Mystique and intrigue shroud the historical discourse on Great Britain’s one-time King, Edward VIII. Commonly referenced is the so-called constitutional crisis triggered by his choice of marital partner, American divorcee Wallis Simpson, which naturally partners his famed decision to abdicate the throne after a reign of just eleven months. Often, this is where the discussion ends. The remainder of the information of historical significance is relegated to rumour and hearsay. It’s like the elephant in the corridors of history, and for the very same reasons the Duke of Windsor, as he was later known, is to the Royal Family what the estranged Uncle is to one’s everyday family. We all know the one; alcoholic, irresponsible, the fool of the party. He’s the man with the poor reputation to whom everybody wishes they weren’t related. The proverbial elephant in the room, however, is the most fascinating and misunderstood aspect of Edward VIII’s psyche. The official party line suggests Edward VIII was a Nazi sympathiser, a would-be tyrant and, some would say, treasonous. Indeed, Edward was repatriated to the Bahamas during the war under the threat of Court Marshall, for fear he would conspire with Adolf Hitler’s Germany against his native England. But is the reality any different? Was this really the story of an arrogant, fascistic aristocrat, or is this period of Royal history to be viewed more favourably through the lens of truth?
The early life of Edward VIII is well-documented information in the public domain, so repeating it at this point would be a meaningless exercise in repetition. However, to provide a little background; Prince Edward of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha was born in 1894, son of then-Prince George (later King George V), grandson of Edward VII and great-grandson of the regnant Queen Victoria of Hannover. As a point of interest, he was also the first cousin once removed of Kaiser Wilhelm II, emperor of Prussia and Germany. Edward had an uneventful childhood, but the First World War broke out in 1914 and the young Prince, contrary to popular belief, was keen to participate to the fullest extent. He joined the Grenadier Guards and petitioned the Secretary of War, Lord Kitchener, to be permitted to fight on the front line in continental Europe. This request was denied, but the Prince protested that his death would be of little consequence given that he had four brothers. Here, we can glimpse an insight into the patriotism that Edward felt from an early age. His readiness to fight in the war, against Germany and, if necessary, die for this cause, demonstrates his dedication to King and Country. Despite this setback, Edward did experience a significant amount of trench warfare, visiting the frontline as often as he was permitted to do so. He also served with the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. This extensive service, as well as his willingness to expose himself to the same risks as the ordinary soldiers, earned him significant respect from “the man on the street”.
In 1917, as a result of Parliament’s Germanophobic propaganda campaign directed at dehumanising the enemy, the Royal Family changed their name to avoid any unfortunate associations. Thus, Prince Edward of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha became Prince Edward Windsor.
The remainder of his time as Prince is fairly uneventful. Of course, one hears about allegations of behaviour unbecoming of the Royal Household, but this is retrospectively inflated to further ostracise him from the annals of history. In reality, his behaviour was no worse than Prince Harry’s in the modern era, who was known for having something of a rebellious streak as a youth. However, in his later years, King George V, Edward’s father, is reported to have said of his son, ‘after I’m dead, the boy will ruin himself within 12 months’. It was also well-documented that George V preferred Albert, Edward’s younger brother and the man who succeeded him as King, to his eldest son, and sought the enthronement of Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth II) as Albert’s successor.
‘I pray to God that my eldest son will never marry and have children, and that nothing will come between Bertie and Lilibet [Elizabeth] and the throne.’
As it transpired, the lame duck George V got his wish. After just 11 months on the throne, King Edward VIII as he had been crowned in January 1936, abdicated on 11th December 1936. Officially, he chose the love of his life, American divorcee Wallis Simpson, over his duties as King of Great Britain. So-called Royal Protocol prevented a monarch from taking a divorced wife, as the King is head of the Church of England therefore the Abrahamic dogma thereof applied. His wish to marry Simpson is often referred to as the ‘constitutional crisis’ that resulted in his abdication, as Stanley Baldwin’s government, along with the governments of Australia, New Zealand and Canada, threatened to resign if the marriage went ahead and Edward remained on the throne. Thus Edward, should he wish to marry Wallis, was left with no choice but to abdicate the throne. This is often portrayed as the political class, the peoples’ elected representatives, taking a moral stance to uphold the Christian way of things. This is somewhat difficult to follow, especially given the amorality of the political class in most other aspects of public life. One suspects that they were rather disinclined to Simpson’s social circle, as opposed to her status as a divorcee. Simpson had engaged in an affair with Benito Mussolini’s son-in-law, and was personal friends with German Foreign Minister (then-Ambassador) Joachim von Ribbentrop. Of course, the fullest extent of Edward and Wallis’ fascist sympathies only became apparent after the abdication, with their well-publicised visit to Obersalzberg in 1937.
