It could have been at a rather upmarket fancy-dress party. The dress was certainly fancy; the guests well-to-do; the event evidently unusual. But as well as being a deeply solemn occasion, and even a family occasion, it was an era-defining moment. For gathered here in Windsor Castle are 9 monarchs who between them ruled vast swathes of the world. The only major omission was Tsar Nicholas II of Russia who had been unable to attend his uncle’s funeral and so sent his brother in his place.
The nine monarchs who attended the funeral, photographed at Windsor Castle on 20 May 1910. Standing, from left to right: King Haakon VII of Norway, King Ferdinand of Bulgaria, King Manuel II of Portugal, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, King George I of Greece and King Albert I of Belgium. Seated, from left to right: King Alfonso XIII of Spain, King George V of Britain and King Frederick VIII of Denmark. But they were just the pinnacle of the royal gathering – see the list of all the other big names (not to mention all the bigwigs gathered from the British Empire itself).
Why make a bit deal of this? Well because of what happened within a few years of this photograph. As Miranda Carter comments (in her superlative account of the cousins, Tsar Nicholas II, Kaiser Wilhelm II and King George V, the Three Emperors):
Even without Nicholas an embarrassment of European royalty turned up at the funeral: seven kings (of Belgium, Greece, Norway, Spain, Bulgaria, Denmark and Portugal), one emperor (Wilhelm), and thirty European princes and heirs, including Franz Ferdinand of Austria, Alix’s brother Ernst of Hesse, Nicholas’s younger brother Misha and their mother, Minny. The United States was represented by Theodore Roosevelt, who had recently, and rather reluctantly, stepped down from the presidency. The bill for feeding the kings alone was said to have come to £4,644 (around £325,000 in today’s money). Nothing politically significant was said or suggested. The kings changed into their uniforms, waxed their impressive beards and moustaches, ate their dinners, posed for photographs. British guards regiments marched perfectly through the streets; the funeral was, as Minny wrote back to Nicholas, “beautifully arranged, all in perfect order, very touching and solemn. Pour Aunt Alix bore up wonderfully to the last. Georgie too, behaved so well and with such calm.”
Only five months later the first of the royal guests would lose his throne: Manuel of Portugal, deposed by a country tired of his attachment to the extreme Right. He escaped to Gibraltar and was brought to exile in England on George’s yacht the Victoria and Albert. In 1912 the Italian king Vittorio Emmanuele, whose father had been assassinated, would narrowly avoid the same fate George’s uncle George of Greece would fall victim to an attack at Salonika in 1913 Franz Ferdinand would die in Sarajevo in 1914. Misha would be murdered the day after his brother in 1918. Kings were parting company with history. (p322)
And that’s without mentioning Wilhelm II’s ignominious fall from power after the debacle of the First World War.
So in some ways, this picture presents the slightly belated end of the nineteenth before the brutal realities of the twentieth century kicked in. Only the so-called constitutional monarchies would survive, robbed of real power apart from the soft power that comes of presence and influence. There’s can’t be much doubt that in principle this was a positive development. Carter is offers a scathing indictment of how Nicholas and Wilhelm, in particular, created or exacerbated many of the problems that led to each man’s fall, even though some of the forces that led to war were beyond their control. This does not mean of course that the systems or individuals that replaced them were all sweetness and light.
But what is clear from this remarkable book is that the Victorian ancien regime was never going to last.