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On the death of Queen Victoria, King Edward VII inherited what his mother used to call, with sublime self-confidence, 'the greatest position there is'. And so, in a way, it was. Queen Victoria had been far and away the world's most important monarch: the Doyenne of Sovereigns, the Grandmama of Europe, the Great White Queen. Not only had she been related to almost every royal family on the Continent but her direct descendants occupied, or would one day occupy, ten European thrones. As Queen Victoria had been Europe's Grandmama, so King Edward VII became Europe's Uncle.
Enhancing this position of dynastic pre-eminence was the fact that the British monarch reigned over the world's most powerful nation. The nineteenth century had been very much Britain's century: Queen Victoria's reign had coincided with, indeed it had come to symbolise, a period of unparalleled national magnificence. Vigorous, wealthy, assured, uninhibitedly expansionist and unashamedly imperialistic, Britain ruled, not only the waves, but the greatest Empire that the world had ever known. Its monarch, in addition to being Europe's leading sovereign, was the world's greatest imperial figure, holding sway over something like a quarter of the earth's population and a quarter of the earth's land mass. London, that vast metropolis, was looked upon as the heart of the world. To many an Eastern or African subject, the British monarch, enthroned in this fabled, far-away capital, seemed more like a deity than a mortal. Queen Victoria, a Burmese official once explained to a member of King Edward's household, had been the embodiment of the 'Great Idea'. His countrymen believed that at 'a great solemn religious ceremony the sacred Attributes of the Great White Queen would be transferred to her son, the King, and received by him in the most solemn religious rite which his country can provide.'
Even Kaiser Wilhelm II, no mean potentate himself and not much given to praising rival monarchs, felt compelled to express his sense of wonder at Queen Victoria's legacy. 'What a magnificent realm she has left you,' he exclaimed to his Uncle Bertie, 'and what a fine position in the world!'
But this realm, in the century that lay ahead, was to become increasingly less magnificent. The twentieth century has seen a steady decline in British power and prestige. Abroad, the country has divested itself of its great empire; at home it has suffered economic decline. From a position of world dominance, it has shrunk to the status of just another European country. Yet, paradoxically, the 'fine position' of the British Sovereign has remained almost intact. Queen Elizabeth II, in the last quarter of the twentieth century, is as familiar an image in today's world as her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria was in hers. Pictured in crown and ermine-trimmed robes, the Queen is arguably the most recognisable figure on earth. In some ways, hers remains 'the greatest position there is'.
Through all the years of industrial and imperial decline, through all the political and social upheaval, the British monarchy, and the British royal family, has retained, not only its position but its romantic appeal. Its popularity has remained almost constant. The royal family – with its triumphs and its heartbreaks, its brilliance and its mediocrity, its strengths and its vulnerabilities, all manifesting themselves in generation after generation – is still a glittering centre of national life.
'It is a family,' writes Anthony Sampson in The Changing Anatomy of Britain,'that has become more expert than any other institution in one critical art – the art of survival. In spite of the magic and sentimentality that surrounds it, the family has to be more realistic and less fooled by its mystique than its admirers; the view from the palace is like looking at Britain from backstage, where sets, floodlights and props are seen as part of the illusion. While most other monarchies have been toppled or cut down, the British royal family have developed skills which have enabled them so far to survive each new republican threat. And the more Britain worries about her own survival and future, the more her other institutions become discredited, the more interesting and reassuring is the continuity of the institution that pre-dates them all.'
Industrious, resilient and adaptable, the royal family has weathered many political and domestic storms. From them, it has emerged as firmly entrenched as ever. It has been, all in all, an extraordinary success story.
King Edward VII, the first of this line of twentieth-century monarchs, certainly looked like a king. He was in his sixtieth year at the time of his accession, and he gave off an unmistakable air of majesty. Impressively corpulent, imposingly bearded, and always impeccably dressed, King Edward never, even in the most brilliant company, looked like anything other than the most important person present. His carriage was erect, his bearing dignified, and his manners perfect. On state occasions he wore his robes or one of his many uniforms with great authority; in private, in his superbly cut suits and stylishly tilted hats he looked no less regal. His pale, bulbous eyes could become steely if confronted with some lapse of taste in dress or behaviour. His whole demeanour was one of self-assurance, of natural command.
Yet Edward VII was a far from forbidding personality. There was nothing ponderous or unapproachable about him. On the contrary, his manner was relaxed and charming. It would be impossible, claims Arthur Ponsonby, brother of Queen Victoria's assistant private secretary, to overestimate the King's charm: it 'amounted to genius'. 'It is not too much to say that ... it made him. With a dignified presence, a fine profile and a courtly manner, he never missed saying a word to the humblest visitor, attendant or obscure official ... no one was left out. The appropriate remark, the telling serious phrase and the amusing joke, accompanied by a gurgling laugh to a close friend, made all delighted even to watch him.'
