People like to see the Victorian age as prim, proper, and buttoned-up, but Alice Keppel proves them all wrong. The uncrowned queen of the “naughty nineties,” Keppel was one of the most scandalous women of her day—and most of her exploits went on behind tightly closed bedroom doors. Take a peek under her sheets for these facts about Alice Keppel.
On April 29, 1868, Alice Keppel was born with quite the dainty silver spoon in her mouth. The daughter of Sir William Edmonstone and his wife Mary Elizabeth Parsons, little Alice’s family were prominent members of the English nobility and direct descendants of the royal House of Stuart. Only, behind all this prestige and glamor was a very naughty girl.
Alice’s full birth name was Alice Frederica Edmonstone, and growing up her parents nicknamed her “Freddie.” She quickly earned this tomboyish name: Although she had just one brother and seven older sisters, Alice was always closest to her lone male sibling Archibald than any of the girls. In fact, she very much liked men in general…
When Keppel eventually became a full-blown woman, she was a full. blown. woman. The very picture of the Victorian ideal of beauty, Keppel had wide blue eyes, a tiny wasp waist, and—most infamously—a large, buxom chest. She also wasn’t afraid to show off her assets, and the tomboyish “Freddie” soon turned into “Flirtatious Freddie” because of her reputation around men. Then again, she did have one other crucial quality…
When it came to Alice, the society girl had a major secret weapon. She was extremely clever, and in a very particular way. While swanning about Victorian drawing rooms, Keppel had an incredible gift for keeping conversation going, directing it where she wanted to go, and avoiding where she didn’t want to go. In other words, she could be eminently discreet, and that skill set was about to serve her very well.
In the summer of 1891, the 23-year-old Alice did what so many beauties did before her: She got married. Her groom was the dashing and honorable Lieutenant Colonel George Keppel, a soldier whose family had a deep history of serving the Royal Family. Yet although Alice’s new husband possessed a strong dose of dignity, he was lacking one important thing.
Newlywed life is supposed to be pure bliss, but Alice Keppel was in for a rude awakening. George Keppel’s soldierly income didn’t exactly cover all of Alice’s burgeoning expensive tastes, and they often had far less money than they wanted. Now, some people would take up a second job at this point, but that’s not what Alice did…
The new Mrs. Keppel had a very bizarre solution to her financial problems. She decided to target wealthy men and strike up extramarital affairs with them, essentially using her renowned beauty and discretion to become a Victorian sugar baby. And guess what? Like everything else Alice put her mind to, she was very good at it. Um, a little too good.
For her first lover, Keppel chose the enviably named Ernest Beckett, 2nd Baron of Grimthorpe. Besides sounding like a dastardly villain, the Baron Grimthorpe also had all the makings of an illicit paramour. He was more than a decade older than Alice, a notorious man about town and philanderer, and he had more money than he knew what to do with. But before long, Alice made an unsettling discovery.
Around 1894, Alice Keppel found out that she was pregnant. While this would usually be happy news, she was in quite the predicament. See, she had no real way of knowing if the child belonged to her lawful husband George, or to her wealthy “patron” Grimthorpe. When Alice gave birth to a little girl named Violet that summer, her own family members suspected she was Grimthorpe’s child.
So what exactly did George Keppel have to say about all of this? Well, now here is the truly shocking part.
Little-known fact: Victorians weren’t actually prudes. Many of them—especially in the high-class circles Alice Keppel ran in—were delightfully naughty. So while Alice was out servicing wealthy men, her husband George was…100% supportive of her. He even engaged in some of his own affairs, and once noted, “I do not mind what she does as long as she comes back to me in the end.”
Moreover, even with the rumors flying around about little Violet, George happily took the child in as his own. Still, I wouldn’t breathe too big a sigh of relief; George’s understanding was about to get tested.
In 1898, Alice Keppel met her destiny. The 29-year-old socialite was living in the affluent neighborhood of Mayfair in London and putting on pitch-perfect soirées as a hostess when she chanced to meet none other than Prince Edward, the eldest son of Queen Victoria and the heir to the English throne. I’d say it was the start of a beautiful friendship, but it was more like an outrageous romance.
By this time, the Prince of Wales had quite the reputation for scandal. Although married to Alexandra of Denmark, he had scores of trysts with beautiful actresses and noblewomen throughout England. Historians believe he had at least 55 liaisons throughout his life, but that estimate is probably on the very low end. And that wasn’t all.
