The abdication of Britain’s King Edward VIII, Duke of Windsor, to marry an American divorcee named Wallis Simpson seems to have all the trappings of a romantic legend. After all, he famously announced in December 1936 that he found it impossible to continue on the throne “without the help and support of the woman I love.”
But as two new books make clear, this particular story wouldn’t have a fairy tale ending. Authors Deborah Cadbury and Andrew Morton provide readers with a rich appreciation for the historical context of World War II and reveal how the royal couple became embroiled in international intrigue and Nazi plots. As one British politician reflected before the abdication, “What a problem this king has been.”
Cadbury sets the stage by placing the story of Edward and Wallis within the broader context of the royal family in WWII and chronicling the lives of all four surviving sons of George V. Princes at War: The Bitter Battle Inside Britain’s Royal Family in the Darkest Days of WWII opens some years earlier, with the death of the Edward VII, in May 1910. His oldest son, Prince Edward, was already confident and assured at 16, having been groomed from birth for the royal role he would assume in life. Certainly he overshadowed the second son, shy and stammering Prince Albert, known as Bertie, whose struggles were illuminated in The King’s Speech and who assumed the throne as George VI after Edward’s abdication.
The Duke of Windsor may have been fickle and feckless, but one pleasure in reading Cadbury’s account is learning more about the conscientious George VI and his efforts to be a good leader to his people. After bombing raids, he and his wife visited battered neighborhoods, and the family remained in London even when the palace sustained damage from a bomb.
Cadbury also traces George VI’s deepening appreciation for Winston Churchill’s leadership as prime minister as the situation with Germany worsens. But the new king can never seem to get clear of the shadow cast by his older brother; he remained frustrated with Edward’s demands for money and recognition, and more disturbingly, his dangerous flirtation with Nazi Germany.
In 17 Carnations: The Royals, the Nazis, and the Biggest Cover-Up in History, Morton, best known as the biographer of Princess Diana, brings his considerable narrative skills to telling the story of how the Duke of Windsor went from being an eligible bachelor and playboy to becoming a Nazi sympathizer and embarrassment to the British royal family.
He also explores Simpson’s relationship with Nazi official Joachim von Ribbentrop, who arrived in London to serve as German ambassador to Great Britain in 1936. (The title of Morton’s book derives from the flowers that Ribbentrop apparently sent daily to Mrs. Simpson during this time, along with the speculation that the two had an affair and that 17 referred to the number of times they had slept together.)
In 1940, as Edward and Wallis flitted through Spain and Portugal, their Nazi sympathies posed a danger to their country. While their main objective seemed to be to ensure the continuation of their luxurious lifestyle, Edward spoke out openly against Churchill and the war. Eventually Britain banished him to Bermuda to become governor, hoping to squelch the German plot to make him a puppet king. Even there, the couple continued to court Nazi sympathizers.
But was Edward more than just a problem? Was there written evidence of his treachery and treason? Morton argues that there was indeed, and that British authorities kept the evidence under wraps as part of “the Biggest Cover-Up in History.” He cites archival materials to back his claim that Edward was complicit in the German plot to restore Edward to the throne.
While the story of Edward and Wallis may begin as a romance, by the end it has all the hallmarks of a spy novel.