That Edward VII was unfaithful to his long-suffering wife, Alexandra of Denmark, is undeniable, but despite how poor his reputation is, there is actually a surprising dearth of information on who, when and where. Edward, or Bertie as he is better known (his given name was Albert Edward), maintained a coterie of female companions, but who actually rose to the level of mistress is debatable. Among the most famous of these women is Alice Keppel.
Some of Alice’s relative fame can be attributed to her great-granddaughter, the Duchess of Cornwall. Alice was famously close to Bertie, a relationship that began while he was still Prince of Wales, while of course Camilla would later conduct an extramarital affair with the current Prince of Wales throughout the 1980s and 1990s. It’s so poetic as to be almost unbelievable.
You may recall, too, that two years ago Camilla visited the villa Alice and her husband purchased in Italy in 1925. Apparently Camilla remembered visiting it as a child and reportedly said she regretted that her mother had sold it.
Alice’s story begins in 1868 when she was born in Kent to Sir William Edmonstone, 4th Baronet and Mary Elizabeth Parsons. The youngest of nine children, she grew up at Duntreath Castle in Scotland, an estate inherited by the family in 1425 courtesy of a gift made by King Robert III. By the time she reached adulthood she was outdoorsy, intelligent, witty and a touch masculine in her mannerisms. She smoked cigarettes, read about politics and was very interested in money.
Even so, she didn’t marry for money, though what her husband lacked in fortune he made up for in family name. On June 1, 1891 Alice married the Honourable George Keppel, third son of the 7th Earl of Albemarle, while George dutifully left the army and attempted to make a go of it as a businessman. It didn’t work out well, though he was lucky to be somewhat protected by his family name and status. (The Keppels were descended from Arnold Joost van Keppel, a favorite of William III who accompanied him from the Netherlands in 1688).
The couple had two children – Violet (b. 1894) and Sonia (b. 1900) – but as of the birth of their eldest there were already rumors floating around about Alice’s indiscretions. Violet’s rumored biological father was Ernest Beckett, a Yorkshire MP and banker. As of 1893 he was a widower…and also a bit of a womanizer. An affair with another woman produced an illegitimate son born eight months after Violet. Later in life Violet Keppel would claim that Edward VII was her father, called herself “FitzEdward” and liked to be addressed as “Highness,” but this is impossible given that Alice and Bertie hadn’t yet met.
In fact, if George Keppel wasn’t Violet’s father then Alice had seriously strayed from the rules. Though infidelity was mostly ignored within the upper-class at this time, it was very unusual for it to begin before the birth of the first child.
Bertie and Alice met in February 1898, just three years before Bertie would succeed his famous mother to the throne. She was 29 to his 56, while the Prince by now was very overweight and old for his years thanks to what can only be called an unhealthy lifestyle. There are multiple stories as to how these two actually met, with one version saying Bertie saw her at a horse race and demanded an introduction. Another posits they met at a dinner party and spent the whole evening talking and laughing, even scandalizing guests by sitting together for a time on the staircase.
How it transpired from there is anyone’s guess – though they wrote to one another and were often in each other’s company, both were incredibly discreet and Alice burned almost all of Bertie’s letters to her. By 1899, the Keppels moved to 30 Portman Square, an address that made them neighbors to dukes and geographically convenient to Bertie’s London base at Marlborough House. The Prince was almost certainly paying the rent, too, since it’s unlikely George Keppel could have afforded it.
Word was discreetly put out that if an invitation was to be extended to Bertie, then the Keppels had to be invited, too. What George made of this is unclear, but Alexandra (or Alix, as she was known) was well-versed in this particular story. She made her peace with seeing Alice at various social gatherings, though her manners towards her oscillated between cool and wanly friendly. Things became even neater when George was found a position in New York and abruptly left the country. By that December, Alice made her first trek to Sandringham House – the Waleses’ Norfolk estate – and when they returned, they dined at Portman Square.
Bertie became a regular fixture at Alice’s home, so much so that he was a beloved uncle figure to her two daughters. Sonia would later recall that he entertained them by “racing” two pieces of buttered bread down the leg of his trousers, while in 1904, guests were dismayed to see both children climbing all over the King (who they called “Kingy”) at a garden party Alix threw for children at Buckingham Palace.
