I have recently read Traitor King, a book by Andrew Lownie. It covers the activities of King Edward VIII after his abdication in 1936. Ostensibly, Edward abdicated because he insisted on marrying Wallis Simpson, a divorced American woman. However, it is less well known that there were worries in government circles about his political views and his temperament.
As Prince of Wales, and briefly as King, Edward had led a full life, with plenty to do, and plenty of time for affairs and entertainment as well. He had spent his entire life as heir to the throne surrounded by servants who attended to his every whim. Unsurprisingly, Edward became used to adulation.
After he abdicated, all of this changed. He was no longer a king, he was just the Duke of Windsor. His wife was not a queen, and was not allowed to describe herself with the prefix Her Royal Highness (HRH) (a matter about which he became obsessed). Initially, he lived in Paris and on the French Riviera with Wallis Simpson.
Edward doted on Wallis and became dependent on her. But she found him boring. She found it difficult living up to the legend of a romantic love she did not feel. He no longer had anything useful to do. After abdicating as king, Edward had no prearranged program. The couple’s days were filled with private dinners and lunches and little else.
As time went by, Edward wanted to be back at the center of things. This desire for attention led to his entanglement with Germany. His fascist and pro-German sympathies had been well known even before he abdicated. The British Union of Fascists even held a demonstration in his support. They demanded the postponement of Edward’s abdication until a referendum was held on it.
Edward’s first formal trip, after his abdication, was a high profile visit to Nazi Germany. Edward and Wallis infamously met Adolf Hitler in 1937. He wanted to make a similar high-profile trip to the US. However, the public reaction to his German trip was so bad that Edward’s American visit had to be called off. This royal soon became convinced that Great Britain could not defeat Germany in a war. Therefore, the British were best served by reconciling with the Nazi regime.
When World War II broke out in 1939, Edward was given a role inspecting the defenses on the French and British fronts. His report identified the weak point at the Ardennes in Belgium. Germany went on to exploit this weakness spectacularly a few months later when it launched blitzkrieg (lightning war) that led to the fall of Belgium, The Netherlands and France.
Despite his prescient observation about the Ardennes, Edward was a defeatist. In his private conversations, he directly contradicted the foreign policy of his own government. When France fell in May 1940, Edward fled to Spain and later to Portugal. His role during the war was dubious. Lownie’s book documents Edward’s indirect, but extensive, contacts with German agents while in Madrid and Lisbon. The ex-king was scheming to get Britain out of the war.
While Edward did want peace for its own sake, he also saw a German victory or a negotiated peace as routes towards getting back on the throne and a means of his wife becoming HRH, the queen. It is pretty clear from the documentary evidence cited in this book—including German archives discovered after the war—that Edward’s activities in Spain and Portugal in 1940 amounted to treason. Edward’s stay in Europe was cut short when he was sent as governor of the Bahamas. Even there, he got involved in intrigues with isolationists to keep the US out of the war.
Edward the Eighth was not a stupid man. He had some administrative ability which he demonstrated in the Bahamas. For five years, he was able to run this island fairly decently. So how could Edward have allowed himself to become drawn into what he should have clearly seen as treasonable activities?
I suspect the atmosphere in which he grew up was to blame. As heir to the throne, Edward must have come to believe that normal rules did not apply to him. This proved to be not entirely right. Edward lost his throne and history has found him wanting. Lownie’s book is an excellent read about a character that remains relevant even today.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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