Have we learnt how to let people leave the royal family?
A bonus article this weekend because today is the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Edward VIII, the king who abdicated.
As George V’s cortege clattered through New Palace Yard in the Palace of Westminster, where the old king’s body was to lie in state, the Maltese Cross on top of the imperial crown, which contains a sapphire taken from the ring of St Edward the Confessor, shook loose and fell to the ground. “Christ”, said the new king, Edward VIII, “what will happen next?” The cross’s fall was taken as a bad omen. We don’t think of 1936 as a time when people still took omens seriously. In this case, they should have done. Less than a year later, Edward abdicated. He was the most troublesome royal since before Queen Victoria, undermined the stability of the monarchy, and constantly threatened political trouble.
Edward died fifty years ago today, on 28th May 1972, and the Abdication and its after effects feel like something from another time, fodder for The Crown but no longer politically relevant. But with the recent ruptures in the royal family, now is the time to review Edward’s life and ask: have we learnt how to let people leave the royal family? Harry and Meghan left with a similar kerfuffle. More worryingly, the same sort of discord seems to exist between them and the royals as there was between Edward and the monarch of his day, George VI.
Everyone has taken sides with Harry and Meghan. As they did with Edward. Indeed, his reputation is still being bickered over. Is he Edward the Awful, the selfish abdicator and pseudo-Nazi, or Edward the Romantic who gave up the throne of England in the name of true love? The choice of received opinion isn’t quite that mawkish, but it isn’t far off. Andrew Lownie’s recent book Traitor King takes sides from the title onwards.
In Lownie’s defence, it isn’t difficult to make Edward look awful. He was constantly in receipt of money from dodgy characters, or, worse, unknown sources. He was vain and vapid. He was indulgent to a sickening degree. And the marriage he sacrificed the throne for was one long vanity parade. On one trip to Miami, for example, Wallis and Edward spent thirty-thousand-dollars on a shopping spree, much of it on credit. (In modern money, that’s about half-a-million.) This spending spree, by the way, happened early in the war, when the home country was standing alone against the Nazis. God save the king and all that, but Edward was rather stretching the point.
And so, the story is told, the real bad omen of Edward’s short reign was not a fallen jewel but a shadow in the background, Wallis Simpson, a divorced Baltimore woman who had come to England with her husband Ernest to hobnob with blue bloods. The Simpsons were social climbers. Ernest “dearly loved a lord” and Wallis was always angling for invitations to Knole. Like so many aspirational Americans of their generation, they believed in the fairytale of the British class system. That’s how she ended up marrying a king she never loved. Snobbery can take you an awfully long way.
If it had been left at that, Edward might have squeezed a better reputation out of history for himself. Spending wild amounts of money as compensation for a prison of a marriage isn’t the worst crime. Much of the reason that establishment men like Alan Lascelles hated the abdicator came from the 1920s, when Edward drank, caroused, and seduced his way around the world. He squandered his time and privileges and spread misdeed wherever he went. But the real acrimony — and the thing that has slowly sapped his reputation ever since — was the series of truly stupid, often nasty, things he said and did once he lived in exile.
Worst among these is the persistent idea that Edward was a Nazi. Whether or not you think it is case closed on the question of conspiratorial involvement with the Germans, a remarkable number of minor officials who were unlucky enough to end up at lunch or golf with the Duke wrote home to tell mother that the ex-King had startlingly Nazi-ish opinions. When the Marburg files were discovered at the end of the war, which relate a Nazi plot to install Edward as King, they were hushed up for fear of embarrassment. It is little wonder the Nazis believed this could happen. Edward went around telling everyone it would be so. On one occasion he gave a magazine interview implying Britain could never win the war. On another, he sent a message to Roosevelt, via a journalist, saying:
Tell Mr Roosevelt that if he will make an offer of intervention for peace, that before anyone in England can oppose it, the Duke of Windsor will instantly issue a statement supporting it and that will start a revolution in England and force peace.
Edward was always saying things like this, often just before he dived into a swimming pool or while he was on his way to being half-cut. For a man who never opened a book, he had a very high regard for his skills as a political prognosticator. It’s hard, however, to think of someone who knew less about how the world worked at that time, or who was less important. He certainly had disgraceful political views, but he was mostly a pompous idiot. He was a vile man but less significant than his detractors or defenders like to believe. He was never anywhere near the throne as a Nazi puppet.
Royals like Edward are nothing new. The monarchy is an accident of birth, and it can go either way. We’ve had bad King John and the tyrant Henry VIII alongside the splendour of the two Elizabeths. We cannot expect all William and Kate without a little Harry and Andrew. And bad monarchs often bring impetus for reform. John led to Magna Carta. Henry VIII started us on the road to Protestant Parliamentary democracy.
