The Edwardian Era


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The Edwardian Era in its strictest form, lasted from 1901 to 1910, during which Edward VII (1841-1910) reigned as King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and of the British Dominions and Emperor of India. However, in its broader interpretation, the spirit of the Edwardians—-which was indelibly inspired by Edward VII during his tenure as Prince of Wales—-stretched from 1880 until the outbreak of the Great War in 1914. I also include WWI (1914-1918) into this equation, as well as the three years following Armistice (1919-1924), because, with the fall of Lloyd George and the decline of the Liberals, and the rise of Labour, I consider this to be the final break between society as the Edwardians knew it and Modern Britain.

In the Western world, this time period was both one of great social change and of a solidifying the power and luxury of the ruling elite. With their elegant and perceptive turns of phrase, the French characterized the years between 1880 and 1914 as La Belle Epoque (the beautiful epoch) and Fin de siècle (a period of degeneration, but at the same time a period of hope for a new beginning), and certainly no other time has witnessed such decadence and pessimism, and optimism and hope. Nevertheless, the appeal of the Edwardian era is expected: wealth was abundant and nearly income tax-free; society was no longer a small, exclusive circle confined to those of aristocratic birth; the arts (theater, opera, ballet, painting, literature, music, etc) produced genius and modern movements; travel was cheap and easy, since one needed no passport or visa until the Russian or Ottoman borders; and the technological advances were thrilling and amazing.

More importantly, Great Britain was the most powerful nation in the world. The maxim coined originally for the Spanish Empire of the 16th and 17th centuries now ran true for the British Empire, and from Greenwich to Malta, to Cairo to Cape Town, to Aden to Bombay, to Sydney to Vancouver, and back again, the sun never set on the Union Jack waving with both vigor and sublime assurance. Granted, there were a number of small skirmishes throughout the nineteenth century, which tested the mettle of the British Army (and the Second Boer War was unpopular, unexpected, and embarrassing), but Jolly Old England was still “Home” to millions of subjects of various creeds, colors, religions, and class.

In Europe, the winds of change arrived in 1870 when Napoleon III’s “carnival” Second Empire fell after its defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. Prussia, the largest and most militarist German state, was steered to greatness by Otto von Bismarck, who smashed the former Holy Roman Empire (Austria-Hungary, which dominated Central Europe) into submission, unified Germany, and established the balance of power that kept the world at peace after 1871. Bismarck’s checkmates across Europe also resulted in the unification of Italy, as well as the decline of the Ottoman Empire after the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78. A weakened but still massive Austria-Hungary turned its gaze inward, as it looked to expand its influence in the Balkans, and like Russia, struggled with ruling over a nation of multiple languages, cultures, ethnicities, and religions.

Great Britain fell into a severe agricultural depression in the 1880s that lasted until Edward VII’s ascension. Farmers and manufacturers alike struggled to compete with the cheap corn and beef flooding the market from Germany, the United States, and Australia. Young people began leaving the countryside for jobs in factories and in cities. The British aristocracy sold land, houses, and treasures to stave off their decrease in income. Ironically, the 1880s and 1890s were the nadir of Anglo-American alliances, and American millionaires simultaneously filled their homes with the treasures of the Old World and married their daughters into the very families from which the treasures derived!

The German Empire in particular became Britain’s bête noire. France had long been England’s traditional enemy, but under the rule of Kaiser Wilhelm II, a bombastic, ambitious, saber-rattling monarch who also happened to be Queen Victoria’s eldest grandchild, they had much to fear. All of the Powers jostled for an equal “place in the sun,” but Britain held itself aloof in “splendid isolation,” secure in the might and reputation of its Navy to keep it safe. However, the disastrous Boer War (1899-1902) awakened Britain from its slumber, embarrassed and aghast at the antiquated military tactics and arrangements, as well as the appalling physical condition of the nation’s elgible soldiers. As England set about reforming its armies, Germany set about building its own navy–an affront to the English, who saw the seas as their sole province–; a move which played itself out in the yachting rivalry between the Prince of Wales and Wilhelm II at Cowes Week throughout the 1890s, and furthermore through the rush to build Dreadnoughts in the 1900s.

