A W Sabine, 20th Century
Caricature of the Prince of Wales (Edward VIII) 1894-1972
Caricature of the Prince of Wales, Edward VIII
1st April 1920
pencil and watercolour
23.50 x 19.05 cm. (9.25 x 7.50 cm.)


Edward VIII [later Prince Edward, duke of Windsor] (1894–1972), king of Great Britain, Ireland, and the British dominions beyond the seas, and emperor of India, was born at White Lodge, Richmond Park, on 23 June 1894, the first child of the five sons and one daughter of the duke and duchess of York. His father, subsequently George V, had become heir apparent to the throne in 1892 and became prince of Wales on the accession of Edward VII in 1901. His mother similarly became princess of Wales, and later Queen Mary.

Youth and education

The future king was given the forenames Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David, the innovatory use of the four patron saints being intended to emphasize the representative character of the monarchy. Within the family he was always known as David. The name Albert was included at Queen Victoria's demand, but her strong request that this be his first name was not accepted (it was given as the first name to the next brother, the future George VI). Unlike his father, who was not heir apparent from birth, David was from the start groomed by his parents to be king, though the pattern of his youth was in fact much the same as his father's.

Neither of his parents found it easy to bring up children, but the hardships of David and his brother Albert, who were educated together, are often exaggerated, at least in the context of what was common in the family life of propertied persons. Their gruff father and their remote mother provided a much more stable domestic background for the raising of their children than had Victoria and Albert and Edward and Alexandra in the two previous generations. The boys' upbringing was intentionally egalitarian, in the sense that it was as similar as circumstances allowed to that of other members of the British propertied class of the time. On the other hand, David grew up in a middle-brow context—not deliberately hostile to culture, but also not sensitive to it. He was an intelligent child, with something of his father's prodigious memory and an innate, wide-ranging curiosity which his parents failed to harness. He was bullied by his nanny and, as the eldest child, was the first target of his father's often violently expressed wrath. He himself, in his later autobiographical volumes, stated that he felt unloved, and he never seems to have wished for children of his own.

David and his siblings were initially educated at home, mostly at York Cottage, Sandringham, and Frogmore, near Windsor, and with little contact with other children. Their tutor was Henry Peter Hansell (1863–1935), chosen for his sporting abilities, who tried to compensate for the curious framework of his pupils' lives by installing a classroom at York Cottage and organizing football matches with children from the village. Hansell taught poorly: his pupils lacked basic arithmetical skills and had difficulty writing their names. Their knowledge of their own country's literature was minimal. However, from other teachers David learned French and German (and later he also became a fluent Spanish speaker).

Prince Edward (as he was officially known) was early noted for charm and good looks, attracting the attention and admiration of the epicene éminence grise of the court, Lord Esher, who noted in his Journal, ‘Prince Edward as composed and clever as ever. … He has the mouth and expression of old Queen Charlotte … but the look of Weltschmerz in his eyes I cannot trace to any ancestor of the House of Hanover’ (Donaldson, 20). The capacity to charm people of both sexes was to be of central importance to the prince's later life. Early photographs of the prince in his sailor suit show a slightly raffish quality, another attribute of subsequent importance (his wearing of hats was always anti-conventional).

In 1907 Prince Edward was sent to the naval college at Osborne, where he was nicknamed Sardine, and in 1909 he progressed to the Royal Naval College on HMS Britannia at Dartmouth, thus receiving the same education as his father, though without the presence of a chaperoning tutor, which left him and his brother Bertie open to bullying. His mother told Lord Esher that she found her son ‘very sensitive, and knowing much more of his prospects and responsibilities than she thought. He is treated, however, at Osborne precisely like any other boy, both by teachers and lads’ (Esher, Journals and Letters of Reginald Viscount Esher, 1934–8, 2.330). His education was thus that of a naval officer, useful in so far as it gave him relatively wide social experience, but intellectually limited to the concerns of a fighting service where technical competence was given a premium. As he was likely soon to be prince of Wales, it was an education of only partial relevance to his future.

As a youth the prince became a proficient player of the highland bagpipe, being taught by William Ross and Henry Forsyth. He frequently, until his later years, played a tune round the table after dinner, sometimes wearing a white kilt. His rather ponderous slow march, ‘Mallorca’, remains in print in the Seaforth Highlanders' standard book of music. He was later patron of the Piobaireachd Society. The prince's bagpipe playing found little favour with most of his friends, and less with his English biographers, but he was, even so, a competent exponent of the instrument, which gave him considerable pleasure.

With the death of Edward VII in May 1910 Prince Edward became heir to the throne, aged fifteen, inheriting the duchy of Cornwall and its large estates and revenues. He returned to Dartmouth, the new king hoping to defer his son's entry to public life. However, on his sixteenth birthday he was created prince of Wales (not an automatic inheritance) and was invested at Caernarfon Castle on 13 July 1911, Lloyd George as constable of the castle inventing a rather Ruritanian ceremonial which took the form of a Welsh pageant. Edward was the first prince of Wales to be invested at Caernarfon since Prince Charles in 1616 (and the evidence for that ceremony is thin). Lloyd George coached the prince to utter some sentences in Welsh.

