Can one defend the reputation of the Duke of Windsor, ex-King Edward VIII, who gave up a crown for the love of a twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson? This is the challenge set by Like A Shot TV for an upcoming documentary I am contributing to. Naturally, I went immediately back to the books namely the Duke’s Memoir A King’s Story and the Duchess’s The Heart has its Reasons. I also turned to Anne Sebba’s rather caustically brilliant That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor.
I find the Duke more sympathetic than his Duchess. As Prince of Wales, the Duke was raised by parents with ice in their veins: King George V and Queen Mary. They in turn had seen cousins Tsar Nicholas II ofd Russia and Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany fall during World War One and had to stand for stability, continuity and tradition in the face of the republican storm that followed the Great War.
David, as the Prince of Wales was known to his family, was a moderniser ill-at-ease with hereditary titles. On the other hand, his travels to the four corners of the empire made him as popular as a movie idol such as Rudolph Valentino. He was a dashing steeple-chaser, a jazz fiend and polo-playing young man with matinee idol looks who clearly enjoyed the excesses of the 1920s. He was also a fatalist who understood that whether he liked it or not he would one day be King of Great Britain.
The Prince of Wales’s preference for older married women such as Freda Dudley Ward and Thelma Furness who tended to boss and coddle him in equal measures can be seen as a reaction to the aloof, cold Queen Mary. Less explicable was the Prince’s love affair with twice-divorced American Mrs Simpson who appeared to be the dominatrix to end all others.
I do believe the rumours that Mrs Simpson had learned techniques in Shanghai that pleased ‘the little man’ are erroneous. It was Wallis Simpson’s complete absence of reverence that caught the Prince of Wales’s heart. He would have known, when he acceded as King Edward VIII in late 1936 that church, state, family and the colonies would not accept Wallis Simpson as Queen Consort. And yet he would not let go.
In his defence, King Edward VIII had found a woman who enthralled and overpowered him to the point that he was as defenceless of her charms as King Henry VIII with Anne Boleyn. Unfortunately, he abdicated in the face of an avalanche of criticism at a point when he could have retained the throne and Mrs Simpson as Maitresse-en-Titre had his family, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and Archbishop of Canterbury Cosmo Lang not forced his hand.
I very much doubt Mrs Simpson wished for abdication. She already had a king’s ransom in jewels showered on her by her king and a position as hostess with the mostest that so deeply offended the Duchess of York (the future Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. Even without a morganatic marriage, the forty-one year old king could have kept Mrs Simpson at his side and ruled as a bachelor king but he was caught in a bear trap.
Once the instrument of abdication had been signed, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were at the mercy of their captors. The new Queen Elizabeth was merciless in banishing he and the Duchess from England. The Duke was held to ransom once he’d signed over Sandringham and Balmoral to the new King George VI and was blackmailed to stay away with the threat that a civil list payment would be cut if he set foot in England with his Duchess.
Imagine the ignominy of marrying the Duchess of Windsor without a single member of his family in attendance. Imagine his dismay to be made Governor of the Bahamas for the duration of World War Two making him appear as feckless and cowardly as the Happy Valley set in Kenya.
There are the clouds of Nazi sympathy that surround the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. The Duke was pro-appeasement but so too was David Lloyd-George and the lion’s share of the British aristocracy and media-ocracy including Lord and Lady Astor, Lord Halifax and the first Lord Beaverbrook. Less understandable was the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s decision to visit Hitler in 1937 and give the Nazi salute. Were those rumours that he would be set up as a puppet king once Britain had been defeated gossip truth or propaganda released by Queen Elizabeth and the government to vilify the Duke and his unfortunate Duchess who had also been denied the HRH: a low blow.
We will never know how vindictive Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth had been until the day the Duke died in 1972. It was said that Queen Elizabeth blamed the Duke of Windsor for the premature death of King George VI. In his defence again, I would surmise that Queen Elizabeth looked terribly happy and serene in her Hartnell gowns and tiaras for the duration of a reign that lasted from 1936 to 1952.
The Duke and Duchess were punished for their love; living in exile and running with the international jet set being cold comfort for the loss of a crown. It is a great ‘What if?’ game had the Duke not abdicated and reigned as a bachelor king. Would the crown still have passed to Queen Elizabeth II on his death in 1972 or would it have gone to third brother the Duke of Gloucester who would have been even more unsuitable than the Duke of Windsor?
Friends of the monarchy said Wallis Simpson was a God-send, removing a most unsuitable man from the line of succession. Much as the Duke of Windsor had good qualities, I could not argue that he would have been a divisive wartime king and not up to the quiet stoicism of King George VI and his family. If he’d been given a role his life might not have been so empty.