After the Boer War, Britain cast about for allies to break its “splendid isolation.” America was too brash, too mercurial, and too new, Italy too volatile, Spain too poor and too weak, Russia too involved in Central Asia, Austria-Hungary too unpredictable, and Germany too arrogant. England’s alliance with Japan in 1902 raised many eyebrows, but its subsequent alliance with its traditional enemy France caused Europe to reel with shock. The Entente Cordiale, signed in 1904, was a loosely-defined treaty expression warmth and friendship between the two nations. In 1907, Britain entered into an alliance with Russia, who had been a longtime ally of France, which created a Triple Alliance between the three nations. Germany stewed in its paranoia: they assumed the familiar ties would draw them and Great Britain together, but Britain was unwilling to take secondary place!

The Edwardian era was also the Imperial Age. European powers carved chunks out of the “Dark Continent” during the “Scramble for Africa,” and the decay of the Ottoman Empire (aka “The Sick Man of Europe”) also brought out the vultures in Europe. They encouraged unrest in the Balkans and the creation of independent nations such as Romania, Serbia and Bulgaria, hoping to swoop down on the remains of the Osmanli dynasty. Germany staked its claim in the Ottoman Empire, sending hundreds of doctors, engineers, military leaders, etc to the Porte, and their meddling in Northern Africa nearly brought them to blows with France, who considered Morocco and Algeria their own. In the Balkans, Austria-Hungary and Russia butted heads, for Russia viewed itself as a protector of the Slavic race, while Austria-Hungary saw the Balkan peninsula as their sole province. In Asia, China’s Boxer Rebellion was one of the first physical struggles against European domination, a development which no doubt gave hope to the various independence movements across the globe.

In America this time period was known as the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era. The youthful United States was on its first bender, and its rapid industrialization and the successful thrust westward (never mind the thousands of Native Americans bereft of ancestral lands) were encouraged by the concept of “Manifest Destiny,” or, the idea that “uncivilized” people could be improved by exposure to the Christian, democratic values of the United States. With this in mind, America also joined the scramble for colonial possessions, annexing Hawai’i and then smashing the Spanish Army in the Spanish-American War (both events in 1898) to obtain Guam, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines.

Despite the series of financial panics which threatened the economy, the image of America was summed up by the marvelously wealthy financiers like J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller, and the aggressive, charismatic Theodore Roosevelt, whose Big Stick Diplomacy declared the US “had the right not only to oppose European intervention in the Western Hemisphere, but also intervene itself in the domestic affairs of its neighbors if they proved unable to maintain order and national sovereignty on their own.” The Progressive Era was also the era of social activism, with muckrakers and Yellow Journalism exposing the iniquities of American culture (the white slave trade, the evils of trusts, etc), all the while the law of the land attempted to prohibit African-Americans and Asian-Americans from partaking of the abundance of this “Gilded Age.”

This was also the nadir of race relations. During this period, African-Americans lost many of the civil rights gained during Reconstruction, and the fragile reconciliation between whites and blacks broke down as anti-black violence, lynchings, segregation, legal racial discrimination, and expressions of white supremacy increased. However, this was also a time of intense racial pride, which resulted in the foundation of various African-American advocacy and social groups including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACWC), and the National League on Urban Conditions Among Negroes (later the National Urban League). The ideological differences between Du Bois and Washington pushed black thought and uplift onto an international platform (the African Diaspora), and despite segregation and oppression, black Americans thrived in rural communities, all black cities like Eatonville, Florida and Boley, Oklahoma, or in the north.

On both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, suffrage for both men and women moved increasingly towards violent demonstrations, and people began to challenge the right of rule for the “elite” in parliaments across the globe. Nationalism clashed with imperialism, and the oppressed chafed under the yoke of colonial expansion and began to question their status within their respective empires. The overall image of the Edwardian age is that of an era of opulence, but once you scratch the surface, it was also an era of change, where the rumble of automobiles and planes, champagne and lavish ocean liners, the frenetic syncopation of ragtime, and the pomp of the aristocracy and royalty, coexisted with civil rights and independence movements, Socialism, immigration, and technological advances .

