The Duke and Duchess of Sussex certainly aren’t the first royals to have spoken publicly about inter-familial issues. Indeed Prince Harry’s own parents caused quite the stir in the 1990s, when Prince Charles admitted adultery in an interview with Jonathan Dimbleby, before the late Diana, Princess of Wales spoke about the breakdown of their marriage and her mental health struggles to Martin Bashir. Even Harry and Meghan’s choice to step back from royal life – and then publicly explain their decision – has precedent, with the Duke of Windsor and Wallis, Duchess of Windsor having spoken about the circumstances surrounding Edward’s abdication in a BBC interview in 1970.
Although the former King and his wife left rather more of a gap before giving the interview, which came some 34 years after Edward’s abdication in 1946, the move was still a contentious one. It had caused quite the scandal when the then-King Edward VIII made known his desire to marry an American socialite and – yet more significantly – a divorcée, which was then regarded as incompatible with his role as the titular head of the Church of England. So the King gave up his throne in the name of love, choosing to abdicate in favour of his younger brother, Prince Albert (the Queen’s father), who then became King George VI.
So it was that in 1936 Edward became the Duke of Windsor, before marrying Wallis Simpson in a private ceremony at the Château de Candé in France in June 1937. Although George VI granted his older brother the style of Royal Highness, he both denied the same styling to the new Duchess of Windsor and is said to have forbade other Royal Family members from attending the wedding. It’s also thought that it was the new King who prevented his brother from returning to England, with Edward and Wallis settling in France as a result. Edward was, however, granted a tax-free allowance from George VI, which allowed him and his wife to live in relative luxury (he’s also thought to have made some money from illegal currency trading).
So while tensions may not have been played out on the public scale afforded by the global news cycle and social media commentary today, it’s not the case that royals at the time were above a little inter-familial drama. Indeed like Meghan and Harry, Edward and Wallis ultimately offered their side of the story, in an unprecedented royal interview of their own. The MailOnline relates that in January 1970, the couple agreed to a candid conversation with BBC interviewer Kenneth Harris. At the time, the pair had a glamorous Paris home and a French countryside retreat, as well as spending April, May and June each year in the US and some of the summer in Spain and Portugal.
The television appearance was watched by 12 million people across the UK, matching up to the UK audience for the ITV broadcast of Harry and Meghan’s interview on Monday. Yet while Harry and Meghan appeared largely at ease with their friend Winfrey, Edward and Wallis seemed somewhat awkward and uncomfortable as they sat through the conversation with Harris. The Duke is believed to have tried to pull out the night before the interview was recorded, but there was no going back – with Harris, like Oprah with Meghan, reportedly having spent some years convincing him to make the television appearance. The dynamic was also somewhat reversed from the Sussex interview in that it was Edward who spoke alone with Harris, before being joined by his wife, as opposed to Meghan and Winfrey beginning the conversation alone.
Some 50 years before Harry spoke of wishing to ‘leave the system’, Edward said that he hadn’t felt he belonged as part of ‘the establishment’ on account of his ‘independent’ nature. Harris asked Edward to elaborate on what he meant by ‘the establishment’, to which the former King replied: ‘The establishment was a new word to me until about 15 years ago, when I heard it and asked people to explain it to me. It’s not an easy word to explain. It’s rather an obscure word. But it must have always existed. I think it means authority, authority of the law, of the church, the monarch to a certain extent.’ He related that he had read a description of Prince Philip as ‘not really a member of the Establishment’, which went on to add that neither was Edward. He reflected: ‘I think that is very true’, stating that his father, King George V, ‘certainly was’, as was his younger brother, George VI.
The Duke stated that he had ‘collided’ with ‘the establishment’, but added the caveat: ‘not very violently’. Questioned by Harris on whether a ‘collision’ with the government and his family might have occurred even if he had ‘remained a bachelor’, the Duke of Windsor stated: ‘yes, definitely’. He went on: ‘But not in a bad way… I think maybe, I don’t know, perhaps I’m being conceited but I think it might’ve helped the establishment too. I think it might’ve revived the thinking of the establishment. The establishment has a conservative aspect I think. I think it revivifies itself. But I think it probably does need a little lead from the Monarch.’
