King Edward VII
( Originally Published 1907 )
CHARLES LAMB, referring to the fact that he had no ear for music, said he had been practising " God Save the King " all his life, humming it to himself in odd corners and secret places, and yet, according to his friends, had still not come within several quavers of it. Lamb did not know his good fortune. King Edward probably regards him as the most enviable man in history. For his Majesty would not be human if he did not tire of that eternal reminder of the gilded cage in which he is doomed to live. Does he go to Church, then " God Save the King " thunders through the aisles; does he appear in public, then enthusiastic bandsmen salute him at every street corner with " God Save the King "; does he go to a dinner, then grave citizens leap to their feet and break out into " God Save the King." He cannot escape the Boeotian strain. He never will escape it. It is the penalty we inflict on him for being King. It is a penalty that should touch any heart to sympathy. If one were offered the choice, " Will you dwell at Windsor and hear ' God Save the King ' morning, afternoon, and evening, at work and at play, at home and abroad, or work, a free man, in a coal mine? " can there be any doubt what the answer would be if one were sane?
When the Archduke John of Austria disguised himself as a seaman and vanished for ever from the tyranny of Courts, he was regarded as a victim of mental aberration. He was, of course, one of the very sanest of men. No man in his senses would be a King if he could be a cobbler. For a cobbler has the two priceless privileges of freedom and obscurity, and a King has only a prison and publicity a prison, none the less, because its walls are not of stone, but of circumstance. The cobbler may have friends ; but where among the crowd that makes eternal obeisance before him is the man whom the King can call friend? Walled off from his kind, living in an unreal and artificial atmosphere of ceremonial, pursued by the intolerable limelight wherever he goes, cut off from the wholesome criticism of the world, fawned on by flunkeys, without the easy companionship of equals, without the healthful renovation of privacy, what is there in Kingship to make it endurable? The marvel is not that Kings should so often fail to be Kings, but that they should ever succeed in being tolerable men.
Now, King Edward is, above everything else, a very human man. He is not deceived by the pomp and circumstance in the midst of which it has been his lot to live, for he has no illusions. He is eminently sane. He was cast for a part in the piece of life from his cradle, and he plays it industriously and thoroughly; but he has never lost the point of view of the plain man. He has much more in common with the President of a free State than with the King by Divine right. He is simply the chief citizen, Primus inter pares, and the fact that he is chief by heredity and not by election does not qualify his view of the realities of the position. Unlike his nephew, he never associates the Almighty with his right to rule, though he associates Him with his rule. His common sense and his gift of humour save him from these exalted and antiquated assumptions. Nothing is more characteristic of this sensible attitude than his love of the French people and French institutions. No King by " Divine right" could be on speaking terms with a country which has swept the whole institution of Kingship on to the dust-heap.
And his saving grace of humour enables him to enjoy and poke fun at the folly of the tuft-hunter and the collector of Royal cherry stones. He laughingly inverts the folly. You see that chair," he said in tones of awe to a guest entering his smoking room at Windsor. " That is the chair John Burns sat in." His Majesty has a genuine liking for " J. B.," who, I have no doubt, delivered from that chair a copious digest of his Raper lecture,' coupled with illuminating statistics on infantile mortality, some approving comments on the member for Batter-sea, and a little wholesome advice on the duties of a King. This liking for Mr. Burns is as characteristic of the King as his liking for France. He prefers plain, breezy men who admit him to the common humanities rather than those who remind him of his splendid isolation. He would have had no emotion of pride when Scott, who, with all his great qualities, was a deplorable tuft-hunter, solemnly put the wine-glass that had touched the Royal lips into the tail pocket of his coat, but he would have immensely enjoyed the moment when he inadvertently sat on it.
It follows that he would disclaim that he is either a seer or a saint, though in his education every effort was employed to make him at once an Archangel and an Admirable Crichton. There has probably never been a personage in history upon whose upbringing there was expended so much thought and such variety of influences as upon that of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales. There have been cases in which equal solicitude has been displayed by fond parents on behalf of their children. In the preface to Montaigne's Essays we are told that the great writer's father resolved that his son should be a perfect Latinist, so arranged matters that the boy heard no language but Latin till he was seven or eight years of age. In his presence even the servants had to speak Latin or not at all, the result being that in Montaigne's native village there was for long afterwards a strong element of pure Latin in the local French. Montaigne was never allowed to be awakened suddenly, but was wooed back to consciousness by soft music played near his chamber. And so on. But this was a case of mere paternal affection. The education of the Prince of Wales, on the other hand, was a national, almost an international question. Baron Stockmar, the Coburg adviser of the Queen's family, wrote elaborate treatises on the subject, bishops and peers and educationists were consulted, rival schemes of treatment were considered, and every precaution was taken to make the little Prince a prodigy of scholarship and a miracle of virtue.
