Anyone who survives appendicitis should thank him, he was the first monarch to drive a car, he’s the reason you only button the top button of your suit jacket, he sported numerous tattoos, and a famous French brothel created a sex chair just for him. He’s King Edward VII, aka Dirty Bertie.
Before he was the seventh King Edward, he was just plain old Albert Edward, The Duke of Cornwall, Prince of Wales, the second child, but oldest son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. He was better known as Bertie.
Victoria was famously the longest-reigning monarch in British history, her whopping 63 years and seven months as queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, Empress of India, has only just been surpassed by Queen Elizabeth II (though minus the India bit). That also means Bertie’s great-great-grandson, Prince Charles, has just now usurped Bertie’s dubious distinction of being the longest heir in waiting, having to be a king in waiting for sixty years.
Just Can’t Wait to Be King! It’ll be a Lot of Waiting Though…
While waiting, Bertie had a lot of time on his hands as Victoria largely excluded him from governance. She questioned his fitness for the role– he was a reluctant student under his parents’ strict tutelage, but found his academic stride once he went to Cambridge– but she also held a significant grudge against her son and heir. She blamed Bertie for her husband Albert’s death in 1861. Prince Albert had been ill and then travelled to Cambridge to tell off Bertie for his affair with actress Nellie Clifden. Two weeks later, Prince Albert died and Victoria was thrown into a mourning period that would last the rest of her life and redefine the monarchy. All because Bertie wanted to get his rocks off with a tarty actress. Or, because doctors didn’t know how to treat typhoid.
Bertie wanted to pursue a career in the military but his mother refused to allow him to see active duty. Much to his chagrin, he reached the level of colonel, but in name only without having earned it. None of this stopped him from enjoying himself– he was famously gregarious and affable, cultivating friends from across the political spectrum, which would later serve him well.
In 1860, he went on a charm offensive, making him the first Prince of Wales to ever visit North America. While there, he opened the Victoria Bridge in Montreal, laid the cornerstone for the Ottawan parliament building, watched Charles Blondin walk over Niagara Falls on a tightrope, palled around with US President James Buchanan, oddly enough, paid his respects to George Washington’s tomb, and hung out with the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The Americans fell so hard for the charming British prince that New York’s Trinity Church prayed for the royal family for the first time since 1776.
That trip was just the first of many diplomatic coups Bertie pulled off in his lifetime. Known as the “Uncle of Europe,” because he was related to basically all of the European royals, including the Russian tzars, he managed to cement many international friendships this way. The bonhomie king ultimately ended literal centuries of British-French fighting and brought Britain back into political dominance on the world scale to counter his upstart German nephew, Kaiser Wilhelm II of World War I fame.
But, once home, he resumed his life of a playboy, so it was decided he should marry and a Danish princess, Alexandra, was the chosen bride. They met in Germany, liked each other well enough, which is pretty damn good for a royal marriage, and got hitched in 1863 at the ripe old ages of 21 and 18.
Becoming a husband and father had zero impact on his dating life. Some of his more famous paramours included:
-Actress Lillie Langtry
– American heiress Jennie Jerome, the Lady Randolph Churchill (Winston Churchill’s mummy)
-The Countess of Warwick
-Famed actress Sarah Bernhardt
-Lady Susan Vane-Tempest
-A singer, Hortense Schneider
-A prostitute named Giulia Beneni
-Alice Keppel (great-grandmother of the current Prince of Wales’ mistress-turned-wife, Camilla Parker-Bowles).
These are just the known affairs– many more are rumored. His wife, Alexandra, was likely aware of them, but didn’t do anything about it– not that there was much she could do. He wasn’t nicknamed Edward the Caresser for nothing. Later in life, he worried his girth might prove fatal to whatever lady was beneath him, so instead of hitting the gym or laying off laying on people, the now-famous sex chair was created just for him. It was fully prepared for the threesomes he enjoyed.
Despite his gallivanting, Bertie was a devoted and loving father to his six children, and eventually grandfather. In 1871, his son Alexander John died just a day old. Bertie personally placed his baby into the coffin, openly crying. When his oldest son, Albert Victor died of pneumonia in 1892, he was bereft, writing to Queen Victoria that it was something “… one can never really get over…” and wishing he could’ve given his life for his son’s.
A Rather Liberal Victorian
Bertie was shockingly egalitarian for a Victorian royal– maybe it was all that travel and listening to people with differing viewpoints. On a tour of India in 1875, you can almost hear the bewilderment in the advisors who remarked upon Bertie’s equal treatment of people regardless of their social position or ethnicity. He was upset by the British treatment of Indians, writing “Because a man has a black face and a different religion from our own, there is no reason why he should be treated as a brute.” As king, he made clear his dislike of the N-Word, which was an extremely common term at the time, calling it “disgraceful.” He defended the Japanese people against Kaiser Wilhelm II’s diatribe about the “Yellow Peril” after the Russo-Japanese war. Wilhelm accused his uncle of “race treason,” but Bertie maintained he couldn’t fathom why the Japanese would be less civilized than Europeans simply because of their skin color.