The extent to which this relationship was actually sexual is debatable. Sonia was born in 1900, some two years after Alice and Bertie met, but there is no whisper that she was half-royal. Meanwhile, Bertie’s increasing poor health makes more than a few of his biographers doubt whether he was capable of consummating the relationship. Instead, Alice was more of a companion – and one of the few people in Bertie’s life who could manage his moods. By the time he ascended the throne, his health and stress made him increasingly irritable – Alice was notably good at lifting his spirits and keeping him entertained. She understood, too, that he apparently didn’t actually like making conversation, so much as listening, and thus she kept herself well-versed in the news and gossip of the day.
She was also something of a confidante, a role Alix had long ago given up on fulfilling. The Queen’s increasing deafness made conversation difficult, while her limited interest in politics and resignation to her husband’s dalliances had long ago put distance between them. She made frequent trips abroad – with and without their children – to visit her family for long stints of time. After his death, Alice revealed that the King had shown her every letter he received within moments of receiving it for the entirety of their relationship.
By the spring of 1910, Bertie’s health was on its final descent. He frequently traveled to Biarritz, which he did – with Alice – that March, but his growing illness put them both in a precarious position. One note she wrote to a friend during the trip reads, “The King’s cold is so bad that he cannot dine out but he wants us all to dine with him at the Palais SO BE THERE. I am quite worried entre nous and have sent for the nurse.”
Unable to leave his rooms, the King’s breathing became strained, while his coughing and fever caused alarm from his doctors. As for Alice, she was terrified that the King would die abroad with only his mistress and staff by his side. Instead, he recovered and set off for home after a few weeks of enjoyment of his holiday. As for Alix, she was mostly kept in the dark about the true state of her husband’s health, which perhaps explains why she felt confident enough to take off on a Mediterranean cruise with her daughter, Princess Victoria.
Within a week, Bertie was ill again, this time fatally. Alice remained by his side. Bertie’s heir, George, the Prince of Wales, was kept updated on his father’s health and finally wrote to his mother, summoning her back to London. When they returned they were alarmed by both the greyish hue to Bertie’s face, and the fact that he continued going through his red boxes.
Alix immediately banned Alice from the palace, but Alice ended up delivering to her a note Bertie had written her in 1901 that read:
My dear Mrs. George,
Should I be taken very seriously ill I hope you will come and cheer me up but should there be no chance of my recovery you will I hope still come and see me – so that I may say farewell and thank you for all your kindness and friendship since it has been my good fortune to know you. I feel convinced that all those who have any affection for me will carry out the wishes which I have expressed in these lines.
It was quite the insurance policy, and clearly Bertie knew his wife because it worked. According to Alice, Bertie was only partly conscious when she arrived back at his sickbed and Alix and Victoria remained in the room with them for their final visit. Bertie reportedly asked Alix to kiss Alice in a sign of friendship, a request with which the Queen complied. She went further and promised Alice that the royal family would look after her. Granted, this information comes from Alice and if the scene sounds unbelievable…it may well be.
Another version from a less biased source instead has the two women shaking hands and Alix saying only, “I am sure you always had a good influence over him,” before walking over to the window and turning her back to the rest of the audience. When the King then slumped forward in his seat, Alice grew hysterical and had to be physically removed from the room, with Alix reportedly whispering, “Get this woman away.” Alice, for her part, kept crying out that there was “noting wrong between us,” which can perhaps be read as an admission that she had never slept with the King after all. Do with it what you will.
It was Alice’s last audience with the King and he finally passed away on May 6, 1910, the throne passing to his son, now George V. The Keppels were no longer welcome at court.
The couple left England that October and spent the next two years traveling in Asia. When they returned in 1912, a new London residence was purchased, and during World War I Alice helped a friend run a hospital for wounded soldiers in France. In 1925, the Keppels purchased a villa outside Florence, Italy, however they returned to London in 1940 after World War II broke out. While dining out in a London restaurant in December 1936, the day after Bertie’s grandson, Edward VIII abdicated the throne, Alice was overheard saying, “Things were done much better in my day.”
The Keppels returned to Italy in 1946 and on September 11, 1947, Alice passed away. She and her husband are buried in the Cimitero Evangelico degli Allori cemetery in Italy.