Anyone who feels a bit sorry for Prince Charles because he has been opening flower shows for decades while his mother reigns as queen should consider the case of his ancestor: Britain was very lucky indeed that Albert Edward, eldest son of Queen Victoria, inherited the throne when he was nearly 60 instead of, say, when he was 30.

As a young man, King Edward VII, known to family and friends as “Bertie,” was a gambler, glutton and womanizer. He was hardly a saint when he became king in 1901, but he had matured into a better man by then, and was a surprisingly good monarch.

Historian Jane Ridley was given unrestricted access to Bertie’s papers and has used them to produce a marvelously comprehensive and witty biography, The Heir Apparent.

Ridley acknowledges that she found it “hard to warm” to the young Bertie. His bad behavior was explicable enough: His royal parents were brutally hard on him, always carping and disappointed. His subsequent rebellion was almost a given. But the details of his scandals still make for shocking reading.

At his best, Bertie was affable, cosmopolitan and had an unerring instinct for saying the right thing. He was a generous and loyal friend to his former girlfriends—as long as they kept their mouths shut. But when they threatened public scandal, he sent in the heavies to intimidate and smear them. Ridley recounts episode after ugly episode.

Then, against all odds, he became a responsible king, usually more sensible than his prime ministers. Those prime ministers subsequently badmouthed him, downplaying his contributions. Ridley cuts through the politicians’ betrayals to show that the king was a moving force behind the Entente Cordiale with France and Russia, and did his best to deter his volatile nephew Kaiser Wilhelm from belligerence.

Even more importantly, Ridley argues, King Edward came to terms with the modern constitutional monarchy in a way Queen Victoria never did. He influenced but did not take sides. He put on a unifying public pageant without ever pretending that the Royal Family epitomized middle-class values. Some of his descendants might take note.

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