Biography of Edward VII, Britain's Peaceful Playboy King

Long-serving heir apparent and successor to Queen Victoria

A portrait of King Edward VII from 1902
Fildes, Luke. "Portrait of King Edward VII." 1902. Oil on canvas. National Portrait Gallery, London.

Public Domain

Edward VII, born Prince Albert Edward (November 9, 1841–May 6, 1910), ruled as king of the United Kingdom and Emperor of India as the successor to his mother, Queen Victoria. Because of his mother’s long reign, he spent most of his life performing only ceremonial duties and living a life of leisure.

As king, Edward presided over an era of great change and progress while attempting to balance tradition and modernity. His knack for diplomacy and quasi-progressive views allowed his era to be one of international calm and some domestic reforms.

Did You Know?

In reference to the famously long reign of his mother, Queen Victoria, Edward joked, “I don't mind praying to the Eternal Father, but I must be the only man in the country afflicted with an eternal mother.”

Early Life: A Royal Childhood

Edward’s parents were Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Goetha. He was the second child and first son of the royal couple (preceded by his sister Victoria, born almost a year to the day earlier). Named for his father, Albert, and his mother’s father, Prince Edward, he was known informally as “Bertie” throughout his life.

As the eldest son of the sovereign, Edward was automatically Duke of Cornwall and Duke of Rothesay, as well as receiving the royal titles of Prince of Saxe-Coburg and Goetha and Duke of Saxony from his father. He was created Prince of Wales, the title traditionally bestowed on the eldest son of the monarch, a month after his birth.

Edward was raised from birth to be a monarch. Prince Albert devised his course of study, implemented by a team of tutors. Despite rigorous attention, Edward was a mediocre student at best. He did, however, attain better academic results while in college.

Playboy Prince

From an early age, observers noted Edward’s gift for charming people. As he grew into adulthood, that talent manifested in several ways, most notably in his reputation as quite a playboy. Much to the dismay of his parents, he openly had an affair with an actress during his time in the military – and this was just the first of many.

It wasn’t for lack of legitimate romantic prospects. In 1861, Victoria and Albert sent Edward abroad in order to set up a meeting between him and Princess Alexandra of Denmark, with whom they wanted to arrange a marriage. Edward and Alexandra got along fairly well, and they married in March 1863. Their first child, Albert Victor, was born ten months later, followed by five more siblings, including the future George V.

Edward and Alexandra established themselves as socialites, and Edward openly carried on affairs throughout his life. His mistresses included actresses, singers, and aristocrats – famously including the mother of Winston Churchill. For the most part, Alexandra knew and looked the other way, and Edward tried to be relatively discreet and private. In 1869, however, a member of Parliament threatened to name him as a co-respondent in a divorce.

The Active Heir Apparent

Because of his mother’s famously long reign, Edward spent most of his life as an heir, not a monarch (modern commentators often compare him to Prince Charles in this regard). He was, however, very active nonetheless. Although his mother kept him from having an active role until the late 1890s, he was the first heir to perform the public functions of a modern royal: ceremonies, openings, and other formal public appearances. In a less formal capacity, he was the style icon for men’s fashion at the time.

His trips abroad were often ceremonial, but occasionally had significant results. In 1875 and 1876, he toured India, and his success there was so great that Parliament decided to add the title Empress of India to Victoria’s titles. His role as a public face of the monarchy did make him an occasional target: in 1900, while in Belgium, he was the target of a failed assassination attempt, apparently in anger over the Second Boer War.

After nearly 64 years on the throne, Queen Victoria died in 1901, and Edward succeeded to the throne at the age of sixty. His eldest son Albert had died a decade earlier, so his son George became the heir apparent upon his father’s accession.

Legacy as King

Edward chose his middle name as his regnal name, despite still being informally known as “Bertie,” in deference to his late father Prince Albert. As king, he remained a great patron of the arts and worked to restore some of the traditional ceremonies that had lapsed during his mother’s reign.

He held a great interest in international affairs and diplomacy, not least of which because most of the royal houses of Europe were intertwined with his family through blood or marriage. Domestically, he opposed Irish home rule and women’s suffrage, although his public comments on race were progressive compared to his contemporaries. He was, however, stuck in a constitutional crisis in 1909, when the House of Lords refused to pass the Liberal-led budget from the House of Commons. The deadlock eventually led to legislation – which the king supported obliquely – to remove the power of the Lords to veto and reduce parliamentary terms.

Edward, a lifelong smoker, suffered from severe bronchitis, and in May 1910, his health worsened further with a series of heart attacks. He died on May 6, and his state funeral, two weeks later, was possibly the largest assembly of royalty ever seen. Although his reign was a short one, it was one marked by an affable knack for collaboration in governing and diplomacy, if not a deep understanding, and his training showed clearly in the reign of his son and successor, George V.

Sources

  • “Edward VII.” BBC, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/edward_vii_king.shtml.
  • “Edward VII Biography.” Biography, 10 September 2015, https://www.biography.com/people/edward-vii-9284671.
  • Wilson, A.N. Victoria: A Life. Penguin Books, 2014.