Petulance is not a tragic flaw

Rosemary Hill

  • Princes at War: The British Royal Family’s Private Battle in the Second World War by Deborah Cadbury
    Bloomsbury, 407 pp, £25.00, April 2015, ISBN 978 1 4088 4524 0

George VI was crowned on 12 May 1937, a hundred years, less six weeks, after his great-grandmother Victoria succeeded to the throne. At 18 the new queen had been full of confidence. Her first action was to move her bed out of her mother’s room and have Sir John Conroy, her mother’s intimate adviser, banished from court. Such determination, veering at times into wilfulness, continued undiminished until her death, 64 years later. By then she was Empress of India, and thanks to the carefully planned marriages of her nine children, the centre of a web of connections that extended across Europe into Russia. When she died her great-grandson Albert Frederick Arthur George was five and not in the direct line of succession. Finding himself at the age of 41 seated on Edward I’s coronation chair in Westminster Abbey amid ‘the red, the gold, the gilt, the grandeur’, he was full of nerves and foreboding. ‘This is absolutely terrible,’ he wrote with engaging candour to his cousin. ‘I’m only a naval officer, it’s the only thing I know about.’ In a rapidly rearming Germany, Goebbels agreed. ‘What a shame,’ he noted in his diary. ‘What a terrible shame.’

Wallis Simpson and Edward Windsor on their wedding day, 3 June 1937, photographed by Cecil Beaton.
Wallis Simpson and Edward Windsor on their wedding day, 3 June 1937, photographed by Cecil Beaton.

The ‘abdication crisis’, as it became known, in which George’s elder brother, the Prince of Wales, resigned the crown after less than a year as Edward VIII, is now almost out of living memory. It has become as much myth as history. The most telling phrases stick in the collective memory like the crackling radio broadcast: ‘You must believe me … found it impossible … to discharge my duties as king … without the help and support of the woman I love.’ The woman he loved, the American divorcee Wallis Warfield Simpson, is more vividly drawn, an art deco clothes horse in Chanel and Cartier, standing beside him through the long years of what became, in effect, their exile as Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Then, at last, inside Buckingham Palace, after her husband’s funeral: the much tightened face glimpsed at the window, only the eyes expressive of some incalculable regret.

In the many retellings, of which Deborah Cadbury’s is the latest, two versions of Wallis have emerged. One, widely held at the time, argues that she was an ambitious, selfish woman who was intent on being queen and spent the rest of her life punishing the hapless duke for her disappointment. The other, a minority view though strongly held in some quarters, is that she was the victim of the prince’s obsession, that she tried to get away but was ultimately trapped in a loveless marriage. What nobody suggests is that they lived happily ever after. Cadbury doesn’t claim to add much in the way of new information to the story, but rather to reconfigure it as a family drama. Even this is not an entirely fresh point of view, but by following the narrative on through the Second World War up to the death of George VI, and keeping all four of the brothers as well as their wives and in-laws in her sights, she manages to convey the way the much rehearsed events unfolded through quirks of circumstance and individual temperament.

With the death of George V in 1936 the Victorian age finally came to an end. John Betjeman’s poem, published the following year, catches with poignant precision the world that was passing:

Old men in country houses hear clocks ticking
Over thick carpets with a deadened force;

Old men who never cheated, never doubted,
Communicated monthly, sit and stare
At the new suburb stretched beyond the run-way
Where a young man lands hatless from the air.

The dashing new king’s arrival in London by aeroplane was widely reported and seen as a refreshing sign of modernity: here was a prince who was both a man of the people – of the desperate poverty he saw in Wales he said ‘something must be done’ – and a prince for the Jazz Age. Herbert Farjeon’s tribute to the good-time royal bachelor, ‘I’ve danced with a man who’s danced with a girl who’s danced with the Prince of Wales,’ was one of the hits of 1927. The prince’s father’s remark that if he inherited he would ruin himself in a year would have seemed ridiculous to the cheering crowds – the incomprehension of an age that was over.

In 1936 the royal family, which had gone into the First World War as the Germanic Saxe-Coburgs and emerged from it the tactfully renamed Windsors at the head of an even larger empire, comprised the widowed Queen Mary, her four surviving sons and one daughter. Edward, known as David, was his mother’s favourite. The heir, the best-looking, the most popular, he was spoilt beyond redemption. The second son, the Duke of York who became the reluctant king, was the self-effacing naval officer hampered by an acute stammer. Of the younger two, Gloucester was a solid military man and Kent another playboy. More promiscuous than his elder brother, he was the good time who was had by all, including, it was said, Noël Coward and the Duchess of Argyll. Of their sister, Princess Mary, who married the Earl of Harewood in 1922, history has had little to say and disappointingly Cadbury has nothing to add. In her detailed account of the family’s responses to the abdication, the princess merits only one passing mention.

