‘On a dank, cold and very foggy night in early January 1931, I first met the Duchess at a mutual friend’s house in Melton Mowbray…’
The words are those of the Duke of Windsor, formerly King Edward VIII before his abdication, and he is recalling how, as Prince of Wales, he was introduced to Mrs Simpson, the woman for whose love he would sensationally give up the crown.
‘I was immediately impressed with her vivaciousness, wit and smart repartee. I particularly admired her complete frankness.
‘If she did not agree with anyone, she said so, and I found this rarely, due to the circumstances of my position, especially among my British friends.’
Edward was spilling out his secrets — his heart even — to an eminent American journalist, Charles Murphy, who had persuaded the former king that, after more than a decade of silence, the time had come for him to tell his side of the abdication story for a series of articles in Life magazine and subsequently a book.
The words are those of the Duke of Windsor, formerly King Edward VIII before his abdication, and he is recalling how, as Prince of Wales, he was introduced to Mrs Simpson, the woman for whose love he would sensationally give up the crown (pictured: the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in 1953)
From July 1947 until January 1951, Edward and Murphy were in each other’s company on an almost daily basis, much of it in the exotic setting of the Windsors’ white-washed villa, Chateau de la La Croe, on Cap d’Antibes on the French Riviera.
Murphy discovered almost immediately that the former monarch needed to ‘learn the habits of work’.
He also needed to be taught how to reminisce because his perspective on his multitude of exceptional experiences was, apart from a general sense of grievance that had dogged his years of exile, ‘less than penetrating’, Murphy observed.
Murphy saw his task as helping Edward find a voice. Deciding not to conduct direct interviews, his technique was to suggest topics and invite Edward to talk about them — much like a schoolmaster encouraging a recalcitrant child.
Edward started by exploring his assigned subjects through monologues that were recorded in shorthand by a secretary, but later went on to write down his recollections at length.
Years later, Murphy lodged his papers at Boston University, which is where I unearthed them — box upon box of notes and memos, including Edward’s own first drafts scrawled on yellow legal pads, much of which never made it into the Life articles or the subsequent book.
For all Edward’s protestations of instant attraction to Wallis (pictured), the details of their first meeting are a matter of dispute
Here was, in effect, the lost memoir of Edward VIII, the authentic and unheard voice of the man who had once been King. It throws new light on how and why he chose to abdicate rather than live without the only woman he ever loved. It tells Edward’s story as he saw it, lived it and remembered it.
His failures, weaknesses, naivety and flaws are on full display but so, too, are his intelligence, his loyalty, his love and his resolve.
It is, for the first time, Edward’s story.
For all Edward’s protestations of instant attraction to Wallis, the details of their first meeting are a matter of dispute.
Her recollection to Murphy was that the 37-year-old Edward ‘hardly spoke to me’ that time in Melton Mowbray.
Then, when they met two months later at a reception, she recalled overhearing him say to the hostess, who was his mistress at the time, ‘Didn’t I meet that woman somewhere?’ ‘He never looked at me,’ she told Murphy. ‘Can’t believe that, darling,’ said Edward, who was listening to the discussion.
Whatever the precise truth, the fact is that, keen to throw off the stuffiness of court life, he was soon seeking her company at every opportunity.
‘I was a bachelor, alone, tired. She and her husband Ernest had an apartment [in Marylebone] and served as good food as anywhere in London. She had a host of friends and the conversations were gay, witty and intelligent.’
One of those friends was Bernard Rickatson-Hatt, editor-in-chief of Reuters News, who thought her ‘attractive and smart’ and an ‘extremely capable hostess’, transplanting the glamorous life of Park Avenue in New York to central London.
He remembered seeing the Simpsons’ apartment overflowing with flowers from Fort Belvedere, Edward’s home in Windsor Great Park, and Wallis wearing expensive jewels he had given her.
‘His days at court are filled with stuffed shirts. He comes here to be amused,’ was Wallis’s explanation for his growing presence in the Simpson menage.
According to Rickatson-Hatt, her husband Ernest ‘grasped what was going on but as a loyal Englishman was reluctant to make an issue of the situation’.
Edward was soon besotted. He told Murphy: ‘She satisfied something creative in me. She brought into my life something not there before: curiosity, independence, impudence, questioning, warmth. I saw things in a new light’
Edward was soon besotted. He told Murphy: ‘She satisfied something creative in me. She brought into my life something not there before: curiosity, independence, impudence, questioning, warmth. I saw things in a new light.’
In staccato notes, he explained: ‘Fell in love with the Duchess two years before abdication. It happened in restaurant, no frivolous business, age on my side. I had sowed my wild oats. Made lots of mistakes, in [a] superficial way.
‘I knew I was falling in love with another man’s wife. When found myself falling in love should have withdrawn. But remarkable business about love is that it happens before one knows it.’
