Edward VII: The Rebel Prince Who Became a Popular King

Before he ascended the throne, King Edward VII was a scandalous royal who loved to misbehave.

Feb 10, 2024By Jacob Wilkins, BA History
edward vii rebel prince popular king


The history of British royalty is loaded with distinctive characters. While some monarchs are held in high esteem, others are remembered for all the wrong reasons. King Edward VII, who came to the throne in 1901, sits somewhere in between. As a young man, he developed a scandalous reputation due to his immoral behavior, which involved gambling, drinking, and plenty of affairs with married women.


Yet Edward’s reign is viewed favorably by historians and history enthusiasts. Despite being short, the Edwardian era became the blueprint for the constitutional monarchy, establishing the role of British royalty in the modern age.


Edward VII’s Childhood

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King Edward VII as a child by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1846. Source: Royal Collection Trust


Queen Victoria had nine children between 1840 and 1857. Her first child was a daughter, also called Victoria. (She was called “Vicky” by friends and family.) Victoria’s second child was born one year later. As the eldest son, Edward, whose full name was Albert Edward, was destined to inherit the throne when his mother died.


Following Edward’s birth, Victoria hoped he would be like his father. But this wasn’t the case. While Prince Albert was a disciplined and intelligent man, the young Edward did not like education. Despite being placed on a strict schedule, his parents struggled to control him.


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Part of the problem was the contrast between Edward and his older sister. By the time she was three, Vicky was fluent in both English and French, and she soon learned to read Latin as well. Edward, who was only a year younger than his gifted sister, seemed backward by comparison. The young prince was also prone to stampings and tantrums. He simply refused to do his lessons sometimes, preferring to upend his books or sit under the table.


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King Edward VII by Luke Fildes, 1901. Source: Royal Collection Trust


When Edward left the nursery, his father took control of his education. As well as designing a syllabus and a timetable for his son, Albert arranged for a private tutor to come to Buckingham Palace. But Edward didn’t take to this new system. He was rude, disobedient, rebellious, and often lost his temper.


Thankfully, Edward did enjoy some aspects of royal life. Outside of his studies, he developed an interest in the public role of the monarchy. In August 1855, he accompanied his mother and father to Paris, where they went to a reception hosted by Emperor Napoleon III. Edward loved spending time at the mighty Palace of Versailles and behaved himself throughout.


Alongside his studies, he spent the next three years moving between England, Scotland, and places abroad, participating in activities like fishing, shooting, dancing, and deer stalking. Edward’s love of traveling and royal tours remained consistent throughout his life.


Higher Education & the Loss of a Parent

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Prince Albert by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1842. Source: Royal Collection Trust


Edward initially started his higher education at the University of Edinburgh before moving to Christ Church, Oxford. Following an overseas tour in Canada, he moved again and started studying at Trinity College, Cambridge, in January 1861. Edward wasn’t the most diligent student; he spent much of his time smoking, gambling, and hunting.


In the summer of that year, he went to Ireland to perform military duties and ended up at the center of a royal scandal. The scandal involved a young actress called Nellie Clifden, whom Edward smuggled into his tent when camping on the Curragh. When Victoria and Albert learned about the incident, the latter went to Cambridge to talk with his son.


During the trip, Albert was exposed to very cold weather and became incredibly ill. His condition worsened as the days went by, but the doctors at Windsor Castle assumed he would recover. However, this assumption was wrong. Albert died on December 14, 1861, casting a dark shadow over the royal family.


Still today, there is some ambiguity surrounding the cause of Albert’s death. While Victoria believed Edward’s behavior played a role in her husband’s untimely demise, the official cause was typhoid fever. Others believe bowel cancer may have been responsible.


The Prince of Scandals

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Edward VII and his wife Alexandra of Denmark on their wedding day by John Jabez Edwin Mayall, 1863. Source: Royal Collection Trust


Edward’s affair with Nellie Clifden was the first of many scandals. His marriage to Alexandra of Denmark in 1863 did nothing to inhibit his libido. As well as sleeping with actresses Sarah Bernhardt and Lillie Langtry, he also had relations with members of the aristocracy, such as Lady Warwick and Lady Mordaunt.


His relationship with the latter was particularly scandalous. Lady Harriet Mordaunt was the wife of Sir Charles Mordaunt, who had previously been a member of Parliament for the Conservative Party. Edward appeared as a witness during the divorce case. It was an embarrassing affair, with Edward lying to the court about his involvement with Lady Harriet under cross-examination. Following the court case, Edward was often booed when he went out in public.


