Spying on the king: when MI5 targeted Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson
In 1936, amid the threat of European war and a broiling abdication crisis, British intelligence services undertook an unprecedented secret surveillance operation. Their target? The king. A new Channel 4 series, Spying on the Royals, examines the controversial MI5 operation that listened in on King Edward VIII and his American mistress Wallis Simpson...
In January 1936, Edward VIII became king following the death of his father George V. However, many in the British establishment were concerned about the playboy lifestyle and political leanings of the new king. By November 1936, Edward had told prime minister Stanley Baldwin of his determination to marry American socialite Wallis Simpson, who was deemed entirely unsuitable as a future queen by many. Not only was she American, she was – more significantly – twice divorced. As Edward refused to budge on the matter, a constitutional crisis seemed increasingly inevitable.
We spoke to intelligence historian Rory Cormac, and the series’ director Paul Elston, to find out more…
Why did the British intelligence services decide to conduct a surveillance operation against the head of state, Edward VIII, in 1936?
Rory Cormac: This was a period of great uncertainty. Internationally, war was on the horizon and debates about appeasement and the rise of fascism were dominating Europe. At the same time, there were serious questions being asked about Edward’s suitability for the role of king. Edward was known as the ‘playboy prince’, while his desire to marry Wallis – an American divorcee – threatened Britain with a constitutional crisis.
Concern about Edward’s relationship with Wallis developed gradually. The issue started off as a family feud, which MI5 would not have got involved in. However, the stakes became higher after Edward’s father George V died and the ‘playboy prince’ became king.
This was when prime minister Stanley Baldwin asked MI5 to begin surveillance on Edward. Spying on the head of state is one of the most controversial things you can ask an intelligence agency to do and Sir Vernon Kell [the founder and first director of MI5] did not take it lightly. He was initially skeptical about the operation and had to be convinced that it was indeed an issue of national security and a potential constitutional crisis, not just a matter of personal politics.
There were several things that convinced Kell that an intelligence operation against Wallis and Edward was justified. Firstly, there were security fears that Edward was being blackmailed, because he spent such vast amounts of money on Wallis. Secondly, there were concerns about the some of the people he was associating with: right-wingers or fascist sympathisers such as Oswald Mosley (leader of the British Union of Fascists). There was a worry that those loyal to Edward could try and subvert Baldwin’s government in order to keep him on the throne. Finally, there were serious fears that, whatever happened, the affair could trigger strikes or riots up and down the country.
1936: demonstrators protest against the potential abdication of King Edward VIII. (Keystone/Getty Images)
Why was this operation so significant?
RC: Spying on heads of state is a hugely controversial issue. One of the reasons why this was such as dramatic story is that it placed two of the most fascinating and secretive institutions in Britain – the royal family and the intelligence services – on a unique collision course.
What’s more, this was an unprecedented operation. There are no prior instances of royals being spied on by intelligence services that we know of. The intelligence services were only created in 1909, so at the time of the abdication crisis, they were still in relative infancy.
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What exactly did the surveillance operation against Wallis and Edward involve?
RC: The operation involved both human surveillance and what was known as ‘signals intelligence’, or phone tapping.
It started off with small-scale enquiries into Wallis’ background. Then came human surveillance – there were men on the street keeping track of her movements, and watching her apartment to see who was coming and going. After that it got even more intrusive. Special Branch officers began interviewing people who had come into contact with the couple to try and work out the power dynamics of their relationship.
Paul Elston: Interestingly, Edward and Wallis both had bodyguards from Special Branch, when it was the head of Special Branch who was conducting the surveillance operation against them. You can clearly see in the documents what was going on. These bodyguards, who were meant to have Wallis and Edward’s complete confidence, were reporting back to Scotland Yard on the couple’s private conversations, feelings and emotional states. It seems that they were probably listening through doors and noting down every detail of Wallis and Edward’s conversations, because towards the end of the operation, they filed facsimile reports detailing the couples’ phone calls almost verbatim.
The climax of the operation was the phone tap itself. The reason it’s called a ‘wire tap’ is because you had to physically put a wire intercept onto the line, in order to pick up the phone signal. That signal was then diverted to someone else, who was listening in.
