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Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David, briefly Edward VIII, later Duke of Windsor, or David to his family, was a member of the British royal family, born 1894, died 1972, and king for a few months in 1936 until he was forced to abdicate because of his desire to marry American divorcée Mrs Wallis Simpson, who was quite keen on Germans. His brother took over as king George VI and Edward became an idle international playboy in his later years (he was Governor of the Bahamas for a bit, but that wasn't too taxing either). Ironically, Edward didn't have any children (there is a suggestion he was infertile after childhood mumps), so George's daughter (later Elizabeth II) would probably have become queen anyhow.
The verdict of history
There are a wide variety of opinions about him. If you think he was a decent bloke, then he was a bold reformist royal who cared deeply about the poverty of his subjects and was driven from the country by the evil Conservative government when he threatened to challenge their inhumane policies. The alternative point of view is that he was a long-term Nazi sympathiser who was sensibly kicked out of the country and narrowly prevented from betraying the British Empire to Hitler. A third viewpoint is that he didn't really care much about politics, but was forced out of his job because of love (and because the stuffy British Establishment didn't like the free-spirited American Mrs Simpson).
Whichever view you hold, there is some suspicion that his abdication was deliberately engineered by Stanley Baldwin and the British government, rather than being an inevitable consequence of the British constitution. However some historians such as Philip Williamson insist there wasn't a conspiracy and divorce really was that bad back then.
He was the eldest son of George V, making him a grandson of Edward VII, and great-grandson of Queen Victoria. He was taught by nannies and from 1907 prepared for a career in the Royal Navy at Osborne Naval College and the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth. He attended Oxford University but did not graduate (he apparently wasn't too bookish). During World War One he was refused permission to join in the fun on the front line, but kept the troops' spirits up and learnt to fly.
The 1920s were mixed. He enjoyed the lifestyle of a youthful playboy, trying daredevil pursuits including riding in horse races and flying planes. At the same time, as a future king he was involved in various good causes, serving as president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and being involved in the 1924-25 British Empire Exhibition and the creation of Wembley Stadium.
Edward was known for his social concern, making tours to areas of economic deprivation such as South Wales, particularly during the Depression, and is known for saying "something must be done" on seeing the poverty of the Welsh mining valleys. His mother claimed that even as a boy he was "very sensitive, and knowing much more of his prospects and responsibilities than she thought".
He was also a bit of a racist and white supremacist, but who wasn't back then? In a 1920 love letter he complained about having to go on an official trip to Barbados, calling the Black population "revolting" and coming up with brilliant anthropological observations like "There are over 170,000 of them the white population is very small and they aren't much to look at all too deadly dull and of course depressingly primitive." (Apparently he wasn't too fond of punctuation either.) In other letters, he called Indian beggars "the scum of the earth", Prince Regent (later Emperor) Hirohito of Japan a "prize monkey", the Chinese "Chinks", and the people of Malta "the worst dagoes possible", and he complained that the Japanese "breed like rabbits".
He seems to have met Wallis Simpson in 1931 but they didn't start their relationship until 1934. She was already on her second husband, shipping executive Ernest Simpson, when she started a relationship with Edward. After king George V died in 1936, there was mounting concern in the British establishment that he might marry her once she got rid of Ernest. Officially it would be unthinkable for Edward, if he was married to a divorced woman, to be head of the Church of England, a title that since the days of Henry VIII comes with the throne. This was in the days when the church was still deeply hostile to divorce as a betrayal of the sacrament of marriage. Which is a little bit ironic if you remember how the church was actually founded (though in fairness, beheading your wife is much more Christian than divorcing her).
Wallis Simpson was also a friend of Stephanie von Hohenlohe, an upper-class, socially-unconventional Austrian Jew who was nonetheless suspected of being a German spy. Stephanie was also a lover of Lord Rothermere, owner of the Daily Mail, and has been accused of acting as a conduit between Hitler and Rothermere, trying to get Rothermere's support for Hitler's expansionism. Simpson also had a number of other relationships, including with Joachim von Ribbentrop, the German Ambassador to Britain. There were allegations that Simpson was passing information to the Germans; particularly when he became king, Edward VIII had access to a lot of secret documents; the FBI kept Simpson under surveillance and reported that she was of firmly pro-German sympathies.
