This is the story of a European royal family whose matriarch, Queen Victoria, had sought to maintain royal power through the dynastic marriages of her forty-two grandchildren, from her marriage with her beloved Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg. When they gathered for the last time together in late May 1910 for the funeral of her son, Edward VII, they formed a “galaxy of Emperors, Kings, Princes, Grand Dukes and Dukes”. As Deborah Cadbury recounts on the first page of this gripping history, “this dazzling constellation counted among their number the heirs to the British throne as well as the German Emperor, the ‘Tsar of all the Russias’, and cousins, uncles and aunts married into the royal houses of Norway, Greece, Spain, Denmark, Romania, Belgium, Portugal, Bulgaria and a myriad of princely dynasties”.
Yet within the short span of eight years, this extended family was engulfed by war and revolution. Victoria’s grandson, Wilhelm II, retired to The Netherlands, reviled for his part in precipitating the catastrophe; her favourite granddaughter, Alexandra, the Tsarina of Russia, her husband, Nicholas and their four daughters, were brutally murdered on Lenin’s orders; the British royal family dropped their name “Saxe-Coburg” to become the Windsors. Their lack of confidence, indeed their fears of the future, not recorded here, is now evident in their refusal to have their Russian royal cousins brought to safety in the UK. On the advice of Arthur Bigg, the first Baron Stamfordham, George V consciously adopted the procedures and symbolism of the modern constitutional monarchy: political neutrality between the parties, acceptance of the monarchy’s ceremonial role, the importance of public appearance, and the deployment of their influence to the benefit of the United Kingdom on the world stage.
Edward VIII was the last monarch seriously to challenge this prescription. He had everything going for him, handsome, intelligence, war experience, widely known to the world before his accession. But he lacked judgement. As Cadbury clearly demonstrates, he considered that he could act vigorously as monarch in international affairs, to avoid what many in his generation feared, which was a repeat or worse of the disaster of 1914-18. But this involved a readiness to negotiate with Hitler. When Edward succeeded to the throne, Hitler had already consolidated his position as Head of State, Chancellor and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. Conscription had been brought in and a new German air force created in defiance of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. At an official function early in his reign, Edward had spoken in while other diplomats were kept waiting. Sir John Simon, the Home Secretary, ensured that the king’s calls would be bugged. Austria, Czeckoslavakia, Kristallnacht, then Poland did not shake Edward’s conviction that great Britain should make a deal with Germany.
In November 1936, King Edward VIII told Stanley Baldwin, the Prime Minister, that he wished to marry the twice divorced Wallis Simpson. Baldwin and the Archbishop of Canterbury objected on ecclesiastical grounds that the Church did not recognize divorce. Forced to choose between throne and the woman of his life, Edward chose Wallis. On December 10, Edward signed his abdication, flanked by his brothers, Albert, Duke of York and the future George VI; George, Duke of Kent, married to Princess Marina of Yugoslavia; and Henry, Duke of Gloucester. Not surprisingly, while the media emphasized the ecclesiastical reasons for abdication, the Communist MP for West Fife, Gallagher, and the German ambassador to the court of St James, both concluded that Edward’s demise was because he and his Wallis were pro-German. Cadbury quotes a message from Ribbentrop, intercepted by the Foreign Office, that the political manoeuvres to stop Wallis becoming Queen arose from a desire “…to defeat those Germanophile forces which had been working through Mrs Simpson…”.
Albert was completely unprepared to take over as King. He had always seen himself as his elder brother’s junior. “I’m only a naval officer”, he is reported as saying. Because of his stutter, he was terrified of public speaking. The drama is beautifully portrayed in the film (http://www.kingsspeech.com). Lionel Logue, an Australian speech therapist, brought the new king to overcome his disability in the most momentous years of the century. The juxtaposition at the end of the film of Hitler’s hate filled rant, and the King’s appeal to God and humanity, on the declaration of war, make the point that on this occasion, and deeply embedded in its post war consciousness, the UK was on the side of the angels. The underlying message of this enthralling book is to point out how fortunate this country has been in having avoided Edward as monarch.
The new King had agreed on an annual pension for his elder brother of £25,000, but he also took with him two decades of revenue accumulated from the Duchy of Cornwall, worth at the time up to £1 million (£64 million in current currency values). In October 1937, through the good offices of his cousin, the Duke of Saxe-Coburg, the couple were in Berlin on a two week visit to Germany where they met Ribbentrop, Goering, Goebbels and the Führer. The Windsors were pictured giving Nazi salutes. When war came, at the time of Dunkirk, and still under British military command, the Duke disregarded orders and went south to his possessions in the south of France, where FBI sources reported that Wallis had notified the German authorities of their whereabouts. The Duke repeatedly declared his opposition to the war in conversations with diplomats, businessmen and socialites-views that were carefully recorded in German files. In Cadbury’s view, the Windsors were in effect looking for the best deal for themselves, prepared to act as quislings or worse, playing for time to see whether the Germans or the British would gain the upper hand. Once moved as Governor to Bermuda, he and the duchess were kept under surveillance by the US authorities, their communications intercepted, and their movements closely followed.
The case for Edward is not dissimilar to the case for Sir Oswald Mosely. Both considered that war had to be avoided, and that war would spell the end of the British Empire. Churchill, and those who supported him, wanted to preserve the Empire and declared that Great Britain could not survive as a free country if it made a deal with Hitler. Halifax, Butler and the peace party in the peace party tended to agree with the appeasers, but Halifax came to the conclusion, after his brush with Hitler at Munich, that his word was not worth the paper it was written on. Edward seems to have thought that it was. He was naïve, as were his German cousins.
What is worse, his views about world affairs, that world war should be avoided, were mixed in with his sense of entitlement, his thirst for status, and not least his and his wife’s desire for money. A damning article, The Duchess of Windsor, about Wallis appeared in the American Mercury, in June 1944, pp. 675-681. The article is available in pdf on the internet. It shows Wallis as a vulgar schemer, craving for luxury, clothes, money and the company of the fabulously wealthy. As Cadbury rightly points out, to his great discredit, Edward claimed that the author , Helen Worden, was a Jew ( in fact the publication is associated perhaps later than this article with the anti Semitic Far Right in the USA). Later, Wallis humiliated Edward by running a very public affair with the heir to the Woolworth fortune.
The wars and revolution of the early part of the twentieth century spared few of Queen Victoria’s progeny. The Duke of Hesse joined the SS, but was thrown into concentration camp on direct orders of Hitler after his father in law Victor Emmanuel of Italy organized the overthrow of Mussolini in September 1943. The Saxe-Coburgs were disgraced as party members and their properties pillaged or confiscated. The monarchs and princes were swept from thrnes and possessions. What remains is Queen Elizabeth, as Cadbury writes, “the enduring symbol of democratic stability that Churchill wished for, and that was thrown away (byEdward) so lightly in 1936”. A warning to Elizabeth’s successor?