David Cannadine

  • Duchess: The Story of Wallis Warfield Windsor by Stephen Birmingham
    Macmillan, 287 pp, £8.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 333 34265 8
  • The Duke of Windsor’s War by Michael Bloch
    Weidenfeld, 397 pp, £10.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 297 77947 8

‘The choice before ex-kings,’ Herbert Morrison remarked in 1937 on the occasion of the Windsors’ characteristically ill-advised visit to Nazi Germany, ‘is either to fade out of the public eye or be a nuisance.’ It has generally been assumed that the Duke came in the second of these categories and, since it is even easier to hit a man when he is dead than when he is down, tilting at Windsor has recently become a popular sport. Some of the jousting has been in dubious taste, with lances forged in malice, aimed in hatred and wielded in spite. But others, more interested in history than in hearsay, have landed some shrewd blows on their target. Chief among these Windsor-wallopers has been Frances Donaldson, whose much-acclaimed biography undermined many of the legends which lingered from his time as Prince of Wales, substantiated most of the criticisms levelled against him as King Edward VIII, and painted a pathetic picture of his later years as Duke of Windsor, the ‘weary, wayward, wandering ghost’, shuffling with rootless opulence from resort to resort, getting ‘more tanned and more tired’.

The latest contribution from the legion of dishonourers is Stephen Birmingham’s life of the Duchess. Macmillan assure us that the writer is ‘the well-known American popular historian’ (author of The Towers of Love, Heart Troubles and other classics), and that we are offered ‘a truly thoroughgoing biography’. But it is nothing of the kind. Most of the facts will be familiar to anyone conversant with Lady Donaldson’s study, and most of the gossip is merely being dished up again for the umpteenth time. The author seems unable to decide whether his story is a latterday version of Cinderella, Pygmalion, Gone with the Wind, Hamlet or Othelio. His understanding of the English social system, the English press and the English constitution seems almost as limited as was that of the Windsors themselves. His picture of the Duke is banal (‘for two years, with maniac intensity, he had played the bagpipes, having abandoned the ukelele’); his analysis of the Duchess’s psychology is excruciating (‘Wallis had always a certain affinity for homosexuals, and homosexuals had had an affinity for her’); there is much pointlessly prurient speculation as to whether they ever went to bed together (they had no children, the Duchess once explained, because the Duke was not ‘heir-conditioned’); and the concluding chapters dwell with tasteless exultation on the Duchess’s present ailing and enfeebled condition. With any luck, this book, out in good time for the festive season, will stock many a Christmas wastepaper bin.

Recently, the Duchess’s friend and lawyer Maître Blum, described by Birmingham as the Windsors’ ‘outspoken champion, the keeper of the flame’, has decided to launch a counter-offensive against these assailants, who have hit her clients both high and low. None of Windsor’s critics, the argument runs, has tried to see events from his point of view – not surprisingly, since none of them has been allowed access to his papers. Even Lady Donaldson wrote of Edward VIII from the outside, as others saw him, rather than from the inside, as he saw others. In order to put the record straight, as she sees it, Maître Blum has invited the lawyer-historian Michael Bloch to be the Duke’s champion, and has given him extensive access to the Windsor archive. His first essay in ducal defence – dedicated to Maître Blum, ‘guide, pupil-master and friend’, and pointedly describing the Windsors as ‘Their Royal Highnesses’ – is a riveting peep into the minds and feelings of the Windsors, a horrifying picture of misery and unhappiness, and an impassioned plea for the justice to be done to the Duke in death which has, Bloch feels, been so shamefully denied him in life.

Bloch’s thesis is as simple as his tactics: the best way to defend the Windsors is to prosecute their traducers – the Establishment in general and the Court in particular. Throughout the war, Bloch argues, Windsor only desired to serve his country: this was a magnanimous gesture made with all the sincerity of a loyal and royal citizen. But, he suggests, at a time when all men of talent and good will should have pulled together, and when the great perils of war should have banished interest in lesser matters, the Windsors were the object of a shabby and shameful vendetta conducted by ‘those at Court and in other high places’. An ‘unremitting campaign of ostracism, spite and calumny’ was directed against them, characterised by ‘secret instructions’, ‘punishment’, ‘intrigues’, ‘hostility’, ‘persecutions’, ‘madness’, ‘silence and ice’. The Establishment, he says, was ‘determined that, come what may, the Duke of Windsor should never return to live in England, or ever recover any work, influence or honour’.

