murmured. These were his last words. He died just before midnight. Four years later, the outbreak of World War I, which Edward saw coming, marked an end to the Edwardian period and its way of life.

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