The person who carried out these phone taps was a man named Thomas Argyll Robertson, known by his initials as ‘Tar’. He was a very new recruit to MI5 at the time and was picked because he was very close to Sir Vernon Kell, who trusted him absolutely. For an operation like this, you don’t want someone who will gas about it afterwards. During the Second World War, Robertson went on to become the man behind the famous ‘Double Cross’ operation [MI5’s counter-espionage and deception operation in the Second World War], one of the greatest intelligence operations of all time.
Sir Vernon Kell, founder of MI5. Kell did not take the decision to spy on the head of state lightly, says Dr Rory Cormac. (Hulton/Corbis via Getty Images)
We have oral accounts from when Robertson was alive that reveal how he conducted the tapping. He placed the tap in one of the junction boxes in Green Park, opposite Buckingham Palace, and had a little box of tricks – a suitcase with headphones – that allowed him to listen in on the calls. We also think that that call was simultaneously being transmitted to MI5 headquarters, where a number of people were listening in at the same time.
What were MI5 seeking to achieve? Did they want to suppress the story, break up the relationship or just get a better idea of what was going on?
RC: Mainly the latter. Intelligence is incredibly useful in gaining leverage in negotiations. The officers were trying to gain insight into Edward’s state of mind, in order to help Baldwin deal with any negotiations around the abdication.
PE: They also listened in on the future George VI [Edward’s brother who took the throne after he abdicated], in order to get an in-depth idea of what was going on in the palace, and what was going to unfold. They heard Edward telling his brother that he couldn’t carry on anymore and was going throw in the towel. The intelligence services were cock-a-hoop at this, because it was exactly what they wanted to hear. If Edward had dug his heels and said he wasn’t going to abdicate and was going to marry Wallis, then they would have had a constitutional crisis on their hands.
The front page of the London Star, breaking news of King Edward's abdication and his brother's accession to the throne.(Getty Images)
Was the operation legal or not?
PE: It was absolutely legal. Despite what you might expect, it was all done by the book. What’s so interesting is that the whole operation was properly signed off. Then, as now, you had to have a warrant from the home secretary in order to authorise a phone tap in Great Britain. You can see authorisation from home secretary Sir John Simon on the documents we found - it's right there in print.
RC: What's really fascinating about this operation is that it can all be traced back to the centre of power and to Downing Street. It was not done by an over-enthusiastic officer, or a rogue amateur, but came from the prime minister and his inner circle of advisors.
Why has it taken so long for the documents revealing this to come to light?
RC: Even though it happened more than 80 years ago, we are dealing with some of the most sensitive activity that the state can undertake. As we all know, intelligence files are heavily classified. But what less people realise is that files relating to the royal family are just as restricted. So we’re dealing with two of the most secret institutions in Britain.
My co-author Richard J Aldrich and I knew that Stanley Baldwin spent a lot of time and energy thinking about the abdication – it was a big issue for him. Yet when we initially began searching for the files, we were surprised by how few were available. After hunting around, we started to find some Special Branch files, in which they began monitoring Wallis Simpson. From there we followed the paper trail and began some proper archival archaeology, piecing together this narrative using primary sources. That’s what so exciting about the documentary – it’s all backed up with real archival records, which are so hard to find.
Following Edward’s abdication, he married Wallis in June 1937. (Bettmann/Getty)
Do you think that the threat posed to British security was significant enough to justify the operation?
PE: Given all the things that the intelligence services were finding out about Edward – the fact that he was an admirer of Hitler and was having meetings with Mosley – you can understand their concern. Plus, Edward had right-wing press magnates behind him, who supported his marriage to Wallis, which would have caused a massive constitutional crisis. As Rory mentioned, there were even fears of rioting and social unrest. If you look at the operation from that perspective, you can understand why they did it, whether right or wrong.
RC: It’s definitely up for debate. The royals aren’t above the law, and they should be able to be tapped on if they pose a significant enough security threat. With the benefit of hindsight, my personal perspective is that it was justified.
Dr Rory Cormac is associate professor of International Relations at the University of Nottingham. Paul Elston is the series director of Spying on the Royals.