But there is no royal road either to saintship or knowledge. The Prince was endowed neither with the attributes of intellectual passion, nor of mystical fervour, nor of artistic emotion, and the attempt to graft these upon the stem of ordinary human instincts was destroyed by the world of levity and flattery into which he was plunged as a young man. It is easy to cast stones at the King; but it would be more rational to ask how many of us would have come through such a career of temptation with a better record. When a distinguished scientist, celebrated for his destructive criticism, was questioning the efficacy of prayer, he chose the Prince of Wales as his test. He was unfair both to the Prince and to prayer. It is true that the world has prayed much for King Edward. It is estimated on a modest calculation that during sixty years a thousand million prayers have been offered on his behalf. But while the world prayed, instead of helping him to fulfil its prayers it encouraged him by its sycophancy to think he was a law unto himself, and left him in the heart of Vanity Fair, without a duty save a desolating ceremonial and the pursuit of idle pleasure. And then, when a sudden flash of publicity has lit up some particular aspect of his private life, it has turned and rent him in a fury of righteous indignation. It is as irrational as King Theebaw, who, when his favourite wife lay sick unto death, prayed fervently to his gods and made extravagant promises of endowment of the temple, and, when she died, massed his artillery in front of the temple and bombarded it without mercy. It engineers a conspiracy to destroy character, and is astonished that the result is not a moral miracle.
It is just, too, to remember that the King's private life is not only subject to a merciless scrutiny that the lives, of his people are fortunately spared, and to the prurient gossip of every club idler; but that his position denies him the defence which the law accords to humbler people. He must be mute under all attack. There is only one instance in which he has been heard in his own defence. It is the letter to Archbishop Benson, written after the Tranby Croft scandal, and published in the life of the Archbishop. In it he says:
A recent trial which no one deplores more than I do, and which I was powerless to prevent, gave occasion for the Press to make most bitter and unjust attacks upon me, knowing that I was defenceless, and I am not sure that politics were not mixed up in it! The whole matter has now died out and I think, therefore, it would be inopportune for me in any public manner to allude again to the painful subject which brought such a torrent of abuse upon me not only by the Press, but by the Low Church, and especially the Nonconformists.
They have a perfect right, I am well aware, in a free country like our own, to express their opinions, but I do not consider that they have a just right to jump at conclusions regarding myself without knowing the facts.
I have a horror of gambling, and should always do my utmost to discourage others who have an inclination for it, as I consider that gambling, like intemperance, is one of the greatest curses which a country could be afflicted with.
Horse-racing may produce gambling or it may not, but I have always looked upon it as a manly sport which is popular with Englishmen of all classes; and there is no reason why it should be looked upon as a gambling transaction. Alas! those who gamble will gamble at anything. I have written quite openly to you, my dear Archbishop, whom I have had the advantage of knowing for so many years.
The sentiment of the letter which was, of course, published with the King's sanction is perhaps better than the logic; but it reveals a man keenly sensitive to criticism under which he must be silent, and anxious to avoid collision with public opinion. An expression of horror at gambling was not lacking in courage in such a connection; but the reference to horse-racing suggests that his Majesty does not quite appreciate the view of those who regard it not as evil in itself, but evil in its associations. No one imagines that horse-racing per se is immoral. Did not Cromwell own race-horses? He was a sportsman. But is Mr. Robert Sievier a sportsman? It is not the sport, but the parasitic accompaniment of the sport that is immoral, and his Majesty would do a lasting service to the pastime that he loves, as well as to the commonwealth which is so largely his care, if he emphasised his horror of gambling, and gave his countenance to the suppression not of racing news, but of betting news, which brings to ruin multitudes who never see a horse-race, and which is poisoning the blood of the industrial classes.