On the first signs that he might be in for some ‘conflict’ with the government, Edward remembered that before he was King, the then Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin questioned a trip he made to Northumberland. Edward recalled: ‘He said, “Why are you going up there, plenty of other important things to do?” I said, “No Mr Baldwin, I think it is very important to see how… we can’t give these people an employment. Some of them have been out [of work] for 10 years. Mr Baldwin suddenly became conscious of the fact that he and his government had actually done very little to alleviate the plight of the unemployed. Of which there were thousands at that time.’
The Duke added: ‘When I left… I thought to myself he was beginning to drag me into politics a little too far. And as we all know, politics is the one thing the Royal Family has to avoid, even however much they might like to express their opinions.’ Harris also recalled an occasion when Edward refused to travel in a Rolls-Royce to visit a poor area, to which the Duke replied: ‘I didn’t think it was a suitable vehicle for that… I went around in an ordinary car, it was more suitable.’
On his relationship with the Liberal Prime Minister Lloyd George, however, Edward recalled: ‘I got on fine with him. He was a very colourful, wonderful man. He taught me very few words of Welsh that I had to speak at the time of my investiture at Carnarvon in 1911.’ The investiture ceremony at Carnarvon Castle, where Edward became Prince of Wales, was repeated in a similar fashion almost six decades later with his great nephew, Prince Charles – as dramatised in Season 3 of The Crown. When asked about other politicians, Edward also dubbed the wartime Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, who helped him with his speeches, a ‘great friend’.
Following his abdication, Edward had been appointed as Governor of the Bahamas from 1940 to 1945. Yet on whether he would have liked to take up another official role, the Duke noted that he ‘offered [his] services’ but was never given a new position. Harris asked why he thought that was, to which the Duke replied: ‘You’d have to ask… Most of the people, I’m afraid, are underground now who prevented me. Oh, I don’t know, it is hard to say.’
Yet – perhaps to the disappointment of viewers – Edward kept schtum on the specifics of the events of his abdication and their impact on his relationships with Royal Family members. It’s thought, however, that his relationship with his mother particularly suffered. Wallis later recalled in her autobiography that Queen Mary of Teck never replied to a letter she wrote, in which she lamented having been ‘the cause of any separation that exists between mother and son.’ She also described receiving hate mail from some members of the public – perhaps the 1930s equivalent to the online trolling experienced by Meghan – relating ‘There can be few expletives applicable to my sex that were missing from my morning tray.’
When asked by Harris, however, if she regretted what happened, Wallis diplomatically replied: ‘Oh about certain things yes. I wish it could have been different but I’m extremely happy… Naturally you’ve have had some hard times but who hasn’t? You just have to learn to live with that.’ And when questioned by Harris on how she maintained a youthful appearance, she went on: ‘I think happiness is a great secret to how you look and feel perhaps. We have been very happy’, after which Edward reached across to clasp her hand. Wallis also spoke generously of her husband’s time as King, commenting: ‘I think he had lots of pep and was ahead of his time. I think he wanted to establish things… not ready for them really perhaps.’ On whether he had sought to be a reforming King, Edward added: ‘I had lots of political conceptions but I kept them to myself, that is the tradition of the Royal Family.’
The interview notably didn’t address the fact that Edward and Wallis had travelled to Germany to meet Adolf Hitler in 1937, where the former King was photographed giving a Nazi salute. The Duke had been taken on tours of industrial facilities and even visited a concentration camp, where the guard towers were reportedly explained to him as intended for storing meat. As late as 1942, the Duke is believed to have said that Hitler was the ‘right and logical leader of the German people’.
Following WWII, Edward and Wallis returned to their home in France and their transatlantic lifestyle between Paris and New York. They were known to host parties and enjoy an active social life until the Duke’s health began to deteriorate in the 1960s, before he was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1971. Edward was a frequent smoker, with Wallis having told Harris in the interview that she regarded it as a ‘dirty habit’ which she ‘disapproved of’.
In May 1972, just 10 days before his death, the Queen and Prince Philip visited Edward in France. As brought to life in The Crown, the monarch spoke alone with her uncle before appearing alongside Wallis in a photograph. The Duke died on 28 May at his home in Paris, shortly before his 78th birthday. His body was transported to Britain and lay in state at St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, before his funeral there on 5 June. The funeral was attended by the Queen and other Royal Family members, as well as Wallis, who was invited to stay at Buckingham Palace during her visit. The Duchess died in 1986 and was buried alongside her husband.
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