As an author focusing on British royal history, I find it interesting to explore situations that have been largely forgotten.
Ebullient Bertie Becomes King
On 22nd January 1901, the eighty-one-year-old Queen Victoria passed away at her Italianate style home Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. The Victorian era was officially at an end, and many people had lived and died without knowing another monarch. Her son, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales and popularly known as Bertie, was keen to haul the monarchy into the new and exciting twentieth century.
The official record, the London Gazette, announced that: “...the Imperial Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland is solely and rightfully come to the High and Mighty Prince Albert Edward...our only lawful and rightful Liege Lord Edward the Seventh, by the Grace of God, King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, Emperor of India…” Bertie was the first British monarch to hold the additional title of King of the British Dominions.
Bertie chose to rule as King Edward VII rather than as Albert I. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s original and unrealistic intention to produce the perfect ruler in the exact image of Albert, the studious and incorruptible husband that Victoria adored, left Bertie in no doubt that he was a disappointment to them.
During his childhood, his parents contacted a noted phrenologist, Doctor Combe, so that he could assess Bertie’s personality by feeling his head and skull. Combe advised that Bertie was excitable, backward and that his self-esteem required attention. Albert lamented that Combe had confirmed his suspicions about his underwhelming son. Victoria had contemplated Bertie’s accession as “too awful.”
Welcome to the Edwardian Era
Bertie grew up to be a people person, a skilled diplomat and linguist. Prince Albert had frequently been noticeably uncomfortable in company. The young Bertie was frustrated in the schoolroom and tortured by the workload he endured. He had little time for academia which his father and his elder sister Victoria found so compelling.
Albert had been frightened of scandal whilst Bertie regularly found himself in the midst of it. The new king appreciated that Albert was a name synonymous with his irreproachable father and he felt, after years of criticism, that he was not worthy of the name. Edward had been used six times by the country’s earlier rulers but Bertie’s reign became the only one to be known as the Edwardian era.
Queen Victoria had purposefully not trained the disappointment to her that was Bertie for his future destiny. The red boxes containing official documents were guarded fiercely by her during her lifetime and it was only thanks to politicians and courtiers taking pity on him that he knew anything.
Four time Prime Minister William Gladstone secretly briefed Bertie, in spite of Victoria’s wishes. Becoming king brought Bertie close to nervous collapse because he had to learn rapidly how the relentless office of kingship operated. He was swift to educate his heir, the future George V and his wife Mary to spare them from the ordeal that he suffered.
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Edward VII's Coronation
Bertie and his wife Alexandra’s (Alix’s) coronation was scheduled to take place at Westminster Abbey on 26th June 1902. On the 23rd June Bertie was seen to be ailing as he and Alix hosted a coronation dinner for almost one hundred guests at Buckingham Palace. On the morning of the 24th June Dr. Frederick Treves told a feverish king that if he did not cancel the coronation and have an operation immediately it would result in his funeral.
A makeshift operating theatre was prepared in the music room at Buckingham Palace. Dr. Treves carried out the still-experimental procedure successfully. On the 26th June, many of the invited coronation guests gathered at St. Paul’s Cathedral for a “solemn service of intercession.”
On the 9th August 1902 Bertie, recovering well, enthusiastically participated in his lengthy coronation day. Frederick Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury (1821-1902), officiated at Westminster Abbey. The octogenarian Temple’s eyesight was poor and infirmity was creeping up on him but he refused to delegate. Two bishops steadied the standing archbishop throughout the service; they and Bertie raised him to his feet after the prayers were said.
Temple almost dropped the crown and placed it back to front on Bertie's head. It can be imagined that Bertie's father Prince Albert would have been dumbfounded if not horrified by the breaks from rigid and solemn ceremony but Edward VII was not his father. He had the human touch. The king broke with protocol again by embracing his son and heir George when he pledged his allegiance.
The Long Shadow of Prince Albert
Edward VII was a far more engaged, tactful and competent monarch than Victoria and Albert would have given him credit for. Bertie was a showman. He understood that his subjects loved to indulge in pageantry and that they wanted to see the royal family going about its business, earning its living and therefore public favour. He established Royal HQ at Buckingham Palace in London and royal walkabouts and interacting with the population became staple features of his reign. The public responded positively.
Queen Victoria was the Grandmama of Europe and Bertie was called the Uncle of Europe. His presence on the international stage ensured that his nephew Kaiser Wilhelm II waited to draw numerous nations into the devastating First World War because he knew that he would have not garnered support during Bertie’s lifetime.
Interestingly, when George V's second son Albert, Duke of York, another Bertie, came to the throne after Edward VIII's abdication he too chose not to rule not as an Albert but as George VI. Britain has never had a King Albert.
- Ridley, Jane. ( 2013). The Heir Apparent: A Life of Edward VII, the Playboy Prince. Random House
This richly entertaining biography chronicles the eventful life of Queen Victoria’s firstborn son, the quintessential black sheep of Buckingham Palace, who matured into as wise and effective a monarch as Britain has ever seen.
- King Edward VII of the United Kingdom | Unofficial Royalty
- Edward VII | Parents, Children, Successor, & Facts | Britannica
Edward VII, king of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and of the British dominions and emperor of India from 1901.
- Edward VII (r.1901-1910) | The Royal Family
Prince Albert Edward was born at Buckingham Palace on 9 November 1841, the eldest son and second child of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Named after his father, he was known to his family and close friends as Bertie.
© 2021 Joanne Hayle