The rise and fall of Edward VIII — Britain’s ‘Traitor King’

Edward VIII ‘was a traitor’ says Andrew Lownie

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Edward VIII reigned for only 11 months, from January 20 to December 11, 1936. His abdication changed the course of the British monarchy forever; his younger brother Prince Albert, affectionately known as Bertie, was forced to ascend the throne and his niece, then-Princess Elizabeth became the heir apparent, later reigning as the country’s longest-serving Sovereign. The abdication caused a constitutional crisis and Edward lived out the rest of his life in exile, distant from the country he once ruled over. His reputation as King stood in stark contrast to his prominence as Prince, with many preferring the then-Prince of Wales to his younger brother, who eventually became the widely-respected King George VI.

The popular Prince

Born June 23, 1894, Edward was the eldest child of Prince George, Duke of York, and Mary of Teck. While officially he was called Edward, within his family, he was known as David, one of his many middle names.

In 1910, when Edward was 15 years old, his father acceded the throne, becoming King George V. Edward became the Duke of Cornwall and Duke of Rothesay, and a month later, on his 16th birthday, was made the Prince of Wales.

He joined the Grenadier Guards at the beginning of World War One but, despite being keen to serve on the front lines, he did not see active service — a rule often maintained for the future monarch.

Throughout the Twenties, Edward carried out extensive overseas tours, mainly in the British Empire, representing his father and the Royal Family. These trips, alongside the Prince of Wales’ visits to poverty-stricken areas in Britain during the economic depression in the early Thirties, made Edward a particularly popular member of the Firm.

Edward took a more laid-back, informal approach to his royal duties, helping him attain a type of celebrity status more associated with Hollywood than the centuries-old institution.

Andrew Lownie, author of Traitor King: The Scandalous Exile of the Duke & Duchess of Windsor, described Edward as a “charismatic and popular” character, comparing him to Bertie who was seen as “a bit of a dolt, academically backward, unconfident and with a stammer”.

Mr Lownie, who spoke exclusively to, explained that Edward was the “dominant figure” and referenced one contemporary who said, looking at the two brothers was “like comparing an ugly duckling with a cock pheasant”.

Edward enjoyed the high society lifestyle, and as an eligible bachelor, engaged in numerous relationships — some deemed controversial by the fact many of the women were married. His relaxed conduct began to concern not only his father, but also then-Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin.

It was at this time, when Edward was approaching 40, that his relationship with his father deteriorated. While George V epitomised duty and responsibility, his son was keen to enjoy himself.

History-making romance

In 1931, Edward had an encounter that would change the course of both his life and the monarchy forever. At a party thrown by his mistress Lady Furness at Burrough Court, the Prince met the American, soon to be twice-divorced, Wallis Simpson.

Wallis was a controversial figure emerging on the high society circuit. She was married to Ernest Simpson, a native of New York who had served in the Coldstream Guards, and the pair had settled in London.

While Edward was captivated by the sophisticated socialite, who personified the type of lifestyle he so desperately craved, Wallis was intrigued by what the Prince represented and the mystique of royalty. Edward had affairs with several married women as the Prince of Wales, but as Mr Lownie noted, he was “completely in thrall to Wallis”.

“Everything changed in the family dynamics once the divorced and domineering Wallis came on the scene in the early Thirties,” the author and historian continued. “The court and Royal Family felt she was using the weak David for her own ambitions and were concerned about how he was lavishing family jewels on her.”

By 1934, it was suspected that the pair were conducting an extramarital affair while Wallis was still married to Ernest, however, Edward, to the end of his days, denied that the American had been his mistress during her second marriage. The relationship, as Wallis remarked in her memoirs, “imperceptibly but swiftly passed from an acquaintanceship to a friendship”.

Becoming Edward VIII

In January 1936, Edward was handed a handwritten note from his mother, Queen Mary, advising him that the royal physician, Lord Dawson of Penn, was “not too pleased with Papa’s state at the present moment”, and he should come to Sandringham.

The Prince flew to the Norfolk estate the next day, and a short while later, on January 20, King George V died. In the moments before his death, the King made an eerily accurate prophecy for his son and future monarch. In a letter to Prime Minister Baldwin, he wrote: “After I am dead, the boy will ruin himself in 12 months.”

Edward was proclaimed as Edward VIII at St James’s Palace the next day. While his accession was seen as a celebratory moment, enthusiasm for the new monarch was about to dissipate at a rather rapid rate. Once favoured for his informal ways, Edward’s lax attitude towards responsibility was not welcomed in his new role as King.

Throughout his short reign, Edward caused unease among government circles, largely through actions that were interpreted as interference in political matters. Officials were reluctant to send confidential documents and state papers to Fort Belvedere, the King’s home in Windsor, because it was evident that Edward was paying little attention to them.

In August and September, Wallis and Edward cruised the Eastern Mediterranean. It was becoming clear that the new King wished to marry the American socialite, going against the advice of many of his advisors who believed Edward, as head of the Church of England, should not marry a divorced woman.

The prospect of their marriage had huge constitutional ramifications, amplified further by the social and cultural expectations of a reigning monarch. By most accounts, Wallis was not, and would never be, a viable candidate for the role of queen. Nonetheless, in October, Wallis was granted a divorce from her second husband.