Nor was the King's charm affected or synthetic, part of the royal stock-in-trade. It sprang from a genuine desire to please, a genuine goodness of heart. 'Warm human kindness,' wrote one Foreign Secretary, 'was the very substance of the man.' His politeness towards servants, his kindness towards strangers, his loyalty and generosity towards his friends, made him universally popular and greatly loved.
Perhaps most important of all, Edward VII had a taste for kingship. Or, at least, for its showier aspects. He loved all forms of public ceremonial – the pageantry of openings of parliament, the swagger of military parades, the braggadocio of state visits, the flash and glitter of receptions, balls and banquets. His manner, on these public occasions, could not be faulted. 'He was not a lover of the stage to no purpose,' wrote one observer, 'and like a highly trained actor, he studied and learnt the importance of mien and deportment, of entrance and exit, of clear and regulated diction and other details ...' With the beautiful, elegant and apparently ageless Queen Alexandra by his side, King Edward VII seemed the very quintessence of majesty.
That was one side of the coin. There was another, distinctly less satisfactory side. 'We shall not pretend,' lectured The Times on King Edward's accession, 'that there is nothing in his long career which those who respect and admire him would not wish otherwise.' There was, in truth, a great deal. Edward VII, for all the stateliness of his appearance and manner, ascended the throne with a reputation for being little more than a self-indulgent roué. 'It was all façade, the most engaging, decorative but quite misleading façade,' wrote Arthur Ponsonby. 'There was practically nothing behind it.'
To appreciate Ponsonby's harsh judgement, one has to go back to Edward VII's years as Prince of Wales. From babyhood, almost, he was the victim of his parents' high-minded ambitions. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had decided that if the monarchy was to keep afloat on the rising tide of democracy, the future King would have to be moulded into a model constitutional monarch. He would have to be a man who, by his breadth of vision, unimpeachable morals and high sense of duty, would win the love and respect of his people. His character would have to be an amalgam of all the virtues; he would have to be fashioned into what the approving Bishop of Oxford describes as 'the most perfect man'.
How was this to be achieved? How best, in short, was the heir to the throne to be educated? It was a question that was to reassert itself throughout the coming century; in fact, not until the children of Queen Elizabeth II were sent away to public schools was it solved satisfactorily. Any notion of sending their son away would have horrified Queen Victoria and her husband. For one thing, the Prince's rank would not have allowed for such relatively egalitarian mixing; for another, it would have meant fraternisation with the sons of the aristocracy – a class whom the Queen, and still more Prince Albert, generally regarded as shockingly dissolute.
So the Prince was kept at home and subjected to a rigorous course of training. He was isolated from boys of his own age, surrounded by a team of upright, well-educated and serious-minded tutors, kept at his lessons from morning to night and bombarded with information and advice – usually in the form of ponderous memoranda – from his well-meaning father. Even his periods of relaxation were watched over by a keen and usually disapproving eye. These circumscribed years in the schoolroom were followed by hardly less circumscribed spells at first Oxford and then Cambridge, where he lived out of College, carefully cocooned from the more rakish elements of undergraduate life.
These years of educational force-feeding had no beneficial effects what-soever. The Prince of Wales simply did not have the ability or application to cope with so intensive a course of instruction. He emerged from it as an affectionate, amiable, fun-loving but far from intellectual young man whose main interest, sighed his disappointed father, was clothes. But the failure of his parents' grandiose scheme did have one useful long-term effect: never again have royal children been subjected to such a joyless, concentrated, self-consciously elevating pattern of education. The schooling of Edward VII's descendants might sometimes have been unimaginative but it has never again been so serious-minded. If the experiment did not solve the problem of how the heir to the throne should be educated, it at least demonstrated how he should not be educated.
His nightmarish education behind him, the Prince of Wales set about enjoying himself. During the long period between the Prince Consort's death in 1861 and his own accession forty years later, the Prince established himself as the most fashionable figure in European society. He established himself, though, as very little else. Having no intellectual curiosity and distrusting clever people, he confined his circle to the beautiful, the amusing, the worldly and the rich. He seldom read a book and merely skimmed through newspapers. His taste, if not exactly vulgar, was philistine: he knew very little, and cared even less, about art and music. His interests were racing, yachting, shooting, gambling, eating out and fornicating. Every so often he would be involved in yet another scandal or would embark on yet another liaison. Equally at home in London, Paris, the South of France or some Continental spa, he was renowned for his zest, his gregariousness and his hedonism. As his disapproving mother used only too often to point out, the Prince of Wales lived purely for pleasure.
