Edward VII reigned over an Empire on which the sun was soon to set

Posted in Historical articles, History, Politics, Royalty, World War 1 on Wednesday, 5 March 2014

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This edited article about King Edward VII first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 580 published on 24 February 1973.

Edward VII and Alexandra,  picture, image, illustration

Edward VII was coolly received by the Parisians, but they soon warmed to him and Queen Alexandra, by Clive Uptton

Towards the end of King Edward the Seventh’s reign – he died in 1910 – a London couple, sensitive and intelligent, found themselves in the small hours of the morning, standing on a balcony of a great house where a splendid ball was all but over. There was a hush over the city and stars were bright in the sky. They stood in silence for a while, and then the wife said: “Do you feel something dreadful is going to happen?”

Her husband took her arm. “Yes,” he said. “What it will be I don’t know, but it’s coming.”

The “it” turned out to be the most senseless and meaningless holocaust in history. They called it The Great War. But, in the meantime, there upon the throne, growing paunchier month by month and smoking more and more cigars, sat Edward the “Peacemaker,” “Good Old Teddy.” The men and women in the streets could almost be heard chanting: “There’ll be no war as long as we’ve a king like good King Edward.”

Edward, of course, like all constitutional monarchs since earlier rougher days “reigned but did not rule.” And he reigned in a most human and humane manner. One of his very first acts was to turn one wing of Osborne House, Queen Victoria’s marine residence in the Isle of Wight, into a convalescent home for officers. The King Edward’s Hospital Fund called into being both a hospital for officers in London, and, at Midhurst in Surrey, the famous sanatorium for tuberculosis sufferers. By these things is he remembered, and for his declaration, “My greatest ambition is not to quit this world until a real cure for cancer has been found.”

An ambition which, alas, he did not achieve.

What he did achieve was to make Britain reasonably well respected, if not actually loved, in the eyes of most of the world after the end of the Boer War. Although this whole miserable business was virtually over just before Edward came to the throne, and the main Boer armies defeated, handfuls of those annoying Dutch farmers just wouldn’t give in. Like angry hornets, the Boer “commandos” under their brilliant guerrilla leader, General de Wet, went on harassing the military might of Britain. Only by dividing the country into areas, and studding them with over 8,000 block-houses, did Lord Kitchener finally prevail.

But Britain had become almost the laughing-stock of the civilised world. Most of Europe was pro-Boer, and, what was even more embarrassing quite a multitude of British people were as well. It was not the happiest of situations which Edward inherited.

“What do they know of England who only England know?” asked Rudyard Kipling, that “poet of Empire.” A great many foreigners did not want to know England at all.

Then in 1903, it happened. “Good Old Teddy,” who had had many a high old time in Paris when he was Prince of Wales, decided, against the advice of his ministers, to make a three-day official visit to France. “I know the French better than you lot,” the king’s decision implied. It seemed at first that he was wrong, as his State drive with President Loubet was greeted by jeering, shouting, booing and fist-shaking from the pavements. It seemed that he was wrong when at first stony silence, and then hisses were the reaction of the audience to his appearance at the Comedie Francaise. Edward just smiled good-naturedly. The French were dumbfounded. What sort of man was this who not only turned the other cheek, but expressed his love of France and all things French in speech after speech, and meant it? In just three days King Edward became the darling of France. Years of French distrust of “perfidious Albion,” as Britain was called, were overcome and the entente cordiale, the “sincere understanding,” was born.

In Berlin the Kaiser, gnawing at that famous upturned moustache, said of Edward, his uncle, “You cannot imagine what a Satan he is.” “Satan” took once more to going merrily off to his beloved Biarritz in south-west France, and to the genial Spa of Marienbad in what is now Czechoslovakia, but was then next door to Germany as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

As he charmed them there, a certain German General Schlieffen was advising his lord and master, “Kaiser Bill,” to follow his plan of a lightning knock-out war against France, driving through Belgium and the channel ports, and sweeping west to encircle Paris.

Germany need then no longer fear encirclement by Russia upon the one side and France upon the other, with France’s awkward new friendship with the British making matters worse.

Nothing happened. From time to time the Kaiser, hating every minute of it, joined family parties at Windsor and turned up in his imperial yacht at Cowes Regatta. There, seeing among many of “Good Old Teddy’s” mixed company of friends, the figure of that great yachtsman, Sir Thomas Lipton, the Kaiser observed sneeringly: “I see that my uncle has gone boating with his grocer.” Lipton was, of course, the founder of the great grocery empire which bore his name.

But another kind of boating was afloat. As the Edwardians gazed upon the first string-bag aeroplanes, picked up their new-fangled telephones, read of Marconi transmitting wireless messages across the Atlantic and took to motoring. Admiral Sir John Fisher, First Sea Lord, got his way against the “stay as we are” attitude of other Naval men. It may have been peacetime but “Be prepared,” said Fisher. “The Royal Navy must become the most up-to-date in the world.”

And what a day it was in 1906 when H.M.S. “Dreadnought” of nearly 18,000 tons, slid down the launching ways. The greatest battleship the world had ever seen, mounted ten twelve-inch guns in five turrets, and wore armour-plating eleven inches thick. “Dreadnought,” and the ironclad sisters which quickly followed her, could blow any enemy out of the seas. “Rule Britannia” was the cry of Britain’s Grand Fleet, as battleship after battleship was launched – “Vanguard,” “Orion,” “Monarch,” “Neptune” and “Hercules.” The Kaiser’s Germany took up the challenge with “dreadnoughts” of her own – “Nassau,” “Heligoland,” “Kaiser,” and “Bayern.” This was the birth of the German High Seas Fleet which began to grow even faster than the British Navy. In reply to “Rule Britannia,” Kaiser Wilhelm proclaimed himself “Admiral of the Atlantic.” Edwardian England laughed. Though it was not sure about a certain Count von Zeppelin who, in 1907, built a fighting airship nearly as long as a “dreadnought” and capable of 40 m.p.h.

But already there was a feeling in the air. War in Europe? Nonsense. The Russians alone would be more than enough for “Kaiser Bill’s” Germany. There was the French army, and for us – well, if any funny business started up we were safe behind the English Channel and the greatest Navy in the world. And, of course, Edward the Peacemaker was on the throne.

In 1909 the “Uncle of Europe,” as Edward was called, paid an official visit to the Germany of his nephew, the Kaiser. The king was very bronchial – all those cigars – and he suffered terribly in his tight-fitting uniform. In the spring of 1910, he caught a cold in Paris on his way to Biarritz, but pressed on regardless to the sunshine and Atlantic breezes . . . his beloved Biarritz, which he was never to see again.

“Good Old Teddy,” flabby and breathless, came home in May, had a potter around the Sandringham Estate, returned to Buckingham Palace, attended to state business and refused to go to bed until he was put there, unconscious, on 6th May. He had lighted his last cigar during the afternoon. Before midnight, he was dead.

The King was dead. Long Live the King – George the Fifth who was to have the Great War on his hands in a mere four years. Through these years the strange Indian summer of the Edwardian decade lingered on.

Beside the new King riding in his father’s funeral procession was the Kaiser in the uniform of an English field marshal. Nine kings, five heirs apparent and three reigning queens attended the funeral of the “uncle of Europe,” father of the “Entente Cordiale.”

A month later the most fashionable event of every London season, the Ascot race meeting, went on as usual. With one difference. All the race-goers were in deep mourning. “Black Ascot” was, somehow, the nation’s fondest farewell to “good old Teddy.”

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