As expected, both the Royal Family and the Prime Minister opposed the union. A constitutional crisis proved inevitable and the King was aware that Stanley Baldwin and his government would have to resign if the nuptials were to go ahead. Consequently, a political crisis would ensue, forcing through another general election and demonstrating Edward’s inability to uphold his royal and constitutional duty.

Love over duty 

Still determined to marry Wallis, Edward was left with no choice. On November 16, 1936, he informed Prime Minister Baldwin of his intention to abdicate the throne. And following failed attempts to find a solution, on December 10, Edward signed an instrument of abdication. The next day, it was announced to the nation. Edward fled the country, while his younger brother, Bertie, became King George VI.

December 11 marked the day of Edward’s abdication, meaning he ruled for just 326 days — one of the shortest reigns in royal history.

Upon hearing the news, Wallis travelled to the South of France, where Edward soon joined her. Months later, in June 1937, the pair married and were given the titles of Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

But the former king’s pursuit of happiness came at a cost. While he avoided an immediate political crisis, the damage to the Royal Family was clear for all to see.

Not one member of the family was in attendance at the Duke and Duchess’ wedding — not even Lord Mountbatten, who was deemed to be Edward’s closest friend, attended the event.

“There were tensions from the beginning over titles — Wallis was not made HRH because no one thought the marriage would last — and finances where David was not completely honest about how much wealth he had accumulated as Prince of Wales,” Mr Lownie explained. “By 1936 there was a complete breakdown in trust as now and with the same growing sense of resentment from the brother who had chosen to give up family responsibilities and go into exile.”

Nazi sympathiser

Just a few months after their wedding, Edward and Wallis visited Nazi Germany where they had a controversial meeting with Adolf Hitler. According to Mr Lownie, the trip was “basically a propaganda exercise for the Nazis”.

The Duke described the Nazi economic model as a “miracle” and was infamously photographed giving Nazi salutes during his visit. His links with the Nazi regime were outlined in the top-secret Marburg files, also known as the Windsor Files, which were discovered in Germany by American soldiers at the end of World War Two.

Edward had previously travelled to Germany on one of his many foreign trips as Prince of Wales. Initially visiting in 1912, his affection for the country grew, and almost 40 years later, when the conflict of the Second World War was unfolding, his allegiances were questioned.

Both the Duke and Duchess were suspected fascism sympathisers and according to Mr Lownie, the Nazis had planned to “target the new King” years earlier and felt the abdication was a loss to them.

The author previously told “He [Edward] was in touch with Hitler and he got involved with a plot in the summer of 1940 to come back to Britain as a puppet King, should Britain be invaded by Germany.”

Mr Lownie, who has examined the Royal Archives first-hand, claimed: “We’ve got evidence that he actually told the Germans that the best way to subjugate Britain was to bomb it, and that of course led to the Blitz. So he was a pretty disloyal and treacherous character.”

As the Germans invaded France in 1940, the Windsors fled first to Spain and then to Portugal. Soon after, Winston Churchill threatened to court-martial him if he didn’t take up the position of Governor of the Bahamas. While the appointment ensured the Duke was kept away from events in Europe, he resented the role greatly.

“Even on his way to the Bahamas, he was communicating with German agents, saying: ‘I’m ready to come back if needed.’ That would have been a capital offence. If it had come out during the war, he would have had to be executed,” Mr Lownie said.  

The author claimed the couple were still connected to the Nazi regime while in the Bahamas, explaining that there were “FBI files revealing the links” to a high-profile officer. He added: “To the end of his life, he [Edward] remained supportive of the Nazis.”

The Duke remained in this post until the end of the war when he and the Duchess returned to France.

Life in exile

The union of Edward and Wallis confirmed their status as royal pariahs but allowed them to maintain their busy social agenda. Their fate as a celebrity couple and royal non-persons was sealed; the pair would travel, visit other high-profile figures and attend numerous societal parties, perhaps living the lifestyle Edward once craved.

However, the Duke’s determination to choose Wallis over his royal duty ultimately could never be reconciled. The couple lived out the rest of their days in retirement in France, never again holding an official role.

The Duke only paid short visits to the UK to attend the funerals of family members.

He did not attend the coronation of his niece, Queen Elizabeth II, in 1953. Instead, he and Wallis watched the ceremony on television in Paris.

After the war, Edward and Wallis lived in exile in France. “There was to be no official role for David after the abdication, in spite of his desire to have one, and the Windsors led a pretty empty existence with rich and shallow people in France and especially America,” Mr Lownie said. “Lucrative and not entirely truthful autobiographies from both Windsors did little to improve family relations nor did the continuing exploitation of the royal brand to endorse products, provocative tv and radio interviews, curation of their story through tame biographers and threats of legal action.” 

“Though David occasionally saw his family, Wallis was not welcome,” Mr Lownie told “Only on the eve of the Duke’s death in May 1972 did the Queen visit the couple to pay her respects — and ensure family heirlooms and papers were returned to the family after his death.”

Edward died of throat cancer on May 28, 1972, in Paris and was buried near Windsor.

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