Bloch selects the evidence to support his view. The Windsors’ wedding, he notes, was ‘boycotted’ by the Palace: the only present from the King was the ‘terrible insult’ of denying Windsor’s wife the title of Her Royal Highness. The military job given to the Duke in France during the period of the ‘phoney war’ was a mean attempt to ensure that his talents were not used appropriately, while the Governorship of the Bahamas was a ‘bizarre’ appointment, the ‘pettiest and most difficult’ in the British Empire. Even there, persecution followed, as ‘amazing’ instructions went out from the Palace that the Duchess was not to be curtsied to, and ‘extraordinary’ attempts were made to prevent the Windsors from visiting the United States, for fear that the Duke would outshine George VI in popularity. In fact, Bloch argzues, Windsor did ‘excellently’ as Governor: his administration was ‘the best the Bahamas had had in recent times’. But such was the abiding hostility to him in official circles that the post which he deserved and would have carried off brilliantly – that of roving British Ambassador in the United States – was never offered.

That the Windsors believed all this cannot be doubted. They devoted a large part of their memoirs to articulating their embittered hurt, and were still talking about it when Kenneth Harris interviewed them in 1970. But this book is the first to reveal the true extent of their pain, anguish and suffering. Wallis saw the Bahamas as the ‘St Helena of 1940’, where her husband, ‘the naughty boy’, was ‘dumped solely by family jealousy’ and the ‘palace vendetta’. ‘They will never stop murdering the Duke of Windsor,’ she cried. ‘It is his own family who are against him.’ And Windsor took the same view, railing against ‘the chronic insult to my wife’, and protesting at ‘the mean and petty humiliations’, the ‘virulence of the campaign that official England launched against me’. ‘Ever since I returned to England in 1939 to offer my services and you continued to persecute me, I must frankly admit that I have become very bitter indeed,’ he wrote to George VI.

No one reading this book can possibly question the sincerity of these sentiments. On the other hand, Bloch does not demonstrate that Windsor was correct in his analysis of why he was treated in the way he was. It is one thing to say that Windsor thought there was a campaign against him: it is quite another to show that it actually existed. And, since this book rests so heavily on Windsor’s papers, it is by definition unable to offer much evidence or proof. Bloch’s difficulty is that he is caught between the historian’s loyalty to his evidence (which suggests one interpretation) and the lawyer’s loyalty to his client (which suggests another). ‘What I have done,’ he explained in the Standard, ‘is to express the Duke’s point of view. I am in the position of a lawyer asked to present the case for the defence.’ But presenting the Duke’s point of view is not necessarily the same as making the case for the defence. Neither is it the same as ‘laying out the facts and the evidence for them with particular comprehensiveness and regard for accuracy’ – which is what, in the preface, he claims he is doing.

At the outset, Bloch makes no attempt to consider Windsor’s reputation when the war broke out. By that time, his record as an ex-king was no better than it had been as a constitutional monarch. As Edward VIII he had never really understood his constitutional position; he refused to abide by the advice which his private secretaries tendered him; he did not take his public and ceremonial duties as seriously as he should have done; he was careless and inattentive in dealing with his state papers; his political sympathies were certainly pro-German and possibly pro-Nazi; he was reckless and adolescently indiscreet in his private life; and over the Abdication itself he kept his family (and especially the anxiety-ridden Duke of York) inexcusably in the dark until the very last moment. Nor had he done much better in his first months as Duke of Windsor. He pestered George VI with phone calls, tactlessly presuming to advise him how to do a job which he himself had thrown up; and the visit which he and Wallis made to Germany despite advice to the contrary (a trip which even Bloch coyly admits was ‘disastrous’) led to photographs of Windsor shaking hands with Hitler and (or so it seemed) giving the Nazi salute. In short, it was not the Establishment which made life difficult for Windsor: it was he who made life difficult for them.

For these reasons, many people in high places distrusted the Duke in 1939. But Bloch will have none of this, supposing instead that all critics of his hero were foolish or wicked or both. Thus Baldwin, whose role in the Abdication was much less malevolently conspiratorial than Edward’s apologists will allow, is dismissed as ‘tedious’. In contrast to Wallis, Queen Mary is pilloried for ‘that determined desire to be queen’ which she had so ‘vigorously demonstrated by her rapid change of fiance in the early 1890s’. Edward’s two private secretaries, who gave him scrupulously proper constitutional advice, are similarly written off: Lascelles for possessing a ‘poisonously prejudiced’ ear, and Hardinge for his ‘questionable loyalty’. In the Bahamas, Etienne Duputch, whose newspaper was frequently critical of Windsor, is summed up as ‘highly opinionated’ and ‘outspoken to the point of rashness’. And Beaverbrook, having abandoned in the war years his earlier support for the Duke, is described as being ‘just about the worst person to whom he could have turned for help’. Most revealingly, ‘Fruity’ Metcalfe, who stood by Edward in the darkest times of his life, and whose highly critical letters were used by Frances Donaldson to such good effect, is written off as ‘bombastic’, ‘wild and furious’, ‘earthy and explosive’, and ‘given to eccentric outbursts’. On the other hand, Diana Mosley’s biography of the Duchess, which is about as adulatory as Birmingham’s is hostile, is thought to be ‘delightful’.

