Uncrownable King and Queen

Christopher Sykes

  • The Windsor Story by J. Bryan and Charles Murphy
    Granada, 602 pp, £8.95, November 1980, ISBN 0 246 11323 5

The Windsor Story, as ‘the greatest love story of the 20th century’ is here conveniently known, is essentially familiar. Whether it is seen as the tale of the fatuous young charmer and the intriguing, ambitious witch, or, as they themselves chose to present it, as the pathetic picture of two orphans of the storm, victimised by the hound Baldwin, the main facts on which it is based are widely known and the subject of little dispute.

The authors, one of whom wrote the Duke’s autobiography and helped the Duchess with hers, can add much detail but little new basic knowledge, even though Freda Dudley Ward has for the first time broken her silence about her 16-year-long friendship with the Duke when he was Prince. The authors seem indifferent to the perils of the libel laws and in consequence write with refreshing if unchivalrous candour, but unfortunately with much literary ignorance. They confuse two very different masters – Lewis Carroll with Edward Lear – and ascribe that ridiculous but famous play What Every Woman Knows to James Bourke!

On the credit side, they show real understanding of the man’s character, especially in his later years, and commendably recognise one of the finest deeds of his life, and one of the worst of his reign. The former concerns his saving of his brother George Kent’s life from disasters arising from drug-taking, the latter his attempted dismissal of Percy Loraine from the Foreign Service. His complaint was that Percy had given him irrefutable but unwelcome advice – always an unforgivable offence in Edward’s eyes. When the facts of the Loraine case were first made public, there ensued a chorus of denunciation, not of Edward, but of Percy, who was said to have invented the story in a drunken fit. (He was not an excessive drinker.) The incident shows how the memory of the magic of the young Prince of Wales’s charm never quite faded.

One would have thought that the events of his reign, his abdication and his disloyal and cowardly conduct in World War Two would have given it its death-blow. Nothing of the sort happened. The late Gordon Childs, who had worked in propaganda in the USA, told me that as a morale-booster, when inspecting factories in the war, the Duke of Windsor was streets ahead of any British or American public figure. If he had made a go of his assignment to the Bahamas, he could have been in a position to exact a rewarding appointment from any post-war British government. Or so it seemed. In fact, he had degenerated hopelessly in ability, judgment and character, from the moment of abdication.

Except in one important respect. He had so often proved himself an inconstant lover and friend that his ministers presumed, with apparent prescience, that he would soon tire of Mrs Simpson and add her to the growing scrapheap of discarded mistresses, friends and favourites. They were totally mistaken. When the love affair had led to the miserable anti-climax of abdication, her devotion to him wavered in later years, but never his to her. In his last year of life, he paid a moving tribute to her to his old American friend David Bruce.

He was a doomed man. In spite of his enormous youthful popularity, he was ill-fitted to be a King or President or Head of State of any kind. His inner confidence was early and fatally corroded by ceaseless bullying from his martinet father, George V, and by a lack of maternal love. Amateur psychology in biography is a prevalent and dangerous fashion which is happily little in evidence in this book. But it is validly used to explain Edward’s constant preference in his love affairs for married women: it was part of his search for a mother. Frances Donaldson made the same point in her masterly biography. Late in the day, he found a mother figure in Mrs Simpson, shortly before his accession.

The authors dispose of the ridiculous myth, still propagated by ignorant publicists, that the King was prevented by his government from marrying the lady because she was an American. The Government, the Church of England and most public opinion objected to the match because at the time Mrs Simpson had two lawful husbands living. The King did not want to see this unwelcome fact, so, true to form, he did not see it. He went recklessly to his perdition.

