A soul-crushing wait to accede to the throne. A doughty mother in whose shadow the Prince of Wales must lie for decades, biding his time for a coronation that must appear as though it will never come. Monarchy-threatening scandal on the discovery of an adulterous affair with a society woman, a case widely reported in the newspapers to the shame of the Royal Family.
No, not Charles, the present Prince of Wales, though the similarities are astonishing, but Edward VII, or Bertie as he was universally known. Effectively the first sovereign of the 20th century, he is credited with bringing the monarchy into the modern age. The Royal duties that we take for granted now – planting trees at inaugural ceremonies, greeting visiting dignitaries, undertaking overseas goodwill trips – were all hallmarks of the new King’s reign.
This engaged approach stood in marked contrast to the austere and aloof latter years of Victoria’s reign, who had practically shut herself away in seclusion at her homes at Balmoral, Windsor Castle and Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. She wore black for the 40 years that followed the passing of her beloved Albert and rarely set foot in London. This self-imposed isolation and eschewing of public duties earned her both the nickname the ‘Widow of Windsor’ – and the disapproval of the public.
Like our present Prince of Wales, Bertie’s instincts appear to have been liberal, even progressive for the day. In his 1983 Whitbread Book Award-winning work King George V, royal biographer Kenneth Rose notes that during his reign Bertie is on record as having described use of the word ‘nigger’ as “disgraceful”, though it was then in wide usage.
And he shares with our present Prince of Wales a perceived desire to have the common touch and to be able to relate to people of all standing and status. Historian Miranda Carter, author of The Three Emperors recounts a revealing anecdote:
“He wanted to be a symbol of unity. He met the Labour MP Keir Hardie who was the absolute bête noire of royalty, the aristocracy and the Tory Party because he was highly and vociferously critical of privilege. Edward VII was extraordinarily charming and polite to this class enemy. Afterwards one of his friends said rather sarcastically, ‘Well, you were very nice to him’. And Edward turned to him very quickly and very sharply and said, ‘No, you don’t understand. I mean to be king of all the people.’”
"During his reign Bertie is on record as having described use of the word ‘nigger’ as “disgraceful”, though it was then in wide usage."
A thoroughly modern sentiment, it presages Diana’s famous desire to be a “queen of hearts”. But for all his many undoubted good qualities, while our Prince of Wales has put his energies in the years of waiting into progressive and philanthropic causes, Bertie’s diversions for passing the time were altogether more sybaritic, his twin loves of women and excessive consumption earning him the nickname in his day ‘Edward the Caresser’ – and rendering him morbidly obese.
First, the women. In 1861 Prince Albert, despairing of Bertie’s lack of application to academic studies, decided that a taste of Army life would be just the thing to knock him into shape. Bertie, then just 19, was duly dispatched to an Army camp in Ireland.
The ploy could not have backfired more spectacularly. Soon after his arrival, fellow officers arranged for an actress named Nellie Clifden to be smuggled into his sleeping quarters. In his diary for 1861 the young Prince made the following entries:
6 September NC First time
9 September NC Second time
10 September NC Third time
So began a love of women – what would be termed sex addiction today – that would last his lifetime and remained undimmed by his otherwise successful marriage to the beautiful Princess Alexandra of Denmark.
Of course, his escapades in Ireland came to the attention of his father, Prince Albert, who said in an 1861 letter to Bertie:
“I write to you with heavy heart on a subject that has caused me the deepest pain – I knew that you were thoughtless and weak… but I could not think you depraved!”
Within weeks Albert was dead, officially due to typhoid fever, though Victoria believed Bertie’s dissipated lifestyle had broken her beloved Albert’s heart.
Says Royal biographer Philip Ziegler: “In the Queen’s eyes he [Albert] was a martyr who had died because of the wickedness of his son, he sacrificed his life and she never altogether forgave the Prince of Wales for what she saw was this appalling misdemeanour.”
Apparently unrepentant, the Prince threw himself into partying, and became a frequent visitor to Paris. As well as being a regular face at racy venues such as the Café des Anglais and the Moulin Rouge – where Miranda Carter says his nickname was “king-ky” – he spent a huge amount of time at the notorious, lavish brothel Le Chabanais, which had first opened its doors in 1878.
He was a sufficiently regular guest throughout the 1880s for him to commission a quite extraordinary chair, the “siege d’amour”, whose purpose was to allow two or three people to perform sex acts upon one another simultaneously.
Matthew Sweet, author of Inventing the Victorians, adds that there were other diversions for Bertie at Le Chabanais:
“He would sit in this most incredible bath that had a swan-necked mythological figure with a with a lady of his choice, not with water in it, but with champagne in it, and I guess they would both sit there and listen to the sound of his father spinning in his grave.”
A perfect illustration of his twin loves of wine and women, then. Edward’s many mistresses, tolerated with some irritation by Alexandra, famously included the actress Lillie Langtry, Jenny Churchill (Winston mother) and – in another neat parallel with modern times - Camilla Parker Bowles’s great-grandmother Alice Keppel, whom Alexandra permitted to join her at Bertie’s deathbed.
But the greatest love of his life is accepted to have been the wealthy and stunningly beautiful Daisy Warwick. Writer Victoria Fishburn, who is researching a biography of Daisy, gives a fascinating insight into Bertie’s lifestyle:
“Daisy threw fabulous house parties at her mansion in Essex, having had a railway branch line built to bring Bertie and other guests to the house, whose main purpose was to provide an environment in which adultery could flourish.
"As well as being a regular face at the Café des Anglais and the Moulin Rouge – where his nickname was “king-ky” – he spent a huge amount of time at the notorious, lavish brothel Le Chabanais."
“The crunch time was tea, when the men would come in from sport and the women would be dolled up in specially made ‘tea gowns’ – Daisy had hers made by Worth of Paris – which were loosely fastened at the waist and would not be worn with a corset solely to allow ‘ease of passage’. The guests would pair up with their illicit partners and retire to their rooms for their assignations.”
Indeed, tea became a codeword for illicit sex, made famous by the Cole Porter song Tea for Two, and led to ‘tea gown rivalries’. Fishburn quotes a magazine description of one of Daisy’s tea gowns, contained in a surviving letter seen by Fishburn:
“Lady Brooke [Daisy] defied all competition in a soft green gauze gown held to her waist by a band fastened with an emerald and diamond buckle and finished at the neck by a deep falling collar of chinchilla.”
Bertie belonged to another era, an age where he could – and did – have a box set aside at his coronation for his various mistresses, where adultery was perfectly acceptable so long as it was discreet and where the craftsmen that built his special siege d’amour could be trusted not to sell the story to the press.
But against this he proved to be one of the most enduring and popular monarchs of the modern era, and created the archetype for the role of committed and caring monarchy. Why, he even had an era named after him. Something even our own Queen cannot claim – she was pipped at the post more than 300 years before she was born.
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