Bloch’s analysis of Churchill’s wartime attitude towards the Duke is equally onesided – a laboured attempt to avoid reaching the obvious (and damning) conclusion suggested by the evidence. It is, of course, true that Churchill, like Beaverbrook, had supported Windsor in 1936: but that was largely for tactical reasons, in the hope of embarrassing Baldwin. Later, as is well-known, both he and Beaverbrook came to see the folly of their ways, to realise that Windsor was not up to much, and was far too great a risk to be offered more exposed or more important employment than the Governorship of the Bahamas. But the Duke could only see this as further evidence of the Palace conspiracy, and Bloch follows suit. ‘Churchill,’ he writes, ‘depended for the oft-imperilled supremacy of his position on the personal support of the king and queen, and part of the price was that they should always have the last word when it came to deciding the Duke of Windsor’s fate.’ But this is a fantasy view, for which no substantiating evidence is offered. The idea that Churchill, at the head of his wartime coalition, was so vulnerable that only the support of George VI (itself only given on anti-Windsor conditions) stood between him and defeat is to suggest a relationship between monarch and minister which Walpole and the elder Pitt, let alone Disraeli or Gladstone, would have had difficulty in recognising.

Several other important episodes receive equally partial and partisan treatment. Bloch’s book opens with an account of the Duke’s 45th birthday party in Paris in June 1939, but neglects to mention that the celebrations began with a party given by the German Ambassador, who welcomed the Duke and Duchess with the Nazi salute. The treatment of such incidents as the Verdun broadcast in May 1939, the plane sent by the Palace to France in September that year to collect the Windsors, and the Duke’s reputed abandonment of Metcalfe in Paris in May 1940, is too thin and superficial for comfort. Most worryingly, Bloch quotes from the diary of Sir Ronald Storrs for 14 July 1940, reporting a conversation with Lord Lloyd, the Colonial Secretary, who said that ‘the Windsor appointment in the Bahamas is the king’s own idea, to keep him at all costs out of England.’ ‘Here,’ Bloch announces triumphantly, ‘all is revealed.’ But it most certainly is not. For, three days later, Storrs records further gossip about Windsor. ‘I don’t care,’ the Duke is reported as saying, ‘who wins the war: I am more than half a German myself.’ It was, as Storrs rightly remarked, ‘a dreadful saying even to pass on’ – so dreadful, in fact, that Bloch does not pass it on at all. To say that ‘the Duke was always alive to the dangers of indiscretion’ is hardly consistent with the evidence.

By such unconvincing methods, Bloch vainly tries to show that the world really did correspond to Windsor’s mistaken perception of it. And the same is true of his treatment of specific episodes in the Bahamas Governorship. Windsor may, for instance, have been insulted at being sent there: but there were perfectly valid official reasons why this appointment should have been made. Where, in wartime, could so conspicuous and so vulnerable a figure, strongly suspected of pro-Nazi sympathies, be safely put? He must be got out of Europe because (as in Spain in the summer of 1940) there might be German plots to kidnap him and, for the same reason, he must not be sent to Asia or Africa. He could not be entrusted with an embassy, because his understanding of constitutional propriety was too limited and his commitment to the war effort too suspect. Since the Dominions had protested against Wallis as queen, they were hardly likely to welcome her as the consort of a governor-general. That only left the New World, and even there, there was not much. There was no suitable post in the USA or Canada, and South America was, again, too much of a security risk. All that remained were the British colonies in the Western hemisphere, of which the Bahamas was about the best. As Bloch observes when describing the Duke’s predecessors, the Governorship was ‘a post to be filled by an incompetent and eccentric official who could not be got rid of on account of his personal connections’. The fact that this description fitted Windsor exactly in 1940 does not seem to have occurred to him.

The charge that the British Government further sought to humiliate the Duke by preventing him from meeting Roosevelt in the autumn of 1940 is equally hard to substantiate. For all of 1940 and most of 1941, the United States was publicly neutral. There was a strong isolationist lobby, and the German, Italian and Irish minorities had to be handled with the greatest care. During the winter of 1940-41, when the lend-lease negotiations were in progress, it was imperative that nothing should be said to give the impression that Britain’s will to win was flagging, or to arouse anti-British feeling in the States. Under these circumstances, the last thing the British Government wanted was to have Windsor shooting his mouth off to the American President and people. Of course, Roosevelt wanted to meet the Duke: like most upper-class Americans, he was fascinated by British royalty. But he was never an easy ally, and the fear that he might get hold of the wrong end of the stick from Windsor was understandably real. To suggest, as Bloch does, that the British Government was prepared to run the risk of upsetting the President by keeping him and Windsor apart merely in continuation of the supposed Palace vendetta is to show as limited an understanding of the realities of war and diplomacy as the Duke himself.

