Edward VIII 1894-1972, King of Great Britain, Ireland, and the British Dominions beyond the seas, Emperor of India—the only British sovereign to relinquish the crown voluntarily—was born at White Lodge, Richmond Park, 23 June 1894, the eldest of the family of five sons and one daughter of the then Duke and Duchess of York. With the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 his parents became Prince and Princess of Wales, and in 1910, when Edward VII died, King George V and Queen Mary. As their eldest son Prince Edward was from birth in the direct line of succession, and of the seven names (Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David) given to him at his baptism four were those of British patron saints. In the family he was always known as David.
Though in most respects pampered by Fate, he was unlucky in the inability of his parents to communicate easily with their children, who consequently suffered from a lack of human warmth and encouragement in early life. Their father, though kind-hearted, was a martinet in his treatment of them, and their mother was deficient in the normal maternal instincts. Nor did the man chosen to be their principal tutor, Henry Peter Hansell, make up for what their parents failed to give, since he too was a rather aloof and limited character.
Edward was an intelligent child, endowed with curiosity and a powerful memory. Though it is unlikely that he would ever have developed as a scholar, his mental gifts deserved imaginative teaching. As it was, he grew up with a poor grounding of knowledge, no taste at all for any books worth the name, and unable even to spell properly. Only as a linguist were his attainments equal to his position, since he learnt French and German in childhood, and later acquired a fluent command of Spanish.
Other valuable qualities belonged to him naturally. Despite his small stature he had exceptional good looks, which never lost their boyish appeal. He had boundless energy and zest, and was full of courage. Above all, he had a spontaneous charm of manner which drew people to him and put them at their ease. His personality would have been remarkable even if he had not been royal; allied to his princely status it was irresistible.
In 1907 he was sent to Osborne, and two years later to Dartmouth. While he was there his father became King, and he himself heir apparent to the throne. On his sixteenth birthday he was created Prince of Wales, and on 13 July 1911 became the first English holder of the title to be formally invested at Caernarvon castle. The ceremony was stage-managed by the constable of the castle, David Lloyd George (later Earl Lloyd-George of Dwyfor) who personally taught him a few words of Welsh to utter when he was presented to the crowd at Queen Eleanor's gate.
The following year he went into residence at Magdalen College, Oxford, but there was little to show for his brief university career. During vacations he paid two visits to Germany and one to Scandinavia. In 1914 he was anyway due to leave Oxford at the end of the academic year, to begin a period of service in the army; but in the event he did so as Britain was entering the most terrible war in her history.
Commissioned in the Grenadier Guards, he asked only to be allowed to fight alongside his contemporaries, but was told that this would not be possible, because of the danger that he might be captured and used as a hostage. Soon, however, he managed to get himself posted to the staff of the British Expeditionary Force's commander in France, and thereafter spent most of the war abroad, attached to various headquarters but essentially serving as a visitor of troops and general morale-raiser. He lived frugally and, though provided with a Daimler, preferred to travel around on a green army bicycle, covering hundreds of miles. His desire always was to be at the scene of action, and he had a narrow escape when visiting front-line positions before the battle of Loos.
Given his enforced role as a non-combatant he could hardly have done more to share the ordeal of other young men of his generation. Yet he was mortified that he could not share it more fully, and genuinely embarrassed when he was awarded the MC. The humility of his attitude enhanced the value of the work he did, which was never forgotten by the countless ordinary soldiers to whom he brought understanding and cheer.
His war service was a crucially formative episode in his own life, vastly broadening his range of human experience and showing how good he was at establishing contact with his fellow-men, whatever their backgrounds. As well as meeting people of all classes from the United Kingdom, he also got to know Allied troops, including Americans, and a variety of British subjects from overseas. While visiting the Middle East in the spring of 1916 he met Australians and New Zealanders evacuated from Gallipoli. At the time of the armistice in 1918 he was with the Canadian Corps in France, and after the armistice was attached to the Australian Corps in Belgium.
Thus he was unconsciously introduced to the next and most fruitful phase of his career, which began with his visits to Newfoundland, Canada, and the United States in the summer and autumn of 1919. Lloyd George, now prime minister, was convinced that the appearance of the popular Prince of Wales in far corners of the Empire might do more — than half a dozen solemn Imperial Conferences. So it proved. The Canadian tour was a triumphal success, in Quebec no less than in the English-speaking provinces. Wherever he went the response was overwhelming. In Alberta he bought a ranch for himself—an admirable gesture, though a source of trouble to him later.
