Monday, January 14, 2013

Monarch Profile: King Edward VII of Great Britain

The eldest son and heir of HM Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha; Prince Albert Edward, was born on November 9, 1841 at St James’s Palace in London. Before he was a month old he was formally invested with the title of Prince of Wales. The childhood of this future king, however, was far from ideal and, in many ways, he seemed a totally different person as a child compared to the man everywhere knew later as monarch. His parents were not terribly affectionate towards him, not wishing him to be spoiled, and later came to view him, even at a young age, as rather dull and disappointing. The very driven and disciplined Prince Albert drew up a plan for the proper upbringing of his son intended to prepare him for his future role as monarch which was quite harsh. Even the tutors brought in to educate the little prince complained that his training was far too harsh and heavy-handed. They feared (perhaps correctly as things turned out) that too much emphasis on constant work and heavy moralizing would only discourage the boy and have the opposite effect, making him rebel towards being lazy and immoral; which was certainly not what Queen Victoria and Prince Albert wanted at all. If they erred in their raising of little Edward, they certainly did so with most noble of intentions, hoping to make him the best future king possible.

Still, as he grew older, Prince Edward was often at odds with his parents for whom he never seemed to be quite good enough. Given his behavior, their fears were not all unfounded and they were quite worried about the monarchy being pulled back into the scandals that had brought such ill-repute during the regency era after they had worked so hard to raise the moral tone. In his youth, Prince Edward was known for being a rather angry boy (perhaps because of harsh discipline placed on him). He would be enraged at losing a game and could be rather cruel to his lessers when no one was looking. It was a far cry, thankfully, from the man he would ultimately become who most would know as a very friendly, charming and kindly gentleman. And he did grow into a dashing young man of winning ways. His first official duty came when he was 18 when he was sent on a visit to the Dominion of Canada and, most controversially, the United States of America in 1860. British royals had previously refused to step on American soil, considering it a land of dangerous ideas and unsavory parties, both Republican and Democrat. However, despite a little trouble when one largely Irish regiment refused to turn out for parade, the visit of the Prince of Wales was a great success. He charmed the elites and favored American vanity by paying a solemn visit to the tomb of George Washington in Virginia.

Unfortunately, one year after this diplomatic victory, Prince Albert died following parental outrage over Edward having a fling with an actress (arranged by his army buddies) while on maneuvers in Ireland and the Queen, in her grief, blamed her son for hastening the demise of her father. Sadly, mother-son relations were never quite what they should have been. The Queen greatly disapproved of his lifestyle overall. The Prince of Wales was fond of over eating, smoked like a chimney and was quite fond of his mistresses and gambling. None of that was to change throughout his life, even after a marriage was arranged for him with the very pretty and prim and proper Princess Alexandra of Denmark who, the Queen hoped, would help “reform” her son. The marriage worked when it came to the basics. Children were produced to carry on the royal line and Edward liked and respected his wife but never relented in his womanizing ways which Alexandra endured with quiet stoicism. Queen Victoria was also not always pleased with Alexandra either though, particularly when war came between Denmark and Germany. The Prince and Princess of Wales (along with the Prime Minister and most of Britain) favored the Danes while the Queen favored the Germans.

There were other causes for tension as well, such as when Edward cordially received the famous Italian nationalist and revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi. The Queen was very displeased by this and rather upset at the rousing welcome Garibaldi received from the British public. Things like this made the Queen distrustful of her son and she refused to allow him to see state papers or have any real role in the interaction of the government and the monarchy. Still, he went about other royal duties, attending functions, opening things and dedicating monuments and the like and won people over with his good natured manners and affable personality. He visited foreign countries but was not allowed to have formal meetings with foreign heads of state as he occasionally requested. For the most part, his time was spent going on hunts, attending parties and socializing; which he was remarkably adept at. He was a people person who disliked being alone and who tended to view things in personal terms. He was, throughout his life, fairly conservative when it came to politics but he took people one at a time and his circle of friends was open to people of various backgrounds who had made their way to the top of society from the old aristocracy to the newly rich businessmen. Many of those friends were Jews and it was likely those personal relationships that made Edward particularly disgusted by anti-Semitism and, though he always maintained good relations and indeed helped forge a rather unexpected Anglo-Russian friendship, his greatest concern with Russia tended to be the treatment of Jews there.

