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.

He was just shy of 21. No one, it appears, had taught him to think or speak any differently. During the ‘Strange Death’ period running up to 1914, he had freely given his views on the three great crises of Ulster, labour and women’s suffrage. They were as one might have expected. ‘I really think that at last some drastic measures are to be taken as regards those bloody suffragettes, whose conduct is becoming more and more infamous every day,’ he wrote in the summer of 1914. Queen Mary herself encouraged him to take the side of the Curragh mutineers in the case of Home Rule, and to her he wrote: ‘Although we aren’t supposed to have any politics there does come a time when all that outward nonsense must be put aside, and that time has come.’

If it were true, as we are incessantly told, that the monarchy has ‘no real power’ but a strong sense of constitutional probity, then one might expect to find some evidence that the King-in-waiting was warned to be circumspect. But there’s not a hint, in all of Ziegler’s industrious fossickings, of any concern on that score. There was some royal pursing of the lips at his levity and laziness – despite costly tuition, he never achieved more than a sub-literate standard of prose, spelling or punctuation, and despised English literature – but he seems to have imbibed his nasty politics from the milieu of royalty itself. Impatient to get close, but not too close, to the Western Front, he was allowed to make a pest of himself around the General Staff and the dressing-stations and seems to have regarded himself as the patron and protector of the ex-serviceman ever after.

The experience of imperialist war and mass slaughter, which had a radicalising effect upon so many of all classes, was also to interest some ill-assorted people in Fascism. Henry Williamson’s later sympathy with the Reich, for instance, had much to do with his consuming horror of the trenches and his overmastering desire to avoid a repetition. Some years ago, I was interviewing Alan Clark MP about his book The Donkeys, a rugged study of British Great War generalship which became the script for Joan Littlewood’s Oh What A Lovely War. He suddenly said to me: ‘I daresay you’ve been told I’m a Fascist.’ I admitted that I had heard something of the sort. ‘Well, that’s all balls,’ he said briskly. ‘I’m a National Socialist.’ Obviously pretty well-used to the shock effect of this, he went on to explain that while Fascists were middle-class thugs who wanted to protect their dividends, National Socialists had a special responsibility to the worker and the artisan. ‘We betrayed the British working class three times,’ he told me sternly. ‘First by using them as cannon fodder in the Great War, then by rewarding their sacrifice with a slump and mass unemployment, then by letting them in for another war.’ (I was never sure, later on, whether to be impressed or disquieted when Thatcher made this hater of the brass hats and ‘the old gang’ into a Defence spokesman.)

My reason for this apparent detour is that the mystique of Edward VIII, still durable in some quarters, has to do with his alleged fellow-feeling for the Old Contemptibles, his related compassion for the privations of South Wales coal-miners and his consequent sincere if muddled antipathy to another war with Germany. It is a conspicuous merit of Ziegler’s biography that it shows, without any scintilla of doubt, that Edward was, and not just in sardonic Clarkean terms, both a Fascist and a National Socialist. In other words, as well as being a serf to stupid petit-bourgeois prejudices – against trade unions, against Indian nationalists and indeed Indians, against Jews and intellectuals – he was also an admirer of Nazi strength and power.

His instinctive dividend-drawer’s sympathies were loudly demonstrated during the General Strike when, as Ziegler records, ‘he went out with the police, lent his car and chauffeur to transport the British Gazette to Wales, and resented the fact that he could do nothing directly himself to combat the Communist agitators whom he believed to be behind the trouble.’ On visits to India and Africa he repeatedly evinced racialist feelings which Ziegler terms ‘probably even beyond the norm for his generation’ – prompting one to venture the question: his generation of what? (He wrote to his mother about the disgust he felt at being offered the sacrament by a black clergyman in Sierra Leone; again we don’t learn what, if anything, Queen Mary advised him in return.)

The Nazi seizure of power convinced him that at last something was being done to arrest the general rot. Count Mensdorff, a former Austrian Ambassador to London, was surprised at how uncritical he was of Hitler during a conversation in November 1933: ‘Of course it is the only thing to do. We will have to come to it, as we are in great danger from the Communists too.’ During the same period he told Louis Ferdinand of Prussia that ‘dictators were very popular these days and that we might want one in England before long.’ He made similar remarks to Marshall Mannerheim at the funeral of King George V, gratified von Ribbentrop at every opportunity and opposed even Eden’s modest proposal for a visit from Haile Selassie on the grounds that it might offend Mussolini. Ziegler writes that this convicts Edward of nothing that ‘could not have been applied to Chamberlain or Halifax, Hoare or Simon’, which is surely a point against the Princeling/King as much as for him. By his continued pro-Axis meddling he was, in effect, strengthening the future Munich party.