As Governor of the Bahamas, Windsor clearly did better than his greatest detractors have argued, although he did not do as well as this apologia suggests. The Windsors entertained well; they were good at ceremonial functions; he showed interest in promoting the economic development of the islands; and he seems to have handled the riots of 1942 with firmness and success. But against this, they were tactless in their dealings with the press; he made several major errors of judgment as, for example, in the Oakes murder case; he associated with suspect and unsavoury characters like Wenner-Gren; the opulence of their living and travelling attracted adverse publicity from the isolationist press in America; and he quit the job five months before the time was up. Above all, they made it abundantly plain that they hated the Bahamas (‘this lousy little island’), and that they regarded the appointment as an insult (‘we loathe the job’) rather than as a duty or a challenge. Men like Churchill, shouldering the crushing burdens of war for fifteen hours a day, seven days a week, can hardly have been sympathetic to Windsor’s whimperings on his tropical island for another holiday. All told, a realistic appraisal would be that the Duke had done just well enough for another government job, but had not deserved promotion. And that, in the form of the Governorship of Bermuda, is precisely what he was offered. But he turned it down, thinking it was meant as a further humiliation.

He always had his eye set on larger and quite unrealistic prizes. From 1944 to 1952 he cherished the idea that he might be appointed roving Ambassador to the United States. But no such job was forthcoming, from Labour, Conservative or Coalition governments, and Windsor took this as another slight, even though (as usual) the reasons were both obvious and telling. Bloch assures us that the Duke could ‘have done great things’ for Anglo-American relations: but precisely what or how is never specified. Windsor made it clear that he would handle any such job ‘my own way’: but the last time he had done that was as king – not exactly an encouraging precedent. Moreover, the job would have involved extensive and itinerant entertaining, which would have meant a large staff, perhaps two houses, and considerable hotel bills. The idea that, in embattled, war-weary, austerity-ridden Britain, Foreign Secretaries such as Eden or Bevin could have gone to Parliament to ask for the £100,000 a year or more which it would have required to finance Windsor on this North American cocktail circuit is, perhaps, a little far-fetched.

So, despite the author’s laboured efforts and partisan advocacy, the man who emerges from this book remains the easily recognisable figure more acutely described by Frances Donaldson – proud, pathetic and rather paranoid. That the Court and the Establishment disapproved of Windsor for quitting his job seems clear; that they persecuted him and his wife to the ends of the earth and beyond as a result is not, at present, an interpretation for which there is much evidential support. Significantly, Bloch only quotes one letter from the royal archives: the relevant Cabinet documents will not be available until 2036; and the papers of some of the major political figures from this period also remain closed. Of course, this lack of evidence does not by itself exonerate the Court or the Establishment. ‘They’ may have covered their tracks very well; much may never have been written down; letters may have been destroyed; and many central figures have undoubtedly taken their secrets with them to their graves. All that can be said at the moment, on the basis of the evidence available, is that the Establishment’s treatment of Windsor seems well explained and entirely justified on the grounds of official policy and governmental prudence – grounds which neither Windsor nor his wife could understand or admit. Quite simply, the Duke was a bad risk, and a nation locked in a war to the death could not be too careful. Having ceased to be king, Windsor could only be given employment on the basis of his merits and his record and, in 1945 as in 1940, they were not very good. But the force of this argument would have been so wounding to his pride that he preferred to explain his lack of a job in terms of other people’s malevolence, rather than his unfittedness.

To write the biography of so self-centred and self-absorbed a figure almost exclusively from his own papers necessarily results in the tortured reasoning, the special pleading and the selective use of evidence which are all displayed here in a vain attempt to show that the real world actually corresponded to Windsor’s mistaken perception of it. Unfortunately for Bloch’s case, it did not, so that however well he puts Windsor’s point of view, it does not amount to a defence. After the Abdication, Queen Mary wrote to the Duke, explaining that what had distressed her and many others at that time was his complete inability to take in any point of view but his own. That is why he was an unsuccessful king; it also explains why this is an unsuccessful book. As Birmingham’s banalities suggest, tilting at Windsor has got out of hand: but too much of the mud has stuck for Bloch’s thin whitewash to obliterate it.