The new prince of Wales almost immediately began his naval career, serving as midshipman in the Hindustan. On his return the king rather abruptly told him he had arranged for him to attend the University of Oxford. He matriculated in October 1912 and resided as an ordinary undergraduate in Magdalen College, but was chaperoned by Hansell and an equerry. Before going up to Oxford, Prince Edward made his first visit to France. At Oxford the prince was offered tutorials by Herbert Warren, president of Magdalen (‘an awful old man’ in the prince's view (Ziegler, 40)), and other luminaries, but Hansell had not prepared him sufficiently to be able to take advantage of a university education (however truncated) and he was chiefly affected by the social side of Magdalen life. Walter Monckton was one of the few fellow undergraduates with whom he formed a lasting friendship. During the long vacations he made two visits to Germany (staying with relatives) and one to Scandinavia. He left Oxford at the start of the war in 1914. He was right to be cautious of his tutors, for Warren astonishingly broke all confidences by publishing in The Times on 18 November 1914 a report giving his assessment of the prince's time in Oxford (it began: ‘Bookish he will never be’).

The prince in his Oxford days was still remarkably youthful-looking. His ‘slight, shy, wistful figure’ (Ziegler, 33) added vulnerability to his charm, and an enlisting sergeant in August 1914 might reasonably have queried his age.

The First World War

Prince Edward began army life in July 1914 and found military camaraderie much more satisfying than academic life. He was commissioned in the Grenadier Guards and hoped to see action. It was, of course, out of the question that the heir to the throne could be allowed to be killed or, perhaps worse, captured, and a long process began of finding a role for the prince of Wales. A variety of activities was provided which included some real work of a non-combative sort and ambassadorial appearances among the French generals. Given the restrictions within which he was required to operate, the prince made a significant impact in two respects: he was frequently to be seen driving in a royal Daimler or, as he preferred, cycling on a green bicycle to inspect camps and encourage the troops; and by his known presence in the area of battle he associated the royal family in a direct way with the war effort, as his brother Bertie did by serving in the naval battle of Jutland. Frustrating though the prince personally found his lot in war, the state had made good use of him. He was several times in danger, and his driver was killed by shrapnel in the Daimler at Loos while the prince was visiting the front line. He toured the Middle East in 1916, meeting Australian and New Zealand troops evacuated from Gallipoli. In 1918 he was with the Canadian corps in France and after the armistice with the Australian corps in Belgium. He met many American troops. In the course of his war experience he met and dealt with (for these were not the usual royal ‘visits’) a far wider range of men and women than any of his recent predecessors.

Post-war years

Peacetime offered a more awkward prospect for the prince of Wales. The two preceding princes of Wales had both been married early (his father while still heir apparent), and the context of royal marriages was changing. The assumption, on the part of both the future monarch and the public, that a marriage would be arranged or brokered (as had happened with the prince's father) had not wholly disappeared, but George V and Queen Mary left considerable latitude to their children in their search for spouses, and from the public's point of view there was an assumption that ‘romantic love’ should at least appear to play a major role. In this respect the prince was thoroughly modern. These changing assumptions set up a context of potential complexity for any heir to the throne for whom a spouse was to be both a love match and a person who fulfilled the necessary qualifications for the throne. In the army the prince developed an enthusiasm for nightlife, nightclubs, and dancing, which the style of post-war London life encouraged. He soon became a leader of fashionable London society, a more eclectic body than before the war. In this context, after several affairs, his liaison with Mrs Winifred (Freda) Dudley Ward (1894–1983) began in the spring of 1918. She was the wife, with two small daughters, of Lord Esher's grandson, William Dudley Ward (1877–1946), a Liberal MP and chamberlain of the royal household, from whom she separated; they divorced in 1931. Frances Donaldson remarks of the relationship: the prince of Wales ‘was madly, passionately, abjectly in love with her’ (Donaldson, 59). The relationship lasted until 1934, though the prince had some affairs during it. An awkward situation had swiftly been created: Mrs Dudley Ward was maîtresse en titre, and was treated as such, but there was no royal wife.

The quasi-egalitarian habits and manners which the prince had acquired during the war in some respects fitted popular expectations after it. They worked well in the royal tours of the empire which George V delegated to his son. He toured Newfoundland, Canada, and the United States in the summer and autumn of 1919 (and in 1922 bought Bedingfeld Ranch, near Pekisko, Alberta, Canada). His easy manner and innovative hand-shaking sessions (he was the first royal to ‘press the flesh’ in the modern manner) made the prince a star in the Hollywood style then just emerging. The linking of regal presence and charisma with pranks, such as turning a somersault off a diving board, exactly caught the North American spirit. In 1920 he visited Australia and New Zealand in HMS Renown, with similar success, and in 1921–2 India. The Congress Party boycotted the visit (made just after the Amritsar massacre and in the aftermath of the disappointment caused by the Montagu–Chelmsford reforms), but the willingness of Indian crowds to cheer him was noted by commentators. Those responsible for the prince's security (by no means as straightforward a matter in India as in Newfoundland) considerably irritated him, and there was a clear tension between what was expected of a future king–emperor and a personality that was becoming increasingly defined by a populist behaviour which deliberately cut across tradition. He was, he later concluded, ‘in unconscious rebellion against my position’ (Windsor, A King's Story, 133). A prince of Wales who was anti-establishment was likely to become a problem. Even so, the success of the tours and the popularity (at least in some quarters) of the prince's lifestyle in Britain seemed to show the extent to which traditional expectations were changing.