Ziegler, incidentally, does us the favour of clearing up the famous ‘something must be done’ incident in the stricken South Wales coalfields. The King visited the area laid waste by the closure of Dowlais steelworks, said of the workers that ‘something must be done to see that they stay here – working’ and hastened on to a dinner-party in London, where he announced that ‘agitation and Bolshevism’ were at the root of the crisis.

All this, and much besides in the way of callousness and dishonesty, was forgiven him. At the first, a special process of ‘investiture’ – a classic case of what Hobsbawm and Ranger have called ‘invented tradition’ – was contrived in order to make him presentable as Prince of Wales. Further elements of stage-management were added as it became more necessary to shield the British people from the true character of their monarch-to-be. This awkward necessity was laid upon the Establishment not by Edward’s politics but by his penis, which was errant and capricious and was the only part of him inclined to disregard class distinctions (if not, as he made very plain in writing to his mother about ‘black girls’, racial ones).

In 1916 he had been firmly but delicately relieved of his virginity by a French tart in Amiens, loaned for the purpose by an officer in the RFC with more clearly defined droits de seigneur over her. The pattern – of other chaps’ girls and of the mari complaisant – seems to have been imprinted early. So, contrary to later vulgar rumour, does a taste for female society. Ziegler goes into the matter quite thoroughly and honourably, and dismisses all the sniggering stuff about Edward’s impotence, homosexuality and inexperience. This staple of the smoking-room – I vividly remember being leeringly told that Wallis Simpson ‘could make a toothpick feel like a Havana cigar’ – is now dispelled.

In fact, it seems that Mrs Simpson exerted the fascination of cruelty and authority; conceivably related to Edward’s unwholesome yearning for men of action and power. Or perhaps something in his kingly training made him pine to bend the knee. At all events, several reports have him literally grovelling at the feet of Mrs S. (Did King George V, supposed to have said ‘How’s the Empire?’ with his dying words, really say: ‘How’s the vampire?’ Just a suggestion.)

There was something empty about Edward. He never, as Ziegler establishes with pitiless exactitude, made or kept a real friend. Cronies like ‘Fruity’ Metcalfe were as disposable, and as disappointed, as the equerries and stewards and private secretaries who all came to despise him. When he left England, not one of his former servants wanted to come with him. By the end, the Mosleys in their neighbouring château were his only reliable ‘society’, and you couldn’t want it bleaker than that.

Bleak is the word for the closing chapters of this story. Removed to the Iberian periphery by the Nazi invasion of France, the Duke chose his circle of acquaintances from among the most depraved Axis fans. Ziegler’s own strained measure and fair-mindedness give out at about this point: ‘Through the Spanish Foreign Ministry,’ he writes, ‘the Duke had already requested that his house in Paris and at Cap d’Antibes should be looked after by the Germans for the duration of the war, now he compounded this already deplorable indiscretion by allowing his wife to send an emissary into the heart of German-occupied France so as to suit their personal convenience. The Germans can hardly be blamed for thinking that he must be in a mood to serve their ends in more important ways.’ True, but then they knew that already. It’s a toss-up whether Edward was trying harder to appease them or his wife, who, as Ziegler shows through innumerable eyewitnesses, delighted in exerting her supremacy over him. It must have been gruesome for her, later, cooped up in the petty hell of the Bahamas. Yet even in this fastness of colonial torpor, where they had specifically been sent to keep them out of range of Nazi temptations, the couple still managed to receive seedy, deluded go-betweens for the Germans, and continued to prosecute their pathetic campaign to have the Duchess styled ‘HRH’.

Strange, then, that anti-Establishment figures like Churchill and Kingsley Martin and Beaverbrook, a sort of distillate of the Rex Mottram set, should have been ‘King’s Men’ of a kind in 1936 and have staked some part of their careers on defending this ugly little gargoyle. But perhaps not so strange, since in our own day there are radicals who flirt with monarchy as if it could provide a principled, or at any rate popular, alternative to a Toryism as apparently onerous as that of Stanley Baldwin and Cosmo Lang. A good thing that the Buck House short-cut didn’t work last time.

When Alan ‘Tommy’ Lascelles had had enough of his prince, and was about to tender his resignation from the household, he wrote: ‘I am thoroughly and permanently out of sympathy with him ... His personal charm has vanished irretrievably as far as I am concerned, and I always feel as if I were working, not for the next King of England, but for the son of the latest American millionaire.’ How far-sighted Tommy was. Edward was the first of the modern monarchs; the magic of the throne is now inextricable from Charles and the Annenbergs, Diana and Donald Trump – the extension of Edward’s international white-trash habit into modern showbiz and celeb culture. The authoritarian trappings are less evident, true, even if you overlook the reactionary temper of Prince Philip and the quiet hard-heartedness of his wife in the matter of her sister and Group-Captain Townsend. Still, the House of Windsor is a miserable, secretive family, claiming to stand for the nation and thereby inviting judgment on the model it represents to us. Do we really deserve – have we really earned – this kind of devotion and this level of sacrifice?