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 one official biography reveals – had expressed a desire to abdicate the throne more than a decade before he met the love of his life. And the love of his life, an American socialite – whose family lines descended from Charlemagne and King Edward I – who, having courted a king’s attention, found herself cornered by his passionate, life-long love and adulation.
In later life, Edward, as the Duke of Windsor
Yet all this time later there’s still mystery to the story. Sifting through the pieces of an aggressive decades’ long smear-campaign to separate reality from disinformation 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 for the House of Windsor to operate comfortably alongside the Palace of Westminster?
Archbishop Cosmo Gordon Lang
POPULARITY & MISGIVINGS
Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Gordon Lang, held a dim view of Edward. Edward was the absolute counterpart of everything for which the Archbishop would look in a successor to King George V. In his own memoir Edward spoke of his very first meeting with the archbishop following his father’s death. “That encounter [with Archbishop Lang],” he wrote, “was my first intimation that I might be approaching an irreconcilable conflict.”
(A random fact: Prince Edward and his brother Prince Albert 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 played the keys.)
The Prince’s playboy quality was par for the course for an heir to the British throne. However the more pressing concern at the time was to do with Edward’s political independence. Traditionally royals received political instruction from palace-appointed officials. By contrast Edward sought out his own experts and advisors (a pattern which Prince Charles has emulated more recently.) This pattern worried officials both at the Palace and at the Prime Minister’s office. Was the prince becoming more involved in political life than might make for smooth sailing? (The Duke touches on this in the first video – an extract of a 1969 interview with Kenneth Harris.)
The question of Edward’s suitability for the throne was known to be a matter of concern to the old king, George V. For whatever his reasons George V was unafraid to express his misgivings well beyond the family circle. Famously, the old king could never understand why the Prince of Wales refused to wear a top hat and be driven around in a royal fleet of Daimler limousines for his visits to coalmines, and the slums of Britain in the years of depression.
Did the prince not appreciate how un-regal he looked, stepping out of an ordinary car wearing a bowler hat?? Was the prince too “bored with all the dressing up” (his own words) to do the job of a royal head of state? George V absolutely deplored his son’s American-inspired dress sense and informal style and made no secret of it. But did the old king, in reality, have more serious cause for concern?
Was Edward altogether too independent of the palace’s “men in grey suits” (to use Princess Diana’s later description)? to be relied on as a safe pair of hands? Was he, put simply, “king material?” Is it possible that, in its ultimate solution for Edward, the Establishment, for whatever its own reasons, may have got it right for the country?
On the other hand might it be that The Establishment seized an opportune moment to grab a little more power in the wake of King George V – wishing to prevent the prospect of a future regent with as political a presence as King George V – a sovereign who had proven himself to be far from the doormat that governments at Westminster might have preferred?! Or was it simply one of those watershed moments when two eras collided?
In first excerpt below of the Kenneth Harris interview, recorded in October 1969, the Duke touches on his aspirations as monarch, had he been permitted to continue. He also speaks about his clashing with “The Establishment.” Revealingly, the Duke refers to his own exclusion from The Establishment while identifying his father George V and his brother Albert (who later became George VI) as both being a part of it. In these few words the Duke provides an insight into what he believed he was up against.
Though Edward had no shortage of social convictions and an inner urge to be politically engaged, some of his actions might suggest a lack of political acumen. During WWII some reported his communications with foreign ambassadors as naive and deleterious to national security.
Perhaps it is difficult to genuinely empathize with the pain of a prince in exile at a time of national need and international strife. However the Duke’s petitioning of his brother and of Winston Churchill for a meaningful position in wartime Britain could be said to reflect poor political sense on the Duke’s part. Did he not see the complications of having two kings on British soil, or how debilitating his own popularity could be to his shier, more reserved brother newly establishing himself as King in difficult circumstances?
Taken together these undercurrents suggest what kinds of concern might have given the Establishment pause over allowing Edward to continue. Without a doubt, the gathering together of Archbishop Lang with Prince Albert (soon to become George VI), PM Stanley Baldwin, and Jeffrey Dawson (editor of The Times newspaper) in 1936 provided a powerful agency for the country’s conservative establishment.
The indications of a poor fit referenced above may also hint at why Edward may have felt more than an itch to abdicate long before he ever met or conceived of an alternative life with Wallis. In her 1955 memoir “The Heart has its Reasons” the Duchess insists that, as she got to know the prince, she had never heard anything from Edward to indicate that he was reluctant or ambivalent about taking the throne. To the contrary she found him a buzz of ideas about the more modern way he would like to go about things as an “up-to-date king”.
