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Edward the Last

Society reserves a spotlight for them unlike any it shines on other celebrities: they are the royal House of Windsor – famous, powerful, fabulously wealthy, revered, scorned, romanticized, vilified, and even taken for granted. Their gaudy, moving spectacle has played out alongside the entire 20th century – and continues into the 21st. In this year-long feature, we’ll examine the lives of the men and women whose stories comprise a Year with the Windsors.

The Edwards of the English throne are an ill-augured lot. True, the whole row of them starts with that most splendid king, Edward Longshanks (although he was rather grabby, territory-wise), but the future of the name could be clearly seen in the disastrous Edward II, who, among other crimes, flouted the will of his council by showing excessive favor to the wrong consort (we’ll come back to this in a bit). Edward III got saddled with the Black Death, kicked off the Hundred Years War, and spent the last years of his life as the ignominious puppet of a grasping, buck-toothed social climber (again, we’ll be revisiting this). Edward IV started out gloriously but sank into wretched self-indulgence and became besotted with his avaricious, unsuitable mistress Elizabeth Woodeville (see above), and his son Edward V surely seems like the rock-bottom of the nomenclature: of the two famous little Princes in the Tower, he’s the one who was actually King (though never crowned) when he and his brother were smothered on the orders of their usurper uncle Richard. A King Edward who rules for less than a year and is never even crowned? Contemporary palace-watchers would have been certain things could never become so bad again.

There was a bit of rebound in Edward VI, but Henry VIII’s only legitimate male heir died as a teenager, before he could become either great or terrible in his own right. Centuries later came Edward VII, who (after his decades-long overshadowing by his mother Queen Victoria) ascended to the throne in 1901 and brought with him just a faint echo of Longshanks himself – the ebullient personality, the bottomless appetite, the gaudy parade of mistresses, the very kingly self-assurance. He was on the throne for less than a decade, but millions mourned his passing, and it seemed possible the Edward name might make a full recovery in the 20th century.

Instead, the Edward who followed – Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David, born on June 23, 1894, known to his family as simply David and known to his people as King Edward VIII on the death of his father George V – was not only another Edward who ruled for less than a year and was never crowned, but an Edward worse than all the ones before him, an Edward so selfish and childish (and perhaps worse, as we shall see) that unlike all his predecessors, he actually managed to put the monarchy itself in peril.

Things certainly didn’t start that way. Young Prince Edward was no sooner out of short-pants than the press and the nation were calling him “Prince Charming.” He had the elfin stature and boyish looks of his father in his youth; he had a mesmerizing, magnetic personality that carried all before it and he had that quirk most rare and prized in royal personages: the so-called ‘common touch.’ Even as a teenager, he mixed effortlessly with all types of people, from the European ruling classes who were all his cousins to the London worker in the street. While still a reluctant student at Oxford, he took extended vacations in France, learning the language and sampling the charms of the Bois de Boulogne, and in Germany, where he impressed his cousin Kaiser Wilhelm II and dodged his tutor in order to drink and dance (and smoke – like virtually all the Windsors, from the age of 13 he smoked more than seems humanly possible) all night in decadent pre-war Berlin. He left Oxford in 1914 just as Europe was convulsing into war, and although he underwent rigorous officers training, when his regiment was shipped overseas, he wasn’t allowed to go with them (the Secretary of State for War was worried he might be taken hostage). He pressured everybody he knew in England to be allowed to go to France, and when, in a testament to his powers of persuasion, he eventually got his way, he slowly talked and charmed and maneuvered himself from a desk-job thirty miles from the action all the way to the front lines, where he saw battlefields of dead men and enduring German shelling right alongside soldiers who would later remember him for his cool, inspiring disposition.

When the war was over, British Prime Minister Lloyd George realized that it had transformed this Prince of Wales into the empire’s single greatest salesman. A series of foreign tours of the Crown’s dominions was organized, and in 1919 the Prince departed for Canada.

