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Crowns : In a Changing World
The British and European Monarchies 1901â"36
By John Van der Kiste
The History PressCopyright © 2013 John Van der Kiste,
All rights reserved.
'What a Fine Position in the World'
Queen Victoria's death brought her children and her eldest grandson emotionally much closer than they had been for a long time. Among King Edward's first actions were to make Emperor William a Field-Marshal, his brother Prince Henry a Vice-Admiral of the Royal Navy, and to confer the Order of the Garter on Crown Prince William.
The German Emperor stayed in England for the funeral, which took place at Windsor two weeks later with a formidable galaxy of European royalties in attendance. As well as the Emperor and the new King, Edward VII, King Carlos of Portugal, King George of Greece, King Leopold II of the Belgians, the Austrian heir Archduke Francis Ferdinand representing Emperor Francis Joseph, the Duke of Aosta representing King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy, and the Crown Princes of Denmark, Sweden and Roumania, all followed the coffin on its final journey. Afterwards King Edward's equerry, Sir Frederick Ponsonby, was shocked to see the German Emperor and two of the Kings standing by the fireplace at Windsor Castle puffing on their cigars. Nobody, he noted, had ever smoked there before.
King Edward was touched by his nephew's respectful and uncharacteristically subdued behaviour, writing to the Empress Frederick (7 February) that his 'touching and simple demeanour, up to the last, will never be forgotten by me or anyone'.
On the last day of his stay in England, the Emperor attended a luncheon at Marlborough House given by the King. The latter proposed his nephew's health, and the Emperor replied:
I believe there is a Providence which has decreed that two nations which have produced such men as Shakespeare, Schiller, Luther, and Goethe must have a great future before them; I believe that the two Teutonic nations will, bit by bit, learn to know each other better, and that they will stand together to help in keeping the peace of the world. We ought to form an Anglo-German alliance, you to keep the seas while we would be responsible for the land; with such an alliance, not a mouse would stir in Europe without our permission, and the nations would, in time, come to see the necessity of reducing their armaments.
It was the kind of bombastic speech, combining sincerity and eloquence, in which he excelled. The King must have listened with mixed feelings. Yet shorn of its more fanciful embellishments, it expressed much of the idealism so close to the hearts of the Emperor's father and maternal grandfather.
For several days after his return to Germany, the Emperor remained under the spell of England, continuing to wear civilian clothes in the English fashion instead of the military uniforms in which his entourage were accustomed to seeing him. Even when officers from his local regiment at Frankfort came to dine, he continued to do so. Some of them felt that he was obsessed with 'Anglomania', and were disturbed by the sight of their Supreme War Lord spending so much time attired like an English country gentleman. It was the same Emperor who had irritated his military entourage while staying at Windsor in November 1899, pointing to the Tower every morning and exclaiming with admiration, 'From this tower the world is ruled.'
Later in February King Edward travelled abroad as sovereign for the first time. Court mourning ruled out any question of a state visit to foreign capitals for several months. This was purely a private journey to see his sister Vicky, the Empress Frederick, for what he realized might be the last time. He was not in the best of tempers after arriving to the sound of a 'hymn' being sung repeatedly, which on enquiry turned out to be the Boer national anthem. His irritation was compounded when, having requested an absence of formalities on this occasion, he was received at Frankfurt station by the Emperor in the uniform of a Prussian general.
The weather was unusually fine that February, with snow-clad pine forests around Friedrichshof glistening in the winter sun. Cheered by her brother's visit, the Empress ventured into the fresh air for the first time for several weeks, asking her attendants to wheel her in her bath-chair along the sheltered paths in the castle park as she and her three younger daughters talked to the King.
Among the King's entourage was Sir Francis Laking, his Physician-in-Ordinary for several years. The King hoped he might be able to persuade the German doctors to give the Empress morphia in larger doses than they had done so far. However, they viewed his presence with hostility. Ever since Morell Mackenzie had been summoned to take charge of the then Crown Prince Frederick at the onset of his final illness, Berlin had been deeply suspicious of British medical science. The previous autumn Queen Victoria had repeatedly offered, even begged, the Emperor to receive Laking, but he had refused; 'I won't have a repetition of the confounded Mackenzie business, as public feeling would be seriously affected here.'
According to Ponsonby, dinner in the evening was hardly lively, though the Emperor kept small-talk going. His two youngest sisters, Sophie, Crown Princess of the Hellenes, and Princess Frederick Charles of Hesse-Cassel, would cut in tactfully 'if the conversation seemed to get into dangerous channels, and one always felt there was electricity in the air when the Emperor and King Edward talked'.
One night the superstitious King was alarmed to find that thirteen people had sat down to dinner, but later he told Ponsonby it was all right as Princess Frederick Charles was enceinte. In fact time was to reveal that they had been safer than he thought, for in May the Princess gave birth to a second set of twins.
All the same, the atmosphere was gloomy. It would have taken more than the aftermath of one family bereavement and the imminent expectation of another to bridge the gap completely between uncle and nephew, in character and temperament so very different, both fellow-monarchs of two mutually suspicious nations.
