By Kenneth Maxwell
In Tiverton there is a statue of King Edward VII on the bridge over the River Lowman. The River Lowman joins the River Exe a short distance downstream and delineates the riverine boundaries of the old town of Tiverton in mid-Devon.
I pass by King Edward’s statue on my way into the town center after walking down from my house on Exeter Hill. The statue is inscribed: “Edward the Peacemaker.” King Edward VII reigned from 1901 until 1910. His statue was dedicated in 1912. This was only two years before the outbreak in 1914 of the First World War.
King Edward VII, like King Charles III, his great-great-grandson, had to wait a very long time before ascending to the throne. They both had very long-lived mothers: Queen Victoria in the case of Edward, and Queen Elizabeth ll in the case of Charles.
Prince Albert Edward of Wales enjoyed the brothels of Paris. He was a man with large carnal and gastronomic appetites. He was very considerably overweight. His Parisian “love chair” was carefully constructed so he did not crush his Parisian paramours.
His love of Paris was partly the reason for the “Entente Cordiale” of 1904 which ended a thousand years of intermittent Anglo-French rivalry.
Prince Albert Edward’s family was after all German. His father was Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. He was descended from the German Protestant Hanoverians. His first cousin was Kaiser Wilhelm of the Germany Empire. Yet during the First World War Germany was the enemy and Britain was the ally of France. In 1917 the British Royal family dropped the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha moniker and became instead the much more English sounding “House of Windsor.”
Prince Albert Edward of Wales, or “Dirty Bertie” as he was known, also had many other affaires, over fifty according to legend, including a long affair with Mrs. Alice Keppel, the great-great-grandmother of Mrs. Camila Parker Bowles.
In need of money to support her lavish lifestyle and with a husband whose distinguished name did not come with a supporting fortune, Alice Keppel specialized in rich older married men. Prince Albert Edward was 56 and Alice was 29 when they first met. Queen Alexandria of Denmark, Edward’s wife, tolerated the affaire, but Alice Keppel was ejected from court when in 1910 King Edward VII died.
Camilla Parker Bowles is the former mistress of Prince Charles of Wales, now King Charles lll. She is now the “Queen Consort.” Camila Parker Bowles was the “third person” in the unhappy marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana. But the late Queen Elizabeth ll apparently wanted Camila to have the title of “Queen Consort.” So she has it.
Mrs. Alice Keppel was King Edward’s favorite mistress. According to her daughter, Violet Trefusis, she “resembled a Christmas Tree, laden with presents for everyone.” Violet Trefusis had a long lesbian affair with Vita Sackville-West. Later she had a long time affaire with the domineering whip-in-hand sewing machine heiress, Winnaretta Singer. Violet Trefusis was purportedly portrayed as princess Sasha in Virginia Woolf’s novel “Orlando” and inspired the character of Lady Montdore in Nancy Mitford’s “Love in a Cold Climate” as well as Mirila in Harold Acton’s “The Soul’s Gymnasium.”
King Edward took care of his mistresses. Mrs. Kepple received a share in a rubber company and Edward’s friend Sir Ernest Cassel created endowments for her, and Edward’s own bankers and financial advisers managed her businesses.
She moved to the Villa l’Ombrellino overlooking Florence in the 1920s. The Second World War forced her to return to England, but she returned to Florence after the War where she died in 1947. She is buried in Florence’s Cimitero degali Attori (The Evangelical Cemetery of Laurels).
Violet Trefusis then became the long-time chatelaine of the Villa l’Ombrellino. She died in 1972.
In 2017, Camilla Parker Bowles, by then married to prince Charles and Duchess of Cornwall, visited the memorial to Alice Keppel at St. Mark’s Anglican Church in Florence. She is purported allegedly to have told Prince Charles when they first met: “My great-grandmother was the mistress of your great-grandfather. I feel we have something in common.”
Curiously l knew Harold Acton. He was (in)famous as one of the eccentric “bright young things” at Oxford in the 1920s. In the end of my first year at Cambridge in 1961 with two fellow students l was invited to Florence where he was our host.
We visited him at his fourteenth century Villa la Pietra where his bedridden mother Hortense Mitchell (she was the daughter a Chicago banker and the source of the family wealth) used to pound on the floor with her walking stick while we were being grandly entertained by Sir Harold in a grand salon below.
He was much more interested anyway in my West Indian colleague. But we had a marvellous lecture on the Decameron from him at the empty casino at Bagni di Lucca especially opened up for the four of us. He took us to visit Osbert Sitwell at his castle Montegufoni, where Sitwell lived with his companion David Stuart Homer.
But Osbert Sitwell was away when we got there. A surly servant took us around and we had all to tip him generously as we left. We were treated to wonderfully delicious lunches overlooking the Tuscan countryside.
It is not clear to me why we were invited to Florence. Harold Acton had been thinking of donating his Villa and art collection to a university. Oxford declined the offer. Cambridge may also have been a potential candidate.
But a year later NYU accepted the gift. Though after twenty years of litigation by Harold Acton’s illegitimate half-sister, the Italian court decided in her favor and that she should have fifty percent of the value of Acton estate. The “last of the aesthetes” had evidently left a poison pill which Oxford (and potentially Cambridge) had fortuitously avoided.
Yet King Edward VII stands there incongruously on the bridge over the River Lowman in Tiverton, Devon, proclaiming peace in 1912 on the very eve of the First World War. It is a salutary reminder that war is never far away, nor is it any less dangerous at the end of 2022 than it was at the beginning of the last century.
Old empires are tottering again. New empires are rising. The tectonic global geo-political sheets are shifting under our feet yet again.
Though like “Edward the Peacemaker” in 1912 we remain largely oblivious to the real danger of stumbling, despite our best intentions, into a global conflict. History has not ended: Certainly. it did not in 1912: And not one fears in 2022.