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Battle Royale

Two houses, each alike in indignity. For there can be no dignity when the world knows your business because your exiled brother and his American wife are complaining about you to the media. The Meghan and Harry saga is what Sigmund Freud and Elizabeth II would have recognized as “the return of the repressed.” For decades, the late queen feared a return of “Uncle David,” known to the world as Edward VIII, and his wife, the erstwhile Wallis Simpson of Baltimore. Elizabeth II lived long enough to see her nightmare come true, with Prince Harry bringing some second-son energy to the role of entitled manchild and Meghan Markle adding a touch of the Norma Desmond as she clings to the biggest role of her life (though she did not attend this weekend’s coronation).

History repeats as farce with a Netflix contract. Edward and Wallis were tabloid material at the time. The difference was that while the British media obliged Buckingham Palace by suppressing the story of the king’s romance with a divorcée, the American media had fun. This pattern endured after 1945. While the royals did their best to pretend that Edward and Wallis did not exist, Edward and Wallis sold England by the pound in the United States. Prince Harry may be too slow to see it, but in escaping The Firm, he has merely sidestepped into another family business.

All good tabloid fun. But this pattern of British suppression and American exposure has also had a consistently serious aspect, a shadow story whose outlines are often hard to define, but whose drift is cumulatively clear. What exactly requires repression, and what would return to public awareness if we had the complete story?

At the end of World War II, American troops captured some 400 tons of Nazi documentation at Marburg Castle in Germany. Among them were some 60 prewar letters between Edward VIII and the Nazi high command, including correspondence relating to Operation Willi, a Nazi plot of 1940. The idea was to persuade Edward to move from neutral Portugal to Germany, where he could assist in imposing a negotiated peace with Britain.

Reinstating Edward as king (“a sort of Gauleiter,” as the society gossip “Chips” Channon put it) and making Wallis the queen would have been part of the deal. The planners did not propose what should be done with George VI, his wife Queen Elizabeth, and their young daughters Elizabeth and Margaret. It was obvious. The history of monarchy is a winner-takes-all affair. To the winner, the crown. To the losers, exile or death. Exiling George VI and his family somewhere in the British Empire, Canada probably, would have created a rival powerbase. Uncle David would have had little choice but to do unto his nieces what Uncle Richard had done to his nephews when he became Richard III.

Britain’s new Labour government secretly recovered the letters. When George VI read them, he was “much distressed.” There was, the king’s secretary, Alan “Tommy” Lascelles, wrote in his diary, a “substratum of truth” in the letters that would be “highly damaging” not just to Edward and Wallis but also to the monarchy as an institution. When the British foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, heard that a copy of the “Marburg Files” had reached the State Department, he told the prime minister, Clement Attlee, that he should “try to persuade the United States government to cooperate with us in suppressing the documents concerned.” The State Department refused and declassified its copies in 1957. The British government suppressed its files until 1996.

Was Edward a posh twit with good intentions, or was he a traitor by choice? Did he serve his country by trying to avert another world war, or did he betray it in its hour of peril? The evidence that Edward was a posh twit is massive and incontrovertible. The evidence about his motives will always be partial. It is also ambiguous, because securing peace between Britain and Germany would almost inevitably have returned him and Wallis to Britain and the throne.

Regardless, all recent historians agree on the outlines of the suppressed story. Almost all of them, including Deborah Cadbury (Princes at War, 2015) and Andrew Lownie (Traitor King, 2021), concur on its implications. In Windsors at War, the British historian Alexander Larman calls the Marburg correspondence “all but incontrovertible truth that the former monarch had committed treachery against his own country” in the summer of 1940.

That summer, as Britain fought alone in Europe after the collapse of France, Edward and Wallis loitered in neutral Spain and Portugal. They socialized with the local fascists, speculated against the British pound, and, it seems, exchanged messages with Berlin through intermediaries such as the Spanish diplomat who reported Edward’s advice that if Germany “bombed England effectively, this could bring peace.”

On September 13, 1940, a Luftwaffe bomber dove down to near-rooftop height and dropped high explosive bombs into the inner courtyard of Buckingham Palace. At the time, the king and queen were drinking tea in a sitting room that overlooked the courtyard. By luck, the windows were open. If the windows had been closed, Winston Churchill wrote, “the whole of the glass would have splintered into the faces of the King and Queen, causing terrible injuries.” As a pilot, the king knew that this had to be a targeted attack. As a royal, Larman suggests, he must have suspected that his brother played some part in it.