His first visit to the United States was equally successful, though briefer and far less extensive. In Washington, he called on the stricken President Wilson, and in New York was given a ticker-tape welcome as he drove to the City Hall to receive the freedom. Yet it was not such important occasions that lingered most persistently in his mind after his return to England, but rather the song A Pretty Girl is like a Melody, which he had heard at the Ziegfeld Follies. His endless whistling of this damned tune caused annoyance to his father, and shows that American culture had made an immediate conquest.
In 1920 he visited New Zealand and Australia, travelling there in the battleship Renown, by way of the Panama canal, Hawaii, and Fiji. Again, he carried all before him. In 1921-2 he toured India, where nationalists had been disappointed by the modest scope of the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms, and where the Amritsar massacre was still a recent memory. Despite the unfavourable circumstances, he made an excellent impression on such Indians as he was allowed to meet, many of whom were quoted by a British observer as saying: If only all you Europeans were like him! In many places large and friendly crowds turned out to greet him, defying the Congress boycott of his visit.
The same voyage took him to Nepal, Burma, Malaya, Hong Kong, Japan, the Philippines, Borneo, Ceylon, and Egypt. On his return to London after eight months' absence there was a banquet in his honour at Guildhall, at which his health was eloquently proposed by Lloyd George—the last official act of his premiership.
This intensive travelling during the early post-war years was not a flash in the pan, but set the pattern for his subsequent way of life as Prince of Wales. In all but three years until his accession he spent long periods outside Britain. Hardly any part of the Empire, however small or remote, failed to receive at least one visit from him, and he was also welcomed in many foreign countries. Particularly noteworthy were his South American tours in 1925 and 1931, which inspired the greatest enthusiasm in a region traditionally important to Britain, though much neglected by British public figures. (A by-product of the second tour was the Ibero-American Institute of Great Britain, founded under his auspices, which led in turn to the creation of the British Council in 1935.)At home, too, he was very busy and mobile, giving special attention to ex-servicemen and young people. In a period of mass unemployment and widespread social deprivation there might be little he could do to help the victims, but at least he went out of his way to talk to them, and it was obvious that they had his sympathy.
For all his exertions in the public interest, his life was by no means all work. While touring overseas, no less than in Britain, he would always devote a lot of his time to games and sport, and at the end of the most arduous day he was usually eager to dance into the small hours. His daylight recreations could be dangerous—after repeated spills and fractures he was prevailed upon to give up steeplechasing, only to take to flying instead—but in the long run his late nights were more harmful to him. A tendency to unpunctuality and moodiness was certainly made worse by lack of sleep.
As he moved from youth to middle age the strain of his life began to tell upon a nature that was nervous as well as physically robust; and at the same time, inevitably, he was becoming rather spoilt by the universal adulation to which he was exposed. Above all he seemed increasingly solitary, and without any firm base to his existence.
From 1919 he had his own London establishment at York House, St. James's Palace, and in 1929 he obtained from his father the grace and favour use of Fort Belvedere, a small architectural folly near Windsor (originally built for the Duke of Cumberland in the 1750s, but improved by Sir Jeffry Wyatville [qv.], in the reign of George IV). The Fort became his favourite residence, where he could entertain a few friends at weekends, and in whose garden he invested much of his own—and his guests'—hard labour. But something vital was missing, as no one knew better than himself.
While his brothers were acquiring wives, the world's most eligible bachelor remained single. His natural craving for domesticity was satisfied only by a succession of affairs with married women. For many years he was very closely attached to Mrs (Freda) Dudley Ward, and his love for her was not fundamentally affected by passing affairs with Lady (Thelma) Furness and others. But through Lady Furness he became acquainted with her friend and fellow-American, Mrs Simpson (died 1986), and within a few years acquaintance had turned into the supreme passion of his life.
Wallis Simpson, daughter of Teakle Wallis Warfield who died when she was a few months old, came from Baltimore, Maryland, where she was brought up as a rather impoverished member of a family with pride of ancestry on both sides. When her first marriage (to Lieutenant Earl Winfield Spencer, of the US Navy, who became an alcoholic) ended in divorce, she married an Anglo-American, Ernest Simpson (who had a shipping business in England), with whom she lived comfortably in London. For a time they were together friends of the Prince, but when it became apparent that he wanted nothing less than to make Wallis his wife, Simpson resigned himself to divorce.
Her attraction, so far as it can be defined, owed much to her vivacity and wit, her sophisticated taste, and her ability to make a house feel like a home. She and the Prince shared a mid-Atlantic outlook—he being a child of Old-World privilege excited by American informality, she an east coast American with a hankering for the Old World and its gracious living. They met, as it were, half-way.