In Britain the prince lived an odd life of hedonism and duty. Nightclubbing and, by day, hunting, point-to-point racing (characteristically, he rode as well as watched, falling often and suffering several quite serious injuries), and frequent rounds of golf were balanced by a programme of visits. He was the first prince of Wales to find almost daily visits of a charitable sort central to his expected duties, and he did not always take well to it. Charming and successful when interested, he was prone to use his rank rather arbitrarily to disappoint, delay, or cancel when in the mood to do so. But this tendency should not be exaggerated: in general the prince was held in high regard, especially in the ex-servicemen's associations and working men's clubs, which he made his especial interest.

Like his father, the prince sympathized with the lot of working people in the 1920s, though when it came to the point he was—not surprisingly, given his upbringing—ambivalent: in 1926 he both subscribed to the miners' relief fund and lent his car to take copies of Churchill's British Gazette to Wales (Donaldson, 21–2). He sponsored clubs called the Feathers Clubs (with Freda Dudley Ward as chairman of the association), originally intended for the unemployed but soon more broadly based. The prince was seen as having advanced views on social questions, but these were much less well thought out than those of his brother Bertie and, by conflation with his impatient view of the establishment, tended to be exaggerated.

George V's severe illness of 1928–9 occurred while the prince was on a tour of east Africa—chiefly a visit to Happy Valley society with Lady Furness, an American, with whom he shared a fairly brief liaison. A telegram from Stanley Baldwin, the prime minister, summoned him home. Though the king recovered, it was apparent that he was entering his final years. This development seems to have encouraged the prince of Wales to intensify those aspects of his life which once king he must have known he would have had to curtail—though the precedent of Edward VII showed that the public and the political establishment could easily accommodate a ménage à trois consisting of a king, a queen, and a maîtresse en titre(Prince Edward had known Mrs Keppel well, being sixteen when Edward VII died).

Wallis Simpson

The prince met Wallis Simpson [see Windsor, (Bessie) Wallis (1896–1986)] in the home of Lady Furness (during the latter's own affair with the prince) on 10 January 1931. She was an American citizen who in 1928 had married, as her second husband, Ernest Simpson, an American businessman then living and working in London. By 1934 the prince had cast aside both Lady Furness and Freda Dudley Ward (the latter cut off without, apparently, any personal farewell). The prince saw Mrs Simpson as his natural companion in life, both sexually and intellectually. ‘To him’, his closest friend during the abdication crisis observed, ‘she was the perfect woman’ (Birkenhead, 125). A man accustomed to get his way, when he knew what it was that he wanted, the prince of Wales seems to have thought from 1934 onwards that matters would turn out as he wished. Though he appears from an early stage to have wanted Wallis as his queen, he made no effort to test or prepare the ground, even with those whose support would be vital. Nor do those around him seem to have sounded him as to his intentions (and as his accession was clearly imminent they could not have been blamed if they had done so). Neither the prince's father nor mother seems to have raised with him either the affair or its likely result. Thus the prince of Wales's affair with Mrs Simpson, pursued with a passion evident to all who observed it, occurred in a political and constitutional limbo. Much is made of the British press's silence on the subject—but that silence provided a convenient context for discussion and resolution of which no advantage was taken by either side. Almost the only person who tried to act as a catalyst was Ernest Simpson, against whom Mrs Simpson began divorce proceedings in the summer of 1936; he pointed out to several people in London early in 1936 that he believed the new king wished to marry his wife.

Ascending the throne

George V died on 20 January 1936 and the prince of Wales was proclaimed as King Edward VIII on 21 and 22 January, having flown to London from Sandringham (the first British monarch to travel by air). The new king kept guard with his brothers on the last evening of their father's lying-in-state in Westminster Hall. With George V's funeral on 28 January, which his son did much to organize, the new reign was under way. Much was propitious: Edward VIII brought to the throne good health, modernity, and very considerable gifts of communication. He was a colourful figure in a drab era. Yet for all his modernity he had given little thought as to how he would behave as king. Though widely travelled, he had little political understanding of the complexities of the period in which he was living. George V had followed his father in letting his son see state papers, but Edward VIII once on the throne followed the precedent of Edward VII's nonchalance rather than his father's diligence with respect to papers describing policy and governmental business. Thus his ministers quickly realized that he was not seriously engaged in the processes of public business, at least in the sense that his father had always been. Partly as a consequence of this, the king had a poor perception of the relationship of his position as monarch to his ministers as his advisers. As Frances Donaldson observed, he ‘had only the haziest notions of the behaviour proper to a constitutional monarch’ (Donaldson, 204). This difficulty was especially evident with respect to foreign policy, where the king's sympathetic view of Nazism—a widespread interpretation of his position which he did nothing to counter—conflicted with the Baldwin government's gradual realization of the true character of Hitler's Germany. He himself remarked that the only positive pieces of advice about being king were supplied by an old courtier: ‘Never miss an opportunity to relieve yourself; never miss a chance to sit down and rest your feet’ (Windsor, A King's Story, 132).

