History Thread: Philip Ziegler’s King Edward VIII (1991)

In his time, King Edward VIII was a romantic figure who abdicated the British throne in December 1936 for the sake of the woman he loved. For years, this romantic explanation that generally held; he (now reduced to the Duke of Windsor) and his beloved Wallis Simpson were feted by the press, flattered by biographers and adored by much of the public, even as his family kept him at arm’s length. In recent years, despite the efforts of novelists, filmmakers and occasional sympathetic biographers to keep the myth alive, the glow has finally come off the Duke’s rose. Behind the handsome playboy lay a vapid, self-absorbed figure in capable of a thought, action or word that didn’t suit his immediate needs.

Philip Ziegler’s “authorized” biography of 1991, King Edward VIII: The Life of the Duke of Windsor, remains the most thorough and “definitive” work on this ill-starred ruler. It’s more remarkable because Ziegler tries to be generous to Edward, but finds little to be generous about.

Born to King George V (a stolid, unemotional man who alternately abused and neglected his sons) and Mary of Teck, Edward distinguished himself early on. His years as the Prince of Wales are a rake’s progress of romantic liaisons, drunken escapades and academic failures, interrupted by uneventful military service and occasional diplomatic tours. Ziegler unsparingly shows Edward’s vapidity: his private letters, well into adulthood, read like the diary of a middle schooler who never mastered the English language, while his public utterances rarely aspired to the banal. One might pity this man if he didn’t seem to take perverse pride in his lack of intellect. “It was very hard to understand and I don’t think I shall go anymore,” Edward complained of an entry-level English lecture at Oxford. On another occasion, he argued with novelist Thomas Hardy, trying to persuade the writer that he didn’t actually write Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

Nor did travel broaden the mind. His diary of a teenaged trip to Germany is studded with disparaging comments about the “fat, stolid, unsympathetic” population and his boredom at German art and performances of Wagner (which he admits to sleeping through). He disparaged Italians as “a repulsive nation” and the French as hopeless decadent. And these were his fellow Europeans: his comments on Australia (whose aboriginals were “the lowest form of human beings”), Barbados (“the colored population…are revolting”), Canada (“a foul decadent lazy crowd”) and Mexico (“super dagoes…too revolving for words”) are revolting. These witless, repetitive mots are as offensive as they are tedious; all the breeding and education money could buy couldn’t prevent the Prince of Wales from sounding like a vulgar Sheffield bricklayer.

Edward in uniform, 1918

Ziegler, authorized biographer that he is, tries to balance this intellectual nullity with comments on Edward’s charm and charisma, his good looks, his charitable causes (he was, quite honorably, a lifelong spokesman for British veterans) and popularity with the public, both in England and the Empire. He charmed foreign dignitaries and won public acclaim, becoming a matinee idol on par with Douglas Fairbanks or Rudolf Valentino. That’s as it may be, and in the symbol-laden modern monarchy such skills aren’t unimportant. But comments that Edward “could have done a lot less” when he spent most of his time drinking, womanizing or playing squash don’t persuade the most generous reader. It’s more noteworthy that Edward himself wondered whether he was suited to rule a nation. And Edward’s father, the stolid King George V, worried that “after I am dead, the boy will ruin himself within twelve months.”

How prophetic those words. Indeed, Edward’s brief reign in 1936 was scandal-plagued and ineffectual. The young King found himself bickering with his family and palace staff, alienating his allies in Parliament (save Winston Churchill, who embarrassingly stood by him to the end) and the press, flirting with fascism and generally making a nuisance of himself without any achievements to speak of. His famous proclamation that “something must be done” about poverty and unemployment in Wales, presented by admirers as empathy with the common people, seems less impressive considering it came without any proposals of reform or assistance. He undercut League of Nations efforts to sanction Benito Mussolini’s Italy, refusing even to meet Ethiopian Emperor Hailie Selassie on a visit to London. Most alarmingly, the Foreign Office discovered state papers about Germany’s military build-up disappearing; soon, wary officials began removing such documents from the Royal mailbox.

Edward and Mrs. Simpson

In fairness, Edward’s reign was foredoomed by his relationship with the American socialite Wallis Simpson, still married when they met. Ziegler’s portrait of Simpson is not flattering: she seems like a social-climbing arriviste, whose relationship with Edward was largely one-sided. Writers like Anne Sebba have added sympathetic contours to Wallis’s predicament; she neither urged Edward’s abdication nor reciprocated his lifelong devotion, coming to feel trapped in a relationship she resented. At least Ziegler avoids the sexist caricature of Wallis as a highly sexed Lady Macbeth, goading her husband into evil actions. “She gave him something that he had never found before,” Ziegler writes – a strong-willed partner who would challenge and defy him when needed. “Total devotion it was…[and] he found contentment in it.”

