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Contents

About the Book

About the Author

Also by Stephen Clarke

Title Page

Dedication

Map of Bertie’s Paris

Preface

Chapter 1: 1855: Amour at First Sight

Chapter 2: The Royal Cherry Is Unroyally Popped

Chapter 3: Bertie and the ‘Palace Dames’

Chapter 4: An Anglo-Danish Wedding and a French Marriage

Chapter 5: Sex and the City of Light

Chapter 6: Painting the Town Rouge

Chapter 7: If You Can’t Be with the One You Love . . .

Chapter 8: Savaged by the Press

Chapter 9: The French Try to be English

Chapter 10: Bertie Makes an Exhibition of Himself . . . Again

Chapter 11: The French Make Work for Idle Hands

Chapter 12: We All Like to Be Beside the Seaside

Chapter 13: Reaching an Anglo-French Entente

Chapter 14: Don’t Mention the War

Chapter 15: C’est la Fin

Afterword: Life After Bertie

Select Bibliography

Picture Section

Picture permissions

Index

Copyright

1

1855: AMOUR AT FIRST SIGHT

‘You have a very beautiful country. I would like to be your son.’

Thirteen-year-old Bertie to Napoléon III, Emperor of France

I

WHY DO WE modern Brits want to be friends with Europe? We disagree with most of the politics practised on the continent, and, if we’re honest, we also disapprove of much of the natives’ behaviour, from bullfighting to using kilograms, to refusing to let us win at sports we invented.

Yet, despite all this, we want to be amis with the continental Europeans, and our motive seems to be shamelessly selfish – we love to go there. In fact we always have loved to go there, but in the past, our visits were often received with arrows and cannons.

This is why, nowadays, we are careful to conduct our wars in far-flung, desolate places where no right-minded civilian would want to buy a holiday home or take a cookery course. What we don’t want is to repeat the errors of history and be excluded from the beaches, ski slopes and vineyards of places like France, Italy, Spain or even Germany.

Queen Victoria’s eldest son, Albert Edward, known to his family as Bertie, understood this at a time when most of his fellow countrymen were calling for ‘splendid isolation’, and when many Europeans wanted revolution in their own country and/or war with their neighbours.

Like us today, the future King Edward VII was much more interested in tourism than warfare. He loved what all of us love about mainland Europe – the spas, the food, the perfume of exotic sex. He was a thoroughly modern European. He could even speak their languages.

He was such an ardent admirer of continental pleasures that he earned himself the nickname Dirty Bertie in the English press, and spent much of his time until he became king running away from British public opinion. But what we shouldn’t forget is that Dirty Bertie – a man who, if loyalty cards had existed in the latter nineteenth century, would have earned platinum status at Paris’s louchest cafés and grandest brothels – eventually matured into a great diplomat: possibly Britain’s greatest ever.

It was Bertie who almost single-handedly kept Europe at peace at the turn of the twentieth century. It could even be argued (and this book will argue it) that if he had smoked a lot less and lived a few years longer, Europe would not have gone to war in 1914.

More than military threats and official alliances between countries, it was Bertie’s ceaseless round of get-togethers with his European friends and relatives1 that dissipated the clouds of war. A state visit from Bertie’s royal yacht or private train, some light banter over cigars, a few chummy dinners with the generals, and potentially explosive disputes about maritime supremacy or border manoeuvres were forgotten – at least until the next crisis.

And it was France that taught Bertie this bonhomie, this sunny, reassuring nature that made him popular with almost everyone he met, including the cuckolded husbands of his lovers and the almost permanently angry Kaiser Wilhelm.

It was the French who created one of the most successful seducers and most gifted diplomats that Britain has ever produced. The question is: how did they perform this miracle, on the son of Queen Victoria of all people?

II

Everyone needs a role model, and Bertie seems to have had two. In terms of European diplomacy (which, as we have seen, mainly involved keeping in touch with the extended family) it was probably his mother, Queen Victoria, although in later life she was too much of a hermit to be an inspirational figure. As far as his personality was concerned, it was definitely a Frenchman, the short-lived Emperor Napoléon III – a man who applied his uncle Napoléon Bonaparte’s battle tactics to the bedroom, and whose ambitions lay less in ruling over a continent than in ruling under a continental quilt.

If Napoléon III inspired Victoria’s eldest son to follow in his footsteps, it was because the French Emperor didn’t let a squat body, large nose and puffy eyes get in the way of a life of seduction. It was at the highly impressionable age of thirteen that young Bertie first saw Napoléon III in action.2 Despite his lack of classically good looks, the Emperor was the archetypal smooth-talking French lover, forever roaming his palace in search of new conquests amongst his beautiful courtiers. On one occasion, at a masked ball, he was in such a rush to consummate a new acquaintance that he instantly ushered his prey into a side room, only to be informed as he fought to undress her that the mademoiselle was in fact a monsieur.

Yet Napoléon III was no brutish boor. When a married Englishwoman, famed for her prudishness and for having slept in the same bedroom as her mother until the age of eighteen, visited him in Paris, she confessed that she was ‘tickled by’ his flirtatious ways. She wrote that:

I have seen him for full ten days, from twelve to fourteen hours every day – often alone . . . I know no one who puts me more at my ease, or to whom I felt more inclined to talk unreservedly, or in whom involuntarily I should be more inclined to confide . . .