In estimating her, the authors lay stress on the fact that she was in no sense of obscure origin. She was descended from the Warfields and Montagues of Maryland and Virginia – old families of great social prominence. Circumstances had reduced her to poverty before she married Ernest Simpson – an assimilated Jew, as I learned here much to my surprise. Her acquiring of wealth sharpened her ambition, hitherto rarely visible. When she and Simpson became friends of Edward, her ambition flowered rapidly, and when he fell in love with her it grew apace. The authors leave us in no doubt that she aimed to be Queen and Empress. It is possible and likely that she did have doubts about her acceptability which the King allayed, but no such doubts are recorded. What is quite clear is that she was completely ignorant of the position of the throne in the British Constitution. Unfortunately, he was equally so, and fatally opinionated. He led her to her doom, but not to a rejection of her ambition. It was she, the authors insist, and not the Duke, who was the more insistent and uncompromising on her right to a royal title.

It appears that the British Royal Family behaved unintelligently over the admittedly difficult crisis, and with a needless appearance of meanness towards the fallen King. I used to go along with this usual opinion, but am tempted, after reading this book, to make some revision. She was the lawful wife of a former King of England and she should have been allowed a royal title if he wanted it. But any further concession was likely to encourage her to intrigue, however hopelessly, for his restoration and her elevation. Naturally, she never gave expression to such designs, but that she had them makes her later years coherent.

The book is more valuable as a record of the post-abdication years than of the King’s earlier and largely successful life. For the latter, despite her efforts to play the psychologist, Lady Donaldson is to be preferred. The authors assert, for example, that Stanley Baldwin disliked Edward VIII from the beginning, implying that he was determined from the beginning to be rid of him. They quote no authority in defence of their view. The Prime Minister’s niece Monica Baldwin’s An Unpublished Page of History cannot be reconciled with this theory; nor can her uncle’s letters to her at the time. Her notes show a man anxious to be true to the Prince of Wales as King and distressed at the new King’s preference for Mrs Simpson over his duty. It is possible, of course, that patience-taxing experience of Edward’s untruthfulness, irresponsibility and evasiveness finally led him to change his attitude and to work hard for an abdication. It is noteworthy that Monica Baldwin nowhere figures in this book. What does figure is Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart’s diary, 1915-1938, which is used as a major authority.

Bruce Lockhart was a delightful man and, in certain fields, an interesting writer. As a social historian he is nowhere. He was a social climber who, like many such, had but scanty knowledge of the thing towards which he climbed. At best he is a fairly good guide to the unthinking fashionable gossip of the hour, and it is unwise to follow him in a more serious spirit. He is treated here as the Greville of the period.

But Lockhart is a respectable authority compared with the astrologers to whom the authors appear to give an unquestioning faith. We learn of an Evangeline Adams in the USA who with the aid of constellations plotted out Mrs Simpson’s career in detail before it had happened, and the reader is supposed to be awed when he is told that various commonly made pessimistic guesses about the young Prince of Wales’s future were also made by that prince of charlatans, Cheiro. These absurdities, however, occur in the first part of the book, before Edward had renounced the throne: the real Windsor story comes after the wedding in 1937, and after that the book takes on new life.

As mentioned already, the authors add little in the way of essential facts, but they add much detail hitherto known to few. Many readers will be surprised to learn that there are three versions of how the Duke abandoned his faithful friend Dudley Metcalfe in France in 1940. The two new versions slightly lessen the Duke’s guilt but leave unshaken the fact that he pusillanimously ran away to safety. The authors rightly entitle their record of the Bahamas episode ‘An Uneven Performance’. This post was a dumping-ground for used-up public servants, and to many people the Windsors appeared as an improvement on the usual run of governors. Total success eluded them, thanks to their frequent absences and incurable tactlessness. This was widely known. The authors are more unexpected in their account of the Donahue affair.

This event occurred in the early Fifties. It represented that wavering of the Duchess’s affections for the Duke. James P. Donahue, the principal in the affair, was a weird character of unorthodox tastes with a liking for practical jokes. He arranged for the Duchess to be converted to Roman Catholicism and she went far with the scheme. Why did he do this? Why did she? To annoy Edward? The problem persists. The authors have no explanation.

One other matter calls for explanation, though it is probably inexplicable. When the Duke died in 1972, he was accorded a popular homage as great as though he had been the reigning sovereign to the end – one, moreover, who deserved well of his people. To many of his former subjects, this was most unexpected.