Nor was the Prince simply an easy-going and warm-hearted bon viveur. To those who knew him more intimately, he was not nearly as resolved a personality as he seemed. Away from the café table or the roulette wheel, he was moody, restless and quickly bored. Lacking in application, nothing could hold his interest long; without mental resources, he could not bear to be alone; very conscious of his royal dignity, he was easily affronted. It needed very little to make him lose his temper. For the most part he would lose it over trivia: a decoration incorrectly worn, a hitch in an arrangement, a delay in some ceremony. This quickly-flaring temper was to be passed on to his descendants.
The main trouble, of course, was that he did not have enough to do. His problem was the problem of all heirs apparent, or at least of those whose sovereign-parent lives an average, or longer than average, life-span. This problem, claimed his private secretary, Sir Francis Knollys, was inherent in the very nature of sovereignty. 'It has been the same thing with Heirs Apparent from time immemorial,' he commented, 'and I fear will continue to be so as long as there are monarchies.' Knollys's prediction was to be borne out during the century which lay ahead. It remains relevant today.
What, in fact, is the position of an heir-apparent? The question has never been satisfactorily answered. 'There is no set-out role for me,' Edward VII's great-great-grandson, Prince Charles, was to complain over a century later. 'It depends entirely on what I make of it ... I'm really rather an awkward problem.' The carrying out of public engagements is not enough to engage the mind and fill the days of a man of even average intelligence; yet it is not really practical for him to be involved in the day-to-day business of the monarch – the meetings with ministers, the reading of Cabinet papers, despatches and telegrams, and the signing of documents.
Edward VII's heir, the future George V, was happy enough playing a fairly negative role. In turn, George V tried to solve the problem by sending his son, the far more mercurial Prince of Wales and future Edward VIII, on a series of world tours, as a sort of roving royal ambassador. George VI, called unexpectedly to the throne on the abdication of his brother, Edward VIII, had no training in the constitutional process whatsoever, and his early death meant that his daughter, Elizabeth II, did not experience the usual problems of an heir-in-waiting. In Queen Elizabeth's son, Prince Charles, the question seems to have been resolved as satisfactorily as is possible. As well as applying himself, with hitherto unknown diligence, to various national concerns, the Prince of Wales has been allowed – if not actually to work side-by-side with his mother – to have access to certain Cabinet papers and to talk to politicians of all persuasions.
Yet even he has complained of 'the limitations of his position, as a man with little formal authority of his own, the junior member of the "family firm" while important decisions are all taken by his mother the monarch.'
This perennial problem, as it affected Queen Victoria's heir, was certainly intensified by her own intransigent attitude. That the Prince of Wales was denied any worthwhile occupation was entirely the Queen's doing. In the first place, she had a very poor opinion of her son's abilities; in the second, she was determined that no one should play the political role that her husband had once done. Considering the Prince to be irresponsible, immature and indiscreet, the Queen refused to involve him in the workings of the monarchy. She neither confided in him nor consulted him. He must see nothing, she would warn her ministers, of a confidential nature. Not until the Prince of Wales was over fifty was he allowed access to state papers. Only the social and ceremonial duties of the monarchy – the laying of foundation stones, the opening of schools, the presentation of awards, the inauguration of exhibitions, the making of speeches, the welcoming of foreign dignitaries – would she entrust to him. These he carried out with great aplomb. But about the more serious business of government the Queen endeavoured to keep him in complete ignorance.
The first to claim that the Devil would find work for idle hands, Queen Victoria resolutely kept her son's hands idle.
All in all, it was an impossible situation. Because the Queen considered her heir to be so frivolous, she refused to give him any employment: because he was given no employment, he became more frivolous still. A man of sound common sense, considerable diplomatic gifts, exceptional vitality and great panache, the Prince of Wales might have been of real service to his mother and his country.
There are several ways in which his talents could have been put to use. After all, the Queen had agreed to Disraeli's scheme whereby her youngest son, Prince Leopold, became her assistant and adviser in her dealings with foreign affairs. The Prince of Wales, with his knowledge of Europe, would have done the job equally well. The responsibility might have accustomed him to concentrated desk work, a skill which he never acquired. On the other hand, Gladstone's suggestion – that the Prince of Wales become Viceroy of Ireland – she turned down flat. To her prime minister's argument that such a post would give the Prince some employment, the monarchy a boost and Ireland a treat, the Queen made the crushing reply that this was a 'family' matter. In short, it was none of Gladstone's business.