Surely we are only a few sentences away from the ripping open of a bodice? As if to confirm this, on arriving back home in England, the same lady wrote to Napoléon in French saying that she had felt ‘penetrated and touched’ by his welcome, and that when she said goodbye to him it was with a ‘swollen heart’ after their ‘beautiful and happy days’ together. ‘You said “au revoir” on the boat,’ her letter reminds him, ‘and it is with all my heart that I repeat it.’ She closes with ‘tender friendship and affection’.

The love-struck words of a passionate woman. All the more surprising, then, to realize that they were written in 1855 by a 36-year-old Queen Victoria. Yes, even she could be ‘penetrated and touched’ by a Frenchman.

History has been slightly unfair to Victoria. The old Queen, stiff-lipped and corseted in her widow’s weeds, usually gets the blame for everything prudish and hung-up about nineteenth-century Britain. We only have to picture her and immediately our brains are cleansed of anything remotely erotic. She is the antidote to sex.

But as the above French letter (no pun intended, bien sûr) shows, Victoria was a woman like any other. And as an ageing widow, she shocked her children, including Bertie, by becoming very intimate with two of her male servants, Scotsman John Brown and Indian Abdul Karim – one man from a nation famed for its lack of underwear, the other from the country that gave us the Kama Sutra.

Whether Victoria ever indulged in physical relations with either servant has never been reliably established, and she almost certainly restrained from divan diplomacy with Napoléon III, but as her son Bertie was to prove, tight corsets and multi-layered petticoats never stopped anyone in the nineteenth century enjoying a healthy sex life, monogamous or otherwise.

In fact, the morally confused, sexually inhibited society that we generally call Victorian wasn’t totally Victorian by any means. It was also very Albertian. England’s famous prudery of the time originated largely from the Queen’s husband, Franz Albrecht Karl Emanuel von Sachsen-Coburg und Gotha – or Albert for short.

Prince Albert was the disciplinarian father who tied the straps on his eldest son’s moral straitjacket so tight that when they broke, the resulting sense of liberation sent him philandering across the whole of Europe (and especially France). It was Albert who tried to create an angelic Prince Albert Edward and spawned Dirty Bertie.

And the breaking point came during a royal family visit to Napoléon III’s court in Paris in 1855.

III

Being both a snob and a monarchist (theoretically the two can be separable), Victoria’s initial reaction to Napoléon III was unfavourable to say the least. For a start, he was the nephew of England’s arch-enemy, Bonaparte. Furthermore, he had originally been elected President of France after the expulsion of King Louis-Philippe in 1848,3 and had then staged a coup d’état and declared himself Emperor Napoléon III on 2 December 1851, the forty-seventh anniversary of Bonaparte’s own investiture.

In Victoria’s eyes, whether Napoléon III was an emperor or merely a president, he had originally come to power by removing a king, and was therefore a danger to Europe’s (and Victoria’s own) stability.

Victoria would also have known about Napoléon III’s decidedly racy past. His mother, Hortense de Beauharnais, was the daughter of Napoléon Bonaparte’s first wife, Joséphine. His father Louis was a younger brother of Bonaparte – legally, at least. When the child was born in 1808, Louis suspected Hortense of having been unfaithful, and only acknowledged paternity after pressure from big brother.

From the age of seven, the violent tides of early nineteenth-century French politics swept the future Napoléon III into exile in various countries, including two years, from 1846 to 1848, in London. It was here that he learnt conversational English while living in sin with a young actress called Harriet Howard, who had climbed England’s social scale in the classic fashion, by running away from home at the age of fifteen, taking a wealthy lover, bearing him a child and then inheriting his fortune. When King Louis-Philippe fled France in 1848 and the future Napoléon III crossed the Channel in the other direction, it was largely Harriet Howard’s money that financed her lover’s presidential campaign and subsequent coup d’état. She moved to Paris and remained Napoléon III’s mistress until he found a suitable wife, leaving him with a lasting sense of gratitude and affection for all things English.

Sadly for him, the feeling wasn’t mutual. When he came to power thirty-six years after Waterloo, Anglo-French enmity was alive and well and living in Britain. In August 1853, Victoria took eleven-year-old Bertie on an outing to the Solent for the Royal Naval Review, a show of strength that was specifically designed to remind Napoléon III of Trafalgar and the dangers of provoking his neighbours. It was the first event of its kind since 1814, the year before Waterloo, and the lead ship in the British fleet was a brand-new 131-gun warship, the Duke of Wellington, which had been hastily renamed after the death of the national hero who ended Napoléon Bonaparte’s career. Even the old Victory, Nelson’s flagship at Trafalgar, was present at the 1853 Review to give a salute to its young successors. Perhaps the only false note in this display of naval might was that Victoria and the royal family watched the proceedings from a yacht called Fairy.

The Brits weren’t the only people trying to put France’s new emperor in his place. The French upper classes were also being decidedly unwelcoming. The ‘real’ aristocracy – those whose family had been ennobled by a king rather than an emperor – saw Napoléon III and his Spanish wife, the Empress Eugénie, as parvenus. Meanwhile, other branches of the Bonaparte family were jealous of their cousin, and refused to join his court.

