For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings
Richard II (III, ii)
His funeral, almost exactly a century ago, was described by the historian Barbara Tuchman as "the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last". That funeral, with which Tuchman began her classic work on the Great War, The Guns of August, was certainly the last "event" before the horrors of the Somme and Verdun. The Edwardian Era, stretching from the death of Queen Victoria in January of 1901, to Edward VII's own death in May of 1910, is regarded as a sort of Indian Summer for the British Empire, and indeed for European Civilization. The restraint and propriety that was a hallmark of Victorian Britain loosened under Edward. Among his first royal commands was ending his mother's ban on smoking at Court. With the simple words "Gentlemen, you may smoke" the new King, a keen smoker himself, signalled that his reign was going to be, quite simply, a lot more fun.
Excluded from real power during Victoria's long reign, Edward became the leading playboy of the civilized world. As Prince of Wales he travelled to Canada, America, Germany, Egypt, Palestine and India. His personal style set trends through out the world, making fashionable tweed, Homburg hats and Norfolk jackets and the wearing of black ties with formal dinner jackets. Even his usual Sunday lunch influenced British culinary habits for decades. He once reproached the Prime Minister, the Marquess of Salisbury, for inappropriate dress during an international crisis. The PM explained weakly that "my mind must have been occupied by some subject of less importance."
His many dalliances were the subject of widespread gossip. His wife, the Danish Princess Alexandra, accepted these affairs as the fate of a royal consort. The future king's good nature, easy charm and surprisingly careful attention to public duties - which his mother scorned - made him enormously popular with friends and the Empire at large. In the wake of the Fashoda Crisis, it was Edward who did more than anyone to ease away the old Anglo-French rivalry, and help establish the Entente Cordiale that was to do so much to save the free world in the first half of the twentieth century. He annoyed many by his flouting of the bigotry of the age, openly socializing with Jews and remarking, during his visit to India, that: "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." Repeatedly he condemned the use of the word "nigger" when it was still in widespread use.
Even his death, most likely from bronchitis, became him. The Prince of Wales, the future George V, informed the dying monarch that his horse had won at Kempton Park that afternoon. "I am very glad," replied Edward. Those were his last words. He lost consciousness soon after and died a few hours later.
The image his name most easily conjures is that of a portly man, on the comfortable side of middle age, dressed in tweed and holding a shotgun. The man of leisure out for a casual hunt, as opposed to the formal scarlet colours of the fox hunt. The Edwardian stepping down of restraint also begat an increasing informality to dress and manners. For much of the rest of the century the process of dressing down would continue, from Edward's casual elegance to the current ubiquity of denim. It is unlikely that the King would have approved of the descent.
The Edwardian Gentleman, like his sovereign, dressed in tweed while in the country. A bowler hat for work days in the City. Generous in disposition, though not to the point of familiarity. Mindful of private and public duties, yet far from zealous. Tolerant of others, yet certain of the moral and intellectual world he inhabited and was sworn to defend. Upon the last years of European pre-eminence he gazed with detachment and subtle irony. Conscious of his solemn upbringing and open to the possibilities which the new century, with its new technology and attitudes, promised to provide. His education had been classical. He knew far more of Horace or Cicero than differential equations or the new discoveries in electro-magnetism, yet strove to understand the modern. The smattering of Latin he still recalled was a hallmark of his social status. His distant ancestors had been violent brutes. A little further forward we find their humble piety slipping into religious fanaticism. His great-grandfather was perhaps a Georgian rake, his father obsessed with respectable conduct. He stood at the end of the line. The last gentleman in an age where the term was used, by all, neither ironically or indifferently.
In 1935 George Dangerfield wrote The Strange Death of Liberal England. It sought nominally to explain the decline of the Liberal Party, yet showed a glimpse of something more profound, the death of the liberal spirit that animated the Edwardian Gentleman. The violence of the suffragettes, the threat of Civil War in Ireland and Asquith and Lloyd George's attacks on the House of Lords, in the years immediately proceeding and following Edward's death, marked the passing of the deferential, and largely peaceful, England that had come into being in the last decades of Victoria's reign. The nineteenth century had begun in violence and social unrest, yet ended in peace and prosperity. The twentieth century began like a lamb and yet its first half witnessed a resurgent barbarism, made all the more horrible by the power of modern technology. The Edwardian Gentleman could not have foreseen the Somme, or fascism, or the Battle of Britain, or nuclear weapons or the slow rot of democratic socialism. It was not merely that these things came as a surprise to him, if he lived long enough to see them, but that they were so alien to his nature and being. Having gotten "far enough ahead of barbarism" a slide back was inconceivable. A century after Good King Edward's death we honour his memory, and provide for ourselves and our posterity, by seeking to revive the sprit he and his age represented. We borrow the old cry, which greeted the accession of his son George V, to new and old purposes:
The Edwardian Gentleman is Dead! Long Live the Edwardian Gentleman!