In the Year of Three Kings
The King Who Had to Go, Adrian Phillips, Biteback Publishing, 2016, isbn 978-1-78590-347-2, reviewed by Monty Skew
Recently revealed letters, hitherto kept secret, have dispelled any lasting illusions about Edward VIII’s short and inglorious reign during 1936. In proportion to its length, perhaps more has been written about him than any other monarch. Books continue to promise the ‘truth about the abdication’. But what more is there to say about this nonentity?
Baldwin, the prime minister, having known him before he ascended the throne, had long had misgivings. Edward was evidently no Prince Hal. In some ways the originator of celebrity culture, he was famous for being famous. Famous for being heir to the throne, then for being an unsuitable King. Then for wanting to marry a socialite divorcee. A less suitable monarch it would be hard to imagine. His exasperated father reminded him to ‘remember who you are’. The Japanese crown prince, on a visit to Buckingham Palace, was decidedly unimpressed by his encounter with the future king.
Concerning Edward’s suspected Nazi sympathies, Churchill was a supporter of the Duke, until Baldwin called him into No 10 and showed him the special branch and other reports. It is not clear if Edward was ever shown them, and there are persistent claims that certain items have not yet surfaced. And of course some things were never committed to print. Although much maligned, Baldwin, in his handling of the abdication crisis, acted for Britain.
There was a war coming and public opinion had to be prepared. In the Spanish Civil War, which had begun in July, both Italy and Germany intervened against the republic while Britain and France remained neutral. Edward was a pressing concern as Britain prepared for war. His alleged pro-Nazi sympathies surfaced when he visited Germany in 1937, against government advice. There were even Nazi plans to kidnap Edward and install him as King in the event of a successful invasion. That is why he was made ‘Governor of The Bahamas’, where he was closely watched and lived as an appendage of Mrs Simpson and his own inglorious past.
The monarch must be upright, dutiful and dignified. Edward was none of these things. His behaviour was inappropriate for the head of the Church. He mixed with undesirables in raffish nightclubs. He may even have been blackmailed because of certain indiscretions. The divorce and the supposed ‘concern of the Dominions’ were largely a fiction. Her divorce was a pretext to get rid of this unsuitable pair. Wallis Simpson was a flighty, spendthrift, double-divorced ‘woman with a past’ and a love of luxury, hardly a suitable consort at such a socially conservative time. Phillips studiously ignores the rumours that Edward was homosexual, impotent and a cuckold and that the marriage was a sham.
But this matter went far beyond No 10. While the press imposed a self-denying ordinance, Fleet Street knew everything about Simpson but nothing was mentioned until the divorce proceedings commenced and the continental press started covering the subject. Then Edward’s position became increasingly difficult. He was made to choose between abdication and marriage. Simpson herself tried to persuade Edward not to abdicate. But the concern of the Dominions and public opinion (initially sympathetic to Edward) slowly turned against him.
There were various subplots in the complex web of intrigue between Baldwin, Churchill, Chamberlain and Beaverbrook, who all had their own agendas. Beaverbrook, obsessed by removing Baldwin, together with Boothby and Bracken, gadfly figures, all took part in briefing and plotting. But in the end, Baldwin had his way. Attlee’s position was crucial and more important than people realised at the time. It is only briefly mentioned in the text. It transpires that Attlee promised Baldwin, without consulting the shadow cabinet, that if the Tory government resigned over the issue then Labour would not respond to an invitation by Edward to form a new government. Archibald Sinclair, leader of the Liberals agreed, as did Walter Citrine, head of the TUC and an old adversary of Baldwin. In promising to remain neutral, both Sinclair and Attlee, like Baldwin, put country before party, something sadly lacking in today’s politics.
This was a crucial turning point as Edward would not be able to form a new government and this provoked a constitutional crisis of his own making. Many turned against Edward as he was totally self-centred and unable to discharge the responsibilities which came with his elevated position. Edward even lied to Churchill about his finances after abdication. His obsession with marrying ‘his beloved’ played into the hands of others. He begged for his wife to be given a royal title. As this book makes abundantly clear, the country was well rid of him.
After trawling through a mass of archives and diaries, Phillips gives a blow-by-blow account of the abdication crisis. The average reader may be overwhelmed by the mass of detail. A chronology of events would have been useful for those who lack an in depth knowledge of the period.
When the poet Ted Hughes lay dying, the Queen canceled her other engagements and travelled to the West Country to bestow the Order of Merit on him. Can anyone seriously imagine Edward doing something similar?