Book review: Bertie: A life of Edward VII by Jane Ridley

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He had a notoriously stormy relationship with his mother, enjoyed a string of mistresses and was hauled before the courts for his involvement in a scandalous divorce case ... but Edward VII was also one of our most accomplished monarchs.

The prodigal son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Bertie spent most of his life feasting on the fatted calf and scandalising his family. However, the promiscuous playboy prince was a star performer when it came to kingship. He stepped up to the mark on his mother’s death and proved that he was an instinctive diplomat and a broker of foreign politics.

His story – one of gross excess, scandal and the monarch of a golden age – comes to vivid life in Jane Ridley’s magnificent biography which gives Bertie a long-awaited makeover.

Ridley’s exhaustive research took her from the grandeur of the Round Tower at Windsor Castle to the permafrost of the National Archives of Denmark in Copenhagen to seek out the inner life of this most enigmatic and colourful of princes.

Bertie did his best to leave few clues, ordering that all his personal letters be destroyed after his death, but those that survive outside the official archives and a cache of letters written by Bertie’s wife Alix, the former Princess Alexandra of Denmark, to her sister allowed Ridley to draw a reinvigorated and richly informative new portrait of the king known better as ‘Edward the Caresser.’

It was through his relationship with women – his overbearing mother, his compliant wife, his many sisters and his string of mistresses – that Ridley was able to discover the real Bertie, and his transformation from prince of pleasure to king of diplomacy.

He was a man defined by his association with women... society hostess Margot Asquith once wrote that ‘women have been the excitement and the joy, the achievement of his life.’ But he was neglectful and unfaithful to his wife and as a young man, treated women with ‘a thoughtlessness that bordered on cruelty.’

Unsurprisingly, the key to his behaviour lay in his unhappy, lonely and loveless childhood. Bullied and harassed by both his parents, he seemed condemned to a lifetime of indulgence and political impotence.

Victoria blamed his scandalous womanising for Albert’s early demise and, denied any proper responsibilities, Bertie spent his time eating (earning him the nickname ‘Tum Tum’), pursuing women (usually other men’s wives), gambling, shooting pheasants and attending house parties where he went ‘corridor-creeping’ to his mistresses’ rooms after lights out.

Meanwhile, his wife Alix – of whom Bertie famously remarked ‘She is my brood mare. The others are my hacks’ – stoically endured his affairs, bore him six children and always held him in genuine affection.

In middle age, Ridley tells us, Bertie changed... ‘He grew up ... something that is quite difficult for a royal to do,’ and something that the child-like Alix never fully achieved.

His affairs continued but the pattern of his relationships changed and he cared more for his later mistresses, like the discreet and politically astute Alice Keppel.

When he eventually took the throne in 1910, Bertie was 59 and already in poor health due to his excessive appetite, weight and penchant for smoking cigars but the nine years of his short reign came to define the golden Edwardian Age.

Bertie was an influential and effective diplomat both at home and abroad, and confounded his critics by reinventing the monarchy and giving it a new role for the 20th century. His greatest achievement was masterminding the entente cordiale with France in 1903, a feat which earned him a new sobriquet, ‘Edward the Peacemaker.’

Ridley’s definitive biography is a remarkable achievement. Using new letters and primary sources, she takes us to the heart of the king, his relationships, his complex personality, his Shakespearean-like metamorphosis from Prince Hal to King Henry and his flowering on the international stage.

Entertaining, readable and illuminating, this much-anticipated reappraisal of a fascinating life is a brilliant tour de force.

(Chatto & Windus, hardback, £30)