The Heir Apparent: A Life of Edward VII, the Playboy Prince

By Jane Ridley

Random House

726 pages, $35

By Michael D. Langan


You’d think that by now there wouldn’t be much more to say about Edward VII (1841-1910). But that would be wrong. “The Heir Apparent” – not so apparent to his mother, Queen Victoria – is the story of how a “dissipated prince evolved into a model king.”

“Bertie,” as his family called him, is saved from the clutch of critics by Jane Ridley, a professor of history at Buckingham University in England, whose brilliant bio of the black sheep of Buckingham Palace is brisk and informing.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s firstborn son, derided later in life as “Edward the Caresser,” is known for his many amours and dalliances. These include his wife, the Danish princess Alexandra; the actress Lilly Langtry; Alice Keppel (Camilla Parker Bowles’ great-grandmother); Lady Randolph Churchill, mother of Winston; and a number of others. How many?

Ridley remarks acidly about Edward’s exaggerated sexual prowess: “His name was linked with more than 50 women, and at least 10 illegitimate children are chalked up to him. The true figures are, alas, considerably more modest.”

He is re-examined here in greater detail by the kind permission of Her Majesty the Queen, Elizabeth II. It is she who gave Ridley unrestricted access to Edward VII’s papers in the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle, “using documents not accessed since the 1960s and in some cases papers that no biographer has ever seen before.”

Ridley, who earlier wrote biographies of Disraeli and Edwin Lutyens, first examines the Prince of Wales’ childhood and education. Passing through security checks, she dutifully trod the 89 steps to the top of the Round Tower, where she examined “trolley loads of papers, meticulously catalogued and bundled, gave a harrowing insight into an ambitious educational project that ended in fiasco.”

A bit more on the troubled relationship: Victoria wrote thousands of letters to Bertie. She was, according to Ridley, “one of the best letter writers of the 19th century – vivid, candid, and intensely human …” (Many letters were penned to her daughter Vicky.) “Her letters to Bertie, by contrast, were often judgmental and framed in the imperative mood. Her anger leaped from the page, startling in its urgency even today.”

Bertie’s replies to his mother puzzled Ridley at first. Having read thousands of his letters, she writes, they are mostly “prime examples of the masculine epistolary style sometimes known as British phlegm.” Nothing but small talk, clichés enclosed in quotes: This was Bertie’s style. It made his mother furious.

There was a reason for his bathetic blather. Ridley says letter writing for him was a duty, not a means of self-expression; “the aim was not to reveal, but to conceal, his true feelings.” As a matter of fact, Bertie guarded his private life so carefully that he stipulated in his will that all his letters be destroyed. There is no extant correspondence between himself and his wife, Alexandra of Denmark.

Ridley had wanted to place the marriage of Bertie and the princess Alexandra at the center of this story; there being no letters available to document their relationship ruled out this option. Only later was the author able to discover that the National Archives of Denmark had three boxes of photocopied letters written in Danish by Alexandra to her sister Dagmar about her life. This enabled the intrepid Ridley to have them translated and see things from Bertie’s wife’s perspective.

With such an inauspicious start, one has to ask, how it is that Bertie is seen as “the bridge between 19th century Hanoverians, one of many continental royal families seeking geopolitical liaisons, and the national monarchy of the 20th century”? What does this mean?

A little history: The Hanoverians ruled England, beginning with George I, who sat on the throne from 1714-21, and then through a total of six monarchs. The last of the Hanoverians was Victoria, Bertie’s mother, who ruled from 1837-1901.

In this sense, Bertie, who ruled from 1901-10, was the “bridge” figure to George V, a grandson of Victoria and Prince Albert and the first king of the House of Windsor, who reigned from 1910-18.

As our author puts it, the first phase of Bertie’s life – up to the age of about 30 – has a strong storyline “provided by his stormy relationship with Queen Victoria and his marriage.” After her husband, Prince Albert, died, Victoria entered into a long mourning that took on aspects of a Miss Havisham seclusion modified only by an incessant spy network she kept in place on Bertie and his wife.

The second part – what Ridley calls with some humor the Expanding Middle, the 30 years until his accession at age 59 – was hardest for her to write. Much is known about what Bertie did, the trains he took, the pheasants he shot, but, she writes, “It is hard to find the heart of the genuine man who was Bertie.”

It was only at this point that Ridley realized she’d have to go back to her original plan of “working out his inner life by looking at his relationships with women.” She carries off this effort, but it isn’t easy.

Even in private correspondence, Bertie was cagey, continuing his “concealing not revealing” policy. Ridley comments on how language has changed since the Victorian Age. To begin with, the word “mistress,” she says, “should perhaps be understood in the sense, today archaic, of a woman who is admired, cosseted and courted by a man, as well as in the modern meaning, which almost invariably implies a sexual relationship.”

The Prince of Wales’ missives to women, always handwritten by the prince himself, were frequently a request to see the woman in question alone. Ridley calls them “coded messages in a royal dance of courtly love.”

Victoria hated this habit of Bertie’s. People of her day judged involvement such as his, even what appeared to be an appointment for tea, improper. Why? The relationships were unequal. It was an abuse of power. “Within Bertie’s social set, it was almost impossible for a woman to resist his advances,” Ridley writes. Some early mistresses were destroyed by the experience.

And of course, Bertie’s flings were dependent upon compliant husbands, who may have cfelt because he was a royal, that they could do little to stop it. As time went on, some upper-crust husbands acquired backbone. A series of scandals erupted because of Bertie’s predatory behavior.

Bertie’s relationships with women are essential to this biography because they are the focus for Ridley of examining and working out Bertie’s inner life.

Ridley explains that she found the young Bertie “not always likable.” She explains that as Bertie reached middle age, he did something “quite difficult for a royal to do: He grew up.” His later love affairs were more important to him, she notes. Daisy Warwick especially was central to his life in the 1890s.

At first, Ridley had not intended to write Bertie’s life as king, because of an insufficiency of documents. But in 2008, the Royal Archive contacted her to relate that there were some papers from the reign that she had not yet seen.

Thus, she had to modify the frame of the biography. Instead of a short summary of his life as king in a concluding chapter, more work lay ahead. She explained, “Reading through the bound files … made me realize that I needed to write the history of King Edward’s reign as a story … and I reckoned a narrative was the best way to do this. I was struck by the abrupt shift from the partygoing Prince of Wales to the conscientious, even workaholic, king.”

Michael D. Langan is a frequent Buffalo News reviewer of British fiction and history.