When George V died, on 20 January 1936, Edward came to the throne in the strong hope that he would be able to make Wallis Queen. This may, indeed, have been his principal motive for accepting a charge which he had often said, privately, he would rather be spared. Impatient of ritual and routine, he knew that his temperament would be less well suited to the role of King than to that of Prince of Wales.
There was, indeed, much that needed changing in the royal set-up, and it is possible that Edward VIII might have had some success as a reforming monarch if he had reigned for a fair number of years, with his mind on the job. No judgement can confidently be made either way on the strength of his brief reign, during which he was largely distracted by his anxiety about Wallis and their future. As it was, he merely gave offence to old courtiers and retainers by relatively trifling changes, and caused misgivings in official quarters by his casual attitude to state papers.
The public, however, neither knew nor cared about such matters, and he was a popular King. There was a shock when, in July, a loaded revolver was thrown in front of his horse on Constitution Hill, and relief that he had come to no harm. Later in the year he was cheered lustily in the Mall by the Jarrow hunger marchers at the end of their pilgrimage.
Meanwhile the so-called King's matter was unfolding in a way destined to bring his reign to a swift close. It was only in Britain that his intimacy with Mrs Simpson was a secret. When, during the summer, she accompanied him on a cruise in the Adriatic and eastern Mediterranean, in the private yacht Nahlin, full reports appeared in the foreign press, more especially in the United States, with the correct conclusions either stated or implied. The British press remained silent from a sense of loyalty, but it could not be long before the story would break at home. At the end of October the Simpsons' divorce suit was due to come up, and this might well arouse speculation even though it was to be heard in a provincial court.
On 20 October, therefore, the prime minister, Stanley Baldwin (later Earl Baldwin of Bewdley), saw the King by request and raised with him for the first time the question of his relations with Mrs Simpson. At this meeting Baldwin tried to enlist the King's co-operation in persuading her to withdraw her divorce petition, but to no avail. The King would not co-operate, and at the end of the month a decree nisi was duly granted.
An interlude followed during which (on 3 November) the King opened Parliament—driving there in a closed car rather than in the traditional open carriage—and inspected the fleet at Portsmouth. But on 16 November there was another meeting with Baldwin, at which the King stated his determination to marry Mrs Simpson, despite the prime minister's advice that the marriage would not receive the country's approval. On 18-19 November he visited the distressed areas of south Wales, where he made the much-quoted remark about the unemployed: Something must be done to find them work. His hearers little knew how soon he would be unemployed himself.
On 25 November he saw Baldwin again, having meanwhile been persuaded by Esmond Harmsworth (later Viscount Rothermere) [qv.] to suggest that he might marry Mrs Simpson morganatically. This was a disastrous error, since it could be said to carry the admission that she was unfit to be Queen.
It is probable, though unprovable, that majority opinion in Britain and throughout the Empire would have been against the idea of Mrs Simpson as Queen, though whether most people would have maintained their opposition, knowing that the price would be to lose Edward as King, is more doubtful. Ecclesiastical anathemas counted for much less, even then, than those who pronounced them liked to believe, and objections to Mrs Simpson on social grounds were likely to be much stronger in privileged circles than among the people at large. But the idea of a morganatic marriage would almost certainly have been less generally acceptable.
In any case it would have required legislation, and this the government was not prepared to introduce. Moreover, the leader of the opposition, Clement (later Earl) Attlee, told Baldwin that Labour would not approve of Mrs Simpson as Queen, or of a morganatic marriage; and similar, though rather less clear-cut, views were expressed by the dominion prime ministers. When, therefore, the facts were at last given to the British public on 3 December, the crisis was virtually over. If the King had no option but to renounce either Mrs Simpson or the throne, the only possible outcome—granted the man he was—was abdication.
He would have liked to make a broadcast, taking his subjects into his confidence, before reaching a final decision; but when Baldwin told him that this would be unconstitutional and divisive, he at once abandoned the idea. Even (Sir) Winston Churchill's plea that he should stand and fight went unheeded. On 10 December he signed an instrument of abdication, and the following day ceased to be King when he gave his assent to the necessary Bill. That evening he delivered his farewell broadcast from Windsor Castle, containing the celebrated words: 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.
Later the same night he crossed to France, and the rest of his life was spent in almost permanent exile. It was some months before Mrs Simpson's divorce became absolute, but in June 1937 she and Edward were married, at a chateau in Touraine, by a Church of England parson acting without authority from his bishop. No member of the royal family came to the wedding, which was attended only by a few old friends, including Walter Monckton (later Viscount Monckton of Brenchley) [qv.], the attorney-general to the Duchy of Cornwall, and a busy go-between during the abdication crisis, and Major E. D. (Fruity) Metcalfe, who was best man. There were no children of the marriage.
