Edward VII (Albert Edward; November 9, 1841 – May 6, 1910) was King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and the British Dominions, and Emperor of India, from January 22, 1901 until his death in 1910.
Edward was born at 10:48 in the morning on 9 November 9, 1841 in Buckingham Palace. He was the eldest son and second child of Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. He was christened Albert Edward at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, on January 25, 1842. He was named Albert after his father and Edward after his maternal grandfather, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn. He was known as Bertie to the royal family throughout his life.
As the eldest son of the British sovereign, he was automatically Duke of Cornwall and Duke of Rothesay at birth. As a son of Prince Albert, he also held the titles of Prince of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha and Duke of Saxony. He had the style of Royal Highness as the son of the sovereign.
He was created Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester on December 8, 1841, Earl of Dublin on January 17, 1850, a Knight of the Garter on November 8, 1858, and a Knight of the Thistle on May 24, 1867. In 1863, he renounced his succession rights to the Duchy of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in favour of his younger brother Prince Alfred.
During the long reign of his mother, he was largely excluded from political influence and came to personify the fashionable, leisured elite. He travelled throughout Britain performing ceremonial public duties and represented Britain on visits abroad. His tours of North America in 1860 and of the Indian subcontinent in 1875 proved popular successes, but despite public approval, his reputation as a playboy prince soured his relationship with his mother.
Once widowed, Queen Victoria effectively withdrew from public life. Shortly after Prince Albert’s death, she arranged for Edward to embark on an extensive tour of the Middle East, visiting Egypt, Jerusalem, Damascus, Beirut and Istanbul. The British Government wanted Edward to secure the friendship of Egypt’s ruler, Said Pasha, to prevent French control of the Suez Canal if the Ottoman Empire collapsed.
Edward and Alexandra on their wedding day, 1863
It was the first royal tour on which an official photographer, Francis Bedford, was in attendance. As soon as Edward returned to Britain, preparations were made for his engagement, which was sealed at Laeken in Belgium on September 9, 1862. Edward married Alexandra of Denmark at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, on 10 March 1863. He was 21; she was 18.
Alexandra was the daughter of King Christian IX of Denmark and Princess Louise of Hesse-Cassel.
The couple established Marlborough House as their London residence and Sandringham House in Norfolk as their country retreat. They entertained on a lavish scale.Their marriage met with disapproval in certain social circles because most of Queen Victoria’s relations were German, and Denmark was at loggerheads with Germany over the territories of Schleswig and Holstein.
When Alexandra’s father inherited the throne of Denmark in November 1863, the German Confederation took the opportunity to invade and annex Schleswig-Holstein. The Queen was of two minds as to whether it was a suitable match, given the political climate. After the marriage, she expressed anxiety about their socialite lifestyle and attempted to dictate to them on various matters, including the names of their children.
Edward was related to nearly every other European monarch, and came to be known as the “uncle of Europe”. German Emperor Wilhelm II and Emperor Nicholas II of Russia were his nephews; Queen Victoria Eugenia of Spain, Crown Princess Margaret of Sweden, Crown Princess Marie of Romania, Crown Princess Sophia of Greece, and Empress Alexandra of Russia were his nieces; King Haakon VII of Norway was both his nephew and his son-in-law; kings Frederik VIII of Denmark and George I of the Hellenes were his brothers-in-law; kings Albert I of Belgium, Ferdinand of Bulgaria, and Carlos I and Manuel II of Portugal were his second cousins.
Edward doted on his grandchildren, and indulged them, to the consternation of their governesses. However, there was one relation whom Edward did not like: Wilhelm II. His difficult relationship with his nephew exacerbated the tensions between Germany and Britain.
Edward had mistresses throughout his married life. He socialised with actress Lillie Langtry; Lady Randolph Churchill; Daisy Greville, Countess of Warwick; actress Sarah Bernhardt; noblewoman Lady Susan Vane-Tempest; singer Hortense Schneider; prostitute Giulia Beneni (known as “La Barucci”); wealthy humanitarian Agnes Keyser; and Alice Keppel. At least fifty-five liaisons are conjectured. How far these relationships went is not always clear. Edward always strove to be discreet, but this did not prevent society gossip or press speculation. Edward never acknowledged any illegitimate children. Alexandra was aware of his affairs, and seems to have accepted them.
When Queen Victoria died on January 22, 1901, Edward became King of the United Kingdom, Emperor of India and, in an innovation, King of the British Dominions. He chose to reign under the name of Edward VII, instead of Albert Edward—the name his mother had intended for him to use—declaring that he did not wish to “undervalue the name of Albert” and diminish the status of his father with whom the “name should stand alone”.
As king, Edward played a role in the modernisation of the British Home Fleet and the reorganisation of the British Army after the Second Boer War of 1899–1902. He re-instituted traditional ceremonies as public displays and broadened the range of people with whom royalty socialised.Edward VII fostered good relations on Britain and other European countries, especially France, for which he was popularly called “Peacemaker”, but his relationship with his nephew, the German Emperor Wilhelm II, remained poor.
The Edwardian era, which covered Edward’s reign and was named after him, coincided with the start of a new century and heralded significant changes in technology and society, including steam turbine propulsion and the rise of socialism.
Edward habitually smoked twenty cigarettes and twelve cigars a day. In 1907, a rodent ulcer, a type of cancer affecting the skin next to his nose, was cured with radium. Towards the end of his life he increasingly suffered from bronchitis. He suffered a momentary loss of consciousness during a state visit to Berlin in February 1909.
In March 1910, he was staying at Biarritz when he collapsed. He remained there to convalesce, while in London Asquith tried to get the Finance Bill passed. The king’s continued ill health was unreported, and he attracted criticism for staying in France while political tensions were so high. On April 27, he returned to Buckingham Palace, still suffering from severe bronchitis. Alexandra returned from visiting her brother, George I of the Hellenes, in Corfu a week later on May 5th.
On May 6, Edward VII suffered several heart attacks, but refused to go to bed, saying, “No, I shall not give in; I shall go on; I shall work to the end.” Between moments of faintness, his son the Prince of Wales (shortly to be King George V) told him that his horse, Witch of the Air, had won at Kempton Park that afternoon. The king replied, “Yes, I have heard of it. I am very glad”: his final words.At 11:30 p.m. he lost consciousness for the last time and was put to bed. He died 15 minutes later.
Alexandra refused to allow Edward’s body to be moved for eight days afterwards, though she allowed small groups of visitors to enter his room. On May 11, the late king was dressed in his uniform and placed in a massive oak coffin, which was moved on May 14, to the throne room, where it was sealed and lay in state, with a guardsman standing at each corner of the bier.Despite the time that had elapsed since his death, Alexandra noted the King’s body remained “wonderfully preserved”. On the morning of May 17, the coffin was placed on a gun carriage and drawn by black horses to Westminster Hall, with the new king, his family and Edward’s favourite dog, Caesar, walking behind.
Following a brief service, the royal family left, and the hall was opened to the public; over 400,000 people filed past the coffin over the next two days. As Barbara Tuchman noted in The Guns of August, his funeral, held on May 20, 1910, marked “the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last.” A royal train conveyed the king’s coffin from London to Windsor Castle, where Edward was buried at St George’s Chapel.
When Edward VII died the British Government was in the midst of a constitutional crisis that was resolved the following year by the Parliament Act 1911, which restricted the power of the unelected House of Lords.