Edward VIII inherited his father's staff and court. Godfrey Thomas, his much valued private secretary while prince of Wales, declined to become his secretary as king. This was a considerable misfortune for the new king. Instead of Thomas, after the customary six-month interim between the reigns the king appointed Sir Alexander Hardinge, previously his father's assistant secretary and with no especial association with the new king; Thomas served as assistant secretary, supported by Alan Lascelles, also from his father's secretariat (Lascelles had been on the prince's staff in the 1920s but had resigned as a result of personal differences). Lascelles was the king's speech-writer. The king's chief officials, diligent though they were in their posts, were thus, with the exception of Thomas, somewhat remote from him; they were not well placed to know his mind or give him personal advice. With respect to Hardinge, the key figure, there was ‘no possibility that he [Hardinge] would achieve a working relationship with the King’ (Ziegler, 258). The king's chief male cronies were G. F. Trotter (1871–1945), assistant comptroller of the household, known as G, and E. D. Metcalfe (d. 1957), known as Fruity. Metcalfe had been the prince's equerry in the early 1920s and was the king's companion during his liaison with Mrs Simpson.

Socially Edward VIII continued to behave as if he was still merely prince of Wales. He established what was in effect a second (and in his mind the chief) court at Fort Belvedere, a folly built on the border of Windsor Great Park and restored for his own use when prince of Wales. It became linked in the public mind with the abdication—just as, in the same period, Cliveden was with appeasement. Members of the royal household were excluded from Fort Belvedere, with Metcalfe acting as a go-between for all the various parties. The king's affair with Mrs Simpson was undisguised (though still almost unreported in the British press), and his informal and sometimes arbitrary behaviour was the despair of his staff. To move the monarchic establishment towards a more informal style might well have been a long-term objective, but to assume that such a change had already been made was to flout his own constituency in a dangerous way. He was pointedly warned by Cosmo Gordon Lang, archbishop of Canterbury; Lang did not explicitly mention Mrs Simpson, but the king knew the purpose of the conversation: ‘That encounter was my first intimation that I might be approaching an irreconcilable conflict’ (Windsor, A King's Story, 274). The king drew from it, however, not a political conclusion, but the hope that ‘time would produce a solution’ (ibid., 275).

The abdication

Members of the cabinet and the archbishop of Canterbury were well aware of the foreign newspapers' coverage of the king's holiday in the Mediterranean with Mrs Simpson on the yacht Nahlin. Baldwin, who was never hasty and sometimes dilatory, allowed the situation to mature almost to its fullest point before he asked to see the king on 20 October 1936. Baldwin liked the king personally and had accompanied him on the tour of Canada in 1927 (which had also allowed him to see the caprice as well as the charm of the then prince of Wales). That Baldwin did not, until a late stage, perceive that the king hoped to marry Mrs Simpson was the fault of the monarch as much as of the prime minister. It is also possible that it was only on 15 October that Sir Alexander Hardinge, the king's secretary, learned of Mrs Simpson's petition for divorce, which was to be heard at Ipswich, about which he immediately told Baldwin. On 20 October Baldwin told the king of the effect press reporting would have in Britain when the self-imposed embargo was lifted, as it was bound to be, and suggested that he persuade Mrs Simpson not to pursue her divorce. He suggested she instead go abroad for six months. Though the king replied, disingenuously, that the divorce was a private matter for Mrs Simpson, Baldwin did not take the matter further and did not make an explicit warning about the king's trying to marry her. He perhaps underestimated both Edward VIII's determination and his lack of political perception. On 27 October Mrs Simpson obtained a decree nisi, and the next day Hardinge warned the duke of York (next in line to the throne) that abdication was a possibility. On 3 November—with the press still silent—the king opened parliament (the only occasion on which he did so) and made the required declaration that he was ‘a faithful Protestant’. The coronation was planned for 12 May 1937, before Mrs Simpson's decree would become absolute and she would be free to marry again.

Behind the scenes various developments worsened the king's position. Two affidavits had been filed, requiring the intervention of the king's proctor, with respect to Mrs Simpson's decree nisi on grounds of collusion between the king and Mrs Simpson, a potentially very embarrassing case. On 13 November Hardinge wrote to put on record to the king the facts that the press was about to break silence and that ‘the serious situation which is developing’ was being discussed by Baldwin and other senior ministers. Hardinge warned of the possible resignation of the government (Donaldson, 235–6). The king was shocked by the impersonal tone of Hardinge's letter, and subsequently used Walter Monckton as his adviser. On 16 November Baldwin again requested an audience: at it, for the first time to a minister, the king stated his intention to marry Mrs Simpson. Dominion opinion—canvassed via the governors-general and directly by Baldwin and already well informed through the newspapers—was strongly hostile; Baldwin thought British opinion would also be hostile when the news finally broke. That dominion opinion was said to be so hostile was important, both because Edward VIII was the first monarch to be head of state of each dominion individually and because it was in the dominions that his modern ways had seemed so popular. In Britain he risked facing difficulties with two institutions: the Church of England, whose leaders would certainly oppose the marriage of the defender of the faith (as the king was) if his future spouse's status as a divorcee would bar him from being married in a Church of England service; and parliament, which less than a decade earlier had rejected the Church of England's modest attempt at innovation through the revised Book of Common Prayer. The king told Baldwin that if the government opposed the marriage he intended to make, he would abdicate. That night the king dined with his mother and sister, and told them of his love for Wallis Simpson and of his intention, if necessary, to abdicate—a decision repeated next day to each of his brothers.