Prince Edward couldn’t keep it in his pants, but he was so much more than your run-of-the-mill rake. He was notorious for his enormous appetites, both carnal and gastronomic, and earned the nickname “Dirty Bertie” for his debauched antics. As he got on in weight and age—the royal was 56 when he met Alice and old enough to be her father—Edward even famously commissioned a “love chair” that would let him romance a woman without crushing her with his considerable girth.
Yep, this is what Alice was getting herself into. Although, maybe it was Edward who should have watched out.
Soon after her first meetings with Prince Edward, Alice Keppel realized she was pregnant—again—and gave birth to another daughter she named Sonia in 1900. I know what you’re thinking, and a whole lot of other people thought it too: Sonia was Edward’s illegitimate daughter. Well, surprise! Nope. Sonia was probably all George Keppel’s this time around. And George had some other things to be proud about, too.
Prince Edward had spent most of his youth sneaking in and out of beautiful, married women’s bedrooms, so it must have been a shock to him to find George Keppel so accommodating to his affair. The man was a downright cool customer: The Prince of Wales was a frequent visitor to the Keppel home in Mayfair, and each time he arrived, George made sure to be just on his way out. Very clever, and also somehow still so, so awkward.
The Prince of Wales was accustomed to getting whatever he wanted the instant he wanted it, and this often led to tantrums and mood swings. Keppel’s response was brilliant. With her calm, clever gift of the gab, she became a kind of king whisperer, and was one of the very few people in Edward’s life who could reliably talk him down. As one witness commented, Edward was "a much pleasanter child since he changed mistresses."
But hold up—don’t you go thinking that Alice Keppel was some selfless Victorian Angel of the House. Heck no. She found a way to get what was hers.
Keppel was working overtime as a royal mistress to keep Edward happy and sane, and she rewarded herself lavishly. She made sure the prince paid her out in the form of royal endowments, and she also got cushy jobs for both her husband and her brother through her royal connections. Of course, that was just within her own personal circle. She also showed influence in other areas…
When Keppel entered into Edward’s life as a royal mistress, she shook the palace right up—in the best way possible. Edward’s wife Alexandra of Denmark was used to dealing with his previous sidepiece, Daisy Greville, who was brash and loud about her bedroom association with royalty. Keppel, by contrast, knew just what to do to get Alexandra on her side.
Instead of blabbing to anyone who would listen about her new royal conquest, Keppel did the smart thing and kept her mouth politely and tightly shut. Indeed, she was so well-bred, gracious, and (as always) discreet about her favor with the future king, Alexandra couldn’t help but like her, and the Princess of Wales became at the very least an uneasy ally to Keppel. But Alice didn’t stop there.
Alice Keppel knew how to butter up men, of course, but she doesn’t often get enough credit for her genius when dealing with members of her own gender. To entrench herself even further on Alexandra’s good side, Keppel also liked to help Edward choose gifts for his wife. She was dang good at it, too, once helping create a set of Faberge animals, since Alexandra collected them.
In 1901, Alice got a major life upgrade. That year, Queen Victoria passed, ending the Victorian age and ushering the Prince of Wales onto the throne as King Edward VII. The new Edwardian era had begun, and Keppel was right smack in the middle of the period. With Edward as monarch, the silver-tongued Keppel started acting as a go-between for her lover and his ministers. And believe me, she was powerful.
Many of King Edward VII’s deals began and ended with Alice Keppel, and they happened in a surprising place: Her own drawing room. It became a regular occurrence for the veteran hostess to put on yet another dinner, and then use the opportunity to, tactfully as ever, “get an arguable topic dropped into conversation to gauge effect, which was reported back to the King."
The thing is, not many people even knew Keppel was doing this—and there’s a reason for that.
Although the Prime Minister of England Herbert Henry Asquith once praised Keppel’s “wise council,” Keppel herself hated whenever anyone explicitly brought up her political influence and preferred it to stay only between people in the know. When the Prime Minister’s wife Margot Asquith once talked about Keppel as the king’s advisor, the royal mistress was furious. Before long, however, she had bigger things to worry about.
Keppel was one of the most persuasive women in all of England, and she could bend the ear of King Edward VII like nobody’s business. But she did have one fatal limit. No matter how hard she tried, Keppel could never convince the king to give up his material pleasures of nicotine and eating, even while she tried to keep his appetites satisfied in the bedroom. This would have dire consequences.