The Windsors are an ordinary family of German ex-pats, except when they are not. Windsors at War picks up where Larman left off in The Crown in Crisis, his account of the Abdication Crisis of 1936. There was nothing normal about that episode: the Archbishop of Canterbury moralizing against the marriage to the government, Churchill campaigning on Edward and Wallis’s behalf because he was both a romantic and out of office, the public support of Edward and Wallis’s love-conquers-all media spin. Wallis, like Meghan, threatened to “let the world know” when she felt Buckingham Palace wasn’t showing proper respect.

There could be nothing normal about what happened next. George, a decent chap who struggled with a stutter and smoked himself to death, became a hero for sticking it out under the bombs. Edward was parked for the duration in the Bahamas, where he continued to hang out with Nazi sympathizers, griped about living in a “third-class British colony,” and engaged in dodgy schemes for self-enrichment. He felt “acute pain” at his demotion and became an acute pain in the neck.

Once, both brothers were just posh twits with good intentions. Today, George is the patriot king and Edward the Nazi-loving traitor. This polarized image is pretty accurate. Wallis loved the Nazis more, but Edward, like many posh English twits at the time, valued Adolf Hitler as a potential ally in protecting the British Empire from the Bolsheviks and the Jews. He was making pro-Hitler statements in public as early as 1935. When Edward was pushed off the throne in 1936, a secret British civil service memo reported that Hitler was “very distressed at the turn that affairs had taken in this country, since he had looked upon the late King as a man after his own heart, and one who understood the Führerprinzip.”

The appeal of the Führerprinzip, the idea that Hitler’s word carried greater weight than the law, to Edward is obvious. This is how his ancestors ruled before they were forced to accept the degradations of democracy. This, within less exacting limits, is how an English Gauleiter would have ruled. Of course, Hitler and Wallis Simpson made the same mistake that Meghan Markle and Oprah Winfrey have made more recently. They all mistook the grand forms of British monarchy for its vestigial political content. Edward seems to have made the same mistake.

Gossip is the mortar in the bricks of royal biography. Larman has an impish wit; when I was working at The Spectator, he was my first choice when we needed a barbed comment on the latest act of royal folly. He relates this farrago of vanity, snobbery, and wickedness with brio. The outlines of the story may be familiar, but there is real historical weight to his handling of the story. He especially relishes the second-string characters who bring out the tawdry and comic aspects of the royal costume drama.

Take, for instance, the Reverend Anderson Jardine, officiant at Edward and Wallis’s wedding in France, who cashed out in America, where he became “involved with an unproduced Hollywood film titled simply Indecency” and judged “a series of beauty pageants known as ‘Miss Spiritual of America.’” This initiative foundered “when Miss Spiritual New York was found to be conducting a three-way relationship with two men.” After his visa expired, the Reverend Jardine washed up in Mexico. Edward ignored his appeals for help.

Further evidence that the default toward which monarchy descends is the rougher end of show business is provided by Edward’s younger brother, Prince George, Duke of Kent. He was introduced to “myriad pleasures” (“cocaine, morphine, group sex … the list is long”) by the American socialite Kiki Preston (“the girl with the silver syringe”). Noël Coward was one of the prince’s lovers. An MI5 report “grimly noted” that Kent and Coward “had been seen parading together through the streets of London, dressed and made up as women, and had once been arrested by the police for suspected prostitution.” When the duke got married, Coward hissed “I had him first” at the bride.

In August 1942, the Duke of Kent was decapitated. Shortly after taking off from Scotland on a mission to Iceland, his plane crashed in bad weather. This made him the first royal to die on active service since the death of James IV, King of Scotland, in 1513 at the Battle of Flodden. Various rumors have arisen from the accident, including that he commandeered the aircraft in an attempt to fly it to Sweden to meet German contacts; that the British security services engineered his death because he had been in contact with the Nazi defector Rudolf Hess; and, not impossibly, that one of the passengers on this urgent military mission was Kent’s boyfriend, who “was wearing make-up.”

Larman sifts through the testimonies and concludes that the duke drank too much with his friends when their takeoff was delayed, and then insisted on taking the controls. This seems entirely likely. The Duke of Kent was not the only member of the family to overrate his abilities. He just paid for it faster. Edward and Wallis, meanwhile, condemned themselves to an extended purgatory of irrelevance and vanity. To keep the money coming in, they became frequent visitors to the United States. This is more than can be said for Prince Andrew.

The Windsors at War: The King, His Brother, and a Family Divided

by Alexander Larman

St. Martin’s Press, 432 pp., $29.99

Dominic Green is a Wall Street Journal contributor and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

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