A Magnanimous Queen?

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Yesterday marked the 88th anniversary of the death of Queen Alexandra, consort of King Edward Vll. Widely considered the loveliest and most elegant Queen in English history, its long been purported that at her husband’s death bed she magnanimously ordered that his last official mistress, Alice Keppel, be summoned to her royal lover’s bedside in order to wish him one last farewell. Although Queen Alexandra was well known for her generosity, both in terms of her spirit and the gifts she bestowed upon friends and worthy causes, there are several eyewitness accounts to the final hours of Edward Vll contained within the books, King in Love, Edward Vll’s Mistresses: Lillie Langtry, Daisy Warwick, Alice Keppel and others by renowned royal historian Theo Aronson, and The Enigmatic Edwardian by James Lees-Milne, that reveal this tale to be nothing more than a revisionist myth invented by Alice Keppel in an effort to salvage what remained of her position at court once her majestic lover had breathed his last.

In many ways, Queen Alexandra was the polar opposite of her husband. While Edward Vll is particularly remembered for his carnality and the countless number of women he slept with, mostly during his marriage, his child like wife appears to have been genuinely asexual with a positive dread of fornication. Theo Aronson writes that she once told her friend and admirer, Oliver Montague, that she only submitted to conjugal relations with her husband as a matter of duty, and even disliked having her hand kissed. Lady Louisa Antrim, a lady-in-waiting to both Queens Victoria and Alexandra, further observed in a letter cited in Aronson’s book that perhaps Edward Vll would have been a more loving husband had his Queen “been a more loving wife.” Although she told his secretary, Frederick Ponsonby, shortly after her husband died that he had been the love of her life, and refused to part with his corpse for several days afterwards, her behavior towards him while he was still breathing is more demonstrative of a pragmatist making the best of an arranged marriage rather than a woman consumed by a genuine romantic love for her husband. The fact that she left no diary, and only a scant amount of her correspondence survives, makes it all but impossible for the serious historian to ascertain the exact nature of Queen Alexandra’s feelings toward Edward Vll.

Nevertheless, she mostly didn’t begrudge him his numerous amours in private, though at times resented the humiliation wrought by his more flagrantly public affairs. One mistress that Alexandra could definitely never abide was the overly ambitious, self aggrandizing Alice Keppel. Georgina Batiscombe notes an incident at Sandringham in her biography of Queen Alexandra in which the Queen, who remained remarkably thin and youthful throughout most of her life, beckoned a lady-in-waiting to join her by a window so they could both laugh at the sight of her morbidly obese husband primly sitting beside his lard ass mistress in an open carriage as they were waiting to be driven off. By the time the King was approaching his final days, great pains were taken to ensure that Mrs. Keppel was rarely in the Queen’s presence.

After a long convalescence following his collapse while on vacation with Mrs. Keppel in Biaritz in March of 1910, Edward Vll returned to Buckingham Palace the following April. Queen Alexandra and their spinster daughter, Princess Victoria, returned from Corfu a week later. According to the King’s chief physician, Sir Francis Laking, who was in constant attendance on the King the day he died, Mrs Keppel had been in and out of the palace until the Queen arrived. He related this to his friend, Alfred Scawen-Blunt, who wrote it all down in a secret diary that wasn’t opened until fifty years after his death. Aronson cites the diary in his book.

Francis Laking had long since gained the absolute trust of his royal master, for it was this physician who, according to Lady Colin Campbell’s biography of the Queen Mother, had earlier artificially inseminated the King’s youngest daughter, Princess Maud of Denmark, with the sperm provided by the doctor’s son, Guy, that produced the only child she had with her sterile husband, Prince Charles. Husband, wife and son would subsequently be elected to the throne of Norway in 1905 as King Haakon Vll, Queen Maud and Crown Prince Olav. Dr. Laking and Queen Maud’s descendants remain Norway’s royal family to this day.

Sir Laking related to Blunt that Queen Alexandra was ordered by her husband to send for his mistress. Furthermore, Alice Keppel had taken the liberty to send the Queen a letter that he had written in 1902, when he’d had his appendix removed, stating that in the event of his impending death he would want his mistress by his side. Faced with this fait accompli, Alexandra had no choose but to send for Mrs. Keppel. What followed next would prove the final humiliation for a wife who had endured one after the other throughout her 47 year marriage.

Once Alice arrived, and in the presence of Princess Victoria, Edward Vll demanded that his wife formally receive his mistress. Queen Alexandra reluctantly presented her cheek which Alice was obliged to kiss. They then remained seated side by side while the King went in and out of consciousness. He finally awoke and blurted out that he needed to “piss.” Alexandra, who had long since gone stone deaf, asked what her husband had said and was told that he required a “pencil.” The King then lapsed back into semiconsciousness. At this point the Queen drew Sir Laking aside and demanded that Alice Keppel be sent away at once. This was easier ordered than accomplished, for by now Alice had whipped herself into a histrionic frenzy. Not only did she refuse to leave his side, but Viscount Esher, one of Edward Vll’s most trusted confidants, wrote in a letter excerpted in James Lees-Milne’s book that Mrs Keppel had to be ordered to do so because the King wished to be left alone with his Queen. Despite Princess Victoria’s attempts to comfort her, Mrs Keppel cried uncontrollably and declared for all to hear that she had done nothing wrong and that she truly loved him. She was finally placed in Frederic Ponsonby’s room before she calmed down and was gotten rid of. None who witnessed her theatrics, whose accounts are on record, found her valedictory performance to be anything but tacky and self exploitative.

Alice Keppel would go on to impugn her integrity by spreading the lie shortly after her lover’s death that the Queen had unselfishly and of her own free will called for her and that they held each other and wept together while Edward Vll lay dying. Lees-Milne further cite’s Viscount Esher’s letter in which he states that Francis Knollys, Edward Vll’s Private Secretary and another witness to the scene, told him that Alice’s story was a complete fabrication. Apparently, she was justifiably afraid that after her sugar daddy’s departure she would become persona non grata at court, and was hoping to win sympathy points with this preposterous tall tale.

In the short term, the scheme didn’t work and the Keppels left Britain for a couple of years while the new Royal Court took shape. Although she would return intermittently throughout the rest
of her life, Alice Keppel would never enjoy the limelight again. Her story, however, would gain currency over time among the more romantically inclined of historians and journalists, and now her account of the scene at her royal lover’s deathbed is widely believed. The ascendence of her great-granddaughter, the Duchess of Cornwall, leaves the author in no doubt that this spurious story will continue to be believed well into the future. To paraphrase Napoleon, what is history if not an accumulation of lies agreed upon by its victors?