Struggling to gain legitimacy for his Second Empire, Napoléon III looked outside France and tried to strike up personal relations with his fellow European sovereigns. But when he sent out the first feelers towards Victoria in 1854, he received a predictable putdown, despite the fact that since October 1853, the two countries were, for the first time in centuries, fighting on the same side in a war – Crimea.4

Anglophobes in Paris were quick to say that Victoria’s standoffishness was typical of the Brits – they didn’t mind accepting France’s help to support their interests in the east, but they were too snobbish to invite their new ally to dinner. A close associate of Napoléon III, Horace de Viel-Castel, wrote sniffily in his memoirs that Victoria had refused to issue ‘a personal invitation to the Emperor and Empress of the French’, as if their titles alone should have been enough to win them a ticket across the Channel.

Canny Napoléon did not give up, though. He intimated that he wanted to come and deliver a personal invitation to Victoria and Albert to attend the 1855 Exposition Universelle that was being planned in Paris. He must have known that Albert was fascinated by all things scientific and industrial, and had been one of the prime movers behind the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, at which, annoyingly for Napoléon, members of the deposed French royal family had been guests of honour.

The ploy worked, and an invitation to visit London was duly sent.

In April 1855, the French imperial couple sailed to Dover (into a dense English fog that they may have seen as a bad omen), to be met not by Victoria but her husband. Other sovereigns might have seen this as a snub, but Napoléon and Eugénie were on a charm offensive, and immediately set about seducing the dour Albert. The two men had something in common, because Napoléon spoke with a strong Swiss-German accent, thanks to one of his foreign exiles after the fall of Bonaparte. So conversation was slow and Germanic – rather like England’s rail service at the time – and the train journey to Paddington apparently went very smoothly.

Waiting at Windsor, and no doubt rehearsing the level of condescension she could show the French upstarts, was Victoria, whose attitude to the French visit was evident in a letter to her Secretary of State, the Earl of Clarendon, in October 1854: ‘His [Napoléon’s] reception here’, she wrote, ‘ought to be a boon to him and not a boon to us.’ She was deigning to meet him as if he were a poor relative begging for a loan.

But if Victoria was at first somewhat cold towards her French visitors, the ice very soon thawed out. Little Napoléon was not a handsome man in comparison to the grand Albert, and sported a straggly goatee and an absurd moustache that was permanently waxed into two long, needle-sharp points, but he was an innate charmer. As Jacques Debussy, a biographer of Empress Eugénie, noted, Napoléon ‘showed no delay in winning the affection of the Queen [Victoria], as he did with anyone he wished to seduce’.5

Napoléon may not have been trying to bed Victoria, but reading between the lines of her descriptions of the state visit, we can see that the Frenchman deployed all his Gallic seduction techniques. The Emperor was, Victoria told her friend Sir Theodore Martin, ‘so simple, naïf even, so pleased to be informed about things he does not know’ (we can almost hear Napoléon telling the Queen, ‘Oh, madame, you are fascinetting, please tell me more about ze ideal diet of Corgis’) and ‘so gentle, so full of tact’ (‘do not worray, Your Majesté, your secret detestation of your Prime Ministaire is safe wiz me’) and ‘so full of kind attention towards us, never saying a word or doing a thing, which could put me out’ (‘yes, mah dear Victoria, I absolutely adore boiled pheasant’). This was a French séducteur on his best behaviour, devoting as much care and patience towards his female prey as a fisherman reeling in a prize trout.

To complete this atmosphere of heady eroticism, Victoria awarded Napoléon Britain’s highest honour: appointment to the Order of the Garter – the order of chivalry founded in the fourteenth century by King Edward III after he had danced so energetically with a lady that her garter slipped off. He picked it up, put it on his own leg, and declared (in French): ‘Shame on anyone who misinterprets what I just did,’ probably implying: ‘If you assume I’m going to be removing the rest of the lady’s clothes afterwards, it’s just your dirty mind.’ This of course became the Order’s motto: ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’. Investing Napoléon as a so-called ‘Stranger Knight of the Garter’ was his due as a visiting head of state, but his highly charged relations with Victoria must have added an extra French frisson to the ceremony.

After a week of public and private functions, there was still a hint of English condescension in the air – Victoria wrote to her uncle Leopold that ‘our Imperial guests . . . behave really with the greatest tact’, as if surprised that the French heads of state held their knife and fork correctly and didn’t wipe their mouths on the tablecloth. But the two couples had overcome their differences to become firm friends, and a return visit was arranged.

IV

Before thirteen-year-old Bertie was informed, to his delight, that he would be accompanying his parents to France, his childhood had been one long bout of Albertian oppression. In an attempt to mould him into a perfect Anglo-German prince, Bertie’s father had subjected him to a régime of discipline, loneliness and violence.

A series of adult tutors were instructed by Albert – with Victoria’s approval – to drill the boy for six hours a day, six days a week in German, French, Latin, arithmetic, history, more German and even more (mainly royal) history. To avoid immoral influences, Bertie was kept away from all other children except his closest siblings, and after falling behind his younger brother Alfred, Bertie was declared retarded and banished to educational solitary confinement, relieved only by a few short, stilted visits from Eton boys who were considered worthy company for a prince.