Despite the change of name the British royal family was still one branch of a pan-European network. The battle among the Windsors was inextricably involved with the events of the Second World War and each had its effects on the other. Ties of first cousinship that had made the Great War peculiarly painful for the Saxe-Coburgs were in the next two generations more distant, but they had multiplied into many finely drawn lines of kinship and intermarriage between the great-grandchildren of Victoria. At George V’s funeral the Duke of Saxe-Coburg, already an enthusiastic Nazi, took the opportunity to assess the mood of the new reign. After a conversation with his cousin he was able to report back to Hitler that Edward VIII was anxious to talk to him and was ‘looking forward with pleasure’ to meeting Rudolf Hess. Two more cousins, the princes Philipp and Christoph Hesse, were also Nazis, and when Christoph, a member of the SS, married Princess Sophia of Greece he became the cousin by marriage of the Duke of Kent.

As it became clear that the king, used all his life to getting his own way, was not going to give up Wallis Simpson and that the established church, of which he was now titular head, would not allow marriage to a divorcee, sides were taken in the press, in Parliament and at the palace. Winston Churchill was the king’s most prominent supporter, the Archbishop of Canterbury his most determined opponent, apart, perhaps, from his mother. Queen Mary, with her straitlaced silhouette and trademark toque, was the lingering spectre of Edwardian England. Two ex-husbands were, perhaps, the least of what she disliked about the flashy, American Mrs Simpson.

Britain’s unwritten constitution is remarkably flexible and in the hands of lawyers and civil servants the levers of power were rapidly deployed, the machinery of state manoeuvred. On 10 December the family gathered at Windsor to sign the Instrument of Abdication. The younger brothers witnessed the king’s signature before adding their own. After the Duke of York came the younger two, ‘first Gloucester and then Kent’, the titles echoing King Lear, another tale of ill-considered abdication and its consequences. Nobody showed any emotion. Churchill, who came to help Edward polish his speech for the radio, recalled that it was while they sat at lunch that the abdication took effect. Between one course and the next the man across the table from him ceased to be king: the long anticlimax of the rest of his life had begun.

But the ‘feudal capitalistic show’, as the MP and diarist Henry ‘Chips’ Channon called it, had to go on. Five months later in the Abbey, Channon described the splendour of the occasion, the north transept ‘a vitrine of bosoms and jewels and bobbing tiaras’, while at the centre, the fragile, stuttering king was all but swamped by the occasion. Edward and Wallis were at the Château de Candé near Tours, listening on the radio. He was now the Duke of Windsor and she had been the ex-Mrs Simpson since 3 May, when her divorce became final in a court in Ipswich, or as an American headline writer put it, with an impressive grasp of Tudor history, ‘King’s moll reno’d in Wolsey’s home town’, thereby sounding the note of bathos and bad taste that would characterise the Windsors’ married life.

The wedding when it came in June was poorly attended, the press outnumbering the guests. The flowers by Constance Spry and Cecil Beaton’s photographs for Vogue were set-dressing around a central void, which Beaton put down to absence of affection. Wallis, he wrote, looked ‘especially unlovable, hard and calculating’, and her third husband seemed ‘essentially sad’. The duke was beginning to understand that not everyone who wants to dance with the Prince of Wales feels the same about an ex-king, including perhaps, his wife. Even the vicar, the Reverend R.A. Jardine of Darlington, had had to be softened up with a fee of $6000 to perform a ceremony that the church had declared invalid. The family was unrepresented. The king’s recently communicated refusal to grant Wallis the title of ‘her royal highness’ became the irreducible core of the quarrel, never to be resolved. The Windsors sent back the Kents’ wedding present unopened.

The potential for tragedy in the story of a king set on an inexorable course to destruction was never realised. Petulance is not a tragic flaw. This was essentially, as Cadbury construes it, a family row acted out on an international scale. A marriage with several million people in it most of the time, it had at its heart a triangular relationship between three implacable women: Wallis, and the two queens. Mary and her daughter-in-law Elizabeth weren’t prepared to forgive the duchess, who in her turn could not forget, and would not let the duke forget, the snub of her lack of a royal title. Meanwhile in England the rest of the family set about adjusting to the new status quo. Like George III before him, George VI was finding that younger sons with few duties and large incomes are a liability. The Duke of Kent, though recently married, was splashed all over the papers, having visited a phrenologist in the company of the glamorous Mrs Allen, ‘wife of rich ex-MP’. According to the Express, they had had their heads read in a joint session at Ludgate Circus – but surely, it was implied, there had been more to it than that.