His reception at all points was nothing short of rapturous. The Prince’s advent coincided with the rise of the newsreel, and that new media found in him its first darling: a compact, handsome figure with impeccable clothes, boundless energy, and a propensity for drawing crowds. And if the Canadians took to the young royal, the Americans went wild for him – during his Canadian tour, the Prince crossed the border for a whirlwind ten-day visit to America. He met a bedridden President Wilson, heard the great Caruso at the Metropolitan Opera, and catted about New York’s nightclubs, often creeping back to his hosts’ houses with the dawn. On his return from North America he was rested like a race horse and then sent out again, this time on a tour of New Zealand and Australia. India followed, where the young prince told the populace “I want to know you, and I want you to know me” – an injunction that won the acclaim of those Indians not persuaded by the Mahatma Gandhi to boycott the whole extravaganza.

After India came Africa, where he shot wildlife, danced unlikely native dances, and exchanged niceties with blood-soaked madmen in the name of empire. Next came South America, where the Prince delighted his hosts not only by speaking about trade and commerce in Spanish but also by sounding like he knew what he was talking about. At some gradual, imperceptible point along the way, the traveling human billboard began to become a statesman. Stanley Baldwin, the Prime Minister back home (with whom the Prince would have far less cordial dealings, as we’ll see), cabled to congratulate him on a job well done.

In 1925, having visited forty-five countries in six years, the Prince of Wales was back in England and ready to plunge into the glittering night-life of the Roaring Twenties with abandon, despite the epic frowning of his authoritarian parents. The Prince was far more cordial with his mother Queen Mary than he could ever manage to be with his father the King, who disapproved of the revels, sports, and wiles of the younger generation. The youth of the realm embraced the heir to the throne for his populis and his professed concern for the poorer classes; the newspapers dubbed him “the People’s Prince.” He was an avid golfer and horseman, a tireless dancer, a chatty dinner guest – the diametric opposite of his father, who quietly tended his stamp collection before retiring early every evening. And yet, in his own gruff way, King George could be tolerant – in 1930 the King gave his son Fort Belvedere, what one guest called a “fairy-tale old place” on the border of Windsor Great Park, and the Prince rapidly turned it into his private sanctuary and the focal point of notorious bacchanals, often with married women.

One of those married women was Wallis Warfield Simpson, an American divorcee currently on her second husband when she met the Prince of Wales in 1931. She looked him in the eye, she listened when he talked of things that mattered to him, when she disagreed with him she said so, and it all thrilled him. Gradually and hopelessly, he fell in love. He took to vacationing with her and her remarkably affable husband, skiing and dining with them, and when Mr. Simpson was away in America, the Prince and Mrs. Simpson continued to keep company in England and abroad, under the somewhat perfunctory chaperonage of Mrs. Simpson’s starstruck aunt. Friends began to think of the two as a couple (Heaven knows what they thought of Mr. Simpson); they began to receive joint invitations to dances and dinners. By the mid-1930s, Mrs. Simpson was resolved to divorce her husband and the Prince was resolved to tell his father everything.

Her resolve was stronger than his: she obtained her divorce, but the Prince never told his father that he had fallen in love. In his declining years, the King had been unapologetically vocal about his disappointment in his heir. He groused that all his sons were now married except his eldest, and he dolefully predicted that after his death, the Prince of Wales wouldn’t last a year before falling apart. This was not a man to approach in open-hearted confession, and in 1936 the Prince lost his chance anyway – the old King died, and suddenly Prince Charming became King Edward VIII. In St. James’s Palace, he swore to uphold the principles of constitutional monarchy.

Parties continued at Fort Belvedere. In six months, Mrs. Simpson’s divorce decree would become final, and she would be free to marry again. In very short order, the new King made it clear to his councilors that this fact was of the utmost importance to him. The members of his council who had assumed that the august duties of his new position would break Edward’s infatuation with this American adventuress now received the shock of their life: far from discarding her (or even consorting with her privately), the King intended to marry her.