He also founded the Royal College of Music in 1883, stating “Class can no longer stand apart from class… I claim for music that it produces that union of feeling which I much desire to promote.”
You or someone you know are likely still rocking his fashion choices. Quite the clotheshorse, Bertie redefined fashion on an international scale. He’s the guy you can thank for only buttoning your top jacket button (his large waist had something to do with that decision), for popularizing tweed, for your pant pleats appearing on the front and back as opposed to the sides, for the stand-up, folded over collar, and of course, that you wear a black tie to dinner instead of white tie and tails.
Tattoos are probably not the first thing you associate with British royals, especially in the Edwardian period (named for him), but Bertie had several. He started with a Jerusalem Cross, done in 1862 when he was in the Holy Land, and worked his way up to a bitchin’ Japanese dragon tat, purportedly done by Hori Chiyo, a hugely famous tattoo artist of the day. Like everything else he did, this started an upper class trend, seeing even the last Russian Tzar getting inked, so feel free to throw these facts at your disapproving family.
Finally, after living what could be described as a very full life, Bertie ascended the throne in 1901 upon Queen Victoria’s death. All hail King Edward VII, which incidentally, was not the name Victoria chose for his reign: she wanted Albert Edward, but mommy issues don’t magically disappear even if you have a crown and scepter.
Those were happy days: people loved their jovial new king, but after all that waiting, he almost had a comically short reign. In 1902, Bertie developed appendicitis. At that time, doctors were hesitant to perform surgery, hoping that maybe prayers would magically calm infected internal organs. Thankfully, Sir Frederick Treves, also known as Dr. Balls of Steel, drained the infected appendix through a small incision and the next day, King Edward was sitting up and puffing away on a cigar. This moment was the dawn of appendectomies becoming a common procedure.
As king, Bertie was cognizant of the power, and need for, popularity and visibility. Where Victoria was withdrawn, he was out and about, essentially creating the royal public appearances we still see today. He refurbished palaces, he opened Parliament, he showered people with newly-created honors and titles, like those that honor the arts and sciences. He didn’t support women’s suffrage, but he did want to appoint Octavia Hill to serve on the Commission for Working Class Housing, which was something. His astute military considerations would go on to help England prevail during World War I, after he reformed the Royal Navy, created the Territorial Force, and set up France with the Expeditionary Force in case Germany got uppity (spoiler alert: it would).
The Last Laugh
King Edward VII died on May 6th, 1910 at a respectable 68 years old given he smoked 20 cigarettes and 12 cigars a day. Having been sick for sometime, Bertie suffered repeated heart attacks but refused to rest: he said “No, I shall not give in; I shall go on; I shall work to the end.” His final words were to his much beloved son, the future George V, about his horse that had just won a race. “Yes, I have heard of it. I am very glad.”
His widow, Queen Alexandra arranged a helluva funeral, befitting the adored monarch. He was transported to Westminster Hall on a gun carriage, followed by the “greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place, and of its kind, the last,” Barbara Tuchman tells us in the The Guns of August.
Even after death, Bertie enjoyed a good joke. He ensured his dog walked directly behind the funerary carriage, in a place of extreme honor and importance, ahead of Bertie’s nephew Wilhelm II, no doubt just to annoy the German Kaiser. While laid in state, over 400,000 people paid their respects at his coffin.
Only four years after the “Peacemaker’s” death, Europe was thrown into World War I. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany would blame the war on Edward. Seems like he took the dog slight pretty badly.
Lord Esher wrote that King Edward VII was “kind and debonair and not undignified — but too human.” Might that it were said of us all…
So, what was the Dirty Bertie, the Too Human King drinking?
The King’s Ginger; probably the first and only liqueur developed at the request of a doctor so someone could drink and drive. It’s good to be the king…
Bertie was a passionate motorhead as early as 1896, purchasing his first Daimler in 1900. A few years later, he bought seven of them in a single year. But all this driving around concerned his physician– the 12 cigars and 20 cigarettes a day were totally fine, but a drive in English weather was beyond the pail.
So, Berry Bros. & Rudd, was tasked with creating a fortifying spirit that would keep the King warm and sprightly as he drove around. The company has been slinging spirits since 1698 when Widow Bourne set up her shop across from St. James’ palace. Still there today, Berry Bros. & Rudd remains the oldest wine and spirits merchant in the UK, maybe even the entire world. As the official supplier to the Royal Family since 1760, they were the natural choice.
In 1903, King Edward VII and the world were given The King’s Ginger, a spicy ginger brandy. It’s currently made for Berry Bros. & Rudd in Holland, where each year, a ton of ginger per year is finely chopped, soaked in water, spends four weeks softening in a neutral spirit, then gets a dash of lemon oil distillate (more delicious than it sounds), and finally, gets bottled with sugar.
You can enjoy the high-alcohol, royal tibble either on its own or in a variety of cocktails, even in your cooking, though please don’t drink it while driving.