However, even this may not have been the real reason for the British establishment’s antipathy towards King Edward VIII. The King was unconventional relative to precedent set by his forefathers, and this willingness to break with convention extended to his public royal engagements too. He caused “unease” in government circles when he visited Wales’ depressed mining industry, when he said “something must be done” about their working conditions and the state of the mines. Apparently, then-Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin took offence at the King having a social conscience. There was also the case of the royal coinage; tradition stipulated that the monarch’s bust would face the opposite direction to that of the previous monarch on newly minted coins, but Edward insisted on his facing the same direction as his father’s. A strange reason to dismiss a King, perhaps. But on a more serious point, ministers were reportedly concerned about sending sensitive documents to His Majesty’s residence for fear that he was attempting to influence policy, and that he might permit Ms Simpson to review them.
Of course, allegations of overly friendly opinion of Germany, as well as antisemitism and “fascist leanings”, were rife amongst the chattering classes. According to historian Paul Foot, “the Prince was proud of his German origins, spoke German fluently and felt an emotional, racial and intellectual solidarity with the Nazi leaders…”. This is not in the least bit remarkable, given the commonality of these sympathies amongst the British aristocracy, however the Prince appeared to sympathise on a greater level than simply because the Nazis were anti-Semites. Ribbentrop allegedly described him as “a kind of English National Socialist”. According to a diplomat, Robert Bruce Lockhart, who was present at a dinner at the German embassy where then-Prince Edward met Kaiser Wilhelm II’s grandson Prince Louis-Ferdinand, “the Prince of Wales [Edward VIII] was quite pro-Hitler, and said it was no business of ours to interfere in Germany’s internal affairs either re Jews or anything else”. Rather more interestingly, Lockhart also relayed the Prince’s opinion that “…dictators are very popular these days, and (that) we might want one in England before long”. Comments such as these, which the British establishment was all-too aware of, did little to endear him to the politicians of the day. Many feared Edward’s alleged ambition to exercise greater power than previous monarchs were a threat to their own power, which had become such a lucrative business to them. Indeed, British writer Collin Brooks noted in his diary that Edward struck fear into the establishment, because “he could, if he wished, make himself Dictator of the Empire”. According to the history books, Edward first met British Union of Fascists and National Socialists leader Oswald Mosley in 1935, and comments have been attributed to the then-Prince suggesting that he was an early supporter of Mosley’s blackshirts.
Whilst these tales and comments will do little to endear Edward to the untrained eye, there is, in a sense, a greater power at play here. For King Edward VIII was not merely a “Nazi sympathiser”, and he was most certainly not a traitor to his country for establishing close relations with German high society. Rather, he desperately sought to avoid a war between Britain and Germany and, by logical extension, sought to avoid a world war. He had consistently encouraged greater diplomatic channels between Britain and Germany in order to “increase understanding” between our two nations. This was even a partial motive for Edward’s visit to Obersalzberg as Duke of Windsor in 1937, as he believed he could help to broker a peace amid rising tension. Throughout the 1930s, Edward promoted peace between the two nations, even favouring an Anglo-German alliance vis-à-vis Germany’s official foreign policy position. He did this not as a “Nazi agent”, as some ill-informed commentators claim, but as a soldier who had witnessed the true horrors of war two decades prior. Edward had experienced trench warfare, seen his comrades fight and die, and did not want this for another generation of Englishmen. He explained as much in May 1939 in a radio broadcast commissioned by NBC, which incidentally Britain’s state broadcaster the BBC refused to broadcast…
“I am deeply conscious of the presence of the great company of the dead, and I am convinced that could they make their voices heard they would be with me in what I am about to say. I speak simply as a soldier of the Last War whose most earnest prayer it is that such cruel and destructive madness shall never again overtake mankind. There is no land whose people want war.”