However the Duke’s official biographer, Philip Ziegler, presents another side to the picture, detailing expectations within London society, long pre-dating the advent of Wallis Simpson, that Prince Edward would “not be king for long.”
FINDING A REASON
In pages of the Duchess’ memoir and in the warm and affectionate correspondence she continued with her previous husband, Ernest Simpson, it is difficult to avoid the impression that Wallis, having enjoyed the thrill of an affair with the Prince of Wales, become King, then found herself cornered by the King’s ardent affections. In September 1934 Wallis’ Aunt Bessie expressed her grave concerns, saying, “Isn’t all this very dangerous for you?…I can see no happy outcome to such a situation.”
Aunt Bessie was right. Wallis quickly found herself poised between her royal lover who was careering his way into a constitutional crisis on her account and her cuckholded husband who had now found solace in the arms of another woman – her own friend, Mary Kirk.
What happened next was clearly beyond Wallis’ control. The key players were the King, the Prime-Minister, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and older hands within the Palace. Wallis could only watch the spectacle from the bleachers as she found herself rapidly morphed from a mere affair into the King’s pretext for abdicating. By her own account, when Edward declared his intentions to her, her response was, “David…” (Edward’s house name) “You mustn’t talk this way. The idea is impossible. They’d never let you!…There’s your family! There’s your mother!…It is madness to think, let alone talk, of such a thing.”
In early December 1936 when Wallis attempted to extricate herself from the relationship Edward threatened suicide. Each time she tried to slow his progress towards abdication Edward would inform her, or ask a member of his staff to explain to her, that machinations towards his abdication were much further progressed than she realized. The King had made up his mind.
From the moment of the King’s abdication the Duchess’ job was to recreate for her husband a royal sense of significance, and to substitute hers for the love of a whole commonwealth. It was a gargantuan expectation to fulfill – and a fact which she names subtly in her 1955 autobiography and openly and lamentingly in her letters to Ernest. So it is possible that if, in this great intrigue of a story, there was a victim backed into a corner, it was not the King but Wallis.
Yet, despite the emotionally unequal beginning, the opprobrium of millions, and notwithstanding the ups and downs that are the stuff of any lasting relationship, even Wallis’ harshest critics (including the late Queen Mother) credited the Duchess with success in making the Duke a very happy married man. (Read the scenes for yourself in the videos below.) Yet fascination persists to this day around Wallis’ precise intentions.
The current Prince Edward produced a documentary (below) which examined the story of his Great Uncle and Great Aunt. While he is far from uncritical of his Great Uncle, Edward clearly distances himself from the Establishment’s official canon of “facts” concerning the Duke and Duchess – which cast the couple as possible Nazi sympathizers and Wallis as a devious and ambitious social-climber, a kind of 20th century Becky Sharpe, who manipulated the Prince, being determined at all costs to attain the British crown.
Some of the claims about Wallis give the appearance of establishment efforts, post-abdication, at repositioning Edward VIII in the public imagination. These ranged from casting Wallis variously as a German spy, a Nazi agent, a serial adulteress, a seductress trained by a Chinese prostitute, a lesbian, inter-gender or even a man!
In the wake of the abdication the great affection of the Commonwealth for King Edward VIII was an issue that would need careful managing if it were not to detract from the people’s acceptance of King George VI. Edward’s personal popularity with the British general public was immense. He had gone to the front with the troops in WWI – an experience which gave him enormous popularity among the armed forces and an ease with the man in the street.
He was celebrated as “The Sporting Prince” – winning 13 steeplechases as a jockey. He was known for patronizing pubs and clubs open to ordinary British citizens, and his personal tours of coalmines, factories and 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. At that time he was the most photographed man in the world. This was what Edward saw as the approach of “an up-to-date king” and why Wallis regarded him as being “ahead of his time.”
So it was that a careworn population, suffering the privations of the 1930’s depression in warmed to a prince and then a king who showed concern, moved among them and was willing to advocate for them.
Such was his level of popular approval that Edward was confident the public would, out of loyalty to him, accept his marriage to Wallis. Lord Rothermere, Winston Churchill and press barons Esmond Harmsworth 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 (a title sported even by minor royals) but not of Queen.
Together they argued the case for Edward being allowed to take he throne, later to marry Mrs Simpson, who would be styled the HRH The Duchess of Cornwall. Stanley Baldwin the conservative Prime Minister of the day was opposed.
