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 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? Did the Establishment, for whatever its own reasons, actually get it right for the country?
On the other hand did the Establishment seize the moment to grab some power in the wake of King George V, preventing any prospect of a future regent with as dominating a shadow as King George?! Or was it simply one of those watershed moments when two eras collided? (Note at around 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, on the other hand, was considerable. 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 those 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
The official campaigns of denigration managed the level of public goodwill towards Edward essentially by casting the Prince, in one way or another, as an unfortunate victim of Wallis.
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…