On 18–19 November the king visited the distressed areas of south Wales, and at the Bessemer steel works at Dowlais remarked in a sentence which, in several slightly different versions, became famous: ‘These works brought all these people here. Something must be done to find them work.’

The crisis having moved forward apace, there was now something of a lull. How much the king discussed these matters with Wallis Simpson is hard to know—as is the moment when he formally proposed marriage to her. A compromise was suggested by Esmond Rothermere, proprietor of the Daily Mail, that there be a morganatic marriage (by which Mrs Simpson would marry the king but not become queen). Ironically, though the king's marriage to someone who would be queen was not subject to the Royal Marriages Act, a morganatic marriage would require an act of parliament and would have opened the monarchy to extensive and prolonged parliamentary debate. It was very questionable whether the government could carry such a bill, and certain that it did not wish to introduce one. The king put the morganatic proposal to Baldwin on 25 November, because of its legislative implications, and by so doing gave him title to consult the cabinet. The dominions and the opposition were formally consulted: all were agreed both that Mrs Simpson would not be suitable as queen and that a morganatic marriage was not an acceptable compromise. Of the cabinet, only Duff Cooper took a different view (suggesting all sides should defer the question until after the coronation).

Thus it was that when on 2 December the wall of press silence began to crumble (initially through reports of some remarks by A. W. F. Blunt, suffragan bishop of Bradford, to his diocesan conference) the issue had matured almost to a point of agreement between all the immediate parties: the king should abdicate. One of the few who thought he should not was Wallis Simpson, who preferred the morganatic solution and, failing that, did not find her position of maîtresse en titre unappealing (though she would not have countenanced a marriage of convenience by the king to another woman). On 3 December—the first day of major British press coverage—she left for Cannes. ‘I am sure there is only one solution’, she recorded herself as having said, ‘that is for me to remove myself from the King's life. That is what I am doing now’ (The Heart has its Reasons, 259–60). Her absence gave the king a little time and, fairly enough, emphasized how far abdication was his own choice, within the options Baldwin had described.

The king then made his only tactical intervention in the crisis: a proposal that he be allowed to go abroad as king after broadcasting to his people about his wishes, the people then, by some unstated mechanism, making their views known. Baldwin refused the broadcast as unacceptable to the cabinet: he took the view that he and the cabinet were in this instance the constitutional representatives of public opinion, though Baldwin was throughout careful not explicitly to advise the king that he should abdicate. The king, isolated with Walter Monckton at Fort Belvedere, was temporarily encouraged by an extraordinary intervention by Winston Churchill and Lord Beaverbrook, and by a phone call from Mrs Simpson, to consider fighting for his rights and to ignore his government's advice with respect to his marriage. Exhausted and by some accounts bemused, the king, through Monckton, told Baldwin on 5 December of his decision to abdicate; after several further twists and turns the instrument of abdication was signed on the morning of Thursday 10 December, witnessed by the king's three brothers, and a king's message was sent to the Commons. A plan to accompany the necessary act of parliament with a second measure making Mrs Simpson's decree immediately absolute was dropped in the light of the expected opposition.

Edward VIII's reign ceased on 11 December on his assent to the consequent statute, the same day on which James II vacated the throne in 1688. His reign had lasted 327 days, the shortest of any recognized monarch since Edward V. No longer king, he was introduced by John Reith for his broadcast that evening as his royal highness Prince Edward. Whatever the misjudgements and miscalculations he had made, his broadcast was a triumph and remained poignant decades later. In a sentence which became immediately famous he remarked:

you must believe me when I tell you that I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.

His decision, he said, ‘has been mine and mine alone’ (Donaldson, 295). (The effect of his broadcast was perhaps enhanced by a censorious broadcast soon after by the archbishop of Canterbury, felt by many to have been ungenerous and ill-judged.) On the evening of his brother's broadcast George VI proposed his royal highness the duke of Windsor as his title, and so he became known from that day, the title being announced in the new king's speech to the accession council on 13 December. It was a dignified choice, though it falsely described the extent of contact which the duke was subsequently to be allowed with either the house or the castle of Windsor.

The abdication was a curious episode since the result satisfied all parties (except the Churchillites). It was of no great immediate constitutional importance for Baldwin played by the book, and the king did not challenge Baldwin's reading of it. Attempts to form a ‘king's party’ lacked the sustained support of the monarch. Edward VIII appears initially to have had some expectation that Mrs Simpson would become his queen. But he advanced no informed or developed case that she should do so, and he made almost no attempt thus to arrange matters with the politicians and the church. Possibly he realized from the start that that would be fruitless; certainly he lacked the political skills and acumen even to begin preparing the ground. A life founded on jumping over the official traces was not a preparation for successfully steering them.

Edward VIII was not long enough on the throne for a state portrait, though several portraits were painted of him in 1936, including one wearing his Garter robes by J. St Helier Lander (Masters Mariners' Company, London) and a portrait by W. R. Sickert for the Welsh Guards (Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Fredericton, New Brunswick), which, showing the king briskly stepping out, was a quite unusual portrait of a monarch and was painted from a photograph. Rather characteristically Edward VIII successfully insisted on his left profile being used for the new coins and postage stamps because left was his better side (the convention was that the side changed with the monarch, and George V had looked left). The stamps were issued, but he resigned the throne before any coins were issued. Though Edward VIII moved in circles in which he met some artists, and did not have his father's instinctive caution about the modern age, he was not seriously interested in the arts and made no attempt, at any stage of his life, to use his position to promote the importance of art or music.