From the beginning PM Stanley Baldwin told the king plainly that a marriage to Mrs Simpson would be totally unacceptable to the British public. When the morganatic proposal was put forward the PM told King Edward that the leaders of the Commonwealth would need to be consulted for their opinion. However the responses did not give the PM the mandate he had hoped for and we now know that Stanley Baldwin kept hidden from the King the full extent of support that been communicated. In reality the consultation was a charade. The establishment had already made its call.
Baldwin insisted that it was uniquely his job as PM to communicate to the King what his subjects would or would not accept and that the answer to the morganatic proposal was a resolute “no”. But Edward’s instincts suggested otherwise. Well aware of his popularity he judged the public mood differently.
To bring his public support into play, as a means to keep Edward from abdicating, Wallis persuaded the King to make a broadcast on the radio to appeal personally for public support of their marriage – morganatic or not. Edward agreed enthusiastically, being confident that a direct, personal appeal would result in strong public support.
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
VARYING THE SUCCESSION
As events progressed and the removal of Edward from the throne became a more imaginable prospect, Sir Horace Wilson (a freelance adviser to the PM) together with Sir Maurice Gwyer (the First Parliamentary Counsel) wrote to the PM suggesting that in the event of Edward’s removal from the throne, a possible way to re-stabilize things and recover the prestige of the monarchy would be to endorse the Dowager Queen Mary as the “Queen Regent.”
The Dowager Queen Mary
Gwyer wrote to Baldwin saying, “The difficulty about the immediate ‘succession’ of [Albert] the Duke of York is that a substantial part of the country might still favour the present King and see his brother as a sort of interloper…Queen Mary as Regent would re-establish the reputation of the monarchy…The Duke of York could scarcely object and all the King’s subjects would only rejoice to see Queen Mary carrying on again.”
Unsure of the suitability for the throne of Edward’s younger brother, the stuttering Prince Albert, Wilson and Gwyer proposed that the Queen Regent could later sideline Albert, on the grounds of his various chronic health problems, clearing the path for the youngest brother, Prince George Duke of Kent, to succeed her as a King George VI. What better name could there be than George to carry the message of royal continuity!
The idea was not at all out of the frame. The alteration of a royal succession is not unusual in royal history. For instance Edward and Albert’s great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, was the daughter of a prince who was no closer than 4th-in-line to the throne. So Victoria did not ascend the throne without some intense conversation among members of the royal family of Europe. History tells us that by the time George V came to the throne his older brother (and therefore the first in line to the throne) had died – but not before a family decision had been taken to exclude him from the succession (one way or another) over questions of his intellect and moral character.
KEEPING IT IN THE FAMILY
The portrait above is of One Extended Family. All the gentlemen above are descended from – or related by marriage to – John William Friso. Simultaneously they are the Kings of 9 independent, sovereign nations. (In 2018 the 7 remaining European monarchies are still reigned over by members this same one family.) It is a monarchic monopoly that has been unimpeded by the constitutional powers of nation states and the advent of democratic governments! It is a hegemony on which Edward VIII’s abdication had precisely zero impact!
The Danish prince who later became King George I of Greece was told by his cousin (who was king of somewhere else) that the family member who took the Greek job must learn to live “with your suitcase permanently packed.” George I himself intended to abdicate after paying his dues on the throne, but sadly was assassinated before he could. His son King Constantin I of Greece abdicated the Greek throne himself under political pressure in 1922. (King Constantin’s nephew is Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, husband of Queen Elizabeth II)
In fact through the course of the C20th European thrones were abdicated 11 times. Europe-wide, alterations to succession, positioning the right family-member onto the throne of the right country, are not as unusual as we tend to think.
Prince George and Princess Marina of Greece – The Duke and Duchess of Kent
PREPARATIONS IN ADVANCE
As crisis loomed, Wilson and Gwyer’s Queen Mary + Prince George of Kent proposal fell by the wayside. It had been pre-empted by a series of meetings which included PM Stanley Baldwin, Archbishop Lang and Prince Albert through the second half of 1936 – quietly preparing Albert for his accession to the throne. Prince Albert would be the one to be transformed into the new King George that the country needed
A number of royal biographers identify Balmoral in the Summer of 1922 as the occasion of Edward’s first clear intimations that he intended to avoid or abdicate the throne. It is therefore entirely possible that private conversations involving Prince Albert and his future in-laws, the Bowes-Lyon family, had anticipated Edward’s abdication by some considerable time – conceivably even preluding Prince Albert and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon’s engagement in 1923.
