Really enjoyed this book on Edward VII, king of of Great Britain from 1901-1910. Ridley plays up the positive achievements to Edward’s reign, contrasting them to his dissolute behavior before he became king. Not that he wasn’t a rake, but he does appear to have fathered fewer bastards than most previous historians – or at least gossip – credited him with. More specifically, she tied the change to the period to the death of his eldest son Eddy in 1891, ten years before he became king.
Bertie (as she insists on calling him, since that’s what his family called him) had little to do but be dissolute given the way his mother Victoria treated him, holding him responsible for his father Prince Albert’s death, and refusing to allow him any official role while she was alive, convincing herself that he was indiscreet. That’s not actually true – she essentially forced the public role of the monarchy on him after she retired from public life following Albert’s death, and yet would not allow him any role, or even information on the nation’s affairs.
Oddly, this treatment did not result in a public break between Victoria and her heir, causing opposition to coalesce around the heir, as was standard practice between monarch and heir in previous reigns. And in the end it didn’t affect Bertie’s performance as monarch in his own right, where he was the first true constitutional monarch, avoiding involvement in party politics, but acting as a valuable ambassador for British foreign policy in the years leading up to the First World War. He could not stop the war – at the time of his death during a constitutional crisis involving the House of Lords he saw the war as inevitable, and given the personality of the kaiser (Bertie’s nephew) it’s hard to disagree with that pessimistic opinion. But in an effort that completely contradicted his pre-reign playboy personality, and would have made his father Prince Albert proud, he literally worked himself to death trying to prevent it, consistently appearing to be the adult in the room in dealing with his ministers. I have not yet read a biography of his heir, King George V, who succeeded as Bertie’s heir when his older brother Eddy died., but while he seems to have been an improvement on his brother, he doesn’t appear to have been as sure-handed as king, at least initially. Of course that might be the author’s obvious affection for her subject, and possibly gratification at being able to present him as a distinct improvement on his mother after his accession, but the signs are that his long years in the London social scene prepared him better for the role of king than his son.
In the end, it was a good book, and if the lack of supporting material on some of the less proper aspects of Bertie’s life pre-reign was a disappointment (much of the material was deliberately destroyed after his death by archivists or others) enough escaped the flames that a full range of Bertie’s behavior is on record – even if we can’t quantify it from the record. We even have a picture of the chair he had built for sex when in Paris – even if we’re not entirely sure what (or who) went where.