King Edward VII and the Entente Cordiale. When the “Caressor” became the “Peacemaker”
Edward the Peacemaker
King Edward VII. A king who surprised all his critics
When King Edward VII came to the throne of Great Britain in 1901, not very much was expected of him. His mother, Queen Victoria was a hard act to follow. She had presided over the Empire since 1837 and was universally loved and respected by all her subjects. Her son and heir, was considered by most people to be a frivolous playboy. Edward had had many mistresses and been involved in more than a few scandals, in the years before the death of his mother brought him to the throne. No less an institution than the Times of London expressed doubt in an editorial about his fitness to reign. He was popularly nicknamed Edward the Caresser because of his excessive fondness for the fairer sex. But King Edward was to surprise everybody. In his short reign of just nine years he left a lasting historical legacy and he is known to posterity as Edward the Peacemaker.
I'm not proposing, in this short article, to detail all the achievements of this very capable monarch. But I would like to tell you about a famous diplomatic triumph that was brought about principally through the efforts of King Edward VII. I am referring here to the famous Entente Cordiale, which was the agreement that ended the centuries of animosity between Great Britain and France and secured a valuable alliance between both countries, that was of critical importance during the First World War.
The background to King Edward VIIs visit to Paris in 1903
Relations between Great Britain and Europe at the beginning of the 20th century were very strained. The Boer War in South Africa had brought great unpopularity to the British Empire. An attempt had even been made on the life of King Edward by a Belgian sympathiser to the South African cause. So it might reliably be inferred that the year 1903 would be an inauspicious year for the King to tour the continent and to visit France. The tensions between the French and British were added to by rivalry in North Africa, where both countries were vying for influence in Egypt, Morocco and Libya. They had almost gone to war only a few years previously. The only thing which united both countries was the mutual suspicion of Germany. The German Empire under Wilhelm II was engaged in a naval arms race with Britain and France was still smarting from its defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. Nevertheless, this was not sufficient to establish good relations between the two ancient enemies. It was into this Hornets’ nest that King Edward VII decided to go. He made the journey entirely on his own initiative and without informing the British government in advance. This was a very risky thing for the King to do. It was very unusual for a constitutional monarch to take an important initiative without the consent of his/her government. If it had gone wrong, the consequences could have been very damaging for the monarchy.
The official itinerary for King Edwards visit to the continent involved a visit to Lisbon, to see the King of Portugal, followed by a visit to Italy to see the king and queen of that country and also to visit Pope Leo the 13th. It was only when those two trips had been successfully concluded that the British government was informed that he would be returning to his country through Paris. Instead of bringing the Foreign Secretary Lord Lansdowne, as minister in attendance, the King decided to bring Charles Hardinge . He was the most junior of the four undersecretaries at the Foreign Office. There was a sound reason for excluding Lord Lansdowne from the party. He was particularly hostile to France, especially to any notion of compromising on French claims in Morocco.
King Edward VII charms the French people
The visit. King Edward shows how a king should behave
When King Edward VII arrived at the station in Paris and drove in a carriage to the British Embassy, the French people greeted him with boos and chants, supporting the Boers and damning the supposed British oppressor. The King just smiled and waved. He knew how to get people on his side and sulking over a few boos and hisses was not the way to do it. When one of his companions remarked that “the French don't seem to like us”, the King replied “why should they”.
At the embassy King Edward made a speech to the British Chambers of commerce in which he praised the French people. This was reported in all the French newspapers the following morning. That evening the King went to the theatre. He was given a very icy reception by the audience on his arrival. Far from hiding at the back of his box, the intrepid monarch insisted on mixing with his fellow theatregoers during the interval. This was the point where Edward the Caresser and Edward the Peacemaker merged, to the absolute delight of the hostile Parisians. He kissed the hand of the very famous and popular actress Mademoiselle Granier, while telling her how much he enjoyed watching her onstage in London and that she embodied all the grace and beauty of the French people. The reports of the King's compliments electrified the audience in the theatre and he was cheered to the rafters when he returned to his box.
He attended a military review in the morning with President Loubet. He made a special point of saluting all the French troops. This was also very much appreciated by his proud hosts. In the afternoon King Edward made a short speech in the Hotel de Ville, in which he poured further compliments on the French people. From that moment on, he was met by frenzied cheering; everywhere he went in the French capital. The mood of the French was completely turned around.
Conclusion. The Entente Cordiale and some consequences
A return visit to London by the French president and his wife was equally successful. In the following year the British and French governments settled their differences over North Africa.
I'm not saying that the Entente Cordiale was negotiated by King Edward VII. In a constitutional monarchy these things are settled by governments and not by Kings or Queens. But undoubtedly, the charm and the diplomatic skills of the astute monarch paved the way very successfully for the agreements that were to come. There was a downside though to this reconciliation between two old enemies. This came in the form of the further alienation of Germany. It is arguable that King Edward, in making it possible for Britain and France to win World War I, made it more inevitable that that dreadful conflict would start in the first place. Historians have debated that point ever since.
King Edward would have loved this.
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