Edward found himself in court once again in 1890. While staying at a country house called Tranby Croft in Yorkshire, the prince played an illegal card game called baccarat. Sir William Gordon-Cumming was accused of cheating during the game, leading to yet another scandal involving the prince.


Royal Tours: Business & Pleasure

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Edward VII with his family by Rudolf Geyling, 1876. Source: Royal Collection Trust


Edward’s life wasn’t just a series of scandals. The prince filled the space left behind by his father, traveling often and carrying out public duties as a member of the royal family.

He traveled up and down the country visiting schools, opening exhibitions, eating at banquets, unveiling statues, and awarding prizes. Trips to the continent, gatherings at country houses, and shooting excursions for plentiful game slotted between his royal duties.


Whilst some trips abroad –  such as an extensive tour of India between October 1875 and May 1876 – strengthened ties with foreign leaders, others were pleasurable pursuits. Indeed, his love of French luxury, which had blossomed during his visit to France as a teenager, remained firmly in place.


Edward returned to France for the first time in 1864, and as the years went by, he became a darling of Parisian society. Alongside his gambling habits, Edward had affairs with aristocrats, actresses, and dancers. He also enjoyed visiting brothels, with his favorite being La Chabanais.


The King of the United Kingdom & the Uncle of Europe

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Edward VII by Luke Fildes, 1905. Source: Art UK


Queen Victoria died on January 22, 1901, marking the end of the Victorian era and the start of the Edwardian era.


King Edward VII was different from his predecessor. His public appearances and majestic displays were a welcome change from the mournful tones that defined the closing years of Victoria’s life.


In the midst of making preparations for the upcoming coronation, Edward and his wife Alexandra hosted a magnificent event at Buckingham Palace. More animated and colorful than the events of Victoria’s reign, the palace ballroom was a sight to behold, rivaling the scenes at Versailles during the days of Napoleon III.


Having gained plenty of experience from his days as a prince, Edward garnered praise for his successful trips abroad, visiting leaders in Italy, Spain, and Germany and helping to improve Anglo-European relations. He also made another trip to France in 1904, spending time with President Émile Loubet. The strong relationship between these two men was a prelude to the signing of the Entente Cordiale between England and France. This increased Edward’s popularity and earned him a new nickname: Edward the Peacemaker.


The king didn’t stop his foreign visits, even in the closing years of his life. In June 1907, Edward helped to bring about a triple agreement between Britain, France, and Spain, with each country protecting their mutual interests in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic.


Following the success of the Anglo-Russian Entente, Edward became the first monarch to visit the Russian Empire. In 1908, he visited Tsar Nicholas II and spent time on the Russian Imperial yacht known as the Standart. Given Nicholas was married to Edward’s niece, the event was also a family reunion.


Indeed, Edward was related to many European royals, earning him yet another nickname: the Uncle of Europe.


Edward VII’s Death & Legacy

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Photograph of Edward VII, 1902. Source: Royal Collection Trust


After years of smoking cigars and drinking alcohol, Edward’s health wasn’t good. There were problems from the outset of his reign, with the king having to reschedule the coronation after developing peritonitis. Though he managed to recover, it seemed unlikely he would live for as long as Victoria, who died at the age of eighty-one.


The king’s final days occurred during a constitutional crisis in Westminster involving the House of Commons and the House of Lords. After collapsing during a visit to Biarritz (in southern France), Edward returned to Buckingham Palace, battling against bronchitis. His condition worsened, and his time was limited.


Following a series of heart attacks, Edward died on May 6, 1910. His son, King George V (Queen Elizabeth II’s grandfather), became the new monarch immediately. After a private lying at Buckingham Palace, the body was moved to Westminster Hall for a public lying.


The funeral took place on May 20. Sovereigns from all over Europe attended the event, and the people of London lined the streets of their city, paying respects to their deceased king.


Though Edward’s time on the throne was short compared to the sixty-four-year reign of his mother, he left behind a commendable legacy. He was a popular monarch despite his many vices, garnering affection both at home and abroad.


Edward may have gone against his parents’ wishes, but in the end, he managed to carve out his own version of the modern monarchy.

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By Jacob WilkinsBA HistoryJacob Wilkins holds a BA in History from Royal Holloway, University of London. He has written for several publications and has a particular interest in modern European and British history. When he’s not working, he enjoys reading books, watching tennis, and running up hills.