The same Stanley Baldwin who had earlier congratulated him on his princely conduct was now aghast: the King of England, to marry an American commoner who had two former husbands still living? He was certain the country wouldn’t stand for it, certain the Commonwealth wouldn’t approve, and he saw at once that if the government resigned over the issue, the King wouldn’t be able to form another that would think any differently – the issue would have to go to a general election, in which the center of the debate would be the very nature of the constitutional monarchy Edward VIII had so recently sworn to uphold. In light of the strengthened democratic sentiment now on the rise in the wake of the First World War, Baldwin worried that such a general election might quickly spell the end of the monarchy itself. A constitutional monarch was bound to obey the will of his council, and of Parliament – and even with all the will in the world, he couldn’t make a nobody from Baltimore into a Queen. Baldwin patiently explained that neither the British people (who, thanks to the intervention of British press barons, had yet to learn of the whole imbroglio) nor the citizens of the Commonwealth would tolerate the elevation to the throne of a twice-divorced American commoner.

The idea was briefly entertained that he might make her something less than Queen – a morganatic marriage, in which she was his wife but not any part of the line of succession. The King was for a time willing to consider it, but it had never been the custom in England, and again Baldwin and the King’s Cabinet were sadly adamant: it wouldn’t do.

All parties were agonized by this slow, inevitably lopsided contest of wills, but the King’s resolution never wavered. “No marriage, no coronation,” he endlessly repeated, and so a specter unseen in England in centuries suddenly took on flesh – the King would abdicate. On December 10, 1936, less than a year after his ascension, he signed the instrument:

I, Edward the Eighth, of Great Britain, Ireland, and the British Dominions beyond the seas, Emperor of India, do hereby declare My irrevocable determination to renounce the Throne for Myself and for My descendants, and My desire that effect be given to this Instrument of Abdication immediately.

Queen Mary, who had come to court for one state-arranged marriage and stayed for a second, found the decision – “To give up all this, for that,” as she succinctly put it – incomprehensible, as she later tried to explain to her son:

I do not think you have ever realized the shock, which the attitude you took up caused your family and the whole Nation. It seemed inconceivable to those who had made such sacrifices during the war that you, as their King, refused a lesser sacrifice.

Her motherly admonition was rendered in more thunderous tones by the Archbishop of Canterbury:

From God he received a high and sacred trust. Yet, by his own will, he has abdicated – he has surrendered the trust. With characteristic frankness he has told us his motive. It was a craving for private happiness. Strange and sad it must be that for such a motive, however strongly it pressed upon his heart, he should have disappointed hopes so high, and abandoned a trust so great.

Writing in 1937, an early biographer was already giving things a different cast:

His judgement sometimes erred, but his compassion brought the poor close to his heart. The final battle of his life as King was to be between his heart and his judgement, and it was to be his judgement that failed.

Frances Donaldson, the best of his many modern biographers, summed things up in 1974:

He believed that his abdication of his duty would be seen as the honourable course in the situation in which he found himself; and he held to this view forever after. Yet to people reared to the moral concept which inspired the poet Lovelace: “I could not love thee (Dear) so much, Lov’d I not honour more’, and who were between two wars in which when necessary they would die for it, his conduct could never seem anything but contemptible.

Before the nation’s stunned eyes, a fast shuffle took place. Edward VIII ceased to be; Edward VIII’s younger brother “Bertie” the Duke of York became King George VI; the Duke of York’s eldest little daughter became second in line to the throne; former king became the Duke of Windsor. The monarchy toppled, but it did not fall.

