But in theory at least, if
Parliament had decreed that he should be executed, he would have
been constitutionally bound to sign his own death warrant. King
Edward VII was born while this odd but excellent system was
being changed, and played the King to the hilt even though his
influence was severely limited. He was born to Victoria and
Albert, their first male child, on 2 December 1841.
He suffered and survived an appalling education inflicted upon
him with dangerously well-meant motives by his father, the
Prince Consort. It was meant to produce a human paragon who
would not be a religious prig. So he was educated in isolation
by tutors without any competition or companionship from other
He was made to work harder than any schoolboy. He emerged
trilingual. He was given to explosions of hysterical rage. He
took pleasure in hurting verbally the few contemporaries he was
allowed to meet. When he was, technically, an undergraduate at
Oxford for four terms, even his fellow-undergraduates rose when
he entered the room. It was an unnatural upbringing and it was
astonishing that it produced so sturdy and popular a King.
For, despite scandals, stiff leaders in "The Times", a good deal
of republicanism, his notorious infidelities to a beautiful,
well-loved Queen, he was, for most of the time, more popular
than any politician. This was the time when England really loved
a lord and the vices of the aristocracy seemed to come full
circle to meet those of the irreligious poor. He gambled; he
wenched; he chose his friends because they were successful,
because they entertained him.
Although he had a quick, foul temper, he radiated a sort of
genial friendliness that changed the mood of crowds. He never
had the slightest doubt about the privilege of his rank. Once
when entering a lift - he was travelling incognito at the time -
simply by forging ahead like a ship into a dock, he shouldered a
prosperous American flat. The possibility of giving way -
socially - never occurred to him.
He was Prince of Wales for a generation. In this time, while the
Queen lived in aggressive mourning for her Consort, who had died
in 1861, the Prince was recognized as the leader of society, a
rather raffish society known as the Marlborough House set. The
Queen and he were linked by a most real bond of love, though she
thought that Edward's behaviour had hastened Albert's death.
None the less she would allow the successor to the throne no
real part in the business of government.
So most of his life was given up, quite literally, to a
passionate pursuit of pleasure. Boredom was the enemy that
lurked behind every door. His friends made parties to keep the
enemy at bay. Weekend hostesses arranged the contiguity of
bedrooms to suit his needs. He was not an ass. He did not read
much, but he loved the theatre and opera.
Queen Victoria died at last in 1901 and the new King was already
60. However he brought a boyish energy and zest to the job. He
was the most kingly of Kings, so he could do and say things no
ambassador could. He helped make peace with Russia and tried
without success to sober up the Kaiser, his nephew.
But he was a major influence on government rather than a ruler.
He spoke well in public. His horses ran well, which greatly
increased his subjects' love for him. He was in fact cautionary
rather than creative and usually ready to give a Royal heave to
support Ministerial policy.
Towards the end of his reign, the Prime Minister was in dispute
with the House of Lords over their ability to defeat legislation.
The King had to face the disagreeable possibility of creating
300 new Liberal peers so that the elected Government might get
its way. It was a prospect that made him extremely unhappy. He
disliked Lloyd George's remark that a fully-equipped duke was as
expensive to maintain as two battleships and harder to scrap.
But his health began to fail and he left for Biarritz with the
crisis unresolved. He came home and caught cold at Sandringham.
He collapsed after lunch in Buckingham Palace and sat hunched in
a chair, receiving relays of visitors. One of his horses won
that afternoon at Kempton Park, which pleased him. He died
peacefully on 6 May 1910, aged 68.