How’s the vampire?

Christopher Hitchens

  • King Edward VIII: The Official Biography by Philip Ziegler
    Collins, 654 pp, £20.00, September 1990, ISBN 0 00 215741 1

‘Uneasy lies the head that wears a throne.’ This wistful schoolboy howler from 1066 And All That is the essential summary of two related absurdities. The first is the intrinsic inanity of a royal family; the second is the ridiculous blend of deference and denial that goes into the making of public support for it. Philip Ziegler is a historian of uncommon candour and, especially considering the ‘authorised’ nature of his work, unusual humour. Yet in the very first paragraph of his very first page he pitches face-forward into the enduring fallacy that sustains our monarchical cult: ‘To have been born in 1894, eldest son of the eldest surviving son of the eldest son of the Queen Empress, was to be heir to an almost intolerable burden of rights and responsibilities.’ There you have it, even if expressed with Ziegler’s manners and proportion (‘almost’ and ‘rights’ slightly qualify the supposed awesomeness of the burden). This is, still, the bleat of the drawing-room and the drone of the saloon bar. ‘I don’t know how they do it.’ ‘I wouldn’t have her job.’ Yet the ensuing 560 pages contain conclusive and exhaustive evidence a. that the Windsors are a burden on us, not the other way about, and b. that the chief difficulty at every stage of Edward VIII’s life lay in the finding and invention of things for him to do.

The same principle – of pointless duties joylessly undertaken – underlay his very conception. Prince Albert Victor, theoretical heir to the heir to the throne in the 1890s, appears here thus: ‘Languid and lymphatic – “si peu de chose, though as you say a Dear Boy,” the Grand Duchess of Mecklenburgh-Strelitz brutally dismissed him.’ It was felt in court circles that a robust woman should be martyred to this nonentity, and the sturdy Princess Victoria Mary of Teck was led lowing into the ring. Between the betrothal and the match itself, the futile Albert Victor expired, out of some combination of influenza and inanition, but it was decided to marry the same woman to the next in line. Accordingly, the biddable Mary was made over to Prince George, whom even Ziegler feels obliged to write down as: ‘an arch-conformist; bored by books, pictures, music; wholly without intellectual curiosity or imagination; suspicious of new ideas; entertained only by his stamp collection and the slaughter of ever greater quantities of pheasants, partridges and the like’. Recovering himself – he has, after all, a whole reign ahead of him – Mr Ziegler adds: on 6 July 1893 ‘the couple, by now very much, if undemonstratively, in love, were married in the Chapel Royal.’

The fruit of this union might have been expected to be dull, bovine and pious. In point of fact, such fascination as the young Edward possessed lay in his febrile, restless and impetuous side. As far as books, pictures and ideas went he was a perfect chip off his father’s block. But he didn’t have the same, appalling, unshakeable commitment to a lifetime of mediocrity and routine, to be endured for the apparent sake of a people upon whom it was actually inflicted. He only wanted the ‘rights’ and the ‘responsibilities’ be damned.

When the world-historical quarrel between the Royal Family and its German relations broke out in August 1914, the Prince wrote to his brother:

The Germans could never have chosen a worse moment, and serve them right too if they are absolutely crushed, as I can but think they will be. The way they have behaved will go down to history as about the worst and most infamous action of any govt!! Don’t you agree? I bet you do.

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