The story of Edward VIII has passed into folklore through two legends. The first is the fairy tale of women’s magazines. Prince Charming, spurning all the princesses of effete Europe, finds his true love from the land of freedom and romance, America. But his cunning and aged minister, Stanislas, Count Baudoin, entangles him in his wiles and declares the match to be against the laws of his country. The King gives up his throne for love, he and his bride live happily ever after, and the wicked Stanislas dies execrated by the people for leaving them defenseless in the war which follows Prince Charming’s exile.

The second legend, which I well remember being much canvassed by liberals and progressives at the time, is more sophisticated. It is that the Prince of Wales instinctively sensed the disillusioned mood of the nation after the slaughter of the First World War. Not only did he wish to make the monarchy more democratic, less stuffy, and less snobbish; not only did he lead the reform of sexual morals, dress, and styles of life; but he also understood the significance of the disease which was killing Europe—unchecked unemployment. (“Something must be done,” he said when as king on a tour of Wales he saw the men rotting on the dole.)

Recognizing him as a dangerous influence who would sap confidence in the Conservative-dominated government, Stanley Baldwin, so the legend continues, set out deliberately to destroy him. When the abdication crisis broke, he sealed him off from his friends, used the law of the Constitution (which is not a law but a set of customs always being modified) to bludgeon him into submission and, by a set of hypocritical speeches (while forbidding the King to put his case to the nation), conned public opinion and left the King with no option but to go. Meanwhile the hounds of the Establishment were loosed upon him. What was there to say for the Church of England, which apparently preferred the King to live in sin rather than marry, or of the court of his successor, which took every opportunity to snub, humiliate, and ostracize him, or for the government, which, striking through the King at all that was most ardent and modern in the nation, was through cowardice and deceit to muddle the nation into war? The affair was a spectacular triumph for Black Reaction and Prudery, and the Spirit of Dullness resumed its reign.

Such are the legends, and they vanish at the sight of Frances Donaldson’s biography. The fairy tale which she evokes is not Cinderella but Swan Lake—only in this version, Prince Siegfried, spurning the advice of his wise old tutor, marries not Odette but Odile and, bewitched by her powerful spell, plunges headlong into the lake to his death. The sophisticated thesis also crumbles. The seeds of the King’s downfall were sown long ago in his youth, and his behavior as Duke of Windsor confirmed the fears that were current at the time he came to the throne. Startlingly, her book is a justification and almost total exoneration of the British Establishment.

To write the life of a statesman requires knowledge of the political and economic impersonal forces with which he had to contend, just as the biographer of an intellectual or a writer ought to set him against the climate of opinion and culture of his time. The biographer of a constitutional monarch does not need such depth of understanding, but he must display mastery of almost as exacting a branch of knowledge. Every nuance of social usage and behavior must be at his fingertips, every distinction between this and that shade of smart society. He must know the precise pecking order, not just, say, between the three armed services or between the Household Brigade and line regiments, but between the Grenadier and the Coldstream Guards. He must know how courtiers deal with ministers of the Crown and how both relate to that hierarchy of officials such as Lord Lieutenants and High Sheriffs in the shires who hold nebulous positions of little power but considerable influence.

No British sovereign in this century has wielded any significant political power and even that possessed by Queen Victoria has often been exaggerated. But they have swayed appointments, helped this institution to grow and ignored that, given their active patronage as distinct from their names to pursuits or ventures or people of whom they approve, and have acted as arbiters of behavior and deportment to those of their subjects who care enough about the institution of monarchy to listen. Quite a few do listen.

Frances Donaldson is not for nothing the daughter of Freddy Lonsdale, that skillful playwright of social comedies. She knows English society from the inside and that is why she is able to keep up a running commentary of judgment on Edward’s actions and on those who enter his story. Her judgments are almost invariably just, scrupulous, balanced: lenient because they accept the way that the world works, convincing because they acknowledge that great personages are not free agents and should be guided by the advice of wise friends. She is as much aware of the moment when it became permissible for a gentleman to wear suede shoes as she is of the precise nature of the duties which the sovereign’s private secretary must perform toward the Crown and His Majesty’s government, and the receprocal obligations which the sovereign owes to him.


She understands, too, a great deal about royalty and the effect the Royals have on people. Agreeable, affable people fall silent in their company, pushing, ambitious people appear to become demented. Socialist republicans, who abominate the institution in their writings, totter away after meeting their sovereign, captivated monarchists: even those, she says, who consider themselves “immune to attractions of royalty are often taken by surprise by the ecstasy of pleasure and appreciation they feel.”