Edward was no spring chicken when he came to the throne, and he wasn’t getting any younger. Somehow, though, the king only amped up his Dionysian pleasures. I mean, this man enjoyed 12 stogies a day, and then still managed to puff on 20 smokes in the same time span, as a treat. Apparently, Edward believed himself immortal. He was very wrong.
Keppel obviously saw the writing on the wall, and she tried desperately to change fate. When the king fell ill at one point, she wrote to a prominent minister and begged him to help her lover, scrawling, “I want you to try and get the King to see a proper doctor about his knee....do what you can with your famous tact and of course don't tell anyone I wrote to you." Tragically, this never happened.
Soon enough, Keppel’s royal lover was darn near falling apart. In addition to developing a raging case of bronchitis from his smoking habit (ya think?), King Edward VII also got a lovely “rodent” ulcer on his nose, which is actually a type of skin cancer. The ruler took a radium cure to zap the cancer away, but he still wasn’t exactly in the best shape. And then disaster struck.
Starting in 1909, the wear and tear on Edward’s body became too big to ignore. In February of that year, he lost consciousness for a brief moment while on a state visit, and then in March 1910, during another diplomatic trip to France, the King completely collapsed, necessitating a prolonged stay in the foreign country to convalesce and return home to Keppel. Yet as we’ll see, this homecoming was the opposite of happy.
Keppel was something special—sure, she was super gorgeous, but I mean that in another way. Many historians consider her one of the last true royal mistresses, if not the last, for her outsized influence at court and her acceptance by the Firm itself. No mistress after her really held the same kind of power over a crowned king. They just don’t make ’em like Alice anymore.
During her glory years, there was almost no woman in Britain—save maybe Queen Alexandra herself—who better represented the day’s ideal of what a woman should be like Alice Keppel. As one writer said of the famed mistress and society hostess, “She could have impersonated Britannia in a tableau vivant and done that lady credit."
How did Keppel manage to keep her husband happy, seduce a King of England, and still maintain her high-class life as a hostess? According to Keppel’s daughter Violet, it was simply in her nature. As Violet noted, her mother “not only had a gift of happiness but she excelled in making others happy, she resembled a Christmas tree laden with presents for everyone."
Once King Edward came back to dear Old Blighty in the spring of 1910, it all came completely undone. Before Keppel had the chance to properly reunite with her lover, Edward suffered several heart attacks in a row on May 6, 1910. But that wasn’t the worst part. Unable to admit any kind of defeat, the monarch refused to even lie down, saying, "No, I shall not give in; I shall go on; I shall work to the end." It was Keppel who would live to regret it.
When Alice got the news that King Edward was at the Grim Reaper’s door, the normally composed woman broke down, busting through the palace and indecorously running to be at his bedside. Although Alice’s old ally Queen Alexandra graciously let her in, the situation was pretty dang awkward, and the consort’s nerves were reasonably rattled about the whole situation. Well, they wouldn’t get any better.
With Edward surrounded by his family and his lover, he dropped a shocker of a sentence. According to lore, the ailing king looked at his beloved Alice Keppel, then turned to Alexandra of Denmark and insisted she “kiss Alice,” as though this commandment would help smooth out the tensions in the room. Spoiler: It made things ten times worse.
Now, if ever you find yourself on your deathbed with your wife on one side and your mistress on the other, I very much do not recommend you demand that the two women kiss and make up. At this point, even the forbearing Queen Alexandra couldn’t take it any longer, and she turned to Alice and asked her to leave the room. Keppel’s response has gone down in infamy.
When Keppel realized the Queen of England had given her a direct command and that she would never see King Edward alive again, she took the situation from awkward to horrific. Once more, Keppel’s famous composure failed her, and she broke down into ragged sobs, screaming, “I never did any harm, there was nothing wrong between us! What is to become of me?” Sadly, it didn’t end there.
Keppel was so beside herself and nearly out of her mind that she couldn’t even leave the King’s bedside of her own free will. Eventually, more stoic members of the royal household had to drag the fallen mistress out, still sobbing and screaming, and all but threw her out into the street. It wasn’t Keppel’s proudest moment—and boy, did she know it.
As the dust settled in the aftermath of Keppel’s grief-stricken outburst, she was so mortified about her own behavior and uncharacteristic impropriety that she actually tried to pretend it never happened, and downplayed the event when she discussed it later. It took a long time for her to openly admit the truth of that day…and perhaps even longer to come to terms with what happened next.