The new King, George VI (formerly Duke of York), had some of the qualities of his father, George V, but hardly any of his elder brother's—a fact of which he was painfully conscious. From the moment of his accession he seems to have been haunted by the fear that the ex-King would overshadow him, and this fear was undoubtedly shared by his wife and other members of his entourage. It was felt to be essential that the ex-King should be kept out of England, out of the limelight, out of popular favour; and self-righteousness came to the aid of self-interest, in the form of a myth that the Prince's abdication and marriage had brought disgrace upon the British monarchy.
Though it is unlikely that George VI was familiar with The Apple Cart by G. B. Shaw [qv.], he was nevertheless immediately alive to the theoretical danger that his brother might, unless made a royal duke, be tempted to stand for the House of Commons, in the manner of Shaw's King Magnus. The first act of his reign was, therefore, to confer upon Edward the title of Duke of Windsor. But under letters patent issued the following year the title Royal Highness was restricted to him, and expressly denied to his wife and descendants, if any. This studied insult to the Duchess cannot have been solely due to uncertainty about the duration of the marriage, since it was maintained by George VI and his successor throughout the thirty-five years that the Windsors were man and wife (and into the Duchess's widowhood).
As a result relations between the Duke and his family were poisoned, and further bitterness was caused by an indecent wrangle over money. No provision was made for the Duke in the Civil List, but the King eventually agreed that he should receive a net £21,000 a year, which was mainly interest of the sale of Sandringham and Balmoral to royal trustees, at a valuation which favoured the King rather than the Duke. An attempt to make the agreement conditional upon the Duke's willingness to stay abroad at the King's pleasure was only with difficulty resisted. (In addition to the income thus assured, the Duke had capital deriving from Duchy of Cornwall revenue unspent while he was Prince of Wales.)Between their marriage and World War II the Windsors lived in France, but in October 1937 they paid an ill-advised visit to Germany as guests of the Nazi government. The Duke's declared reason for going was to see how unemployment had been tackled and to study labour relations, but of course the Nazis made the most of the visit for propaganda purposes, as he should have foreseen. At a meeting with Hitler the Duke gave no indication (according to the interpreter) of any sympathy with Nazi ideology, and there is, indeed, virtually no evidence that he had any such sympathy. But he had considerable affection for the German people, with whom he had many links, and above all he had the feeling—overwhelmingly prevalent at the time—that another war would be an unimaginable calamity.
When war came, however, he at once offered to return to Britain without conditions, and at first was offered a choice of two jobs, one of which, that of assistant regional commissioner in Wales, would have enabled him to stay in Britain. But when he accepted it, no doubt unexpectedly, it was promptly withdrawn, and he was then obliged to take the other job, that of liaison officer with the French army (which involved a drop in rank from field-marshal to major-general). He did it well, among other things sending home a remarkably prescient report of French weakness on the Ardennes front. But when France fell in the summer of 1940 he and the Duchess had to escape as best they might.
They made their own way to Madrid, whence the Duke was able to communicate with the British government, now headed by his old friend Winston Churchill. His requests for suitable employment at home, and the barest recognition for the Duchess (not that she should have royal status, but merely that his family should receive her) were turned down, even Churchill having in the circumstances neither time nor inclination to champion the Duke's cause against Buckingham Palace. He then reluctantly accepted the governorship of the Bahamas, and on 1 August sailed from Lisbon, as agreed, despite an elaborate plot engineered by Ribbentrop to keep him in Europe. Though at this time he undoubtedly believed that there would have to be a negotiated peace, he did not despair of his country and had no desire to be a German puppet.
In the Bahamas the Windsors were on the whole a conspicuous success, in a post which was both difficult and unpleasant. The Duke stood up to the Bay Street boys (as the local white oligarchy was called), achieved some economic improvement in the neglected outer islands, and dealt effectively with a serious outbreak of rioting for which he was in no way to blame. In December 1940 he had the first of about a dozen wartime meetings with Franklin D. Roosevelt, at the president's invitation, and the two men got on particularly well. The authorities in London tried very hard to prevent the meeting, and in general did not at all favour visits by the Windsors to the United States, though a few were grudgingly permitted. The Duke's immense popularity there was regarded at home as invidious and embarrassing, rather than as a major potential asset to Britain.