When Henry V. ascended the throne, and the news was borne to Falstaff, the boon companion of his riotous youth, that splendid vagabond turned to Pistol and said, " Ask what thou wilt : 'tis thine, and, calling for his horse, he hastened back to London to receive the rewards of friendship. But when he shouldered his way through the crowd and saluted the King as he rode from the Coronation, the monarch turned on him and cried:
I know thee not, old man: Fall to thy prayers;
King Edward is not built in this heroic mould. He did not " turn away his former self " when he came to the Throne; but he did reveal a seriousness of purpose and a delicate appreciation of his office that we were not entitled to look for from such an apprenticeship. He is, indeed, by far the ablest man and the best King his stock has produced. Contrast him with the Four Georges and he is an angel of light. Judged even by more severe standards, he emerges with credit. For he has that plainness of mind which is the best attribute of a constitutional monarch. Genius is the essential of an autocrat, for exceptional powers alone can justify and sustain exceptional pretensions. But in a constitutional monarch the best we can ask for is common sense and a nice regard for the true limits of the kingly function. And King Edward is in these respects an ideal King.
He realises that his function is not active, but passive; not positive, but negative that his duty is to act on the advice of his ministers and that there is no exception to that principle. He has leaned to no party, cultivated no " King's men," aimed at no personal exaltation, uttered no " blazing indiscretion." Few men in his position would have done so well. No man with strong convictions, a forceful personality and what Meredith calls " an adventurous nose," would have done so well. We want a King whose convictions hang about him easily, like an old lady's loose gown," who has many sympathies and no antipathies, who can be all things to all men, who, in fact, stands for citizenship, which is common, and not for sect or party, which is particular. We want, that is, a plain, prosaic, simple citizen, and that is King Edward's character. He is the citizen King, and the most popular of his line. If ever we have a man of genius as King, we shall probably end by cutting off his head.
He is the Imperial smoother, and deserves the jolly title of " L'oncle de l'Europe " which France has conferred on him. There is an avuncular benevolence about him which is irresistible. He likes to be happy himself, and he likes to see the world happy. Does Norway want a King? Then he is the man to arrange it. Does the king lack a queen? Who so accomplished to fill the rôle of uncle? Does the King of Spain want, like Dame Marjory, to be "settled in life "? Again he assumes the familiar part. And his activity does not end with marriage bells. He loves to play the part of missionary of peace. He plays it skilfully and constitutionally, and not in any assertive or authoritative spirit. He is far too astute for that, and they are his worst enemies who encourage the fatal theory that the King is his own Foreign Minister a theory which would make the external relations of a great people dependent on the private feelings of an individual whom it could not control, could not interrogate or depose, and whose mind it could not know. Nor is it only the graver aspects of his office that he takes seriously. He is equally solicitous about that life of etiquette and forms which is the affliction of kings. Should the Queen advance three steps or only two in receiving a particular visitor, should the coat of this or that attendant on him at some ceremony have three buttons or two, should it be buttoned or unbuttoned, these are the kind of problems with which he will wrestle strenuously. They may seem negligible details to the plain man; but the life of courts is made up of these niceties of deportment, which are not wholly idle, but may be the outward and visible sign of far-reaching realities.
Considering the delicate path he has had to tread in public and the fierce light that has beat upon it, he has made singularly few false steps. The exclusion of certain members from a garden party apparently because of a vote given by them in the House of Commons was a startling departure from correctitude that by its singularity emphasised the general propriety of a career which has been a model of public deportment. We can have no more sincere wish than that this country will have always upon the throne one who understands his place in the Constitution as well and does his task as honestly as Edward VII.
I like to think of him as one sees him on those sunny days at Windsor when he holds his garden party, and moves about industriously smiling and gossiping, while the band plays the interminable tune and the fashionable world crowds around him in eager anxiety for notice. It is then that one under-stands the boredom of Kingship, and the heroism that enables him to play his part so cheerfully and unfailingly. Hard by the brilliant scene you may come suddenly upon solitude and a colony of rooks holding high revel in the immemorial elms. Their cry the most ironic sound in Nature seems like a scornful comment on the momentary scene yonder and all it signifies. Perhaps when the shadows fall athwart the greensward and the last guest has gone, King Edward strolls off with a cigar to take counsel of these wise birds, who seem to know so well what is real and what is transitory, and tell it with such refreshing candour.