Young Bertie was ordered to write essays for his father, each one of which provoked a paternal report to the effect that they were below standard and that he needed to study even harder. When the frustrated boy rebelled with foot-stomping, furniture-throwing tantrums, he was given a sound flogging by Albert. In short, Bertie’s young mind and body were being force-fed a diet of failure and humiliation.6

Even the ten-year-old Prince’s French teacher, a certain Docteur Voisin, said that the boy was being made to do too much intellectual work, which was a bit like a Viking military instructor complaining that the curriculum contained too much pillaging.

‘Make him climb trees! Run! Leap! Row! Ride!’ Voisin urged Bertie’s main tutor, a dull 29-year-old barrister called Frederick Waymouth Gibbs. But this and other pleas to grant the boy something approaching a normal childhood were ignored by his parents.

It wasn’t entirely Victoria and Albert’s fault that they were so rigid. Albert had endured a disturbed childhood himself: when he was five, his mother left home, married her lover and never saw her children again before dying of cancer aged only thirty. Albert’s father, a renowned lech, then married his own niece and turned his back on his offspring. It was perhaps natural that these dysfunctional beginnings should spark a yearning in Albert for stability at all costs.

Victoria meanwhile was haunted by the fear that her male children might inherit wayward genes from the Hanoverian side of her family. Her grandfather was ‘mad’ King George III, the first royal to talk to trees, and her uncle was the dissolute George IV, of whom The Times newspaper said on his death: ‘There never was an individual less regretted by his fellow-creatures than this deceased king.’ Not the kind of DNA that was going to preserve the British monarchy. And Victoria had been a staunch monarchist since childhood – according to Lytton Strachey’s playful biography, her favourite tune as a young girl was ‘God Save the King’.

When baby Bertie was only a few days old, Victoria wrote to her uncle, King Leopold of Belgium: ‘I hope and pray he may be like his dearest Papa.’ A month later, she wrote again, repeating herself more emphatically: ‘You will understand how fervent my prayers are . . . to see him resemble his angelic dearest Father in every, every respect, both in body and mind.’ In short, from the start, Victoria was begging God to make sure Bertie would grow up as a fun-hating German prude who didn’t understand cricket.

It was, of course, entirely thanks to this tyrannical upbringing that Bertie would later rebel and turn into exactly the kind of gambling, philandering playboy that his parents abhorred. But then a very similar pattern was being repeated for most upper-class British males at the time, so Victoria and Albert were only applying an extreme form of current educational thinking.

Before his first visit to France, Bertie’s sole relief from tedium came when Albert took him shooting at Windsor and Balmoral, a form of release that Bertie would embrace for the rest of his life. And he also enjoyed a temporary feeling of self-worth when he was allowed to accompany one or both of his parents to official functions such as the sombre funeral of the Duke of Wellington in 1852, the Naval Review of 1853, and long ceremonies at which his mother pinned the newly created Victoria Cross on the chests of soldiers returning from the Crimea. His childhood was never exactly electrifying.

So when Bertie was told that he would be going with Victoria, Albert and his sister Vicky to Paris, he must have been as thrilled as any schoolboy who is told that there’s a class outing coming up – no lessons for ten whole days! Even the news that he would have to wear his uniform – the kilt – probably wouldn’t have bothered him, because he had no classmates to warn him that the French might laugh at a teenage boy in a skirt.

But probably the most exciting prospect of all about the trip to Paris was that he would be seeing the Empress Eugénie again.

Like Napoléon III, the Empress had climbed to the summit of French society by exploiting all her natural attributes. Whereas most of Napoléon’s female targets gave in immediately to his charms and status, she had forced him to court her for over two years, and eventually marry her. The writer Prosper Mérimée, author of the original story of Carmen and an old friend of Eugénie’s from her pre-Empress days, wrote a none-too-subtle couplet about the imperial couple:

The Emperor is there because of an election,

Eugénie because of an erection.

She was not a classic beauty, but everyone seems to agree that she emanated a powerful sexual charm.

Bertie had spent some time with her during the French couple’s visit to England, and had written in his diary that she was ‘very pretty’ – a daring entry given that the diary was one of the writing assignments inflicted on Bertie by his father, and was far from private. During her brief stay at Windsor Castle, Eugénie, who longed for children and had suffered several miscarriages, had lavished her attention on the boy in a way that Victoria and Albert had never done, and it is easy to imagine the effect that the voluptuous French lady would have had on the loveless teenage prince.

In short, if the Channel steamer had broken down during the British royals’ crossing on 18 August 1855, the feverish heat of Bertie’s anticipation would probably have powered the engine right up the Seine to Paris.

V

Victoria and Albert’s state visit to France was one of the most successful family holidays in history.

According to all accounts, including those of Queen Victoria herself, mother and children were in permanent throes of ecstasy, and, to use the French idiom, even the staid Albert temporarily removed the broomstick from his derrière. Those ten glorious summer days in France were packed with more thrills than young Bertie had known in his entire life.

Even though he had been out in public with his parents before, the welcome they received in Boulogne-sur-Mer must have been an eye-opener. A contemporary painting of the occasion by Louis Armand, which now hangs in the Château de Compiègne near Paris, gives an idea of what it all must have looked and felt like for a teenage boy.