The German establishment was convinced that war could have been avoided had King Edward been permitted to remain on the throne. Albert Speer, directly quoting Adolf Hitler, stated: “I am certain through him permanent friendly relations could have been achieved. If he had stayed, everything would have been different. His abdication was a severe loss for us.” This view was echoed by senior German politicians such as Ribbentrop and Göring.
For this crime of seeking rapprochement with the German establishment, King Edward VIII was subjected to intense criminal behaviour by the British establishment and secret service. Recently unsealed files revealed that British government ministers ordered MI5 to tap Edward’s phones, whilst he was King, out of “fear that he and Wallis Simpson ran in fascist circles”. Apparently, “there were also concerns amongst intelligence officials that he had fascist leanings…”. Translated, this simply refers to the fact that Edward was not a cantankerous warmonger, like the majority of Britain’s politicians of that decade. According to these declassified documents, the King’s telephone calls to Wallis Simpson, friends and other royals were eavesdropped on from a telephone exchange in Green Park next to Buckingham Palace. Professor Richard Aldrich of the University of Warwick, who analysed the released cabinet files, said the politicians of the day feared the King might dismiss the government – as per his constitutional right to do so – and invite politicians friendlier to Germany to form a new government. This led to him being placed under surveillance by Special Branch (special state security branch of the Metropolitan Police) on the orders of Stanley Baldwin’s government. Such invasive actions by politicians against the reigning monarch is not only illegal, but also represents a gross breach of royal protocol of a greater magnitude than those breaches committed by Edward himself. In this instance, the British government were the real instigators of a ‘constitutional crisis’, except it never materialised simply because they didn’t get caught.
Even after his abdication, the British establishment was not content with allowing Edward – now Duke of Windsor – to go about his business unmolested. The Duke and Duchess emigrated to France after the abdication debacle, where they remained until the outbreak of war, at which point they relocated to Franco’s Spain – a neutral country. The British establishment felt particularly uneasy with Edward’s presence in Europe. In 1940, despite already being an honorary Field Marshall of the British Army, he was promoted to the rank of Major-General and attached to Britain’s expeditionary mission in France – this rank was graciously bestowed upon him so that he could be placed under the command of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who duly threatened the Duke with Court Marshall unless he immediately returned to British soil. He was subsequently made Governor of the Bahamas and shipped off to Bermuda at the earliest opportunity, where he was to live out the remainder of the war where he “couldn’t cause trouble” (translator’s note: call for peace). The British establishment secretly feared that, as the war was turning beginning to appear ever more futile to the British people, the Duke would become a rallying point for anti-war sentiment and the public would call for his reinstatement to end the senseless killing – especially pertinent given King George VI’s utterly dismal statesmanship.
Of course, there’s no smoke without fire. The German intelligence services (SD) compiled extensive documentation of Edward’s wartime activities and observed his every move whilst he remained in Europe. According to their files which fell into allied hands after the war, the Duke of Windsor was bitterly angry that he was ‘forced to abdicate’, thought his brother King George VI was ‘utterly stupid’ and Winston Churchill a warmonger. This led the Germans to view Edward as an ideal replacement for George VI, should they successfully invade and occupy Great Britain. Needless to say, Winston Churchill went to great pains to ensure that this dossier wasn’t made public after the war. Some suggest that this was to preserve the reputation of the Royal Family, but a cynic might argue that the British establishment sought to prevent their people from realising that there was an alternative to the senseless slaughter of the Second World War.
History is written by the victors, that much we know to be true. Even amongst the winning side, there are winners and losers. In this instance, Edward lost the battle within the upper echelons of the British establishment, forced to concede to the powerful forces of internationalism and finance capitalism. Unfortunately, this has resulted in perhaps the greatest campaign of organised slander that any British statesman has ever had to endure. King Edward VIII has been caricatured as the embarrassing uncle, the estranged family member who everybody wishes they could retrospectively airbrush from the family portrait. Even his own flesh and blood in the royal household subscribe to this vision. This is grossly unfair, for his word and deed demonstrated that Edward VIII indeed made a great aberration from royal tradition: he was the King who cared.