One evening, Ponsonby was asked to go and see the Empress Frederick in her sitting-room. He found her propped up with cushions, looking 'as if she had just been taken off the rack after undergoing torture'. After she had asked him various questions about England, and the South African war, she said that she wanted him to take charge of her letters and take them back to England with him. She would send them to his room at one o'clock that same night. It was essential that nobody else – least of all the Emperor – should know where they were. Before she had time to explain any further, the nurse interrupted them and, seeing how tired the Empress looked, asked him to go.
Ponsonby had assumed that she meant a small packet of letters which he would have no difficulty in concealing. At the appointed hour, there was a knock on the door and, to his horror, four men came in carrying two enormous trunks, wrapped in black oilcloth and firmly fastened with cord. From their clothes, he suspected that the men were not trusted retainers but stable-men, quite unaware of the boxes' contents. At once, he guessed that the Empress wanted the letters published at some future date. Smuggling them away from Friedrichshof would be easier said than done, as the place was probably full of secret police. Hoping for the best, he marked them 'China with care' and 'Books with care' respectively, and had them placed in the passage with his luggage later that morning. As a member of the King's suite, however, he was in little danger of having his luggage searched, and nobody queried anything as the soldiers carried them out of the castle later that week. The dying Empress' wish was fulfilled; her letters remained safely in English hands.
With his other imperial nephew, Tsar Nicholas II, King Edward's relations were more harmonious. When Tsar Alexander III had died in November 1894, the Prince of Wales had impressed all fellow-guests as well as the inexperienced new Tsar by his tactful presence at the funeral. The Russian press had been loud in its praise of him, though, like the late Tsar and his family, they had never liked Queen Victoria herself. On his return to England the Prince was congratulated by the Prime Minister, Lord Rosebery, on his 'good and patriotic work in Russia', and for rendering 'a signal service to your country as well as to Russia and the peace of the world'.
Married to her granddaughter Princess Alix of Hesse, Tsar Nicholas had been almost unique among the Romanovs in his respect for and devotion to Queen Victoria. He and the heavily pregnant Tsarina were unable to attend the funeral in February, and they were represented by his brother, Grand Duke Michael ('Misha'). In his letter, the Tsar sent his condolences (29 January 1901):
My thoughts are much with you & dear Aunt Alix now; I can so well understand how hard this change in your life must be, having undergone the same six years ago. I shall never forget your kindness & tender compassion you showed Mama & me during your stay here. It is difficult to realize that beloved Grandmama has been taken away from this world. She was so remarkably kind & touching towards me since the first time I ever saw her, when I came to England for George's & May's wedding.
I felt quite like at home when I lived at Windsor and later in Scotland near her and I need not say that I shall for ever cherish her memory. I am quite sure that with your help, dear U(ncle) Bertie, the friendly relations between our two countries shall become still closer than in the past, notwithstanding occasional slight frictions in the Far East. May the new century bring England & Russia together for their mutual interests and for the general peace of the world.
Even so, a few months later the Tsar did not hesitate to bring up the vexed subject of the Boer War (4 June):
Pray forgive me for writing to you upon a very delicate subject, which I have been thinking over for months, but my conscience obliges me at last to speak openly. It is about the South African war and what I say is only said as by your loving nephew.
You remember of course at the time when the war broke out what a strong feeling of animosity against England arose throughout the world.
In Russia the indignation of the people was similar to that of the other countries. I received addresses, letters, telegrams, etc. in masses begging me to interfere, even by adopting strong measures. But my principle is not to meddle in other people's affairs; especially as it did not concern my country.
Nevertheless all this weighed morally upon me. I often wanted to write to dear Grandmama to ask her quite privately whether there was any possibility of stopping the war in South Africa. Yet I never wrote to her fearing to hurt her and always hoping that it would soon cease.
When Misha went to England this winter I thought of giving him a letter to you upon the same subject; but I found it better to wait and not to trouble you in those days of great sorrow.
In a few months it will be two years that fighting continues in South Africa – and with what results?
A small people are desperately defending their country, a part of their land is devastated, their families flocked together in camps, their farms burnt. Of course in war such things have always happened & will happen; but in their case, forgive the expression, it looks more like a war of extermination. So sad to think, that it is Christians fighting against each other!
How many thousands of gallant young Englishmen have already perished out there! Does not your kind heart yearn to put an end to this bloodshed?
Such an act would be universally hailed with joy.
I hope you won't mind my having broached such a delicate question, dear Uncle Bertie, but you may be quite sure that I was guided by a feeling of deep friendship & devotion in writing thus.