The perfidy of a king abandoning his war-battered people for the sake of ‘the woman he loved’ was not an isolated event in Edward’s life, as quickly became apparent. Despite the fact that he possessed a sizable fortune, the Duke protested his poverty to his brother the new king, demanding a subsidy out of public funds (the king agreed to pay him a private allowance). He also demanded that when he marry Mrs. Simpson and she become his Duchess, she be given the style of address equal to her rank, “Her Royal Highness” (despite his strenuous efforts, his family utterly refused to ‘HRH’ his wife or acknowledge her in any way). He demanded some kind of high-profile job, so that his enjoyment of the limelight could continue. He demanded residencies and retinues of servants. Some of these demands were met and some were refused – a tentative and uneven response that any parent could testify is just the wrong way to deal with a petulant, self-absorbed child. One last perfidy remained, a betrayal too dark to be attributed to childish ways.

When Mrs. Simpson’s divorce became final, the couple were married in France in 1937, at Chateau de Cande, a villa owned by French industrialist and Nazi agent Charles Bedaux. None of the Duke’s family were present, and every detail of the ceremony was reported to Berlin, where the lenient, pro-German sympathies of the Duke (and his new Duchess) had long been noted. This connection would only deepen over the next few years, opening up the darkest and worst chapter in this sorry, sordid drama.

By 1939 Adolf Hitler’s plans for England were well advanced. “Operation Sea Lion,” which called for a full-scale invasion of the island, was viewed by Hitler as an undesirable last resort: ideally, he wanted England as a willing vassal-state holding down his western flank so he was free to concentrate all the forces of the Wehrmacht in the east, where he accurately foresaw trouble from his quondam ally the Soviet Union. Hitler saw the British as natural (though junior) partners in the dreams of National Socialism and wanted to suborn them to his cause rather than crush them(this, far more than any technical concerns, was the reason he allowed the evacuation of Dunkirk). If in no other way, in this he and the Duke were of one mind: the main obstacle to their dreams was, they thought, the current leadership at the top of the British state – the ‘Churchill clique’ with its talk of freedom and fighting, the current milksop king and especially his ‘scheming’ queen. Hitler’s dreams we know well: the subjugation of all ‘Aryan’ mankind and the annihilation of everybody else. For decades, many of his biographers have protested the difficulty of divining what dreams motivated the Duke during this period.

But what ex-king ever had but one dream? Despite the fact that it had been his own stubborn selfishness that had brought him to his current state, the Duke (ably assisted by his new wife) came to see himself as a victim, the nation’s beloved prince who had been driven from the throne by a calculating set of politicians but who still knew what was best for his people. Foremost, the Duke knew that peace was best for his people – peace at any cost, peace especially with a people as congenial as the Germans. The Duke spoke and wrote fluent German and had always enjoyed being feted by his many German relatives, and he and his wife believed that accommodating Nazi Germany, not fighting it, was the right path for Britain. They believed this in 1933, when many other thoughtful people did, and they went right on believing as awareness of the nature of Hitlerism spread like an ink stain across Western Europe, long past the point where even the appeasers had packed up and gone home.

Their known sympathies drew Nazi espionage agents to them like flies to sugar; Bedaux was but one of many, but he was the most active – it was through his agency that the Windsors arranged to visit Hitler’s Germany in 1937, ostensibly to study the living and working conditions of ordinary German citizens. They were toured by Nazi officials, the Duke praised everything he saw, and the couple met Hitler at Berchtesgaden. This caused not a little outrage and embarrassment to king and cabinet back home, especially since the Duke had promised to stay off the world stage for a while. He and the Duchess took up residence in France.

Their vapid life there was soon rocked by war. When war broke out, the Duke and Duchess – after an astonishing amount of haggling – returned to England, where Duke received his wartime assignment: he joined the British Military Mission, and in the following months he toured BMM defenses around Lille and French defenses along the western Maginot line – all the while socializing and dining with Bedaux, who was in constant contact with the German government. Bedaux passed along a great deal of classified information to his masters in Berlin, much of it linked to areas the Duke had toured. A stink of implications thickened, leading some attached to the BMM to accuse the Duke of abetting the enemy.