For a long time, it seems Edward thought he would get to marry Wallis, and his parents never said anything to contradict his views. The British establishment divided over the issue. British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin warned Edward not to marry her. Winston Churchill was reportedly barracked in Parliament for speaking in the King's defence, while Lord Beaverbrook (owner of the Daily Express), and Oswald Mosley were also sympathetic. On the night of his abdication, Blackshirts protested outside Buckingham Palace. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Gordon Lang, was opposed to him marrying a divorcee, and the Communist Party MP William Gallacher was one of many who spoke of conspiratorial forces at work between the upper classes and Germany. There was also suspicion that she was just in it for the money and social status, being an American.
Eventually, Stanley Baldwin told Edward that if he married Wallis, the British people would be very upset and wouldn't respect him (since the early 20th century had seen a lot of kings and emperors lose their jobs, this wasn't an idle threat). The Commonwealth prime ministers shared this opinion. Baldwin also threatened that if Edward didn't break it off, he and his entire government would resign, creating a constitutional crisis. Furthermore, Baldwin refused Edward the compromise of a morganatic marriage (one where Wallis would not be queen and her children would not be heirs to the throne). It has been suggested that Baldwin told Edward he could keep Mrs Simpson as a mistress, just as long as he didn't marry her. Edward said screw you, and quit.
His abdication was agreed with the Commonwealth heads of government, and he was given the title Duke of Windsor, while his younger brother George VI was made king. You've seen The King's Speech, right? (Don't believe the bits about George allowing a commoner to address him by his familial nickname, or its depiction of Churchill as favoring Edward's abdication.)
It is not clear whether his abdication was really based on public opposition to divorce, or if it had more to do with Wallis Simpson's links to Germany (which appear well-established), or his own German and Nazi sympathies (which were perhaps vaguer than his wife's but see below). The Archbishop of Canterbury seemed to lead a religious opposition to him marrying a divorcee. However public attitudes to divorce were becoming more sympathetic, as shown for instance in A P Herbert's 1934 novel Holy Deadlock. Marriage actually became more popular after World War Two, and alternatives like cohabitation were far from unknown before then. Nonetheless it is hard to get a clear idea of the public mood, manipulated as it was by the press and other forces. Taking a different psychosexual view, Brian Walden has suggested that the abdication was in part because Edward's dependency on Simpson made him appear unmanly.
A 2006 BBC documentary claimed the establishment conspired to get rid of Edward because they hated him for his Nazi sympathies, although there was by no means universal opposition to him becoming king, and much of the evidence for his alleged Nazi sympathies dates from after his abdication. Tony Benn repeated rumours that Baldwin could have prevented Simpson's divorce (she had lied about adultery to obtain a divorce, so there were no grounds for it to be granted) but chose to let it go ahead so that she would be able to marry the King and the establishment could get rid of Edward; Benn mentioned that the king's pro-German sympathies were involved. However it is odd that the staunchly anti-German Churchill would risk his reputation to defend the pro-German King (unless Churchill hated Baldwin more, of course). A few people, such as historian Susan Williams, have suggested Edward VIII was removed by the establishment because he was too popular and posed a challenge to the Conservative Party and Stanley Baldwin in particular; Williams claimed that the public would be happy to accept Simpson as queen, and her contacts with the Nazis were far less than commonly claimed.
Was he a Nazi?
There are a number of separate accusations about Edward and his Nazi sympathies. The first part is that Edward, in common with many people in the British establishment, admired the way Adolf Hitler got things done, rebuilt Germany after the crises of the 1920s, and stood up to Communism. The second, more dubious topic, is the question of his relationship with Hitler from the late 1930s when Britain was moving increasingly close to conflict with Germany, ultimately resulting in World War Two. The latter would make him a traitor as well as a Nazi, although it's possible he just shared an interest in appeasement with many right-wing Britons (and indeed many left-wing Britons, albeit for different reasons).
