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“No more grave message has ever been received by Parliament, and no more difficult — I may almost say repugnant — task has ever been imposed upon a prime minister” said Stanley Baldwin to a hushed House of Commons on 10 December 1936. Eighty-four years on, this seems a bit of an overstatement. By what measure was the abdication of an indolent and self-centred constitutional monarch with little of substance to show for his 326 days on the throne graver news than the fall of Yorktown, the massing of Napoleon’s Armée d’Angleterre at Boulogne, or the sweep of the Kaiser’s forces towards Paris and the Channel ports?
Many of the central characters so vividly brought to life in Alexander Larman’s The Crown in Crisis appear as if drawn from a period matinee at the Aldwych Theatre: strolling in through permanently open French windows, tennis racket in hand, in time for cocktails and farcical misunderstandings. It seems remarkable that the Empire’s leading politicians and press men should have reacted to the fall of these lightweights as somehow in the same league as that of Charles I or James II — men who really took kingship seriously. But in the 1930s the rallying cry of “King and Country” still retained resonance. The House of Windsor was not yet fodder for Hello!
From a commercial perspective, Larman’s account could scarcely have been better timed
The path to Edward VIII’s abdication began in 1934 when he first got the notion that Wallis Simpson, a shipping broker’s wife, should one day be Queen Wallis. But as far as most of his British subjects were aware, the abdication crisis began on 1 December and lasted not quite a fortnight. Five days after Edward broadcast his words of explanation and farewell, his doughty mother, Queen Mary, endeavoured to find some comfort that at least “it was all managed in such a dignified way that things are beginning to settle down after that terrible upheaval; in any other country there would have been riots, thank God people did not lose their heads.”
Given how other European nations handled constitutional crises in those inter-war years, the dowager Queen had good cause for relief. When from the summer of 1936 onwards Edward began to seriously press the issue of his intention to marry Mrs Simpson, he found a political Establishment — at both ends of St James’s Park —
determined to contain the issue and not let the matter drag on, thereby denying the head of state the time and opportunity to appeal to a wider constituency.
What a self-indulgent but un-self-aware couple emerges
The detail of constitutional monarchy never interested Edward, but he retained just about sufficient grasp of reality to acknowledge that Stanley Baldwin’s government would resign rather than do his bidding and that Baldwin had also squared Clement Attlee to ensure Labour would not come to the rescue. A “king’s party” in parliament was reckoned to be not much more than about 40 MPs — never enough to represent “the king in parliament”. Ultimately, and with overly clever wheezes like contracting a morganatic marriage to Wallis rejected, the king’s will could prevail only by upending the political system and even Edward’s commitment to modernisation did not stretch that far.
This is all well-worn ground and some may wonder whether another account of it is required. Larman has made good use of the papers of Walter Monckton, Edward’s legal adviser, as well as having an eye for other telling but often overlooked details. We even learn the name of the MI5 operator who tapped the Green Park telephone box so that the calls Edward was making to his brother, the Duke of York, at 145, Piccadilly, could be recorded.
Publication now has prevented Larman from drawing on the unredacted version of Henry “Chips” Channon’s diary, which Simon Heffer is editing, and which promises to be a treasury of revelation about the politics and gossip of the period. But from a commercial perspective, Larman’s account could scarcely have been better timed given the lamentations of Harry and Meghan.
What a self-indulgent but un-self-aware couple emerges (to return, of course, to Edward and Wallis). As even the sympathetic Duff Cooper observed whilst cruising with them in the Mediterranean, “She is hard as nails and doesn’t love him.” By contrast, Edward combined doe-eyed subservience to his mistress with a level of regal possessiveness that prevented him from acknowledging her wish to escape his smothering devotion. As Larman shows, once it became clear Edward might have to abdicate, Wallis made successive efforts to extract herself from the relationship.
On 14 September, with foreign (but not British) press coverage intensifying, Wallis wrote to Edward saying that she would return to Mr Simpson. “I feel I am better with him than with you … I am sure you and I would only create disaster together … no human being could assume this responsibility and it would be most unfair to make things harder for me by seeing me. Goodbye.” With indifference to her preference, Edward responded, “I do love you so entirely and in every way, Wallis. Madly tenderly adoringly and with admiration and such confidence.”
On 7 December, Wallis telephoned Edward from Cannes to say that she was freeing him from his fate by withdrawing her divorce petition from her husband. Edward told her, “It’s too late. The abdication documents are already being drawn up.” He went on: “Of course, you can do whatever you wish. You can go wherever you want — to China, Labrador, or the South Seas. But wherever you go, I will follow you.” Larman writes, “It would have been better for him if he had listened to her, but he had never listened to anybody in his life.”
When news that Edward had gone through with his abdication reached Wallis, she later claimed, “That night, I drained the dregs of the cup of my failure and defeat.” As Larman observes, “These were not the words of someone delighted at the prospect of being reunited with her lover.”
The achievement of The Crown in Crisis is to be both judiciously weighed and unceasingly entertaining. It ends with Edward boarding HMS Fury at 2 a.m., bound for France, almost exactly 250 years after James II had set out on a similar passage. A rootless life lay ahead as “the Ancient Mariner in Club Class.”
The Critic’s political editor, Graham Stewart, spoke to to Alexander Larman, author of The Crown in Crisis: Countdown to the Abdication, about how Edward VIII was manoeuvred off the throne, was Wallis really as bad as she has been painted, and how the House of Windsor adapts and endures.
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