Frances Donaldson thinks the analysis by Edward Shils and Michael Young of royalty being a soap-opera family with whom the British identify is an insufficient explanation. It is also the glamour, the uniforms, jewels, homage, the panorama, which transforms them into superhuman beings whose unaffected and often simple conversation appears to sparkle with wit. She might have added that the Royals are not snobbish because, incapable themselves of being outranked, they are indifferent to social differences beneath them and are immune to social envy, climbing, and other odious manifestations of competition in life. To compensate for the loss of political power, they live in a magical world in which every wish is granted and whim gratified—the order is given, the jinni appears, the magic carpet transports them to Isfahan, the stables teem with thoroughbreds, and every subject obeys their summons.

Presidents and dictators have these privileges too but they are always having to look over their shoulders to secure their power base: they are mortal. It is this glamour, as much as fear of reprisal and exclusion from the Presence, that makes royal biographers search for circumlocution and fall into meiosis. Sir Sidney Lee, Edward VII’s biographer, knew that the King’s normal regime was to eat a substantial breakfast followed by a sound luncheon, a tea graced by two boiled eggs leading up to a gargantuan dinner which would be topped off with a supper of devilled bones or at least a chicken chaudfroid placed in the royal bedroom. Faced with the fact that the King was even by the standards of those days a glutton, he wrote: “The King was never a man to toy with his food.” No such euphemisms encumber Frances Donaldson’s text.

For her Edward is three different characters, Prince of Wales, King, and Duke of Windsor. Perhaps she does not quite do justice to the first of the three, which gets only 170 pages to nearly 250 of calamity and decline. Nor, despite her thorough reading, did she consult the records of the Dominions which the Prince visited on those exhausting and triumphant tours, or the papers of, say, Sir Edward Grigg, who accompanied him as political adviser and with whom later he stayed in Kenya. These were the years when he won in the war the hearts of thousands of veterans, enchanted five continents, cemented the bridge between the United Kingdom and the Dominions, and appeared to be the personification of the new age of youth and informality, a superb complement to the father figure of George V.

Frances Donaldson says some harsh things about his clothes, which certainly at times were bizarre in color and exaggeration—his plus fours, long and voluminous, were of the kind worn by music hall comedians. But the generation of schoolboys to which I belonged blessed him for wearing soft suede shoes, no waistcoat in summer and preferring a pullover to one in winter; for popularizing a soft shirt with dinner jacket; for often appearing without a hat; and for vastly increasing the variety and sprightliness of casual clothes and in general confounding the Dreadful Old Men.

When he was on form—and despite the melancholia from which he suffered he often was—no film star or celebrity of the time could match his power to enchant individuals or capture crowds. It may well have been the knowledge of this power and the success of his tours which induced him to imagine that whoever he chose as his queen would be acceptable. But public opinion, as children’s history books used to say of the mob, is fickle. It is not an investment to be drawn upon in a crisis: the very people who had cheered him for doing his job so well felt all the more keenly that he had betrayed them when he threw it up.


His power to captivate people and his gift for informality carried the obverse. The more successful he was, the more that was expected of him and the more he was apt to become moody and resent those who tried to exploit or imitate his informality. Ceremonial bored him—comprehensible in anyone but unfortunate for a monarch. It was as if a cardinal were to take a distaste to high Mass. He liked intimate occasions—dancing, nightclubs, golf, dinner for two or four; the repetitive routine of levées, opening buildings, banquets, and the events of the social calendar bored him. He grew opinionated. Royalty often is: they see and hear much and are not slow to speak their minds because they are inhibited by no one. So long as Edward was well briefed this did not matter. But when during the abdication he cut himself off not only from his official advisers but from his old friends, and later during his years as Duke of Windsor when there was no one to brief him, his lack of intelligence and his stubbornness gave his prejudices a field day.

Not that it would have made any difference. For his course of life was determined by his emotional needs. Edward fell in love twice in his life. There were many, a great many, affairs and one night stands which stimulated him; his biographer rightly passes them by without perhaps suggesting just how strong was his sexual drive. She is at her best, however, in analyzing his first love affair with Mrs. Dudley Ward, who was adored by everyone of whatever class she had anything to do with. He was not just taken with her: he was “madly, passionately and abjectly in love,” a slave who, whenever she expressed a wish, would reply “Anything to please.” He looked to her for guidance, submitted to teasing, delighted in being kept up to the mark, and behaved as a devoted son rather than a lover. She brought out his simplicity and generosity but never gave any sign of her power over him by, for instance, putting him right in public.

