ALICE KEPPEL, THE KING’S FAVORITE
Long before he became King of England, Edward Prince of Wales enjoyed a number of liaisons with society women and actresses. But in 1898, he met the lady who would become celebrated as his favorite mistress – Alice Keppel. She not only remained his closest companion until he died, but her great-granddaughter Camilla Parker-Bowles would later become the mistress of another Prince of Wales, Charles Windsor. This leads one to wonder if enchanting future English kings is a family trait. Unlike Camilla however, Alice harbored no hopes – or desire – of ever becoming Queen.
Born October 14, 1868 at Duntreath Castle in Scotland, Alice Frederica was the youngest child of the 4th Baronet, Sir William Edmonstone and Mary Elizabeth Parsons. Alice spent her girlhood at Duntreath, the family seat since the 15th century. Even though she grew up in a castle, Alice was only the daughter of a baronet, and she sought greater status and riches.
At 23, she married The Honorable George Keppel, son of the 7th Earl of Albemarle in 1891. The 27-year-old Keppel was a handsome young man, but the marriage soon grew disappointing. Although the son of an earl, George had little money to go with the title. Aspiring to the glittering lifestyle of London high society, Alice quickly embarked on a series of affairs with wealthy men. In fact, she was rumored to have taken a rich lover within months of the wedding. It was whispered that the father of her first daughter was the future Lord Grimthorpe, Ernest William Beckett.
But according to the social mores of the day, it was quite accepted for a married woman to take lovers. And there is no reason to feel sorry for the cuckolded George Keppel. Both George and Alice engaged in extramarital affairs, and neither seemed to mind. George and Alice genuinely cared about each other, and their children described their parents’ marriage as one in which there was a lot of “love and laughter”. In fact, the King would later acknowledge her generous husband by awarding George Keppel the Royal Victorian Order.
Like her great-granddaughter Camilla, Alice was not known for her stunning good looks; her husband George was considered more physically attractive than she was. But Alice was pretty, with a husky voice, blue eyes, chestnut brown hair and a womanly figure. What really drew men to Alice was her calm demeanor, even temper, and sweet nature. These traits served her well as she sought to improve her status and her bank account. And as one of the most famous royal mistresses in history, we shouldn’t forget her sexual allure. Historian Victoria Glendinning wrote that Alice possessed the “sexual morals of an alley cat” – although the same could probably be said for all the famous names in the Marlborough House Set.
In 1898, when Alice was 29, she met the Prince of Wales, known to his intimates as “Bertie”. At 56, the married Edward was twenty-six years older than she was, and already famous for his many love affairs. But something about this young woman’s intelligence, humor and discretion set her apart from the others. By the time he became king in 1901, Edward had grown to rely on her “wise counsel”, wit, and devotion. For twelve years, Alice served as his unofficial escort. The King’s favorite mistress, Alice was also his close confidante, and one of the few people in court circles who could cajole him out of his often frightening mood swings. She even advised the King on what gifts he should buy for his wife Queen Alexandra.
The Queen had little choice but to resign herself to the favorite woman in her husband’s life. Although the Queen Consort treated her with courtesy in public, it had to be galling to watch Mrs. Keppel, who was twenty-four years her junior, take center stage in their social circle. The King chose to have Alice by his side at the biggest events of the London season such as Ascot and Cowes.
She was also there at dinner parties in the city, shooting parties at Sandringham, and trips abroad when Alice sailed with the King on the Royal Yacht. Indeed, Alice seemed almost royal and frequently wore a tiara. She was nearly as rich as a Royal too, with the King lavishing jewels and money on her. Amazingly Alice did not abuse her position as the King’s favorite or take herself too seriously. She reportedly claimed that “A royal mistress should curtsey first, then leap into bed.”
Alice’s daughters Violet and Sonia were as captivated by their mother’s charms as King Edward. Violet wrote that her mother was “luminous, resplendent…She not only had a gift of happiness, but she excelled in making others happy. She resembled a Christmas tree laden with presents for everyone.” Her children were also fond of the King who delighted in playing with them; at tea time he would sometimes race pieces of buttered toast down his legs in order to amuse them. The young girls were so comfortable with the monarch that Sonia even called him “Kingy”.
Few dared speak against Alice; then again, most accounts describe her as pleasant, loyal, generous and kind. Such qualities combined with the King’s favor made Alice one of the most celebrated society hostesses of the Edwardian period.
Alice was not ungrateful. She took good care of the King, warming his bed, cheering him up, advising him on politics, and – at the end – holding his hand while he died. Upon his death, Alice’s calm demeanor shattered. She grew so hysterical that guards had to physically remove her from the bedside of the King. With Edward’s passing, so too ended the colorful Edwardian era. The next king, George V, was not a man to look kindly on royal mistresses, and Alice Keppel found she was no longer welcome at Court.
She did live to see the birth of her great-granddaughter Camilla in 1947, but died two months later. Alice’s husband George passed away soon after, apparently heartbroken that his much loved wife of 56 years was gone. One can only imagine how pleased and surprised Alice would be to see her great-granddaughter not only become the favorite mistress of another future King of England – but his wife as well.
Royal Mistresses by Charles Carlton.
Mrs. Keppel and her Daughter by Diana Souhami.