Edward VIII – playboy, Nazi sympathiser, the king who abandoned his throne to marry Wallis Simpson: is that all there is left to say about the man who once reigned over the 400 million inhabitants of the British Empire? The truth, I would argue, is more complicated and far more intriguing.
Named Prince of Wales in 1911 on his 16th birthday, shortly after his father George V’s accession to the throne, Edward was an insecure and vulnerable man, caught up in a constant struggle to come to terms with his royal status. In his youth, two formative experiences had deeply influenced his world view. As a junior officer in the First World War he mixed with ordinary men and women and served on the western front, although he was not allowed to fight. The trauma of those years left him with the profound conviction that Britain should never go to war with Germany again, and it was this belief which underlay his support for the appeasement of Hitler in the 1930s.
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After the conflict, while on his first overseas tour in 1919, the prince visited the USA and was captivated by the modernity, confidence and raw power of the country as it strode onto the world stage. By 1918 most of the European monarchies had been swept away, and it was clear that if the House of Windsor was to survive in the post-war world it would have to become more modern and democratic.
His wartime encounters with American troops and his visits to the USA after the war had a powerful impact on him, and this growing affinity with America helped to shape his innovative approach to his royal role. In the process he developed a more informal, democratic style of monarchy better suited to the modern age.
The happy prince?
Edward’s personality presents a puzzling contradiction. On one hand he was a royal prince with all the sense of entitlement and superiority which that implied. On the other, his memoirs show he was beset from his early youth by the feeling he was not worthy of the role into which he had been born. It was an unstable combination, and accounts for much of the moodiness and depression that were a feature of his life.
At the end of his memoirs Edward wrote that, as Prince of Wales, he was “obsessed with the desire to be found worthy, and to share in the risks and struggles of men”. However, his royal status isolated him from other people, and made it impossible for him to establish normal human relationships. The ‘job’ of Prince of Wales, as he regarded it, deprived him of the freedom to lead the kind of life which he would otherwise have chosen. It was not a role which he identified with and embraced as part of his royal destiny, but one which he assumed with reluctance, and which he felt was alien to his true self. The shy, insecure, private ‘David’ [as he was known to his family and close friends] was trapped in the glare of the spotlight as Edward, Prince of Wales, the smiling prince, the symbol of the nation’s hopes.
The pressures of his role sometimes became too much for him, and he fell prey to depression and thoughts of suicide. Writing to his mistress Freda Dudley Ward while on tour in Australia in 1920, he wrote: “I honestly don’t think I can face another [tour] like this one without going quite mad; I honestly want to die as soon as we are together again.”
Over the years Edward adopted various strategies to cope with his life as Prince of Wales, particularly the habit of ‘inner emigration’. This involved outward compliance with the demands of his royal ‘job’ while retreating as often as he could into his private world, which reflected his own Americanised tastes and interests. One of Edward’s favourite forms of ‘inner emigration’ was American jazz. In spite of its subversive, ‘un-English’ qualities, or perhaps because of them, Edward quickly fell in love with jazz. One of his favourite performers was the American bandleader Paul Whiteman, who toured Britain with his jazz orchestra in 1923, which was when Edward regularly attended his late-night sets at fashionable London clubs. An American reporter who came to interview Whiteman described a typical evening in a club, filled with the cream of London society in formal evening dress. As the reporter chatted with Whiteman between sets, Edward was sitting at a nearby table with Dudley Ward, smoking a huge cigar. The orchestra played until 2am; Edward danced every dance with his mistress, and when the club closed, Whiteman’s musicians accompanied the prince’s entourage to a private club where the party continued until daybreak.
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A supporter of social welfare
If Edward acquired a reputation as a pleasure-loving prince during the ‘Roaring Twenties’, with the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s he found a completely new role. He threw himself energetically into campaigns to alleviate the effects of unemployment and to improve social conditions, particularly regarding housing. In January 1932, with unemployment levels of nearly three million, the prince confronted the crisis in a major speech at the Royal Albert Hall in London. It was a stirring call to the young people of Britain to volunteer for service in bringing relief and support to the unemployed.
The response to the prince’s appeal, which was broadcast on the radio, was immediate and overwhelming. Offers of assistance flooded in; by the end of 1933 some 2,300 centres had been opened, catering for a quarter of a million people. Edward followed up his speech with tours of the ‘distressed areas’ in Tyneside, Yorkshire, the Midlands, Wales and Scotland, and made frequent visits to clubs and schemes for the unemployed. At the end of one tour of Wales, the prince was so exhausted that he fell asleep on the shoulder of the official accompanying him and had to be nudged awake from time to time to acknowledge the cheers of children lining the roadside.
Of course, Edward was not the only member of the royal family to concern himself with social issues. But where he diverged from the conventional doctrine of the post-Victorian monarchy was in his vehement condemnation of social deprivation and his demands for action. Rather than confining himself to charitable works and pious platitudes, he sought practical solutions.