The strength of his attachment to Mrs. Dudley Ward meant that he never considered marriage, so that when the wind changed it blew in the direction of another married woman to whom he could dedicate himself and submit as completely. It changed in the summer of 1934. Nursing her daughter through an illness of some weeks, Mrs. Dudley Ward had hardly noticed that for the first time she had heard nothing for weeks from the Prince. She rang his number. The telephone operator, much upset, told her that she had orders not to put her through. She was never again to see him.

To discard a lover of many years standing is difficult for any man to achieve gracefully but some have managed to do it in a less wounding way than this. But it soon began to be observed that the new incumbent had enslaved him even more potently than the old and, unlike the old, did not hesitate to show her power. The story of the romance which led to the abdication has so often been told that it is an achievement when it is profitably retold. In this version, the Duchess of Windsor is somewhat hard done by. She emerges as trim but plain and fortyish, and her wonderful skin and luminous eyes are barely mentioned. Nor is that syndrome mentioned, so unpalatable to moralists, in which a woman who is suddenly much photographed, courted, and talked about, gradually changes her appearance and actually acquires an elegance and beauty which she formerly did not possess. Mrs. Simpson had in fact always been extremely attractive to men but the fact that the affair took three and a half years to develop dispels any suggestion that she made the running. She would have been lost at once had she done so. It is again faintly unkind to quote examples of her conversational wit which can never sound so well divorced from the expression of the face and the tone of voice in which they are said: in any case, they are not bad examples of the Thirties wisecrack.

Indeed everything about her, including her talk, was agreeable. What is more she was a perfectionist and immensely efficient: without efficiency life is unendurable for royalty: their whole existence is dominated by schedules, and meticulous attention to detail by their aides relieves them of tedium and embarrassment. Later she was to develop the art of knowing exactly what all her friends were doing, whom they were seeing, where they had been, what had been said, so that at times some felt as if a network of spies had been on their trail. What in the beginning was the excitement of being caught up in the royal way of life ended in total absorption in each other. It was an absorption so total that everything and everyone else, their feelings and their rights, vanished.

When that happens moralists have a word for it: selfishness. There was, of course, an inequality in their love. On the day of their wedding, Lady Alexandra Metcalfe wrote: “If she occasionally showed a glimmer of softness, took his arm, looked at him as though she loved him, one would warm towards her, but her attitude is so correct the effect is of a woman unmoved by the infatuated love of a younger man.” Yet it was this very inability to respond as ardently as he which was noted in Mrs. Dudley Ward. Lady Alexandra’s husband understood their relationship perfectly when he described the love of the Windsors for each other as “very true and deep stuff.”

The responsibility for the abdication is laid squarely on both of them. No doubt the old King was to blame for not speaking to his heir about the dangers of his infatuation—he was not slow to criticize him about everything else. But in his last years he was sick and tired. No credence can be given to the tale that the Duchess took Edward away from sound advisers and upright circles and immersed him in café society: he had never had much use for the sound or the upright. The trouble was not that he had the wrong advisers as that he had none. He did not call to his side devoted and astute friends such as Lord Louis Mountbatten or Fruity Metcalfe who were sympathetic to him and who would have told him the truth. In the end his sole adviser was his lawyer Walter Monckton.

But, then, he did not want to hear the truth. No blame can attach to Baldwin, who, although at the very end he broke his word to include in his statement in the House of Commons an exculpating reference to the Duchess, behaved with constitutional propriety. The reason why Edward went was simple and unexciting. It was that he had always managed in the past, as he put it, to get away with it and he expected somehow to defy tradition again. The comings and goings of his last days as king give an illusion of alternatives and plans. There were never any plans. It seems probable that the Duchess never understood that by the laws of the Church and hence, in this case, of the land it was impossible for her to become queen; and this, so his biographer surmises, may have heightened his obsession. She naturally gave him the opportunity to escape. He naturally refused. It was not the stuffiness of the Establishment, or the puritanism of the Dominions, or anti-Americanism. What was true for the sovereign then would be as true today.