In May 1945 the Windsors left the Bahamas and returned to Europe, no better alternative having been offered to the Duke than the governorship of Bermuda. The rest of his life was spent chiefly in France, where he was treated as an honoured guest. Partly to repair his finances—which had suffered from mismanagement, and more especially from a costly and futile attempt to strike oil on his Canadian ranch—he turned to authorship. With the help of ghosts he wrote his memoirs, which were serialized in Life magazine and then published in book form as A King's Story (1951). This became a world bestseller, and was later turned into a film. He also published two much slighter books—Family Album (1960) and The Crown and the People 1902-1953 (1953)—and two more were written, though unpublished at the time of his death.
Because of the continued ostracism of the Duchess, his post-war visits to Britain were brief and rare. On 28 May 1972 he died at his house in the Bois de Boulogne, from throat cancer. His body was then flown back to England and lay in state for three days in St. George's chapel, Windsor, while 57,000 people came—many over long distances—to pay their respects. On 5 June there was a funeral service in the chapel, and afterwards the Duke was buried in the royal mausoleum at Frogmore. The Duchess was present as the Queen's guest.
Though King for less than a year, Edward VIII will rank as an important figure in the history of the British monarchy. During the dangerous and volatile period which followed World War I, when republicanism was sweeping the world, he and his father succeeded, in their very different ways, in giving new strength to an old tradition. Neither could have succeeded so well without the other, and the contrast between them was of great value to the monarchy.
Edward will also be remembered as a character out of the ordinary. His faults were substantial, and aggravated by the circumstances of his life. His mind, inadequately trained, was incapable of deep reflection and prone to erratic judgement. He could on occasion be selfish, mean, inconsiderate, ungrateful, or even callous. Yet his virtues more than compensated for his faults. He was a brave man, morally as well as physically, and his nature was basically affectionate. He had a marvellous gift for conversing easily with people, and for making charming, unpompous speeches off the cuff. There was about him the indefinable aura known as star quality.
In a sense he was a harbinger of the Americanization of Europe. Superficially, his values were more those of the New World than of the Old. Playing the bagpipes wearing a white kilt or golfing in plus-eights, he seemed more like a Hollywood representation of a Scottish laird or English gentleman than like the genuine article. His anyway slightly Cockney accent became overlaid with American intonations (in his farewell broadcast he referred to the Dook of York), and he also acquired a number of American habits long before he was married to an American.
Yet at heart he was more a creature of the Old World than he appeared to be, or probably realized himself. What a Labour MP, Josiah (later Lord) Wedgwood [q.v.], said at the time of the abdication¾that he had given up his royalty to remain a man¾was only a half-truth. Though he had, indeed, given up his kingship, he never ceased to be royal. Had it been otherwise, there would have been no problem about the duchess's status. All the same, he surely deserves honour for the chivalrousness of his decision to abdicate, no less than for the perfect constitutional propriety with which it was carried out; and above all for his pioneering work as Prince of Wales.
There are many portraits of Edward, representing almost every phase of his life. Only a selection can be mentioned here. A caricature appeared in Vanity Fair on 21 June 1911 (the original is in the National Portrait Gallery). The first full-length portrait in oil was painted by Sir A. S. Cope in 1912, the year after Edward's investiture as Prince of Wales. It is in the Royal Collection, which also contains, from the same period, a sketch (head only) by Sir John Lavery. A charcoal drawing by J. S. Sargent (c. 1918) belonged to the Duchess of Windsor. In 1919 H. L. Oakley painted a full-length profile, and in c. 1920 R. G. Eves a half-length portrait in uniform. Both of these are in the National Portrait Gallery. A full-length portrait in golfing dress (1928), by Sir William Orpen, hangs in the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, St. Andrews; and a full-length portrait in Welsh Guards uniform (1936) done by W. R. Sickert from photographs, in the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Fredericton, NB, Canada. A full-length portrait in Garter robes by Sir James Gunn (c. 1954) was in the Duchess of Windsor's possession, as were a number of portraits by the French artist A. Drian. Apart from paintings and drawings, there is a bronze statuette by Charles S. Jagger (1922) in the National Museum of Wales at Cardiff, and a marble bust by Charles Hartwell (c. 1920-4) belonging to the Corporation of London.
Hector Bolitho, Edward VIII, 1937; Compton Mackenzie, The Windsor Tapestry, 1938; Duke of Windsor, A King's Story, 1951; Duchess of Windsor, The Heart Has Its Reasons, 1956; John W. Wheeler-Bennett, King George VI, 1958; Frances Donaldson, Edward VIII, 1974; Michael Bloch, The Duke of Windsor's War, 1982, and Operation Willi, 1984; private information.
Contributor: John Grigg