His royal highness the duke of Windsor

Though he had not discussed the possibility of abdication with his brother, or the dramatic change it would bring to him, the duke was surprised by the decisiveness with which George VI re-established royal ‘normality’. An important part of this process was a pretence that the episode had never occurred. The new royal family behaved as if the Windsors did not exist, and the new king, as late as 1941, referred in his diary to the duchess as ‘Mrs. S[impson]’. In fact George VI was well informed about them and kept a sharp watch, choosing, for example, the place of his exiled brother's wedding (the Château de Candé, near Tours in France). There the Windsors were married on 3 June 1937, first in the usual French civil ceremony and then according to the Church of England rite by the Revd R. A. Jardine of Darlington, who offered his services despite the Church of England's views on marriage to divorced persons. E. D. Metcalfe was best man. No member of the duke's family attended, but his mother and siblings sent telegrams, and Baldwin a kindly letter. The occasion was marred for the duke by news brought by Walter Monckton: the letters patent formally establishing the duke's title denied (with dubious legality) the duchess the prefix her royal highness—a small point sub specie aeternitatis, but one of great importance to all concerned on both sides. Few expected the Windsors' marriage to last, and George VI pointed out to Baldwin that HRH was a title which once given could not be removed: the fear was that the duchess would leave the duke and become a maverick HRH, conceivably even married to a fourth husband. The slight, as the duke perceived it, made him fully realize, perhaps for the first time, the extent of his exclusion.

Life after kingship

The duke's financial settlement was made between him and George VI in December 1936 (as he was life tenant of Sandringham and Balmoral it was a complex matter). He received an income adequate to living fashionably in Paris with a small household, but his failure to disclose all his assets (he had in reserve a considerable fortune) left his brother and Churchill, who assisted in the negotiations, feeling duped; this episode materially contributed to the distrust with which the duke of Windsor was seen by Britain's wartime monarch and prime minister.

The Windsors had no function other than to live as a leisured, childless couple. When James II had vacated the throne great issues of principle had been the cause, a cause sustained by James's son and grandson. Comparatively Edward VIII's abdication was, as far as it could be, a private matter. Even so, there was some fear in London and Windsor that the former king would form—or have formed around him—a king's party. The duke himself seems to have expected that he would soon be given employment. It was perhaps a misjudgement that, after a short interval, he was not, for it would have brought him again within official control. The duke revived the aspect of his time which as prince of Wales he had especially enjoyed—foreign visits—and in October 1937 he and the duchess visited Germany. His stated intention was to study German solutions to unemployment, but the visit was, of course, a triumph for the Nazis who craved just this sort of recognition. The Windsors met Hitler, and the duke made ‘a modified Nazi salute’ and on two other occasions a full Nazi salute (Donaldson, 331–2). It used to be thought that the duke's links to Germany at this time were merely a symptom of non-political naïvety, but recently it has been suggested that he came to see himself as a possible alternative monarch, should Britain be defeated in war, and that concern about the possibility of a king's party was no idle fear. Robert Bruce Lockhart's contemporary report catches this view: the Germans expected, Bruce Lockhart wrote, that the duke would ‘come back as a social-equalising King’ and inaugurate an ‘English form of Fascism and alliance with Germany’ (Ziegler, 392). Like his brother, the duke was a keen supporter of Neville Chamberlain; he was pessimistic about Britain's likelihood of surviving in 1940, and he favoured a negotiated peace with Hitler, a view which was not uncommon in some British circles (though not among the duke's British friends). After the war German documents were found substantiating Bruce Lockhart's view of what the Germans intended the duke's role should be. But evidence that the duke either hoped for or planned such an outcome has not been found, almost certainly because it does not exist; if it did exist, the exhaustive attention given to this episode would almost certainly have brought it to light.

In 1938 the Windsors took a long lease on the villa La Cröe at Antibes and on 24 boulevard Suchet near the Bois de Boulogne in Paris. From January 1939 the latter was intended as their usual home—the first of several addresses in that part of Paris. The duke made several other interventions in public life which confirmed his reputation as a loose cannon: he pursued a libel action arising from Geoffrey Dennis's Coronation Commentary (1937), though the book was largely a defence of his actions; he broadcast to America on 8 May 1939 from the battlefields of Verdun appealing for peace (just as George VI was beginning his visit to the USA); he sent a telegram to Hitler in August 1939 also appealing for peace. When war began the Windsors were at the villa La Cröe: they were brought to Britain by Lord Louis Mountbatten in HMS Kelly. The duke (who was still a field marshal) was offered two posts, choosing to be regional commissioner for Wales. This offer was at once dropped (perhaps his refusal had been expected), although—perhaps because—the post would have kept him in Britain. George VI ‘did not like the idea’ of the duke's presence in Britain: ‘the sooner he went to France the better for all concerned. He is not wanted here’ (George VI's diary, quoted in Rhodes James, 175). The duke thus became a member of the British military mission in France (a return to his 1914–18 work); he was a major-general for the duration of the war and was accompanied by Fruity Metcalfe.

