He wasn’t king then, but he would be soon enough, King Edward VII, a model of fin de siécle English uprightness. But apparently his past contained a blemish — as a member of a shooting party, he may have shot an owl, a wild bird that was just becoming a protected species in Britain.
Edward was a famous sportsman and bon vivant, whose extremely long wait for the throne had been characterized by somewhat sub-kingly behavior at times.
Certainly, Englishmen can tolerate a lot of carousing and gambling in their leaders. But animal cruelty crosses a psychological line — even if, as seems likely in this case, the shotgunning of the ill-starred owl was entirely inadvertent.
Had such a story come to light, it would have been ill-received by the famously animal-happy British public.
The episode occurred when a well-meaning society photographer had the dead bird stuffed, took a picture of it and sent it to the Prince of Wales, as he was then.
A plaque on the wooden base tellingly gave away the identification of the guilty marksman: “Shot by HRH Prince of Wales on the 23rd Sept 1896 at Wynyard Park.”
But John Phillips’ ‘gift’ to the future King spectacularly backfired and, instead of being well-received by him, it ruffled the royal’s feathers.
The owl-related photograph and correspondence is up for auction. Photographer Phillips clearly thought he was chummy with the then-prince, but the frosty note he received from a royal flunky straightened him out in a hurry.
His abject, crawling apology apparently failed to restore him to Edward’s good graces; he got a second, equally cold and distant, flunky-penned brush-off. He had to console himself by making a scrapbook of the owl photo and correspondence — the very thing that’s now on an English auctioneer’s block.
If you’re a commoner, it is never quite friendship you have with a king.