This is a biography distinguished by its refusal to accept gimmicky, sociological theses or fashionable notions of behavior. But it is difficult on two matters not to see the Zeitgeist at work. The first is the change in marriage and the role of women. Divorce as integral to the institution of marriage is changing Western culture. Anna Karenina could not be written today; and even if the humiliations and self-delusion which divorce often brings in its train, the theme of A Handful of Dust, still exist, the relationship of the partners in the old triangle of husband, wife, and mistress has changed beyond recall.

If it is impossible to see the Duchess as Queen, it is equally impossible to see her as the King’s favorite. That part, played for so long in European courts, had last been played to perfection with Edward VII by Mrs. George Keppel, who, unable to perceive why her part could not be played (with variations) again, was critical of Mrs. Simpson at the time of the abdication. But Mrs. Simpson was not willing to play nineteenth-century melodrama or see herself as a Shavian Orinthia in this apple cart. The role was repugnant to someone who believed that a love-match entailed marriage and the security and status which marriage brought. If it was repugnant to her, a fortiori it was unendurable for the King.

The other matter is his contact with Nazi Germany. Like many of the moneyed classes, the Duke of Windsor had become disenchanted with parliamentary democracy and mildly taken with the dictators on the grounds that they got things done. German was the only other language the Duke spoke well, and he was at heart a real veteran of the kind that said “Never again the carnage of 1914-1918” and believed that if the veterans of all the states which fought in the war got together, peace would be preserved.

The Nazis marked the Duke down for use, and when in 1940 he was in Lisbon they used an intermediary to attempt to persuade him to stay in Portugal and not to take up his new post as Governor-General of the Bahamas. Frances Donaldson unravels the tale of plots and counterplots and concludes that, though there was never any doubt that the Duke would, as he did, follow the fortunes of his country, he thought that with the collapse of France and presumably imminent peace it would be unwise to sever communications with Germany. To the end of his days he remained convinced that the war had been unnecessary and that peace with Hitler should have been sought.

Too much should not be made of this. Inevitably the Duke had caught in that summer the mood of defeated Paris rather than of defiant London. But his main reason for delaying his departure from Lisbon was the grievance which always gnawed at him. This was his contention that after “going quietly” he had been “bloody shabbily treated.” The grievance was so strong and by this time his grasp of reality and duty so weak, that he sent telegrams to London demanding that the Duchess be received by the royal family before he would go as Governor-General to the Bahamas, oblivious of the fact that people in Britain had at that time more pressing matters to consider.

Of course they were at times shabbily treated. If they came to stay in England, he would get one short audience alone. But then heads of states, and especially self-retired heads of states, cannot be treated as simple family men. The first duty of the court after the abdication was to build up the authority and self-confidence of the new King. Unfortunately, Edward in his dealings with his brother went on behaving as if he were still King—ringing his brother from Austria and after he came to the phone sending a message that he was too busy to speak and would ring again the next day. Was the Duke to return to England and treat the sovereign so cavalierly? He said he wanted a job. But he had just given up the most important job of all—what guarantee was there that at a word from his wife he would not have given up the next one, or have done it in so eccentric a fashion as to discredit the monarchy?

It was not as if when during the war he was at last given a job he did it all that well. He soon got out of touch with public opinion. Royal opinion is usually conservative but the bienpensant are sometimes stopped in their tracks when they express views expecting royalty to approve and are roundly contradicted because the Royals, who are always meeting new people and getting new ideas thrust at them, perceive that the opinions of the upper crust are fusty. In retirement Edward became a hazard. Lord Mountbatten was astonished to hear at the end of the war that when the Duke was in the Bahamas, no black was allowed through the front door of Government House. Then again, his obsession with what was due to him blinded him to his obligations. He habitually spoke ill of the French: yet France gave him a home rent free and exempted him from personal taxes. Nor was he kept in exile by the British Establishment. The truth was that the Duke could not have lived in the style which he thought due to him had he paid British taxes as, in common with all the Royals except the sovereign, he would have had to have done.

Even the discourtesy with which the Duchess was treated is, though inexcusable, explicable. In the early days she was known as a lady who had two divorces under her belt: might there not come a third? Later when even officialdom recognized her charm and elegance, it was still asked whether she would do all those tedious duties which Royals have to do: and might she not be exposed to insult? Whether it could have been different is hard to say. He wanted whatever she wanted, and she, knowing what things bored him and cast him into gloom, wanted to do the things he liked and those she liked. There is no evidence to suggest that either would have submitted for long to doing the things which they did not care for but would have been obliged to do in a life of public service.