Just after 11:30 in the evening on May 6, 1910, King Edward VII breathed his last, passing at the age of 68. The King’s demise wasn’t just the end of the Edwardian era; it was also the end of Alice Keppel’s ascendancy in the royal court. So while the world prepared to give the monarch a state funeral, Keppel planned her final goodbye…
When the palace laid King Edward to rest on May 17, the now Dowager Queen Alexandra again allowed Alice Keppel to attend. But there was a disgraceful catch. In an obvious gesture to her illicit relationship with the king, the royal family forced Keppel to enter and leave through a side door. Ouch. For all that must have hurt, though, more pain was on the way.
Keppel had spent practically all her tenure as a royal mistress trying not to offend people, but try as she might, her innately scandalous position made her enormous enemies. Among them was Edward’s son and heir, the new King George V, and his wife Mary of Teck. When the new monarchs set up their own court, they made sure it adhered to more traditional, less debauched guidelines…and they pointedly barred Keppel from membership. Double ouch.
With King Edward lying cold in the ground, Alice Keppel had to make a heartbreaking decision. Once the darling of the Edwardian age, she found herself barred from the many of the drawing rooms she used to light up. Feeling the heat, she and her husband George left England entirely with their small family in November 1910, just a handful of months after Edward’s passing. Yet somehow, Alice managed to become a different kind of uncrowned queen in exile.
Although the Keppels globetrotted for a couple of years, they eventually settled down in Italy, where they continued doing what they did best: Hosting impeccable parties. Among their acquaintance were the exiled monarchs of Greece, Yugoslavia, and Spain, as well as a young Winston Churchill himself. Only, at the very end, Alice Keppel couldn’t ignore the call of Albion.
In the lead up to WWII, the Keppels returned to England at last after decades away from their mother country. They came back to find their lives completely altered. It was currently 1940, firmly within the 20th century and its technology, and they were now—open marriage or not—the quaint, old-fashioned relics of a bygone time. Still, that wasn’t the only thing that made them uncomfortable.
Although Keppel intimately understood King Edward VII’s monarchy, she could barely recognize it now. After all, it had gone through a rollicking change. In the 1930s, King Edward VII’s grandson Edward VIII was on the throne, but in 1936, he gave it all up and abdicated—for his own royal mistress, Wallis Simpson. When Alice Keppel heard the news, her reaction was surprising.
For all that Keppel was a radical woman even to our eyes, she certainly didn’t think so. Coming from a time where royal mistresses were merely necessary soothers of the king’s troubles, she was extremely unimpressed with this younger Edward’s schoolboy antics about his sidepiece Wallis. As Keppel sniffed at the time, "Things were done much better in my day."
Eventually, the changed England became too much for both Alice and George, and they went back to the idylls of their Italian villa in 1946. They had spent just six years in Britain, and returned almost as soon as they could after the end of WWII. Given the next tragic events in Alice Keppel’s life, however, there may have been another reason for their hasty retreat…
In early 1947, Alice Keppel’s life took a dark turn. At the age of 79, she wasn’t in the bloom of her youth, and her health began to nosedive. That September, the legendary mistress passed in her villa from cirrhosis of the liver. Against all odds, she remained married to her devoted husband of 56 years, George Keppel. Only, as it turned out, this was more a curse than a blessing.
George and Alice always said they were perfectly fine with her duties as royal mistress, and—believe it or not—they were telling the truth. They were still so in love with each other at the very end that George Keppel actually realized he couldn’t live without his Alice. He passed just two and a half months after his beloved, and they are now buried beside each other in Florence.
Yes, Alice Keppel turned into a relic of her saucy self by the end of her life, but her scorching legacy still continues today. Why? Well, her great-great-granddaughter is Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, the infamous mistress-turned-wife of Prince Charles—who just so happens to be King Edward VII’s great-great-great-grandson. This naughty fact wasn’t lost on Camilla, either.
When she first met Charles, legend has it Camilla quipped, "My great-great-grandmother was your great-great-grandfather's mistress, so how about it?"
My mom never told me how her best friend died. Years later, I was using her phone when I made an utterly chilling discovery.
Madame de Pompadour was the alluring chief mistress of King Louis XV, but few people know her dark history—or the chilling secret shared by her and Louis.
I tried to get my ex-wife served with divorce papers. I knew that she was going to take it badly, but I had no idea about the insane lengths she would go to just to get revenge and mess with my life.
Catherine of Aragon is now infamous as King Henry VIII’s rejected queen—but few people know her even darker history.
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