On the fall of France in June 1940 the Windsors escaped to Madrid; they had no papers, but the duke negotiated the road blocks by calling out ‘Je suis le Prince de Galles. Laissez-moi passer, s'il vous plaît’ (‘I am the Prince of Wales. Let me pass, please’). They subsequently moved to Lisbon at the start of July. There then occurred a plot worthy of a novel by John Buchan or a film by Alfred Hitchcock: an attempt by the Germans, organized by Ribbentrop, to kidnap the duke with a view to using him as the British Pétain, or at least to keep him in Spain with the expectation that he would support a call for peace. How justified the Germans were in believing that the Windsors would be useful to them cannot be known. Much speculation on the duke's likely actions has been based on evidence which assumes a more systematic approach to politics than was usual with him; on the other hand, the Germans evidently thought the Windsors might be a convenient way into that circle in the English establishment which thought the empire should be fighting the Russians rather than the Germans.

From his friend Winston Churchill, now prime minister, the duke requested a position in Britain and recognition for his wife by the rest of the royal family (he abstained from raising the HRH question). In Britain's ‘darkest hour’ Churchill had to spend much time sorting out the duke's position. The duke was offered the governorship of the Bahamas, which he accepted. Ribbentrop's attempts to persuade the Windsors not to leave neutral Portugal were counterbalanced by Monckton, and they left Lisbon for the Bahamas on 1 August 1940, reaching Nassau on 17 August. From the British point of view this was a convenient solution: the duke had a post, but was under Colonial Office control as to his statements and movements. From the Windsors' point of view the governorship seemed a chance to bid for reinstatement from an exclusion they still found hard to comprehend. Though small in population the Bahamas was not an easy posting, given all the tug and tussle of a multi-ethnic society in which the white population had the upper hand. The Windsors' time there was on balance successful, though the duke handled several incidents with lack of tact and judgement and sometimes seemed insensitive to the claims of the island's black inhabitants. On the other hand he was seen as dangerous and antagonistic by the ‘Bay Street Boys’ (the white traders who dominated the legislative assembly), and he tried to develop policies for agricultural improvement in the Out Islands and to diminish black unemployment. Serious riots occurred in June 1942, when the duke was in the United States. He returned promptly and reimposed order quickly by conciliating all parties and making a broadcast to the islanders which annoyed the Colonial Office by his announcement that he would seek American assistance to raise wages. The Windsors found Bahamian life tiresome, but they put on a good public show. In 1944 the duke requested a more important post, but was offered the governorship of Bermuda, which he declined. He resigned as governor of the Bahamas on 16 March 1945. Churchill had persistently but without effect tried to persuade the king to receive the duchess and to find the duke another post, such as the governorship of Madras or Ceylon. This intervention by Churchill, early in 1945, conflating the question of the duke's post with the duchess's reception, was poorly timed and counter-productive; it annoyed the king, and perhaps delayed the possibility of a degree of reconciliation. After a visit to the USA (the duke had struck up quite a regular correspondence with Roosevelt and visited the States several times during his governorship, notably in 1941 and 1942) the Windsors returned to Paris, the duke briefly visiting Britain without the duchess. A combination of France and the USA was to be their regular routine until the duke's death. George VI made it plain that the presence of the duke and duchess in Britain would be an embarrassment, a point the duke regretfully accepted, and the duke's offer to work in ‘the field of Anglo-American relations’ was declined (Bloch, Duke of Windsor's War, 364–5). In 1952 La Cröe was sold and the Moulin de la Tuilerie, an old watermill near Paris, bought in its place. Soon after, by arrangement with the city of Paris which charged only a nominal rent, 4 rue du Champ d'Entraînement, a mansion on the Neuilly side of the Bois de Boulogne, became the Windsors' chief home (Ziegler, 534–5).

From the duke's point of view his life was lived at its fullest during his years with the duchess. The love which had drawn him into that relationship showed, on his side, no sign of diminution. Preoccupied with seeing that the duchess received adequate recognition of her status by those who met her—he insisted that guests refer to his wife as her royal highness—the duke consequently and somewhat ironically found himself the champion of status and its rights. Indeed his position depended on his status (and former status as king) being taken seriously by his coterie, and he never intended that abdication would lead to the ordinary life of a commoner. He abdicated from the throne, not from the royal family. Though he retained the charm and good looks of his youth they began to have a frozen quality, as the ageing Windsors contrasted in the photographs with Princess Elizabeth and her young family. The modish social views of the 1920s turned to reactionary convention.

As the abdication began in the late 1940s to be a distant public memory, the duke had an interest in maintaining public fascination with it. He also increasingly felt he had been unfairly treated—a charge he had not made at the time. Moreover, though the duke's income was substantial, the Windsors' lifestyle, and especially the duchess's, was expensive. Attempts to find oil on his Canadian ranch had led to significant losses and currency restrictions further complicated a life lived in several countries, and the duke sometimes pulled rank to avoid them.

A King's Story (1951) was the first book by a British monarch since 1688, apart from Queen Victoria's editions of her journals. John Gore's ‘personal memoir’ of George V (1941), written largely from the king's diaries at the request of George VI, was carefully discreet about ‘David’, but the choice of Harold Nicolson in 1948 as George V's official biographer suggested a more candid approach (in fact Nicolson's biography of 1952 was reticent with respect to David, whom Nicolson had seen from time to time since 1936). G. M. Young's biography of Baldwin was also in preparation (1952) and certain to tell the story from Baldwin's point of view. A King's Story, written with the help of Charles John Vincent Murphy, was thus a well-timed volume, and financially very successful. It was followed by two less substantial books, The Crown and the People, 1902–1953 (1953), published just after the duke's niece's coronation, and A Family Album (1960). In 1965 a film was made of A King's Story by Jack Le Vien, directed by Harry Booth—a compilation of commentary by Orson Welles, interviews of the duke and duchess, and extracts from newsreels; it was nominated for best documentary in the Oscars.