The harbour is teeming with boats that have taken to the water to greet the royals. Out in the bay, a fleet of warships is letting off cannons in salute (either that, or the French and English captains are holding a small fiftieth anniversary re-enactment of Trafalgar).

The new royal yacht, Victoria and Albert, a majestic gold-prowed steamer, has docked, and its deck is packed with French dignitaries doffing their top hats to the arriving guests. Eugénie, pregnant again and fearful of another miscarriage, has stayed at home, so Napoléon III has come to Boulogne alone, and he is proudly leading Victoria down a wide, red-carpeted gangplank towards a line of horse-drawn carriages waiting to take the guests to the railway station.

Meanwhile, as far as the eye can see, hordes of spectators are jostling to get a glimpse of Bertie and his family. Many of these onlookers are chic women in silks and crinolines, holding parasols to protect their fashionably pale skin. A veritable army of bayonet-touting imperial guards and mounted cavalry has been mobilized to keep the ladies at bay.

There is nothing half-hearted or condescending about this reception. If Napoléon had wanted to pull rank, it would have been customary for him to wait for Victoria to step on to his soil. On the dockside, there is a small marquee with a pair of thrones suggesting that the original plan might have been to hold the welcoming ceremony on land. But Napoléon has gone on board to take Victoria’s hand and invite her personally to come ashore. It was a friendly, and apparently spontaneous, gesture.

After his successful trip to England, Napoléon III was clearly out to prove two things: first, that he was a true European sovereign and understood the historic importance of this trip. There had not been a state visit to France by a reigning English monarch since Henry VI in 1431, and that had not been a particularly happy occasion for the French because Henry came to Paris to be crowned King of France. Now was Napoléon’s chance to erase the memory.

Secondly, he was determined to show that he was the kind of man who returns hospitality. Napoléon wanted everyone, both in England and France, to see that he really knew how to throw a party.

As Bertie was driven through the admiring summer crowds to the railway station, he must have begun to suspect that this was not going to be like one of the formal state occasions that his mother and father organized. Back in England, onlookers had usually been showing due respect for his (or more precisely his mother’s) royal status. By cheering the monarch, the people were almost cheering themselves as a nation. Here in France it was different: these people owed the British royals nothing but they were saying, ‘Welcome chez nous, we’re going to show you a seriously good time.’

Like the harbour, the railway station had been decorated, and a contemporary engraving shows the procession passing under an enormous archway draped with flags and flowers and inscribed with giant Vs. In the station itself, people are waving their handkerchiefs and hats in welcome. All along the route, the crowds had been so dense that the royal party were a couple of hours late boarding the imperial train, which didn’t pull into Paris’s Gare de Strasbourg7 until dusk, at precisely 7.12 p.m.

In Paris, the excitement started all over again, not least because of the 101-cannon salute that marked the royal guests’ departure from the railway station. The city’s new boulevards (of which much more in a later chapter) were lined with thousands of spectators, watching the procession from behind an unbroken rank of soldiers standing to attention, or as close to attention as French soldiers get.

British history books usually describe the rapturous reception that the royal party received, with Parisians shouting ‘Vive la Reine!’; however, less gushing French accounts, notably that of the historian André Castelot, ring slightly truer. To mark their arrival on the Paris fashion scene, Queen Victoria had put on a blue dress and grey silk jacket, and Albert had donned his field marshal’s uniform, but, according to Castelot, their costume change went almost completely unnoticed. The light was fading fast, and the Parisians who had turned out to witness the procession could hardly see a thing. Many had given up waiting, and others had grown impatient. Consequently, according to French commentators, the crowds were not hugely enthusiastic – more curious than rapturous.

Even so, in Bertie’s mind, a horse-drawn carriage ride through Paris by night, along wide new streets that had been specially cleared of traffic, would surely have made up for any lack of enthusiasm amongst the city’s disgruntled citizens. The Champs-Élysées was in the final throes of its transformation from a rough track across marshland to a fully urban avenue, and it was now lined with the brand-new venues for the 1855 Exposition Universelle. All of these buildings have since been demolished, but on the site of the current Grand Palais and Petit Palais stood the immense Palais de l’Industrie, a 200-metre-long, 35-metre-high stone edifice with a gigantic domed glass-and-iron roof. In the centre of its façade was a triumphal arch topped by a sculpture modestly entitled France Crowning Commerce and Industry. On this summer evening, as Bertie was driven past it, with its transparent roof and 400 windows ablaze with gas lights, it would have been one of the most brilliant sights on the planet – second only to London’s Crystal Palace.

Next, the royal party drove past the Arc de Triomphe, which was standing in the middle of the new place de l’Étoile, a hub for some of the city’s swankiest new avenues, and into the darkness of the Bois de Boulogne, which was undergoing a spectacular makeover. The old royal hunting forest on the western edge of Paris, once so thickly wooded that aristocrats had hidden there during the Revolution, had been ravaged by occupying British and Russian troops after the Napoleonic wars, and had needed extensive replanting.

