Buntings for a Bon Vivant King

“For to him above all was life was good,
Above all he commanded, her abundance full-handed.”—Rudyard Kipling, 1910

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Albumen print of the Windsor, Ontario Post Office, in May 1910. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

In 1910, Dr. William L. Bates of Sioux City, Iowa, took the boat The Florida on a meandering holiday. One of his stops was Windsor, Ontario, Canada. While there, he photographed the Windsor Post Office, located at Ouellette Avenue and Pitt Street. Bates found the public building draped in mourning after the death of British King Edward VII, who had passed away 6 May. A ladder was propped against one side of the building indicating that the mourning swags were in of the process of being raised, so likely this image was captured within a day or so of the king’s demise.

King Edward VII was born Prince Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, second child and eldest son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, on the morning of 9 November, 1841. “Our little boy is a wonderfully strong and large child, with very large dark blue eyes, a finely formed but somewhat large nose, and a pretty little mouth,” wrote Victoria to her uncle, Leopold, King of the Belgians, on 29 November. “I hope and pray he may be like his dearest Papa.”

Sadly, “Bertie,” as he was known amongst his family, was little like his erudite, brilliant, moral father or his paragon elder sister, Princess Vicky. Bertie strove to please his parents, who had devised a strict educational program for the heir to the throne, but the boy could never rise to the tonnage of their expectation. Once the grown prince matriculated to Oxford and Cambridge, however, he performed well as a student, giving the lie to his family’s belief that he was somewhat mentally deficient.

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Alexandra and Bertie on their wedding day. Carte de visite courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust.

Bertie was personable, genial, and inclined to a military life that his mother flatly vetoed. He did not protest his parents’ wish that he marry the beautiful and fashionable Princess Alexandra of Denmark, but he chose to lose his virginity in Ireland to actress Nelly Clifden, earning a scalding rebuke by his ailing father, “To thrust yourself into the hands of one of the most abject of the human species, to be by her initiated into the sacred mysteries of creation, which ought to be shrouded in holy awe until touched by pure & undefiled hands!”

Prince Albert died only a fortnight later and the devastated Queen blamed her son for godlike Albert’s ultimate mortality. She wrote of Bertie to her daughter Vicky, “I never can, or shall, look at him without a shudder.”

The Prince of Wales married his Danish bride in 1863, and the affection between them resulted in the birth of six children. However, Bertie was incapable of fidelity and took a series of mistresses whom his wife appeared to accept—possibly because Alexandra’s health was badly compromised by childbirth. A post-natal case of rheumatoid fever left her with a limp and hereditary deafness increasingly set in. This did not stop her, however, from undertaking royal appearances for her mother-in-law and being adored by the British people.

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Four generations of British monarchs (left to right): Bertie’s son, Prince George (the future King George V); Queen Victoria; Bertie’s grandson Prince Edward (the future King Edward VIII); and Bertie (the future Edward VII).

Edward traveled extensively as Prince of Wales, greatly enjoying his good will missions and state visits and generally winning hearts. The conasseur of good times put on weight as he aged and by his mother’s death, 22 January, 1901, Bertie had become a portly, dapper, silver-bearded gentleman with his own grandchildren around him. In an early act as king, he donated his childhood home, Victoria and Albert’s Osbourne on the Isle of Wight, to the British people—almost certainly because the place revived unpleasant memories—and chose to reign as Edward VII rather than Albert Edward I, as his mother had desired.

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In 1907, the King posed for an autochrome image in Strathspey, Scotland. He was the first British monarch to be photographed in color. Courtesy Rothschild Archives.

Bertie and his wife were crowned King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra 9 August, 1902. His reign lasted just nine years and a few months, but the time came to be defined by his name—the Edwardian era. It is today recalled fondly as a golden age before two world wars radically reshaped both the map and the souls of humanity.

By 1907, decades of smoking had ruined the King’s lungs and he had developed cancer on his nose that was treated with radium. In May 1910, he had one or more heart attacks and died at the approach of midnight on the 6th, aged 69. Two weeks later, his funeral was the last great gathering of European royalty, many of whom would not survive the coming decade with their kingdoms intact. Bertie was buried in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, and there lies today with Alexandra at his side.

As the king reposed in state at Westminster, a poem by Henry Scott-Holland was read for the first time during a sermon at St. Paul’s, encapsulating the affable man to those he loved:

“Death is nothing at all.
It does not count.
I have only slipped away into the next room.
Nothing has happened.

“Everything remains exactly as it was.
I am I, and you are you,
and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged.
Whatever we were to each other, that we are still.

“Call me by the old familiar name.
Speak of me in the easy way which you always used.
Put no difference into your tone.
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.

“Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me.
Let my name be ever the household word that it always was.
Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it.”Ω

V0042567 King Edward VII on his deathbed in Buckingham Palace in 1910
Edward on his deathbed, drawn by Sir Luke Fildes.

Author: Ann Longmore-Etheridge

Writer, journalist, editor, historian.

2 thoughts on “Buntings for a Bon Vivant King”

  1. I’ve never seen that poem before, but it’s interesting how it’s left the poetry of the Victorian era with it’s over the top sentiment behind and started moving toward the WWI poetry that is to come.

    Liked by 1 person

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