Indeed, in these passages Edward does inspire a modicum of sympathy for his choosing love over duty. Certainly it’s hard to countenance the hide-bound royals more horrified by his courting a non-royal (and a divorcee!) than his fascist sympathies or all-around ignorance. Lest we sympathize too much though, Edward repeatedly undercuts our efforts at understanding him. Wallis herself, who urged Edward not to abdicate, complained to a friend that “this man is exhausting.” His stand, romantic in isolation, seems less noble when placed in the context of a man who never saw the world as anything more than an extension of his own desires.

Duke and Fuhrer

After leaving the throne, Edward (now the Duke of Windsor) decamped with Mrs. Simpson to Paris, making further nuisance of himself by bickering with his brother George VI and visiting Nazi Germany on a self-styled diplomatic mission, receiving a private audience with Adolf Hitler. Ziegler rightly notes that many British officials viewed Hitler as the lesser of two evils next to the Soviet Union; certainly Edward was hardly alone in desiring peaceful relations with the Nazis. Ziegler also discards the sensationalist claims that Simpson was a German agent; one recent writer claims that Joachim von Ribbentrop, then Hitler’s Ambassador to London, had an affair with Wallis, as if sexual perfidy were the only explanation for bad politics.

Even without recourse to lurid gossip and conspiracy theories, the record is damning enough. Edward praised Hitler and Mussolini throughout the ’30s, socialized with Blackshirt leader Oswald Mosley and spent much of his reign pushing for an Anglo-German alliance against Stalin, which he regarded as “a guiding principle for British foreign policy.” Nor did his admiration stop there. “Dictators are very popular these days,” he observed, “and we might want one in England before long.” A friend recalled that, soon before ascending the throne, the King commented that the fascist Blackshirts were “quite a good movement, except for [Oswald] Mosley.”

After leaving England for France, Edward indiscreetly leaked military secrets to German and Italian diplomats – up to and including French defense plans soon before the German invasion of that country. Now-Foreign Minister Ribbentrop, viewing him as an “English Nationalist Socialist,” had Abwehr agents stalk the Duke from Paris to Spain in 1940. Ribbentrop hatched an elaborate kidnapping plot (Operation Willi, thoroughly excavated in Michael Bloch’s same-titled book) involving German spies, Spanish Falangists and foreign mercenaries that failed largely due to their own incompetence.

Exile in the Bahamas

Contrary to more recent writers like Andrew Lownie, Ziegler argues that the Duke was likely unaware of these plots and not an active conspirator against his homeland. That said, he did nothing to discourage them by offering himself as a mediator between Hitler and Churchill (who came to regret his defense of the Duke) and pronouncing England’s imminent defeat to all who would listen. It’s difficult to sympathize either with Edward, who remarked that German bombing would “make England ready for peace,” or his wife, who commented on the Blitz that “after what they did to me, I can’t say I feel sorry for them.” At some point, the line between complicity and stupidity blurs; the result becomes the same.

The Royal Family, still smarting over the abdication, took rumors of Edward’s treason seriously and exiled him to the Bahamas. The Duke of Windsor spent the next few years unhappily governing this far-off colony, but managed to land himself in trouble regardless. Edward antagonized the Bahamas’ business community, failed to halt race riots (which Edward naturally blamed on the “savagery” of Nassau’s Black population) and covered up the murder of mob-connected financier Sir Harry Oakes. His subpar performance in this role ensured that, even if tensions with his brother cooled, he would never again be handed a position of any responsibility.

Cads in paradise

As Ziegler’s portrait concludes with Edward’s later years as a footloose exile, trying with limited success to salvage his reputation and rebuild his relationship with the Windsors, it becomes clear that extending this vacuous figure sympathy is a fool’s errand. For Ziegler’s scruples as a biographer outweigh pretenses of balance: no matter how generous his phrasings or prodigious his apologies for Edward’s behavior, the sum total of the man is null. He was an intellectual cipher, a moral disaster and a political pillock; he abandoned his friends, disgraced his family and nation and dragged the throne through the mud. His one redeeming feature, his devotion to Wallis Simpson, seems less admirable considering her reticence and Edward’s badgering his family for money, attention and access. Presumably Ziegler did not plan to present Edward as an irredeemable lout; but few readers will read his thorough, damning biography and come away with any other impression.