The Duke and Duchess of Windsor at 73 and 71 respectively
Below is a selection of glimpses into a fascinating moment in twentieth century British history. A king – hugely popular with the people, whom Prime Minister Winston Churchill worked assiduously to retain on the throne – yet one who – as a palace-endorsed biography reveals – had expressed a desire to abdicate the throne long before he met the love of his life. And the love of his life, an American socialite who, having courted a king’s attention, found herself cornered by his passionate, life-long love and adulation.
Yet all this time later there’s still mystery to the story. Separating information from disinformation and disentangling truth from an aggressive decades’ long smear-campaign is not a simple exercise.
Absent of the hysteria, what was the truth of it? Was Britain saved an unsuitable and reluctant sovereign? Was Edward VIII too much a law unto himself, and too “bored of dressing up” (his own words) to be suited to the job of monarch? Was the prince too modern and too political to maintain correct relations with the conservative government of the day? Was he too associated with the country’s social needs? Did he sit too lightly to the conventions that enabled the House of Windsor to sit comfortably alongside the Palace of Westminster?
(A random fact: Prince Edward and his brother Albert (later King George VI) were regular patrons at Shim Shams, the fashionable jazz night club of the day. The club was then bringing the exciting new sounds of Harlem to London. It just happened to be the club where my grand-father the played keys.)
Before his romance with Wallis, it seems that the prince was already regarded questioningly by some in the palace. Some admired while others lamented Edward’s tendency to be a rather more self-determining player than was the norm for the work of the royal family. Was Edward altogether too independent of the palace’s “men in grey suits” (to use Princess Diana’s later description)? Could he be relied upon as a safe pair of hands? Is it possible that the Establishment, for whatever its own reasons, may have got it right for the country?
On the other hand did the Establishment seize the moment to grab some just a little more power in the wake of King George V, preventing any prospect of a future regent with as dominating a presence as King George?! Or was it simply one of those watershed moments when two eras collided? (It is interesting to note 22-25 minutes in to the first video excerpt the Duke’s explanation of “The Establishment” – his father and brother’s inclusion within it and his own exclusion from it.)
Fascination persists around the intentions of Wallis too. The current Prince Edward wrote and filmed a documentary (below) examining the story of his Great Uncle and Great Aunt. He is far from uncritical of his Great Uncle, yet Edward emphatically distances himself from the Establishment’s official canon of “facts” concerning the Duke and Duchess – which cast Edward VIII as a Nazi sympathizer and Wallis as a devious and ambitious social-climber, who manipulated the Prince, being determined at all costs to attain the British crown.
Claims ranged from casting Wallis variously as a German spy, a Nazi sympathizer, a serial adulteress, a seductress trained by a Chinese prostitute, a lesbian, inter-gender or even a man!
Prince Edward’s popularity with the general public was considerable. He was known for patronizing pubs and clubs open to ordinary British citizens, and his personal tours of slums in the country’s most deprived areas gave him contact and a kind of empathy with the working people of his country that was, for a monarch, almost unprecedented. And a careworn population, suffering the privations of the depression in the 1930’s warmed to a prince and then a monarch who showed concern, moved among them and was willing to advocate for them.
Such was the level of his public approval that Edward believed the public would, out of loyalty to him, accept his marriage. Winston Churchill, and Lord Beaverbrook were among a number who advocated for a morganatic marriage – an arrangement which would allow the sovereign to marry, with his wife accorded the title of HRH, Duchess of Somewhere, but not of Queen. Edward wished to broadcast directly to the public to appeal personally for their support, confident that he could attain it. The conservative government of the day, led by Stanley Baldwin, prevented him.
When a picture is worth a thousand words…Edward VIII in what looks like a tense moment with Stanely Baldwin, the conservative Prime Minister of 1936
It is no secret that many of Britain’s upper-crust were admirers of the miracle of Germany’s regeneration and equally of the Nazi’s anti-Semitic brutality. A case could easily be made against many of the British nobility of that time. This clouds the picture a little as to the dangers of keeping Edward VIII on the throne and in Britain.
However, given the support of Lord Beaverbrook and Winston Churchill for retaining Edward on the throne, with a later morganatic marriage to Wallis in mind, the claims about the couple’s Nazi ties don’t really add up. Would Winston Churchill really have wished to advance a monarch who he saw as vulnerable or even as a covert agent for the Nazi powers? I don’t think so.
Immediately post-war, Winston Churchill was privy to the contents of the Marburg Files – papers which surfaced in 1945, including covert correspondence between senior Britons and senior Nazis through the course of the war. Perhaps unsurprisingly Churchill decided the contents needed to be suppressed. Winston Churchill was also shown intercepted telegrams from the time of the war, when they surfaced in 1953 – some of which claimed to implicate Edward in a plot to have him reinstalled as a puppet monarch in the event of Nazi victory. However Churchill disregarded this telegram record as unconvincing.
There is some muddying of the water in all of that. It is only a statement of fact to say that the secrets of our governments and those of the Windsor-Saxe-Coburg-Gotha family are kept from public knowledge by a great array of legal means. So there is a great deal we can not be certain of.
However, as for the list of other detractions against Edward and Wallis, the least than can be stated is that they can’t all be true! What was consistent about the official campaigns of denigration was that they aimed to manage the level of public goodwill towards Edward essentially by casting the Prince, in one way or another, as an unfortunate victim of Wallis, and Wallis as the menace.
Speculations about Wallis’ motivations have continued from that time to this. Books continue to be published claiming some new insight or another. Curiously you will find almost all the supposed “revelations” of more recent analyses of Wallis laid open in the pages of the Duchess’ own autobiography, “The Heart has its Reasons,” published in 1955.
In her preface to the book the Duchess revealed that she well understood the widespread judgement of herself and the Duke. Its pages allow us a glimpse into what it may have meant to walk in their shoes; in the face of suspicion and in the aftermath of exclusion and vilification – a more than fifty year long thread within their story.
If any of these questions interest you, then the interviews below may interest you further. For an interview of the period there is a surprising liberty in the conversation of the Duke and Duchess with interviewer Kenneth Harris in the first and third video below, recorded in October 1969 – similarly in the brief conversation with the 78 year old Duchess two years after the Duke’s death, filmed during a visit to New York in 1974. Thirdly watch the current Prince Edward’s documentary on his Great Uncle. Fourthly, you can listen to the entire Kenneth Harris interview. Enjoy…