Edward VII, born in London on November 9, 1841, became king upon the death of his mother, Queen Victoria, in 1901. A popular member of social and sporting circles, Edward VII strengthened England's ties with the rest of Europe, although his relationship with Germany's emperor—his nephew—was rocky. His reforms of the military and navy prepared them well for World War I.
The eldest son of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, the future Edward VII was born Albert Edward on November 9, 1841. Known as "Bertie" within the family, he was subjected to a strict regimen to prepare him for the throne. As was customary for members of British royalty, Prince Edward attended Oxford and Cambridge universities and soon after declared his desire to pursue a career in the military. His mother vetoed that idea, hoping to keep him safe for the throne. During his short time in the army, he rose to the level of lieutenant colonel through honorary promotions.
A Scandalous Adult Life
On March 10, 1863, Prince Edward married Princess Alexandra of Denmark. The marriage, arranged by Edward's parents, produced six children, five of whom lived to adulthood. Before his marriage but after his engagement, Edward fell into a scandalous love affair with actress Nellie Clifton. So distraught was his father, Prince Albert, over the disgrace to the royal family, that he personally went to his son to reprimand him. The affair was ended, but two weeks later Albert fell ill and died of typhoid on December 4, 1861. Queen Victoria fell into a deep depression and blamed Edward for her husband's death, never to forgive him. Edward continued to have many affairs throughout his marriage. Actresses Sarah Bernhardt and Lillie Langtry, as well as Lady Randolph Churchill (Winston's mother) and Alice Keppel (great-grandmother of Camilla, wife of Charles, the current Prince of Wales) were among his many trysts.
With Queen Victoria's retreat from public life, Edward was allowed to represent her at official state events, but not given any responsibility in political matters. He took his seat in the House of Lords as the Duke of Cornwall, but had few or no administrative duties. As a result, he spent much of his time on the London social scene, eating, drinking, gambling and acquiring a reputation as a playboy.
Crowned King, an Effective Leader Emerges
All this changed on January 22, 1901, when Queen Victoria died. Crowned King Edward VII in August 1902, Edward had been the longest heir apparent (59 years) in British history (that record has now been surpassed by Prince Charles.) Upon ascending the throne, he threw himself into his new role with energy and enthusiasm and restored the sparkle to the monarchy. His effusive personality and likable character soon won over much of the British population. Edward used his fluency in French and German to shuttle across Europe and meet with major heads of state. He helped negotiate the Triple Entente between Britain, France and Russia, which played an important role in World War I. Following the Boer War (1899-1902), he played an active role in reforming the military, pressing for an army medical service and the building of the modern Dreadnought battleships.
The Edwardian period (1901-1910) was seen as the golden age for the upper class in Britain. Though the rigid British class system held firm, rapid industrialization increased economic opportunity, creating conditions that allowed for more social mobility, and with it, more social change. There was a rise in socialism and attention to the plight of the poor as well as a push for women's voting rights. Domestically, Edward did not support women's suffrage nor attempts to redistribute wealth through taxes. Despite this, he was very popular with most of the British people.
A Constitutional Crisis Unresolved
In 1909, a constitutional crisis erupted over the "People's Budget," legislation that called for unprecedented taxes on the wealthy and radical social welfare programs. The budget was championed by Liberal Party Prime Minister Harold Asquith and his chancellor, David Lloyd George. Privately, the king pleaded with Conservative lords to pass the budget and avoid political division. To break the deadlock, Lloyd George proposed the king create a large number of Liberal positions in the House of Lords to offset the "no" votes. However, the king refused, insisting that the issue be decided by the people in a general election. The issue remained unresolved until Edward's son George ascended the throne and became King George V.
By 1910, Edward VII's years of smoking 12 cigars and more than 20 cigarettes a day brought on a severe case of bronchitis. During an official event in France, he momentarily lost consciousness, and on April 27, 1910, he returned to London. His wife, Alexandra returned from Greece on May 5 and the next day called her children telling them their father was gravely ill. On May 10, Edward suffered a series of heart attacks and died. Edward VII was buried at Windsor Castle on May 20, 1910, in a funeral attended by a massive assemblage of royalty. His legacy is marked by criticism for his pursuit of self-indulgent pleasures but also praise for his affable personality and diplomatic skill.
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