However, after seeing London’s Hyde Park, Napoléon III had decided that a plain forest was too rudimentary for his showcase Paris, and had ordered the remodelling of the woodland into an urban park with wide avenues for promenading carriages, and even an artificial river, a facsimile of the Serpentine. Here, he would surely have been keen to flatter his English guests by telling them how their capital city had inspired him to refurbish his own.

What’s more, in a homage to the ‘sport of kings’ imported into France by the Brits, Napoléon had also commissioned an addition to the park – Longchamp racecourse, which, although Bertie didn’t yet know it, was to provide him with plenty of thrills in years to come.

As the procession crossed the Seine, Napoléon must have regretted that he hadn’t managed to get the royal party to the Château de Saint-Cloud before dark. It was a jewel of French architecture, a mainly classical structure built by Louis XIV’s brother the Duc d’Orléans and enlarged still further by Louis XVI as a gift for his bride Marie-Antoinette. The château overlooked the river and the distant city from its vast, terraced park, and had been chosen by both Napoléon I and Napoléon III as the venue for their investitures. It was the ultimate French status symbol, and now Victoria, Albert, Vicky and Bertie were getting only a partial view.

Inside the château, the reception that Napoléon had prepared was grand and intimate at the same time. We can get an idea of the atmosphere from a painting by one of his favourite artists, Charles Müller.

The picture, based on sketches that Müller made on the night, shows the reception hall crowded with finely dressed courtiers, the chicest gathering that France could muster. These were the imperial couple’s friends, allies and confidants, including Napoléon’s cousin and former fiancée, Mathilde, who was living openly with her aristocratic Dutch lover.

Decorating the staircase, like so many potted plants, Müller depicts a rank of soldiers in plumed gold helmets that reflect the light from the weighty chandeliers. And at the heart of this glowing scene are its royal and imperial stars. Most visible, given that he had commissioned the painting, is Napoléon, unrealistically slim and upright in a blue military frock coat and tight red trousers, his moustache as stiff as the hands of a clock face stuck at quarter to three. Beside him, elegant in a high-collared dress, Eugénie is looking kindly at a slightly dowdy Victoria, who is the only adult woman in the room wearing a bonnet, a sort of tight white nightcap. The Queen seems to be bowing to the French couple (Müller was French, after all), as if grateful for being invited into such a smart home. Albert, resplendent in a scarlet tunic, is standing to one side, perhaps so that his tall stature won’t put Napoléon in the shade. With one hand on his sabre, Albert is looking thoughtful, as if asking himself, ‘Is that Frenchie chatting up my wife?’

Müller has also taken great care over the portraits of Princess Vicky – a miniature of her mother, right down to the bonnet – and Bertie, who are standing between their parents. The young Prince is wearing a smart white shirt and dark jacket, his fair hair slicked down as though his mother had just forced him to comb it. Strangely, Bertie is the only person in the picture looking at the painter. It is as if a realization is dawning on him. He is in the centre of this scene, surely the most glamorous event that night in the whole of the western world,8 apparently thinking: Amongst all these royal and imperial adults and these incredibly chic courtiers, that artist is drawing me. Mich. Moi. Am I really that important? Well, now you mention it . . .

VI

Over the next few days, Bertie had to rise to the challenge of constant attention, from the critical eyes of the public as he and his family were displayed around town, and the closer scrutiny of his parents, who would have been watching him keenly for any sign that it had been a bad idea to invite him along. Until they received proof to the contrary, Bertie was still a backward boy in need of constant bullying by his moral tutors. Here in France, he was off the leash and needed careful monitoring.

Some of the official events must have been hard going for a teenaged boy known for his lack of concentration – such as three hours trooping around the Exposition’s art show featuring 5,000 works by 2,000 artists from 28 countries (although half of the art was French, of course). The show excited people like the notorious drug-taking poet Baudelaire, who wrote that ‘the exhibition of English painters is . . . worthy of a long and patient study’. It sounds like the kind of exhibition that would bore a thirteen-year-old to tears.

Even so, there was one canvas that would almost certainly have caught Bertie’s attention: German painter Franz Xaver Winterhalter’s group portrait of Empress Eugénie and her ladies-in-waiting. To the modern eye, the pale, languorous women with their flat centre partings, drooping ringlets and enormously bouffant dresses look like a collection of human cushions, but to Bertie (and indeed everyone but the hardest-nosed Parisian revolutionary), the eight women posing in a rather damp-looking woodland clearing would have been a vision of almost divine loveliness, the perfect pallor of their skin and their shimmering gowns giving them an air of infinite self-assurance. And let’s not forget those shoulders – each dress, including that of the Empress, is cut to leave the women naked from the biceps upwards, with their necklines hanging tantalizingly loose just above the cleavage. If any of them had crossed her arms, her dress would simply have fallen off.

The erotic undertone of the picture was like an advert for imperialism. A few decades earlier, the superior attitude of these aristocratic women would have got them dispatched to the guillotine, but now they shamelessly display their finery, mutely implying, ‘Stick with Napoléon III and you too could have some of this.’ In Bertie’s case, a few years later the message would come literally true.

The tour of the art exhibition was followed by lunch, which apparently caused some confusion in Paris. The meal was announced in the official programme of the state visit using the English word, and ‘lunch’ was something that few French people had ever heard of. One journalist reported overhearing a Parisian man saying it must have been a misprint for ‘punch’ – the English royals were probably going to be tasting rum cocktails.