Germany invaded France in 1940, and Duke and his party packed up and moved to Spain, and then to a villa twelve miles outside of Lisbon which was owned by Ricardo de Espirto Santo, who was in the employ of the Nazis. At each step in his journeys, the Duke spoke freely with dinner guests and golfing partners (an almost comical percentage of whom were paid informers) about what he saw as the fatally ill-considered policies of his homeland. The Duke and Duchess believed that England was over-matched in its war with the Third Reich, that the English people did not want to fight, that some kind of arrangement could be made with Hitler, whom the Duke to his dying day refused to denounce. One such informant reported that at one dinner the Duke held forth on the possibility of an English revolution in which the war-party would be ousted and perhaps even the monarchy itself discarded, in favor of an English Republic – with himself as first President. Even allowing for exaggeration or error on the part of some of these witnesses, a grim picture emerges – the picture of a self-absorbed popinjay so enamored of power that he would treat with the Devil to regain it.

The King and Winston Churchill eventually decided that the best answer for these difficulties was to install the Duke as governor of some far-off and insignificant British colony, and the Bahamas were chosen. The Duke and especially the Duchess were appalled by what they correctly saw as this deliberate side-lining (the Duchess called the Bahamas not so much an appointment as a disappointment), and the Nazi agents and sympathizers all around them were eager to capitalize on this disillusionment, hoping to convince the Windsors to travel not to the Bahamas but back to Franco-dominated Spain. The Germans enlisted the Duke’s friend Miguel Primo de Rivera to make the case, which he did in a series of conversations in which he urged the Duke to keep himself on hand in case events should call him back to the English throne. When the Windsors both pointed out that such a thing could never happen, that it was expressly forbidden by the English constitution, Rivera pointed out (no doubt with gentle mockery) that the war might just alter even the English constitution. Through his agents, Hitler offered 50 million Swiss francs and was prepared to go higher (and he naturally raised the possibility of simply abducting the pair if they refused to come willingly). Despite the couple’s later denials, all contemporary witnesses attest that they listened to these offers very seriously, even though it was treason to listen to them at all.

In the end, they didn’t bring themselves to gamble: the Windsors left for the Bahamas aboard the Excalibur and took up their duties grudgingly and with little grace. In 1945 the Duke resigned his position and he and the Duchess returned to their home in Paris, which the Nazis had left untouched at his request. There followed nearly thirty years of dinners, gala events, socializing, and vacationing, very occasionally interspersed with quick trips back to England for special occasions, including the death of King George VI in 1952 and, as the old lady herself predicted, for the funeral of Queen Mary in 1953. The royal family continued to shun the Duchess for most of this time, although in 1972 Queen Elizabeth II and her son Prince Charles met with the Windsors during a state visit to France. Edward VIII – surely the last of that ill-omened name – died in 1977 and was buried in the Royal Burial Ground at Frogmore.

“To state that something is inexcusable and then to excuse it is a posture not infrequently adopted by the biographer,” wrote Philip Ziegler in his 1990 biography of the Duke, and it’s seldom been more true than with this particular subject. Both the Duke and the Duchess wrote self-serving, whitewashing memoirs in their later years (both books became best-sellers), in which they of course protested their complete innocence of any wrongdoing or even wrong-thinking before or during the war. The British government, at the behest of the royal family, scoured captured German archives for records relating to the Duke’s activities during those years and either destroyed or permanently classified those records – hardly a precaution required for utter innocence, and yet most of Edward VIII’s biographers (abetted by the royal family) have followed the line that the Duke may have been childish, willful, mis-advised, and impetuous, but he was hardly a black-hearted traitor who would have watched his own brother sent into exile or executed by London-conquering Nazis so that he could sit on a throne again, even as a Quisling.

Even given the fragmentary evidence that survives, it’s lucky that brother – King George VI, the subject of our next chapter – never had to find out.

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Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Columbia Journal of American Studies, Historical Novel Review Online, The Washington Post, The National and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.