There are claims that the British establishment, including Winston Churchill, covered up the extent of Edward's Nazi sympathies, to protect the reputation of the monarchy and avoid the embarrassing revelation that the king's brother had sought to betray him to the Germans: one of the leading advocates of this theory is Andrew Morton, who as biographer of Princess Diana is no stranger to claims of royal conspiracy.
His mother Queen Mary was a German princess, although she was born and raised in the UK. He spent several childhood holidays in Germany. According to journalist Paul Foot, Edward was proud of his German heritage and while other people of formerly pro-German sympathies hid or rescinded their appreciation during the 1930s, Edward remained loyal. In addition to Simpson's German contacts mentioned above, the two were married at the French house of Charles Eugene Bedaux, suspected of being a Nazi agent.
There is footage of Edward in 1933 teaching Elizabeth, the future queen, how to do a Nazi salute, although rather than serious indoctrination this may have been a bit of fun; by then the Nazis had already gained power and started to impose anti-Jewish laws.
Edward and wife visited Germany in October 1937, meeting Hitler. He reportedly discussed plans for peace with Hitler, although it would be odd if he had not. More damningly, there are claims he discussed with Hitler and Rudolf Hess the possibility of him being restored to the throne in place of his brother. Edward gave a Nazi salute to Hitler, and said afterwards: "Hitler was then at the zenith of his power. His eyes were piercing and magnetic. I confess frankly that he took me in. I believed him when he said that he sought no war with England."
According to historian Carolyn Harris, his motives in going to Germany were less to do with a liking for Hitler, and more because this was a rare opportunity for him to do something important and take a public role and not just sit around all day doing nothing; he had no official public role following his abdication but would have liked some foreign travel and state banquets, and maybe even the possibility of doing something worthwhile. On the other hand Sir Ronald Lindsay, British ambassador to the US, wrote in 1937:
The active supporters of the Duke of Windsor within England are those elements known to have inclinations towards Fascist dictatorships, and the recent tour of Germany by the Duke of Windsor and his ostentatious reception by Hitler and his regime can only be construed as a willingness on the part of the Duke of Windsor to lend himself to these tendencies.
When war broke out, the Windsors were living in France. They were swiftly brought back to the UK, but Edward was then sent to serve with the British military authorities in France.
It is claimed that Edward betrayed the British government's plans for the defence of Belgium to the Germans. More likely, the Germans owed their victory to surprise, blitzkrieg, and Belgium's inadvertent cooperation. Belgium had refused to allow British or French troops on its soil to protect it, to avoid provoking Germany (heckofajob, Belgium!), and so all of France's defenses were concentrated on the Maginot Line, where the Germans were expected to attack if war broke out.
Following the German invasion of France and the fall of Paris, he fled south to Spain and then Portugal; both were officially neutral but sympathetic to fascism. It is said that Edward was not a good British citizen there, chatting with German officials and Spanish aristocrats (who tended to be pro-Franco if not outright pro-Hitler), and saying Britain was doomed to fall and if only he was still king he could have made peace with Hitler. An FBI agent reported that the Duchess was in regular contact with Joachim von Ribbentrop, and passing on information. There have been many claims that Hitler planned to install the Duke of Windsor as a puppet monarch once Britain was defeated.
The British government seemingly decided to get him out of the way and sent him off to be governor of the Bahamas, where the only information he would be able to pass onto the Germans would be about the sunshine—which might have been a bit of clever psychological warfare, considering the weather the Germans had to put up with in the USSR and in Germany itself during the winter months.
After the war he and Wallis moved back to France, where the French government gave them a nice house and exempted them from tax. They hung out in elevated social circles, including with Gore Vidal, but skipped Elizabeth II's coronation in London. The British royal family had varying attitudes: George V's widow (his mother) Queen Mary was very angry, though George VI was more friendly, and his daughters Elizabeth and Margaret were curious. He was ill for several years before his death in 1972. Wallis died in 1986, a few weeks before her 90th birthday. And that whole thing was over with.