In April 1920 King George V had put an emphatic stop to a relationship between Prince Albert and a married woman – an Australian by the name of Sheila Chisholm, the wife of Lord Loughborough. Unlike his older brother in the following decade, the young Prince Albert duly obeyed his father’s instructions and ended the relationship.
Prince Albert and Sheila Chisholm (Lady Loughborough) c.1920
Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon was a friend of both Prince Edward and Prince Albert. Now an eligible bachelor, Albert next made overtures to Elizabeth, who accepted his proposal but not without demurring. When Albert first proposed in the Spring of 1921 and then again in March of 1922 it would seem that other possibilities had Elizabeth’s interest and she declined the prince, who was then second in line to the throne. Quite a thing to do.
It was not until January 1923 – just three months after the royals’ summer in Balmoral with its significant conversations about Edward’s alleged intentions – that Elizabeth found herself minded to accept Albert’s marriage proposal, on his third time – and third year – of asking!
When the two married in April the same year, Albert was joining his life with a person who could hardly have been more thoroughly and enthusiastically suited to royal life. In fact, friends and family had referred to Elizabeth as “Princess Lilibet” from her childhood!
In 1926, three years after their marriage, and at Elizabeth’s instigation, Albert began regular speech therapy with Lionel Logue to fix his nervous stammer and begin preparing him for the demands of C20th public life. So when the crisis finally eventuated, ten years later in 1936, a ready royal alternative to Edward had been well-prepared.
As his accession to the throne approached Prince Albert wrote that he felt “like a lamb being led to the slaughter.” Nevertheless, as the new King George, no one can deny that Albert rose to the needs of the hour and by every account his bride, Elizabeth, absolutely thrived on being Queen – a title which, unprecedentedly, she never gave up.
Prince Albert & Lady Elizabeth Bowes Lyon in 1923
Suffice it to say, neither the PM nor the Palace felt it necessary to delve further into other accession possibilities. The Queen Mary/ Prince George of Kent solution was not needed. The Establishment would find other ways of managing the public goodwill towards Edward, once he had gone.
THE LAST STRAW
In the event it was Lord Rothermere, Esmond Harmsworth, Lord Beaverbrook and Winston Churchill’s case for the morganatic marriage and the King’s plan to appeal directly to his popular support that finally catalyzed events. Horrified by the dual proposal upon hearing it, and clearly alarmed that it might gain traction, Archbishop Lang wrote immediately to the Prime Minister, sending the letter by courier the same day – Wednesday November 25th 1936 – to 10 Downing Street, insisting that Edward must be removed swiftly. In a letter now in the public domain the archbishop wrote: “He must leave as soon as possible…The announcement should appear as a free act…I understand that you are seeing him tonight and, doubtless, you would make this plain.”
Accordingly Stanley Baldwin used his powers to prevent the King from making his appeal to the public as he had wished, ruling that such an action would be unconstitutional, abrogating the prerogatives of parliament. And immediately the PM announced this position to parliament. The PM then moved things with all haste towards the King’s broadcast, which went ahead a little more than a fortnight later. It was not the broadcast Edward had intended, but rather the announcement of his abdication.
Was this a miscarriage of justice? Was the Prime Minister manipulated by the powers of the Establishment to re-conservatize the monarchy and the nation? Was Edward robbed of his right to be an “up to date King” whether for a long or short tenure? Or did Edward achieve the freedom he had long desired while appearing to be the victim of an establishment coup? Might the abdication have been, in effect, a lucky escape – for both King and country?!
FAMILY TIES AND NAZI SYMPATHIES
One of the most persistent stories of Edward and Wallis was that they were a potential disaster for Britain because of alleged sympathies towards Nazi Germany. It is true that Edward and Wallis had visited Hitler in 1937 – but then so had half the British cabinet! Perhaps the visit should not be over-interpreted, since the only eye witness of Hitler’s private conversation with the Duke reported Edward’s patriotism, rectitude and displeasure at the encounter.
It should not be forgotten that many of Britain’s nobility were ardent admirers of the miracle of Germany’s regeneration and equally of the Nazi’s anti-Semitic brutality, often referred to in terms lauding Herr Hitler’s “bold”, “strong” and “decisive” handling of the “Jewish problem.” And it is a fact that many of Britain’s upper crust at that time were negotiating overtly and covertly to avert war.