In February 1952 the duke attended the funeral of George VI (they had hardly met since the latter became king). In 1953 he visited his mother before she died. He was not invited to the new queen's coronation that year. In 1966 the duke and duchess were invited by Elizabeth II to attend the unveiling of a plaque to Queen Mary, the duchess being presented to the queen. The normal informality of family life was not restored, but the taboo of non-contact was broken.

The duke aged rapidly in the late 1960s. In 1972 cancer of the throat gained ascendancy (like his brother, he had been a smoker from an early age). As he lay dying he was visited by Elizabeth II during her state visit to France. On 28 May 1972 the duke of Windsor died at his home, 4 rue du Champ d'Entraînement, Paris. His body received the panoply due to a royal prince. It lay in state, not in Westminster Hall but in St George's Chapel, Windsor, for the public to file by—which they did in unexpectedly large numbers. The funeral service was held in St George's Chapel on 5 June in the presence of the queen, the royal family, and the duchess of Windsor, and the coffin was buried in a plot beside the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore (with provision for the duchess in due course).

Reflections on a retired monarch

As long as monarchy in Britain is invested with the full fig of hereditary mystique, Edward VIII will have a bad press. In asserting private before public priorities to the extent of occasioning a constitutional crisis, he undoubtedly went far beyond what the British and imperial establishment found acceptable in a sovereign. His behaviour created a sharp royal reaction on the part of George VI and his family which prevented the evolution of the monarchy and which played a part in leading to an emphasis on family values which proved to be dangerous. But if the monarchy were to lose some of its mystique, and if the primacy of the hereditary element in monarchy weakens, then Edward VIII's priorities may come to be seen more sympathetically. Moreover it may be said of him that his values were ahead, but not very far ahead, of his time: his view of marriage to a divorcee was one increasingly favoured by his subjects and has been accommodated by most British churches in the latter part of the twentieth century—though in the 1930s it was certainly unacceptable to almost all. He himself was never party to a divorce case, and after his marriage he appears to have been strictly monogamous. As a married man the duke of Windsor was respectability personified.

It was a major difficulty for Edward VIII that, quite apart from the question of Mrs Simpson, he was not trusted by his ministers. If he had shown himself a competent monarch with respect to the handling of day-to-day business, and with a consistent and informed judgement on public affairs, his ministers might well have been willing to do much more to accommodate Mrs Simpson. But for them the Simpson affair was a symptom of a wider question mark which had arisen over his capacity to be king. In this they were surely correct: it is hard to imagine Edward VIII handling the crises such as those over the House of Lords, the First World War coalitions, and inter-war politics with any of his father's aplomb. Though it was unstated, there was therefore some elision of the question of the royal marriage with the question of the king's suitability for the throne. It is speculation to consider whether the king also took this view, and used his relationship with Mrs Simpson as a means of escape which would otherwise be denied to him; but there is little indication that he had any inclination to settle into a role of whose conventions and constrictions he was well aware. ‘The fault lay not in my stars but in my genes’, he later wrote of himself (Windsor, A King's Story, 284); however, in an interview in 1957 he remarked ‘Of course I wished to be King. More, I wished to remain King’ (Wheeler-Bennett, 268). The king did little to help himself tactically, but the establishment, led by Baldwin and Cosmo Gordon Lang, archbishop of Canterbury, gave the clear impression that his choice of abdication was not a choice which distressed them.

Edward VIII thus occupies an ambivalent position in the history of the British monarchy. The circumstances of his brief reign seemed to emphasize the dominance of respectability and inflexibility in inter-war British public morals, while also allowing the procedures of the constitution to demonstrate their flexibility and swift efficacy. The latter, as much as the former, caused alarm in royal circles. The fact of an abdication (as the rest of the royal family at once saw) in itself introduced in the long run alternative possible solutions to the harsh requirements imposed on those who held by the accident of birth a position whose confines they might find unacceptable. An essential point about monarchy, on the part of both sovereign and subject, was that it was not a voluntary institution: the king ruled by the accident of birth and the subject by duty obeyed the holder of the office. Abdication offered an alternative view of these relationships. If the monarch could leave the throne because he personally did not find it convenient to sit upon it, his subjects might well think that, in certain circumstances in addition to the protestant requirements already written into the constitution, they could express a view as to whether the occupant of the throne suited them. Thus the widespread and much emphasized understanding that George VI ruled unwillingly but from a sense of duty was an important counter to the possible direction that Edward VIII had set out upon.

The duke of Windsor, especially compared to the considerable number of other former monarchs of the period, behaved after 1936 with dignity and reserve in the face of what he and his wife saw as a deliberate and systematic exclusion. Few had believed the king when he said that he could not and would not live his life without Wallis Simpson, but he spoke the truth. In the long history of royal romance there are few better examples of fidelity to a person or a claim.

H. C. G. Matthew  DNB