We should remember: there are worse things than Abdication. Just imagine a system that hadn’t purged Edward. Then the monarchy really would have been unstable. Just when the royals had survived the toppling of thrones all over Europe in the first war, along would have tottered young Edward to do the job. Indeed, stability might be overrated. Victoria, George V, George VI, and Elizabeth II — all successful, respected monarchs — were not born as heir. And Edward wasn’t entirely wrong. In his brief reign he tried to reform the Palace, to little avail. But Elizabeth has spent much time reforming and Charles is set to do the same.
We are living now through a startling parallel with Edward. Harry and Megan are living like the fabled king across the water. Leaving the royal family isn’t the problem. As the public becomes less willing to support an extensive extended family, more of them will have to fade away from the margins. We need to let people leave, if we are going to preserve the monarchy. Leaving acrimoniously, however, is a disaster. Everything with Harry and Meghan has gone quiet for now, but the manner in which they left the firm was ridiculous. The way relations deteriorated to the point of that Oprah interview is a clear failure of the royal operation. It even took Edward and Wallis thirty-five years to give their bombshell interview where they told their truth.
Edward’s life in exile is an early instance of the modern system of royal press relations. He is more important for what he shows us about publicity than politics. The bitterness between Edward and his brother George VI, not to mention the wider establishment, was a reputation battle. Edward gave up the spoils of office but he kept grasping for stature. If he couldn’t be King, he would be a celebrity.
So it was that the Windsor industry started. Magazine articles, interviews, memoirs, and later on books by acolytes, all started to build up an image of a well-dressed Prince more sinned against than sinning, forced from his throne for the sake of true love. Edward never quite got over the idea that there was mass latent public support for him at home, and neither have his followers. If he could have gone on Oprah, he would have done. The relevance of Edward VIII, then, is as a lesson for managing the way people leave the royal family.
The royal family cannot continue to be this big and scandalous. Nor can we expect it to survive if younger sons keep leaving under a cloud like Harry or being stripped of their titles while making out-of-court settlements like Andrew. They need a way of making this right. What next? Who knows what sort of magazine interviews, profiles, and books by acolytes are on the horizon from the House of Sussex. How many indiscreet remarks will Andrew make? What benefit is there to anyone in the tension that exists when there is a perpetual publicity cold war between different branches of the family?
Amol Rajan’s recent podcast series about the Harry and Megan departure, Harry, Meghan and the Media, shows in gripping detail the fragmented publicity operation within the royal family. Everyone has their own press office — the Queen, Charles, William, Harry — and none of them is coordinated with the other. Rajan’s podcast is a work of fine journalism with proper BBC balance and tone. But it makes the royal operation sound like something out of Veep or The Thick of It. Families brief against each other, vie for the spotlight, spread rumours, disavow statements, all off the record, all for the sake of an extra headline. At the first sign of unfavourable copy in a small magazine, lawyers are called. And that was when they all were part of the same organisation, even if only nominally.
Having been allowed to leave in this disarray, Harry has two choices now. He can follow the model of Victoria’s second son Prince Albert, the first Duke of Edinburgh, who gave up his entitlement to any British royal status or money to become the Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. He was best known for his enthusiastic, though not skilled, violin playing. Or he can be like his great-uncle, a new Pretender, not to the throne perhaps, but to more favourable press columns and a bigger income. If he goes the wrong way it will be as much the royal establishment’s fault as his.
There’s strong support for the Sussexes among young people. It’s popular to breakaway from royal tradition. Good. Let them go. But keep them on good terms. Don’t vilify them. Don’t take sides. Don’t feel like you have to choose whether you love Meghan or hate her. Don’t let them become the wrong sort of celebrities. Royal commentary has given far too much attention to Edward and Wallis. After all, he turned out not to be an actual conspiring Nazi but a dullard, about as interesting and dangerous as a pub bore. What Lownie’s book really reveals is just how insufferable Edward was. The Windsor legacy, once all the fuss is stripped away, is irrelevance. But he gave the establishment years of agony about the possibility of lurid revelations and publicity grabbing visits. (Conspiracy theorists still love the abdication.)
How much of a nuisance or a threat the Sussexes turn out to be will have a lot to do with how seriously we decide to take them.
This was a bonus article for this week because today is the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Edward VIII, the king who abdicated.
Traitor King by Andrew Lownie
Edward VIII by Frances Donaldson
Edward VIII: The Uncrowned King (Penguin Monarchs Series)
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