The Duke of Gloucester attracted no scandal, but was dull to the point of stupidity. His letters home from Eton had irritated his mother by harping on his ‘everlasting football’, of which, the queen replied, she was ‘heartily sick’. ‘Do pray try & work harder & use your brains more,’ she wrote back, but his, it seemed, were not the sort of brains that could stand much use. After the abdication Kent was ‘a nervous wreck’ while the best that was said of Gloucester was that he was ‘a hard tryer’ but such a paralysingly dull conversationalist that he put the dampener on every occasion he was supposed to grace. The new king hectored his younger brothers in the tones of the nursery: ‘If You Two think that, now that I have taken this job on, you can go on behaving just as you like … you’re very much mistaken! You two have got to pull yourselves together.’ As difficult family Christmases go, 1936 at Sandringham must have been one of the worst.

The next year, as the Third Reich’s ambitions gathered momentum and there was talk across Europe of war, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor went on a tour of Germany. It was a scheme cooked up by one of their rich but shady friends, Charles Bedaux. The inventor of the Bedaux System, a form of time and motion study that became an international business, he was the one who had lent the Windsors the Château de Candé. Now he embarked on negotiations with Robert Ley, leader of the Arbeitsfront, the German Labour movement, to set up a semi-state visit. While it’s hard to agree with the implication of Cadbury’s remark that Ley ‘represented the ugly face of the Third Reich’ – as if there was an attractive one – it’s true that the Nazis knew how to charm the English upper classes when they chose. Exactly what kind of deal was done, whether Ley was paid £50,000 to set up the tour and what if anything Bedaux got out of it is not clear, but in October 1937 Pathé News footage showed the Windsors arriving in Berlin to be greeted by large and curious crowds. Wallis was referred to as ‘her royal highness’ and at Berchtesgaden the couple returned the compliment, greeting Hitler with Nazi salutes. Goebbels’s initial disappointment at the abdication began to give way to a sense of new possibilities for the relationship between the ex-king and the Third Reich.

To have supported Nazism on principle, as a significant number of British aristocrats did, was reprehensible, but to support it out of pique and vanity suggests a moral vacuum. Unlike the Mosleys the Windsors seem to have had no ideological commitment to the Nazi regime, or to anything else either. They drifted into the relationship with Germany, which was to tarnish their reputation for ever, propelled by nothing more than a desire to assert themselves and annoy the rest of the immediate family. How far relations went is unclear. Wallis was rumoured to have had an affair in London with Ribbentrop, but there were many rumours about her, and most were sexual and misogynistic. If Edward ever explicitly agreed that he would replace his brother as king if Britain fell, it has never been proved; and when interviewed in old age about his views he said only that he had believed appeasement would work and that Britain could remain neutral while fascist and communist regimes ‘slogged it out’. In 1937 it was not such an unusual view. The Windsors received encouraging messages from Churchill during their tour, assuring them that their appearance in the newsreels was being cheered in cinemas at home. In the private cinema at Buckingham Palace, however, there was no applause. The tour was seen, as it was no doubt intended, as a gesture of defiance towards the family.

Cadbury makes good use of George VI’s letters and private diaries, in which he reveals himself as a decent, brave man doing his best to rise to one terrible occasion after another. The gulf between the unremarkable private person and the divinity that hedges a king comes out in observations innocent to the point of Pooterishness. While Chamberlain pursued his last attempts at appeasement the king wrote to his mother: ‘If Hitler refuses to do this then we shall know … that he is a madman … it is all so worrying.’ Yet such plainness, along with the comfortably rounded figure of his wife, known spitefully to the bone-thin Wallis as Cookie, made him a reassuring figure as the international situation worsened. Once war broke out in September 1939, his dutiful determination stood him in good stead and Gloucester and Kent played their parts better than might have been expected.

*

The king, with characteristic self-effacement, took it for granted that the War Office was too busy to keep him regularly up to date and sent Gloucester to France to report on the state of the British Expeditionary Force. The duke covered nearly four thousand miles and passed on his impressions, which were that the BEF was cheerily muddling through. ‘If Hitler is as much in the dark as regards our movements as we are,’ he reported, ‘he cannot know very much if anything.’ Kent, who had been poised to set off as governor of Australia, was diverted to the Admiralty, where he did his best but felt depressed at ‘being cut off from everything’ and worried that he was not ‘being at all useful’. His wife, the popular Princess Marina of Greece, was reluctantly coaxed into a Wrens uniform, which she pimped with high heels and low necklines, to the delight of the reporters who followed her everywhere.