The Establishment, playing its old game of handicapping, rightly judged Edward to be capable of carrying very little weight. They thought he would make a bad king and were not surprised that in the long years after the abdication he cut a somewhat pathetic figure among the shoals and reefs of café society. In that milieu he insisted on living in royal state, but private not public life suited him even if some of his pleasures were simple and mildly eccentric. Fruity Metcalfe (whose letters quoted in the book bounce off the page in their liveliness) describes a baking August afternoon’s entertainment at Antibes.

I heard terrible wailings coming from the woods about 5 pm and first of all thought that one of the little dogs had got a slight go of rabies; but after listening intently I thought I must be—anywhere but where I was—the sun beating down etc. I heard the bagpipes!! Well I knew the worst then…. His appearance was magnificent—if indeed a little strange considering the almost tropical heat. He was completely turned out as the Scotch Laird about to go stalking. Beautiful kilt, swords and all the aids. It staggered me a bit. I’m getting used to blows and surprises now.

Then from the woods rushed what might easily have been the whole Campbell family—of course very complete with pipes and haggis etc. Women as well as men. I inquired where they sprung from and was told they were folklore dancers…. The object of these visiting dancers is I believe to promote better International feeling. Personally, I think if they get into Germany then I really wouldn’t blame Hitler if he attacked any country and started off the European conflict. I felt like helping to do so myself last evening. They piped and danced and made merry till 7.15 pm. We all had to admire and applaud by order of the All Highest. HRH himself took photos of the merry throng…. [Later, at dinner] HRH was as if he was lying on a wet slab in a fish monger shop—the same old greasy eye and limpness. He was Not trying.

Metcalfe, who had met Edward on his tour of India and for a time ran the Prince’s stable, was far more than the playboy which the old guard took him for. He played Posa to the Prince’s Don Carlo, and the Prince when he was twenty-eight echoed their famous duet in a touching letter expressing his gratitude and love for Metcalfe’s imperturbable good humor and friendship. But for all his bonhomie, Metcalfe did not hesitate to tell the Duke and Duchess what he thought of them when they countermanded the plans to fly them back to England on the outbreak of the war because they had not been invited to stay in Windsor Castle.

Metcalfe acted as the Duke’s loyal unpaid equerry until the fall of France. Ringing up the Duke’s Paris apartment as usual at 8:30 to check on the day’s plans, he was told by a servant that the Duke had left at 6:30 to follow the Duchess to Biarritz, leaving Metcalfe to get back to England as best he could. If the Duke was Hanoverian in his moodiness and obstinacy, he was a Stuart in the way he treated his friends. But one quality which the last Stuart prince in exile possessed was his—the charm which put a spell over those who met him.

The legends should by rights be dispelled by this book, but they will almost certainly continue. The characters will continue to be typecast, Edward as the personification of the youth of the Twenties, gay, introspective, irresponsible, and fascinating, Queen Mary as the mother who weeps for her son and eats three square meals a day. The crafty Baldwin and the wicked old men of the Establishment will continue to be seen as the authors of his downfall. The soap opera on television in years to come is too appalling to contemplate. The fact that Edward’s fortunes were of no significance at all in the history of the decline of Britain in the twentieth century will be disregarded.

But one observation should be pondered upon by all, whether of left, center, or right, who have triumphed on some issue after which their opponents have slunk discomfited from the field. In the hour of their triumph, as the Times leaders thundered against the corruption of society and in particular of an unidentified group called the King’s friends, one member of the British Establishment overstepped the mark. In a Sunday broadcast, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Lang, referred to Edward’s “craving for private happiness” and his choice of a wife from “within a social circle whose standard and way of life are alien to all the best instincts and traditions of his people,” and ended by unctuously commending him to the infinite mercy and protecting care of God.

The heavens fell on the Archbishop. The British, who behave better in a calamity than in prosperity, and who put love lower in their worldly scale of values than honor, i.e., the esteem won by obeying society’s code, nevertheless had not forgotten Edward’s qualities of sympathy for the poor and unfortunate. The mood of the nation was, Frances Donaldson recalls, funereal rather than critical, and the irritation with Edward was transferred overnight to Cosmo Cantuar. In her superb study, she rightly quotes the original of the squib by Gerald Bullett on this incident, but I prefer a variant which ran:

My Lord Archbishop, what a scold you are
When a man is down how very bold you are
Of Christian charity how very scant you are
Oh, Old Lang Swine, how full of Cantuar!

This Issue

January 22, 1976