The Diplomacy, Tensions, and Issues of the Victorian & Edwardian Eras

The Players: Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Austria-Hungary, Japan, and the United States

The Treaties and Agreements: Treaty of Frankfurt, League of the Three Emperors, Treaty of Berlin, German-Austrian Alliance, Triple Alliance, Reinsurance Treaty, Franco-Russian Alliance, Treaty of Paris, Anglo-Japanese Alliance, Entente cordiale, Treaty of Björkö, Taft–Katsura Agreement, Japan–Korea Treaty of 1905, Anglo-Russian Entente, Triple Entente, Japan–Korea Annexation Treaty, Racconigi agreement

The Wars: Austro-Prussian War (1866), Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871), Russo-Turkish War (1877-78), First Boer War (1881-82), First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), Spanish–American War (1898), Second Boer War (1899-1902), Philippine–American War (1899-1902), Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), Turco-Italian War (1911-12), Balkan Wars (1912-1913)

The Events: The Great Game (1813-1907), Panic of 1873, Irish Home Rule (1873-1920), Congress of Berlin (1878), Scramble for Africa (1881-1914), Anglo-Sudan War (1881-1899), Wounded Knee Massacre (1890), Panic of 1893, Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), Fashoda Incident (1898), Annexation of Hawaii (1898), Boxer Uprising (1900), Venezuela Crisis (1902–03), Partition of Bengal (1905), First Moroccan Crisis (1906), Atlanta Race Riot (1906) Panic of 1907, Bosnian crisis (1908), Agadir Crisis (1911), The Sinking of the Titanic (1912), The Dublin Lock-Out (1913)


Typically seen as the last hurrah of the aristocracy, the Edwardian period was full of social turmoil. Political groups abounded, some violent and some not: Anarchists, Nihilists, and Socialists, whose agitations of and attractions to the working classes upset the delicate balance of the haves and have nots. Not only was Parliament swiftly becoming to domain of progressive, Liberal politicians who had no pretensions to advancing into the aristocracy, as middle-class men formerly desired, but they were fighting to pass laws to shorten work hours, institute income tax, death duties and worst of all, in England at least, old age pensions, unemployment benefit and state financial support for the sick and infirm (per Lloyd George’s “People’s Budget”).

By the mid-1900s, there came a schism between the young and their elders, whose wants, needs and desires had long reigned supreme. This “cult of youth” found young men and women creating a separate life from that of their parents, disrupting the notions that only married, settled men and women mattered in society. The suffragist/suffragette movement helped to shatter the lingering ideals of womanhood. Though women entered into the workforce in the 1880s and 1890s, it wasn’t until the 1910s that young women from well-to-do backgrounds thought of attending college and striking out on their own.

Key Personalities

The influence of the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) dominated this period. His manner of dress, speech, leisure, amusements–and those with whom he chose to befriend, were slavishly imitated by those who wished to be accepted as “smart.” It was he who threw open the doors of society, extending a welcome to wealthy Anglo-, Franco-, and German-Jewish families (the Rothschilds, Sassoons, and Cassells, among others), American millionaires, and the nouveaux riches derived from Britain’s many colonies.

Progressive politics shaped the United States. Guided by the boisterous, charismatic Theodore Roosevelt, America began to take its place as a world power, and after WWI, amidst the shattered, charred fields of Europe, it became the dominant power in the world.

Science and Technology

Many people considered this period to be the “age of optimism.” So many things had been invented so quickly–telephones, typewriters, sewing machines, motorcars, aeroplanes, wireless–it was thought that war would be averted due to the surplus of helpful inventions.

Art, Literature and Music

Writers, artists and composers we consider “modern” had their roots in the Edwardian era. The Bloomsbury Group, included author E.M. Forster, whose first four novels were published between the years 1905 and 1910. Pablo Picasso moved to Paris in 1900, and Cubism was formed around 1909-1912. Authors like Galsworthy and playwrights like Shaw, Ibsen and Pinero challenged mid-Victorian tastes, introducing themes such as venereal disease, fallen women, class, etc as the subject of their plays.

Religion and Spirituality

As society changed, so had society’s view of religion. The Anglican Church was still the mother church (it was divided into Low Church and High Church), but Dissenters, Catholics, and Jews were no longer barred from political roles. Some aristocrats and members of the upper-class even professed atheism and a tiny number converted to other religions, such as Islam or the Bahá’í Faith. During this time, the concepts of “Muscular Christianity” influenced colonialism and the tie of Christian faith to physical health, and American and European missionaries spread across all parts of the globe to convert and care for peoples in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. However, many began to question God and Christianity in a second wave of Darwinism, and many felt, due to the rapid technological advances of the period, that man was nigh invincible.

Time Periods Proper

Gilded Age America: 1870s to 1890s
Progressive Era America: 1890s to 1920s
Belle Epoque Europe: 1880s to 1910s
Victorian Era: 1837-1901
Edwardian Era: 1901-1914
World War One: 1914-1918
Paris Peace Conference: 1919
End of Lloyd George’s Government, rise of Labour, and split of Liberal Party: 1922