Although the prince exercised no political power, his prominent position and popularity enabled him to influence the debate on the great issues of the day. Like US president Franklin Roosevelt with his ‘fireside chats’, Edward was quick to appreciate the potential of radio as a platform from which to promote his agenda. As Prince of Wales he made more than 50 radio broadcasts – far more than any other public figure at the time. Some were straightforward charity appeals, but others, like a speech on slum clearance in May 1933, were direct attempts to influence government policy. In doing so he caused controversy, breaking the royal code of political impartiality by implicitly criticising the government of the day for its failure to act.
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Among the worst affected areas were Glasgow and Clydeside in Scotland, where the Depression had brought shipbuilding to a standstill. Work on the Cunarder 534 – the future Queen Mary – had been halted in 1931, throwing thousands of men out of work. Before making a visit there in 1933, Edward was keen to find out what conditions in the city were actually like. He invited David Kirkwood, the republican socialist who represented the Clydeside constituency of Dumbarton, to a meeting. They had a long talk during which Kirkwood made a passionate plea for a government loan to finance the completion of the Queen Mary. Kirkwood was impressed by the prince’s openness and sincerity: “I have never talked to any man in my life who was more eager to know just what the workers were thinking,” he later recalled. “It was as if we were on a ship in a storm, when class and creed and caste are forgotten.” The meeting converted Kirkwood from being an outspoken republican to an enthusiastic monarchist. The government’s subsequent decision to subsidise the building of the Queen Mary was most likely due to the prince’s intervention. Certainly, he paid close attention to the progress of the project, inspecting the vessel four times in the next three years.
Britain’s relationship with Germany
Edward was equally interventionist in foreign affairs, driven by his conviction that another war should be avoided at all costs. In the mid-1930s he consistently sought to promote good relations with Germany. Controversially, in 1935 he made a speech to the British Legion suggesting a visit of reconciliation to Germany, which may have directly impacted the Anglo-German Naval Agreement that was being negotiated at the same time.
Even after his abdication in 1936, Edward continued to be an outspoken advocate of peace. In spring 1939, as Europe appeared to be sliding ever-closer to war, the US radio network NBC invited Edward, now styled ‘the Dukeof Windsor’, to deliver a worldwide radio appeal for peace. They agreed that Edward should use a forthcoming visit to Verdun, the scene of a great First World War battle, as a platform for the occasion. Speaking in a private capacity, from his experience as a soldier of the Great War, Edward urged the political leaders of the world to set aside purely national interests and work together for peace. Its solemn tone reflected the many speeches which the duke had given at war memorials and Armistice Day parades in his years as Prince of Wales: “As I talk to you from this historic place, I am deeply conscious of the presence of the great company of the dead,” he said.
Overall, it was a polished rhetorical performance, and it was enthusiastically received in the USA. Unfortunately, the duke’s speech coincided with the departure of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth for a tour of Canada and the United States, and the BBC refused to carry the broadcast for fear of upstaging them. The Germans ignored the appeal, and France also declined to broadcast the speech, so that in the end it was only heard in the USA. In the grim international climate of 1939, the duke’s appeal appeared naive and redolent of the failed policy of appeasement.
Was Edward VIII a Nazi sympathiser?
Much has been made of Edward’s Nazi sympathies, and his posthumous reputation has suffered badly as a result. However, while Edward was foolish and naive about Hitler (as he later admitted in an interview with an American newspaper in 1966), he was by no means alone in adopting a sympathetic approach towards Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
Far more significant and enduring was his lifelong enthusiasm for America, and his conviction that international peace and stability rested on the Anglo-American alliance. As early as 1919, more than a quarter of a century before Churchill spoke of the “special relationship”, Edward wrote: “We just must be closely allied with the USA, closer than we are now, and it must be lasting, and they are very keen about it.” It was fundamental to his world view, and he consistently repeated the belief throughout his life.
In 1935, with the prospect of another European war looming, Edward told an American journalist that the peace of the world depended on the friendly association of the two countries. In 1945, when offering his services as a goodwill ambassador to the USA, he wrote to his brother King George: “I am convinced that there can be no lasting peace for mankind unless [Britain and the USA] preserve a common approach to international politics.”
Edward’s reign, which was abruptly ended by his abdication in December 1936, was too short to tell whether he would have been able to remould the monarchy in his own image. Building on his policy interventions as Prince of Wales, he appears to have envisaged a more active, even ‘presidential’ style of kingship, affording him more political and diplomatic involvement than was traditionally owed to the monarch under the British Constitution. He would undoubtedly have supported the policy of appeasement of Germany and pressed for a closer American alliance. In the domestic sphere he would have lobbied governments for more activist economic policies along Keynesian lines.
As it turned out, his romantic obsession with Wallis Simpson outweighed his desire to implement the modernisation of the British monarchy. Because of his determination to marry an American divorcée, he was unable to articulate the case for change in the face of the conservative forces of church and state arrayed against him.
King Edward VIII: An American Life by Ted Powell is available now (Oxford University Press, £25).
This article was first published on History Extra in September 2018.