Today, our dear Prince Harry would be what many may define as a “playboy prince”, but he doesn’t even begin to hold a candle to his ancestor Edward VII.
Born 9 November 1841 to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Albert Edward would hold the title of heir apparent longer than any other member of the royal family until he was surpassed by his great-great-grandson, Prince Charles. When ascending the throne in 1901, despite being born Albert Edward, Edward chose to go by his second name as he didn’t want to “undervalue the name Albert”.
Edward created such a reputation for himself that the period during his reign ended up being called the Edwardian era. Edward had a charming way about him that from little on that magic and sociability outshone any shortcomings and helped him get by.
Being born into the role of heir, his father, Prince Albert, devised an educational programme to help prepare Albert Edward for the future. Despite all the help from tutors, he didn’t excel academically although one of Victoria’s Prime Ministers, Benjamin Disraeli, described him as informed, intelligent and sweet of manner.
After attending the University of Edinburgh as well as Christ Church, Oxford and Trinity College, Cambridge, Edward wanted to pursue an active military career. However, Queen Victoria vetoed him and gave him the honorary title of lieutenant-colonel. In 1861, Edward was sent on a visit to Germany to watch military manoeuvres. The real intention of the trip was to meet Princess Alexandra of Denmark, the eldest daughter of Prince Christian of Denmark and his wife Louise, whom Queen Victoria and Prince Albert decided he should wed. The two got along well, and plans for a wedding went on.
Edward didn’t let his impending engagement stand in the way of him gaining his reputation as a playboy. While staying in with the troops to gain army experience, Edward’s fellow officers hid actress Nellie Clifden in the camp and Edward spent three nights with her. Prince Albert found out and despite being ill, went straight to Cambridge to reprimand Edward when his son returned to his college there.
Just two weeks later in December 1861, Albert died. Queen Victoria lost the love of her life and blamed Edward for his death. She referred to her son with distaste as frivolous, indiscreet and irresponsible, writing to her daughter “I never can, or shall, look at him without a shudder.”
Still grieving and wanting to distance herself from her son, Queen Victoria sent Edward on an extended tour of the Middle East. His visits included Egypt, Constantinople, Beirut, Damascus, and Jerusalem. Francis Bedford joined Edward on the trip, becoming the first photographer to attend a royal tour. When he returned his engagement to Princess Alexandra was confirmed, and the couple was married at St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle on 10 March 1863.
Marlborough House became their London home and Sandringham House their country retreat with both acting as a backdrop to their lavish parties. . It was at these parties that Edward was able to meet with his mistresses, often placed in bedrooms convenient to Edward’s for easy night-time visits. Alexandra is said to have known about his many affairs and to have not had an issue with them.
Edward also became a regular of brothels in Paris where they were legal. At one such brothel, Le Chabanais, a custom bath was filled with champagne and specially designed for….well it’s a brothel, I’m sure we don’t have to spell it out. The bath is now a museum piece.
Despite his naughty behaviour, he left a great legacy as King. Incredibly open-minded for his time, Edward worked at linking those from all walks of life and was able to connect to all despite his over-the-top lifestyle. Upon opening the Royal College of Music, he said, “Class can no longer stand apart from class … I claim for music that it produces that union of feeling which I much desire to promote.”
Standing his ground, he had no problem speaking back to those around him when he was passionate about a matter, once saying he “could not see it. The Japanese were an intelligent, brave and chivalrous nation, quite as civilised as the Europeans, from whom they only differed by the pigmentation of their skin.” Following comments from Wilhelm II insinuating the British were committing “race treason” for supporting Japan in the Russo-Japanese War.
However, his successful reign as King would become a short one. His health suffered in later years, and his coronation had to be put back when the new monarch developed appendicitis. As his reign progressed, he was also treated for severe bouts of bronchitis and had a small growth removed from his face in his later years. In 1910, after an extended stay in France, Edward returned to England very ill again with severe bronchitis. A few weeks later, in May, he suffered several heart attacks. Despite his condition, he refused to rest and his stubborn nature took over saying “No, I shall not give in; I shall go on; I shall work to the end.”
His son, the Prince of Wales, stayed by his side giving the King updates including that his horse, Witch of the Air, had won his race that day. Edward’s final words were “Yes, I have heard of it. I am very glad”. By 11:30 p.m he lost all consciousness and was put to bed, only to die 15 minutes later. The short reign of Edward VII ended on 6 May 1910.
For the following eight days, Alexandra did not allow Edward’s body to touched. A few small groups were, however, able to enter his room. He was dressed in his uniform and laid in an oak coffin on 11 May, and on 14 May it was sealed and lay in state with four guardsmen on duty.
After over a week had passed since his death, Alexandra mentioned that her late husband’s body was still “wonderfully preserved” (perhaps something to do with the copious amounts of alcohol consumed during his lifetime). The final steps of his goodbye took place on 17 May as his coffin was carried on a gun carriage by black horses to Westminster Hall. Behind were his son, the new King George V, and his family walking solemn tribute. After a short service, the hall opened to the public, where over 400,000 people came to show their respect for the next two days.
It was now George V’s turn to do his duty to his country.