Notably, it was not Edward VIII but George VI who emphatically supported PM Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement, inviting the PM to wave to cheering crowds from the balcony of Buckingham Palace on his return from a visit to the Fuhrer and following his “I have in my hand a piece of paper…Peace in our time,” speech – a speech in which the PM championed the promises of peace from Adolf Hitler.
Neither can it be ignored that Edward and his brothers were born with the surname Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Edward was 23 when the family name was changed to Windsor. In fact German culture was so prominent in the life of the royal family that Edward often referred to German language, in which we was fluent, as his “mother tongue”.
Strikingly similar, Russian Tsar Nicholas II & British King George V, sporting their respective German regimental uniforms – 14 months before the outbreak of WWI
The view of Europe held by its royal family (the extended family of John William Friso) has to be something profoundly different to the parochial perspective of the citizens of the various independent nations that Europe comprises. Whereas citizens would perceive a Europe of independent nations, jostling in peaceful or uneasy competition, the royal extended family must regard it as a familial empire. The royals must surely have hoped against hope that their family empire would not go to war once again against itself.
Twenty years prior, when Russia fell to revolution in 1917, King George V had been forced to sign what was in effect the death warrants of the family of his doppelganger cousin Tsar Nicholas II. After such a searing experience one can easily see that the royals must have viewed with absolute horror the prospect of such murderous conflict being forced upon the family once again. It is easy to see why, for them, the draw of forming accords with Germany would have been extremely strong.
Perhaps these loyalties might complicate the picture as to the perceived dangers of keeping Edward VIII on the throne and in Britain. However, even with such strong family ties across Europe, the degree of Edward and Wallis’ sympathies for the Nazi regime is highly questionable.
Given the strong support of Winston Churchill for retaining Edward on the throne and allowing him to marry Mrs Simpson, the greater probability is that the claims about the couple’s Nazi sympathies were exaggerated after the event as a way of managing the public goodwill towards the former king. Consider for yourself, of all people 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.
FILES & CONSPIRACIES
Immediately post-war, Winston Churchill was privy to the contents of the Marburg Files -which surfaced in 1945. These included covert correspondence between senior Britons and senior Nazis through the course of the war. The files were not made public.
Politics during wars are more layered and contradictory than makes for comfortable reading. Think of the Bush family’s ties with Saudi Arabia and the Bin Laden family, or the secret negotiations between Conservative British governments and the IRA, or the provision of armaments, torture equipment and operational training by Western allies to their own military opponents.
It is commonly known that during WW2 Heinrich Himmler and Rudolf Hess were among a number involved in secret negotiations with senior British figures – a cohort which may have included members of the royal family. During this period prince George of Kent was killed in an aeroplane accident in an operation the details of which are to this day kept from the public by the Official Secrets Act.
Suffice it to say that, given how secret the diplomacy and how messy the realpolitik of war can be, it is perhaps not surprising that Churchill would decide the contents of the Marburg Files needed to be suppressed.
Churchill was also shown intercepted telegrams from the time of the war, when they surfaced in 1953 – some of which revealed an aspiration among some Nazi conspirators to reinstall Edward as a puppet monarch in the event of Nazi victory. However Churchill regarded this telegram record as unconvincing.
Such a web of secrecy can only raise questions. It is no more than 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 one has to acknowledge that there is a great deal we can not be certain of.
GOODWILL & INFAMY
As for the list of other detractions against Edward and chiefly Wallis – that she was a foreign spy, a Nazi agent, a serial adulteress, a seductress trained by a Chinese prostitute, a lesbian, inter-gender or a man – the very least than can be stated is that they can’t all be true! The most consistent feature of the official smear campaigns was that they generally aimed to manage the level of public goodwill towards Edward by casting the Prince, in one way or another, as an unfortunate victim of Wallis, and Wallis as the real menace.
In the preface to her autobiography 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 50 year long thread within their story. The royal biographer Hugo Vickers referred to the Duchess as “the most maligned woman in the C20th!” Indeed the strength of negative feeling surrounding the Duke and Duchess that persists into the C21st is a phenomenon to be wondered at.
Accordingly the Duchess made her one venture into print in the express hope that a generation after her time might review the events of her life more dispassionately and arrive at a more generous conclusion than the one drawn by her contemporaries. Wallis was in no doubt as to the byword her name had become in the C20th.
Even at the time of the death of the Duke of Windsor in 1972 the bereavement of the now ailing 75 year old Duchess of Windsor was reported in Britain with a bitter note. Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper, reported the Duchess’ return to France, having buried her beloved. The headline read, with an unmistakable undertone of schadenfreude, “So now she is alone.”
If any of these unresolved 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…