Even after World War Two, he still seemed to attract conspiracy theories. It is claimed that around 1949, he was conspiring to seize the British throne as regent, should George VI die, owing to the youth of Princess Elizabeth and her marriage to Prince Philip. Philip was seen as an unsuitable match due to his closeness to Louis Mountbatten and suspicions that Philip was angling to be King, although it appears all this was based purely on palace gossip. (Though Louis Mountbatten was also involved in rumoured coup plots against Harold Wilson in the 1960s and 70s, indicating just how ridiculous the British political establishment remained, and how vague and nonsensical all this is.)
It is interesting reading the reactions of the British press in recent years to the Duke of Windsor. There was nothing exceptional in the Duke's attitude towards Hitler when you consider the typical reaction of the British upper classes and business establishment (the Daily Mail, which now publishes headlines about the "Edward the Nazi King of England", was itself an early supporter of Hitler's economic miracle). But it is inconceivable that other members of the royal family would be attacked in similar terms; the press is exceptionally deferential, keen for instance to defend the queen's innocence against film of her giving a Nazi salute. Elizabeth probably wasn't a 6 year old Nazi, but the division between attitudes to the loyal devoted Queen and the treasonous Duke are striking. Attacking people as traitors is standard for the tabloid press which loves to create and then vilify enemies. The royal family must be defended to preserve the British state, and attacking the "black sheep", the one who turned his back, is just one aspect of enforcing a narrow conformity.
All this had a coda in the late 1990s and early 2000s after the death of Princess Diana, when it became clear that Prince Charles wished to marry the divorced Camilla Parker-Bowles. Charles was not forced to surrender his claim to the throne (perhaps unfortunately, but for the right reasons): the government of Tony Blair pointed out that Charles's right to marry was enshrined in European human rights law.
- Profile: Edward VIII, BBC, 29 Jan 2003
- See the Wikipedia article on Edward VIII.
- Edward VIII, Spartacus
- Edward VIII, BBC History
- The investiture of Edward VIII - success before tragedy, BBC Wales, 2011
- The locals are revolting and I danced with an American bit, Daily Mail, 8 July 2014
- Fractured Fairy Tale: An Archive of a Royal Romance, Mitchell Owens, New York Times, 8 Jun 2003
- See the Wikipedia article on Wallis Simpson.
- Stephanie von Hohenlohe, Spartacus
- A shameful failure, or just an addict?, Brian Walden, BBC, 11 Dec 2006
- Edward VIII Abdication Crisis, Manchester Historian, 2015
- "Reviewed Work: Holy Deadlock by A. P. Herbert", Review by: G. S. R., The Australian Quarterly, Vol. 7, No. 25 (Mar., 1935), pp. 113-115, via JSTOR http://www.jstor.org/stable/20629199
- HAPPY FAMILIES?: Realities of family life in twentieth century Britain, Economic History Society, 2014
- How the State plotted to get rid of ‘unfit' Edward VIII, Daily Express, 2006
- Conflicts Of Interest: Diaries 1977-80, By Tony Benn
- The People's King: The True Story of the Abdication, Susan Williams, Penguin, 2003
- Did the people want Wallis?: Andrew Roberts reviews The People's King by Susan Williams, Andrew Roberts, Daily Telegraph, 24 Aug 2003
- How Britain covered up the friendship between Hitler & Edward VIII, New York Post, 1 Mar 2015
- King Edward VIII: Uncle who encouraged young Queen's Nazi salute 'plotted with Adolf Hitler to regain throne', Independent, 18 July 2015
- When the Duke of Windsor met Adolf Hitler, BBC, 10 Mar 2016
- Unmasked, Edward the Nazi King of England, Daily Mail, 28 Feb 2015
- Gore Vidal: Memories and Meditations, Gore Vidal, The Independent, 10 November 2006
- Palace plot that almost stopped her from being Queen: On the 60th anniversary of the Coronation, explosive documents reveal how her uncle Edward VIII wanted to regain throne after his abdication, Daily Mail, 31 May 2013
- Prince Charmless: A damning portrait of Edward VIII, Daily Mail, 20 Oct 2006
- It's Queen Camilla as the law stands, Daily Telegraph, 22 Mar 2005