The Windsors were at a borrowed villa at Cap d’Antibes when war was declared, sunbathing with the duke’s equerry Major Edward ‘Fruity’ Metcalfe. After answering the call from the British ambassador in Paris the duke returned to the pool, conveyed the news that Britain was at war, and promptly dived in. Even Fruity, loyal to a fault, was taken aback when the Windsors announced that they would not even now return to England unless Wallis was received by the king and queen and recognised as HRH. In the end Churchill lost patience and sent a battleship to fetch them. Back at what was no longer home they were made thoroughly unwelcome. What the duchess referred to as their ‘little cold war with the palace’ niggled on. The duke went to see the king, who reported afterwards that he had talked about nothing except himself. ‘Thank God … they’ve left the country,’ Kent wrote to a friend when they retreated once more to the Continent. The feeling was mutual.

After Dunkirk the Windsors finally fled France, in so far as an expedition involving an entire convoy of cars loaded with luggage can be called a flight. One element of their equipage they left behind was poor Fruity Metcalfe, who became the latest person to discover that however few friends they had, the duke and duchess never minded losing another one if it suited their immediate purposes. ‘I despise him,’ the abandoned equerry wrote. ‘He’s deserted his country … at a time when every office boy and cripple is trying to do what he can. It is the end.’ It was in fact only the latest instalment. From Lisbon, where they were lent the usual spectacular villa, Wallis engaged in active negotiations to get the rest of her possessions back from Paris. The Germans were immensely helpful – ‘special camions were sent to and fro … a detailed inventory list was made of all the furniture’ – and the duchess’s maid Jeanne-Marguerite Moulichon was sent to check the linen. Whether this meant that the duke had done some kind of deal with the Nazis, as was implied both at the time and later on, is not clear. It isn’t impossible that he was so spoilt that he found nothing remarkable about the Third Reich taking the time to count his table napkins.

It was Churchill’s idea to defuse the Windsors’ potential for damage by suggesting the governorship of the Bahamas. After some prevarication they set off for their ‘Elba of 1940’, where they spent the war being spied on by, at various times, the FBI, the Miami police and Sergeant Holder of Scotland Yard. Wallis sent her dry cleaning to New York and was about as effective a diplomat as might be expected. ‘Some days I feel I can’t resist slapping everyone in the face,’ she confided to her aunt. The couple continued to float about on borrowed yachts, making dubious friends and worryingly ambiguous remarks about the war, while George VI and his wife steadily gained respect and affection at home. Queen Elizabeth, whose flair for propaganda was quite equal to Goebbels’s, talked of being able to look the East End in the face after Buckingham Palace had been bombed. Gloucester continued to try hard. By the time Kent was killed in 1942 en route to Iceland he was an admired figure, finally, the king thought, ‘coming into his own’. The funeral at St George’s Chapel was modest, an acknowledgment that this was only one among many thousands of bereavements.

By 1945 the contrast between the estranged sides of the family was dramatic, the younger brother’s rise in stature as great as the elder’s decline. The succession was once again secure. In 1947, when Princess Elizabeth married Philip of Greece, who is, like her, a great-great-grandchild of Victoria, it put yet another set of cousins, the Mountbattens, into position to steer the monarchy into the next reign. There were expeditions to Germany after the war by British agents, including Anthony Blunt, apparently to recover incriminating correspondence from the Duke of Windsor. Whatever was found would surely have been destroyed and the fulsomely acknowledged help that Cadbury has received from the royal archives stops at the death of George VI in 1952. Nothing from the present reign or the Windsors’ increasingly dismal postwar life in Paris, Antibes and Palm Beach is included. The recently released images of Princess Elizabeth playing Nazis with her mother and uncle imply nothing at all sinister, but if the Royal Archives were to be less tight-lipped there would be less scope for rumour and sensation. Eventually the brothers came to a cool accommodation but the women never gave an inch and public opinion in Britain was overwhelmingly hostile to the duke and, especially, the duchess.

If the story fell short of tragedy, the abdication and its aftermath acquired the symmetry of parable. The dogged, decent tortoise of York in the end outstripped the vain hare of Windsor. With a sense of narrative more instinctive than considered, the king set out the logic that had brought them all to this point as he explained yet again why Wallis could not have the title HRH. If she were a princess now, she could have been a queen in 1936. The moral of the fable would have been lost, or as he put it, it ‘would not make sense of the past’.