Bertie would have enjoyed his visit to the Palais de l’Industrie a lot more, because here was an exhibition featuring plenty of noise, steam and excitement. Visitors to the 1855 Expo could see brand-new or recent inventions like the lawn mower, the washing machine (not that any members of the royal family would be using either of those personally), the saxophone, Samuel Colt’s six-shooter pistol, telegraph machines, electric clocks, a coffee machine capable of producing 2,000 cups per hour, a cement rowing boat, the world’s biggest-ever mirror (5.37 metres high and 3.36 wide), and all kinds of machines that sliced, crushed, harvested, heated, cooled or transported any industrial or agricultural product you could think of. One of the most popular attractions was the stand giving away free samples of freshly roasted tobacco.

Some of the more stately occasions were just as eventful. On Thursday, 23 August, the British royals were guests of honour at a ball given by the city of Paris at the Hôtel de Ville. Amongst the other guests were some visiting sheiks, one of whom bowed before Victoria and, before anyone could stop him, lifted the Queen’s dress and kissed her ankle, proclaiming, with an acute sense of English history, ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense.’9 It was a joke that could have got him skewered by Prince Albert for fondling the royal personage if Victoria had not reacted with a restrained laugh. Despite her prudish image, the Queen was apparently getting into the Parisian swing of things.

The day after the ankle-kissing incident, 24 August, is the one that most of Bertie’s biographers10 linger on. After a dusk review of 45,000 troops performing manoeuvres on the Champ-de-Mars (where the Eiffel Tower would later be built), Victoria insisted on taking Bertie to the Invalides to see the tomb of Napoléon Bonaparte. It was an impromptu visit, so when the small party arrived at what is, even today, a museum set around a residential home for injured soldiers, the reception committee was a modest but remarkable one – a group of torch-bearing veterans, including some old-timers who had fought alongside Bonaparte himself.

It was a dark, windy night, and the torches were flickering wildly as the visitors were led into the chapel by the limping veterans. The former Emperor’s body was lying in state in the small Chapelle de Saint-Jérôme while his immense mausoleum was being built beneath the great dome.11 The coffin was draped in a violet pall embroidered with honey bees – the Bonaparte emblem. As Victoria entered the shadowy, chilled chapel with Napoléon III and the old soldiers, she was overcome with the solemnity of the occasion, as she freely admitted in her diary:

There I stood, at the arm of Napoléon III, his nephew, before the coffin of England’s bitterest foe; I, the granddaughter of that King who hated him most, and who most vigorously opposed him, and this very nephew, who bears his name, being my nearest and dearest ally! . . . Strange and wonderful indeed, it seems, as if in this tribute of respect to a dead and departed foe, old enmities and rivalries were wiped out, and the seal of Heaven placed upon that bond of unity, which is now happily established between two great and powerful nations!

Victoria must have guessed that this declaration of a divinely approved friendship between Britain and France would not have gone down well with politicians back home, despite the temporary Anglo-French alliance over Crimea, but she decided to seal the moment for history. Turning to Bertie, the heir to her throne and to this new friendship, she ordered him to kneel before Bonaparte. The young Prince, dressed in full highland costume, including the sporran (or ‘hairy bag’ as André Castelot calls it in his account of the visit) obeyed, and as he did so, a lightning storm erupted outside, sending thunder crashing against the chapel walls. Some of the veterans interpreted this as a supernatural sign and began to weep.

To Bertie’s young mind, it must have come as fresh confirmation that he was at the very heart of events. And in a very real way, this was the ceremony that formalized his lifelong bond with France. With a crack of cannon-like thunder, the spirit of Bonaparte himself was telling the boy: ‘Bienvenu chez nous.’

The following day, 25 August, saw Bertie yet again being committed to canvas. Joseph-Louis-Hippolyte Bellangé’s painting Royal Visit to Napoleon III: meet of the Imperial Hunt at the Chateau de la Muette, in the forest of St Germain, 25 August 185512 shows the French and British first families enjoying a social gathering that was the complete opposite of the hunts Bertie had known until then, which were usually windblown slogs across the bleak Scottish moors.

In Bellangé’s picture, a large pack of hounds is being held in formation by huntsmen in green-and-gold coats and red breeches, while the ever-present crowds of chic onlookers strain to get a look at the VIPs and are kept away by mounted guards.

The royal and imperial party stands in front of the château, with Albert and Napoléon in decidedly non-rustic frock coats and top hats, and Victoria in bright pink, looking uncharacteristically elegant. Actually, she looks exactly like the French dames watching from the château, so either the Queen had wholeheartedly embraced la vie parisienne or Bellangé was taking liberties with the truth. In fact the painting is generally more diplomatic than realistic, because Napoléon and Victoria are made to look as tall as Albert. Bertie, meanwhile, in long trousers and highland cap, is glancing up towards his father as if to say: ‘These people are here to look at moi aussi, aren’t they?’ He was growing in stature every day.

