State Visits to France
by Claudia Willetts
To cement the alliance of Britain and France in the prosecution of the Crimean War, Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert visited Emperor Napoleon III (nephew of Napoleon I) in 1855, as described by Helmut and Alison Gernsheim in Queen Victoria: A Biography in Word and Picture. No English sovereign had visited Paris since King Henry VI was crowned there as an infant 433 years earlier in 1422, nevertheless the city spared no effort to give Victoria and Albert a rousing welcome, and their triumphal entry was accompanied by shouts of “Vive la Reine d’Angleterre!”. For her part, Queen Victoria, with her immense capacity for enjoyment, was enchanted by the most magnificent reception she had ever experienced at home or abroad, remarking that she “never saw anything more beautiful and gay”. HRH The Duchess of York and Benita Stoney add in Travels with Queen Victoria, that coming from the smoke and soot of Dickens’s London (Little Dorrit was being issued at that time), Paris seemed white, bright, and brilliant.
King Edward VII delighted in diplomacy, and, though the Crown’s influence in determining British foreign policy had been eroded during the nineteenth century, the role of the sovereign was still important through meetings of heads of state, writes Keith Middlemas in The Life and Times of Edward VII. He points out that by temperament and by birth, being intimately involved in the links of royal relationships, Edward was afforded a powerful place in the system that lubricated European affairs, and by 1903 it was widely believed that Britain must make new friends on the Continent to revive her influence.
However, Gordon Brooke-Shepherd tells us in Uncle of Europe, that, in the case of France, King Edward faced more than the usual difficulties, with bad feeling raging over the recent Anglo-French colonial clash in Africa – Fashoda, cheeky popular songs, as well as a strong contingent of Anglophobes in newspaper publishing circles. What Edward VII set out to do during the four-day visit was a conjuring trick, to persuade the French that John Bull was really as congenial and pro-French as he was himself. That the 1903 tour represented a purely personal triumph for King Edward was not disputed either at the time, or since. It was a one-man show on the diplomatic stage, which he planned, produced and directed, with himself as the central actor, and it laid the foundations for the reputation he acquired as the most influential diplomatist in Europe. One official in the Foreign Office later wrote that it “caused the French to shed their suspicions of ‘English designs and intentions’ and to develop confidence in her straightforwardness and loyalty”.
A decade later in 1914 on the eve of World War I, King George V and Queen Mary arrived in Paris, and George Arthur tells us in King George V: A Sketch of a Great Ruler, that the King was determined that nothing should be left undone to make his stay a complete and conspicuous success. He too, faced difficulties as neither he nor the Queen were known there, yet in three days, both, British to the bone, achieved a signal official success. Further, by allowing themselves to be infected with that sense of enjoyment so dear to the French, two hitherto strangers also achieved a measure of personal popularity.
Similarly, in the summer of 1938, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth undertook their first major state visit to their ally France, as told by Sarah Bradford in The Reluctant King. Fear of war hung like a thundercloud. The King and Queen were aware of their great responsibility as central figures of this European spectacular, in which each official tableau was set against the aggressive displays of Germany and Italy. In the end, the remarkable warmth of feeling evoked, was a personal triumph for both the King and Queen.