At times, his many friendships involved the Prince of Wales in scandals, though it was much easier to keep quiet in those days. Usually the behavior of the Prince was not in question but it was the actions of those around him that got him into trouble. Still, he was always a loyal friend and for all the minor scandals, his friendly nature helped bring about closer relationships between traditional enemies like Britain and France as well as Britain and Russia which had, in the not too distant past, been enemies in the Crimean War. The press sometimes made a fuss over his behavior but all in all he remained widely popular as he was a man most found it hard to dislike. He was 59-years-old 1901 when the revered and long-reigning Queen Victoria was called to her eternal reward and he was crowned King Edward VII of the United Kingdom, etc and Emperor of India. Though his reign would not be very long, it was a time of changes, in science as well as attitudes, and his great gift for simply being a “presence” ensured that it would be known as the Edwardian Age; a time when Britain took her first steps toward the welfare state, when new alliances were formed but also still one of dapper gentlemen and fine ladies in traditional fashion.

King Edward VII most made himself significant in the area of diplomacy and foreign policy as his foreign visits and relations with other European leaders helped to set up a new state of affairs for Britain and Europe, starting in 1903 with his state visit to Paris and the subsequent Entente Cordiale between Great Britain and the French Republic. Prior to this, while Emperor Napoleon III had established good relations with the British, it was open to question how the new republic would be dealt with by the crowned heads of Europe and Britain had previously been more favorable toward Germany and antagonistic toward Russia. Under King Edward VII the British Empire allied with France and Russia and began to increasingly view Imperial Germany as their primary rival in economic and colonial policy. Although it was certainly not decisive, it is no less true that the King simply did not like his nephew the German Kaiser Wilhelm II. His friendship toward Russia also caused outrage amongst the growing socialist minority in Great Britain yet, in that regard, British friendship toward Russia was, perhaps, not so surprising as the fact that Russia reciprocated given that Britain had fought Russia in the Crimea, blocked Russia and supported Turkey in the Balkans and Britain which was the ally of Imperial Japan which had so recently bloodied the Russian nose. The German Kaiser, who disliked his uncle as much as the King disliked him, looked at those facts and was bewildered by the movement of Russia toward Britain and away from Germany. Again, it certainly was not decisive, but it certainly helped that King Edward VII was so likeable in his dealings with other leaders whereas the Kaiser tended to put people off.

The new state of affairs and the leading part King Edward VII was seen to play in bringing it all about, proved immensely popular. The public saw Britain strengthened by powerful alliances and her primary rival more isolated. The new system of alliances also made war seem extremely improbably and thus King Edward VII was hailed as the great peacemaker of his time and not just by people in Britain but around the world, outside of Germany of course. Even after the outbreak of the First World War, the reputation of the King would survive while the Kaiser singled him out as the author of all German misfortunes. When that calamity came, most people placed the blame on the bombastic Kaiser, rightly or wrongly, and not on the jovial King Edward VII. Prior to that, it was a common boast that there would be no war in Europe so long as Edward VII was alive. Of course, he did not live to see that disaster which befell the world. He did, however, see, at the very end of his life, the beginning of the struggle to remove the veto power from the House of Lords. Of this last great political confrontation, the King was greatly disturbed by it all and tended to blame both sides for bringing things to such an impasse. When asked to create new peers in order that the liberals could have their way, the King put it off until after the next election and tried all the time to arrange a compromise between the opposing party leaders. A solution had still not been found when King Edward VII passed away on May 6, 1910. It would be left to his son, King George V, to see the crisis through as well as to preside over the great test of the system of alliances King Edward VII had helped arrange in the (vain) hope of preventing war in Europe.

1 comment:

  1. Kinda sad what happened to him. Wasn't loved by his parents but was loved by all


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