The royal visit reached its culmination that same night when Eugénie and Napoléon hosted an immense ball at Versailles. Even by the lavish standards of the time, it was a spectacular event. One French observer, the photographer Caron de Lalande, wrote that the soirée ‘would seem like an impossible fairy tale if the lucky witnesses of these wonders were not here to testify that they really saw and touched these unimaginable “sumptuosities”, that they really smelled all the flowers reflected by floods of light in the infinite gallery of mirrors’.

Napoléon III was, like Albert, a champion of new technology, and Louis XIV’s palace had been fitted with the latest gas lighting, and plenty of it. The state rooms were lit as if it were daytime, a magical experience for people used to shadowy candlelight. There were flowers and plants everywhere, in vases along the walls and hanging from the ceilings like coloured chandeliers. The guests were as luminous as the décor – a sea of silk, white breeches, bare shoulders and moustache wax. More than 1,000 privileged partygoers had been invited to dance to four orchestras, one of which was directed by the Austrian maestro of the waltz, Johann Strauss himself.

The pregnant Eugénie made a rare public appearance, coming out to receive the English guests as they arrived in their carriage from Saint-Cloud. The Empress met them at the top of a staircase, which, perhaps unbeknownst to Victoria, was a protocol victory and proof of Eugénie’s status – making the Queen walk up to greet her.13

Victoria proudly noted in her diary that ‘there had not been a ball at Versailles since the time of Louis XVI’. This, too, was an important step for Eugénie, who had now elevated herself to the status of Marie-Antoinette.

The night’s festivities opened with a waltz, enjoyed by all the royals including Bertie, who joined in with the adults and acquitted himself admirably. The dancing was followed by dinner in the Opéra Royal, Louis XIV’s private theatre within his palace.

There are photographs of this soirée, as there are of most of the events of Victoria’s state visit, but inevitably they are grey and static. Again, we are lucky enough to have a painting that captures all the glamour, colour and movement of the occasion. Eugène Lami’s Supper at Versailles in Honour of the Queen of England, 25 August 1855 depicts a scene that is less like a state banquet (elbows tucked in, be careful not to splash your soup over the Belgian Ambassador) than a massive, almost riotous, wedding reception. Instead of formal exchanges about the Crimean War and the trade deficit against a background of the polite clink of silver on porcelain, there must have been a roar of conversation and laughter.

The imperial couple and their guests of honour, including Bertie and his sister, are sitting at a long table up in the royal box. Below them, filling the stalls area, are 400 diners, who are not simply sitting down to eat – half of them are on their feet, wandering from table to table, saying bonsoir to friends, showing off their new outfits. And watching all this from around the stalls and up in the circle seats is an audience of less honoured guests, who have been invited to dance but not to dine. They are leaning over the parapets, pointing out celebrities, taking in the glittering scene.

Bertie had almost certainly never seen anything like it in his life, and the same might well have been true for Victoria, who wrote in her diary that it was ‘quite one of the finest and most magnificent sights we have ever witnessed’.

After dinner, there were fireworks, including a pyrotechnic tableau of Windsor Castle, then more dancing, which went on until three, although according to her diary, Victoria and her family left at two, ‘the children in ecstasies’.

It is very easy to understand Bertie’s ecstasy. Napoléon III hadn’t assembled a royal court in the staid English sense of the word – he was living in a French carnival, an imperial-themed holiday camp. Bertie must have understood by now that there was much more to being a sovereign than waving to one’s subjects and learning German grammar. You were also entitled to enjoy yourself, and if you had enough servants, money, palaces and beautiful people at your disposal, the enjoyment was extreme.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that next morning, the last of their visit, Bertie and Vicky went to beg Eugénie to persuade their parents to let them stay on. When Eugénie diplomatically replied that Victoria and Albert couldn’t do without them, Bertie is said to have retorted: ‘Not do without us! Don’t imagine that. They don’t want us and there are six more of us at home.’

As the royal party, accompanied by Napoléon, left from the Gare de Strasbourg later that day, one observer, the Comtesse d’Armaillé, wrote that Bertie ‘kept looking around him, as though desperate to miss nothing of these last moments in Paris’.

After yet another review of the troops at Boulogne that Victoria described as a ‘forest of bayonets’ (perhaps Napoléon was giving her awaiting Royal Navy officers a subtle reminder that his coast was well defended), there was a final dinner, followed by emotional farewells. The children cried as their boat steamed away from France, and for much the same reasons as the teenage Mary Queen of Scots (who was half French14) had done almost 300 years earlier when she was banished from her cosy life at the French court to go rule over unruly Scotland.

Bertie may have been in shock that his French holiday was suddenly over, but he must also have felt the first stirrings of a conviction that he had to return to France at all costs, and that he would one day resume the fun where he had left off. Like some Dickensian waif who gets his first taste of cake, he had become aware that there was a better life out there somewhere. And thanks to Napoléon and Eugénie, Bertie knew that France was a place where he would be welcomed with open arms.

‘Open arms’ being the apt expression. Because it wasn’t only the grand ceremonies that had made their mark on him. More important than all that, surely, was the huge dose of self-esteem that he had just received. After years of a stifled existence peopled almost exclusively by dry tutors and disapproving parents, of an education that consisted of being reminded at every opportunity that he was a waste of ink, in France he had been a success. People liked him, they wanted to paint him, they actually admiredfitted in