Much as the King liked his nephew, family affection was tempered by a ready awareness of his shortcomings. 'Nicky', he felt privately, was 'as weak as water', surrounded by a determined wife and intimidating uncles with far stronger characters than his. Perhaps he suspected that the Tsar was voicing their opinions rather than his own; and he was naturally anxious to explain his country's position (19 June):
I can quite understand that it was in every respect repugnant to your feelings to write to me relative to the S. African war, though great pressure has been brought to bear upon you. I am also most grateful to you for the consideration you have shown during the incessant storm of obloquy & misrepresentation which has been directed against England, from every part of the Continent, during the last 18 months! In your letter you say that in the Transvaal 'A small people are desperately defending their country'! I do not know whether you are aware that the war was begun, and also elaborately prepared for many previous years by the Boers, & was unprovoked by any single act, on the part of England, of which the Boers, according to International Law, had any right to complain. It was preceded a few days before by an ultimatum from the Boers forbidding England to send a single soldier in to any part of the vast expanse of South Africa! If England had quietly submitted to this outrage, no portion of her Dominions throughout the world would have been safe. Would you have submitted to a similar treatment? Suppose that Sweden after spending years in the accumulation of enormous armaments & magazines had suddenly forbidden you to move a single Regt. in Finland, & on your refusing to obey had invaded Russia in three places, would you have abstained from defending yourself, & when war had once begun by that Swedish invasion would you not have felt bound both in prudence & honour to continue military operations until the enemy had submitted, & such terms had been accepted as would have made such outrages impossible?
If the S. African Campaign were to be stopped at this moment & England were to recall her troops, we should have no security whatever that the Boers would not commence anew the accumulation of armaments & magazines to prepare for another invasion of British territory. It is not extermination that we seek; it is security against a future attack, & against this, after our experience of the past we are bound to provide.
With this forthright statement of facts there was no arguing, and although the war was to continue for another few months, the King did not hear again from his nephew on the subject.
South Africa was not the only territory outside Europe in which Britain, Germany and Russia had a particular interest at the turn of the century. For several years the Foreign Offices at St James and St Petersburg had regarded it as almost inevitable that both Empires would clash sooner or later over affairs in the Far East. Though the European powers were supposed to be acting in concert, Russia had for some time pursued an ambitious assault on northern China, in defiance of her European allies, and there seemed little hope of amicable relations being established between them.
His friendship for the Tsar did not prevent the King from suspecting the worst from hostile aims of Russian diplomacy, and he watched Russia's aggressive action in China with anxiety. The situation had been inflamed the previous year by the outbreak of the Boxer rebellion in China, a nationalist movement provoked largely by the way in which the European powers had been annexing territory. The threat to Europeans in the area intensified in June 1900 after the murder of the German minister in Peking, Baron Clemens von Ketteler. Emperor William inspected a German relief force before its departure for China, and in his speech his tongue ran away with him as he declared that 'as a thousand years ago, the Huns, under King Attila, gained for themselves a name which still stands for a terror in tradition and story, so may the name of German [sic] be impressed by you for a thousand years on China, so thoroughly that never again shall a Chinese dare so much as to look askance at a German'.
The effect of the German effort, if not the speech (which would come back to haunt the Emperor a few years later), and of a declaration a few days later that 'no great decision would be made in the world in future without the German Emperor', was somewhat impaired by the appearance of an allied force under Russian command (without a German contingent), which relieved Peking in August, six weeks before the German relief force arrived. The Emperor was disappointed and furious with the Tsar for wanting to make peace. Despite an Anglo-German agreement in October 1900 preventing further territorial partition, to which Russia and Japan consented, by the time of King Edward's accession there was still a state of mutual suspicion. The King wrote to Lord Lansdowne (21 March 1901) of his fears 'that the Russians have got quite out of hand in China, and that the Emperor seems to have no power whatever, as I am sure the idea of war between our two countries would fill him with horror'.
The German Emperor was impatient for a solution to the Chinese business, and equally suspicious of the other powers, writing to the King (10 April):
What a time the Powers are wasting over the Chinese Indemnity Question! Money must be paid by the 'Heathen Chinee' that is the rule of war all over the world, as he was the cause of the outlay, so the sooner we agree the better! I have already named my sum, & hope that if the British Government takes the same lines we will soon see clear. I am very grieved to hear from friends & private sources that the French & Russians are playing a violent game of intrigues at London, which has so far proved successful, that actually some members of the Government have given vent to the apprehension, that I was siding with the Russians against England! A most unworthy & ridiculous imputation.
Yet the King's thoughts that spring and summer dwelt less on affairs in China, than on his sorely-tried elder sister whose sufferings would soon be over. He booked his usual suite of rooms at Homburg in mid-August, so as to be near Kronberg if she should suddenly take a turn for the worse, and the Emperor arranged to be in the area as well. Despite the severity of the Empress' illness, a rather inconsistent series of statements about her 'quite satisfactory' condition gave the impression that she would survive at least another six months.
Excerpted from Crowns : In a Changing World by John Van der Kiste. Copyright © 2013 John Van der Kiste,. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1 'What a fine position in the world',
2 'A political enfant terrible',
3 'No precautions whatever',
4 'A mighty and victorious antagonist',
5 'A thorough Englishman',
6 'A terrible catastrophe but not our fault',
7 'We are all going through anxious times',
8 'This wonderful moment of England's great victory',
9 'Strength and fidelity',
10 'Don't let England forget',
11 'Such touching loyalty',
European Monarchs, 1901–36,