As an American with little knowledge of English history and tradition, I have wondered what in the world the Prince of Wales has to do with Wales. I have some ancestors, way, way back, who were said to be princes in the country we now call Wales. What happened? How did they get shoved aside for this (we suspect) honorary title, “Prince of Wales?” I decided to investigate.

Cardigan Bay, Wales**

My ancestor, and I have this on pretty good authority as those things go, was named Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, sometimes called “Llywelyn the Great.” He ruled a territory in Wales from 1194 to 1240 and was called Prince of Aberffraw and Lord of Snowdon. One historian, Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, says the following about Llywelyn: “He proved to be the greatest and most constructive Welsh statesman of the Middle Ages…. When he died in 1240, full of honor and glory, he left a principality which had the possibility of expanding into a truly national state of Wales. There was a moment when an independent Wales seemed about to become a reality.”*

Alas, it was not to be. Things looked pretty hopeful for a few years, on and off, but “off” won out. Edward the First replaced Henry III as King of England, and he conquered Wales and subjugated its people. In order to keep them in line, Edward I had enormous stone castles built in several places. Below is the one at Conwy, and it is said to have been placed above the original tomb of Llywelyn the Great. Not everyone can say just where their 23rd great grandfather is buried, but sometimes we just get lucky. There is also a statue of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth in the town of Conwy. I don’t know whether they also have a statue celebrating Edward I, but somehow I doubt it.

Edward the First was not the first king of England to be named Edward. There was Edward the Elder, 899-925. There was Edward the Martyr, 975-78. There was Edward the Confessor, 1042-66. We don’t get to Edward the First until 1272, and he ruled until 1307. He was also called Edward I Longshanks, being quite a tall fellow. After that, England seemed to get better at simple arithmetic; at least, they had learned to count. The next Edwards came in order. Edward II followed Edward I, next was Edward III. He was followed by some Henrys, but when another Edward put in an appearance, he was Edward IV, and so it went. It went right up to Edward VIII who, as we all know, didn’t want to be King without the woman he loved at his side, so he didn’t last very long in office. He was England’s last Edward, and there are no more in sight.

We have to get back to Edward the First, because he was the key player in all this “Prince of Wales” business. The Encyclopedia Britannica has this to say about the matter: “In Great Britain the word prince could always be used in a generally descriptive way for a sovereign, duke, or other peer; but as a title of rank it was not used until 1301, when Edward I invested his son, the future Edward II, as Prince of Wales. From Edward III’s time the king’s eldest son and heir was usually so invested.”

If the Encyclopedia Britannica is correct, and who would doubt it?, the first Prince of Wales in the modern sense was Edward II. What sort of chap was he? “Edward II lacked the royal dignity of his father and failed miserably as king.” That’s the opening sentence in one biography. At the end of his reign, he was deposed and murdered. His lifestyle lacked style, at least for those times: his most influential associate was probably also his homosexual lover, and the folks around Edward were not pleased.

It’s hard to imagine stronger words than these, spoken about Edward I, but describing his despicable son. Sir Richard Baker, in reference to Edward I in A Chronicle of the Kings of England wrote: “…of four sons which he had by his Queen Eleanor, three of them died in his own lifetime, who were worthy to have outlived him; and the fourth outlived him, who was worthy never to have been born.”

That was the first Prince of Wales, and a very dismal start it was.

Things got better. And worse. And better again. If most of the male heir apparents were made Prince of Wales, there must have been many of them. Probably few are known for their doings as Prince. After all, why examine the salad when you can review the feast to follow? There are some exceptions, though. Some were Princes much longer than they were Kings, and the previously mentioned Edward VIII is a good example of that. An even better example is Edward VII.

Edward got a bad start in life, having two very large handicaps. One was his mother. The other was his father. Poor Edward was the second child and first son of Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert. Neither parent liked this child, thought he would amount to much, or respected him for any of his personal qualities. They seemed to have decided early on that he was hopeless and very poor material for the future King of England. Edward was made Prince of Wales at the age of one month, and things seemed to go down hill for him thereafter.

His parents were strict. More than strict, they imposed a rigid regimen upon him, controlling, or attempting to control, his every move. He could have done what many do under those circumstances, knuckle under and become a wimp. He chose another path – that of rebel – and what a glorious rebellion it was. He indulged in wine, women, and song. And food. And more women. and more of everything. Edward’s exploits were a scandal to some, amusing to others. He himself seems to have had a good time of it.

Edward married Princess Alexandra of Denmark when he was 22 years old, and they had three sons and three daughters. Photographs and paintings show her to be a very lovely woman, and historians say she “turned a blind eye” to her husband’s indiscretions. Apparently, Edward fared better with his wife than he had with his parents.

Queen Victoria never allowed her son to participate in affairs of state, and she found a way to blame him for her dear husband’s death. Albert is said to have died from typhoid fever, but Victoria believed that his worry over his son’s scandalous behavior was a contributing factor. She stated later that she could never bear the sight of her son after Albert died. Odd attitude, considering that Victoria lived nearly another 40 years.

Edward VII has the distinction of being Prince of Wales for a longer period of time than anyone else who ever held the title, fifty-nine years. Considering that his mother nearly completely shut him out of governmental affairs, one would expect him to have been a very poor and inept monarch. In fact, Edward was one of the best.

Edward succeeded the throne upon Victoria’s death and Edward threw himself into his role of king with vitality. His extensive European travels made him an accomplished ambassador in foreign relations. He was kin to most of the royal houses in Europe, allowing him to actively participate in foreign policy negotiations. Victoria’s fears proved wrong: Edward’s forays into foreign policy had direct bearing on the alliances between Great Britain and both France and Russia, and his manner and style endeared him to the English populace. Like Princess Alexandria, apparently, they didn’t hold his flamboyant sexual exploits against him. Perhaps Princes and Kings are held to different standards. Whatever the truth of that, Edward VII was and is considered a success.


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