With bullet-point precision, titled by Murphy as ‘HRH’s Description of Duchess’, Edward listed Wallis’s defining characteristics in pencil on two pieces of Waldorf Astoria memo paper:
- Very proud
- Demanding of highest standards of conduct
- Inflexible code of behaviour
- Must have the best
- Very sensitive
- Easily hurt
- Great sense of dignity
- Perfectionist to the extent of wearing herself out.
That she was American was a major attraction. The prince had visited the U.S. and the experience transformed him.
He recalled: ‘Among well-born Englishmen there was an inclination to look down on Americans as rather loud, pushy upstarts. But when I went there on a tour, it took my breath away. Men lived more freely. They were not afraid to speak to me or tell me what they thought because I was a prince. ‘
That she was American was a major attraction. The prince had visited the U.S. and the experience transformed him (pictured here at a fancy dress party in America)
Created Prince of Wales on his 16th birthday, just seven weeks after his father became King, he had spent 26 years creating a ‘modern version’ of an ancient office.
His ‘Prince of Wales,’ he said, was not the ‘reproduction of my grandfather’s top-hatted geniality. I became a spokesman of the rising generation — a restless, pushing iconoclastic generation’.
But keen as he was to re-invent the monarchy for a more democratic age, he was faced with a father, George V, who, as Edward wrote, insisted: ‘Remember your position and who you are.’
‘This remark of my father’s was disturbing. How different was I really? Through school, college and the war, I had certainly discovered my shortcomings.
‘Not only was I not better than other people, the fact was I possessed no outstanding qualifications to set me up above my contemporaries. Now I was being launched on a career in public life not of my choosing which was going to make me seem more different from other people than ever. But life had to be something more than driving down lined streets with uplifted hat and ready smile.
‘I decided I would act as differently from other people as was required of me when on show but that ‘off duty’ I would work out my own life along the lines of my tastes and inclinations. I would seek informality — to observe all ceremonial punctiliously but to dispense with it whenever I could and it seemed out of place.’
As his loathing grew for the remoteness and aloofness of his royal life, increasingly Wallis was indispensable to him. In his eyes, she was also the measure of how free he really could be.
As his loathing grew for the remoteness and aloofness of his royal life, increasingly Wallis was indispensable to him. In his eyes, she was also the measure of how free he really could be
‘The choice confronting me was a bitter one. While there was no desire in my heart to shirk my inheritance, the desire to marry and make a full life with the woman of my choice was equally strong. To live without love would have been intolerable. And, more than that, without it my service to the state would have seemed an empty thing.’
With his father’s death in January 1936, Edward became King. At the State Funeral there was a poignant private moment, an indication of everything that lay ahead. He recalled: ‘Only once during that seemingly endless procession did my eyes stray from the coffin or the slowly marching figures surrounding me.
‘A swift scan of the windows of the second floor of a certain building rewarded me with a fleeting glance of recognition, of comfort and understanding of the mental and physical strain it was mine to bear that sad day.’
Just a glimpse of Wallis meant that much to him. The fact was that since early 1934 she had occupied a dominant role in his life. By the time of his accession, her marriage to Ernest Simpson was over in all but name, and rumours swirled in London society about her relationship with the King.
But, although Edward made it clear he was not going to give up Wallis, nor was he about to relinquish the throne if he didn’t have to. Edward’s solicitor, George Allen, told Murphy: ‘He was bent upon marrying her and making her Queen and being crowned together.
‘He hated Buckingham Palace and much of the royal existence. But at the same time he yearned to be King. At the outset there was no question of abdication. He took the job on with the hope of marrying her. He wanted the divorce secure and everything in preparation so they could be married before the Coronation.’
Edward told Murphy: ‘What was really at stake was my right as King to a private life, to an independent existence, to ‘a life outside the office’.’ Implicit in his drive to modernise the monarchy was establishing the King’s freedom to marry whomever he wished.
He resisted the idea that the monarch should hide all personal feeling in the pursuit of royal duty. To him, kingship was a career. From the outset of his reign, he expressed a determination to separate his public role from his private world — a division he had successfully maintained as Prince of Wales.
To his adviser, Walter Monckton, he declared shortly after his father’s death: ‘I refuse to become a prisoner of the past. I must have a private life of my own.’
His father’s Private Secretary, Sir Clive Wigram, quickly disabused him of this notion. ‘Sir, you are quite mistaken. The King has no private life whatever.’
He resisted the idea that the monarch should hide all personal feeling in the pursuit of royal duty. To him, kingship was a career
But Edward chose to ignore Wigram’s warning. ‘I was suspicious of courtiers’ advice,’ he told Murphy. ‘But this made for trouble.’ He was on track for the clash with the British Establishment that would eventually cost him his throne.
One woman who did not address the mounting speculation about Mrs Simpson was Queen Mary.
‘Mother never mentioned W’s name,’ Edward told Murphy. ‘This was curious for she knew about all my other flirtations, often chided, sometimes teased me about them. Perhaps she believed my bachelorhood permanent; or that my becoming King would sober me.
‘But, an observant woman, she must have noticed a change in my outlook as attachment [to Wallis] deepened. My outlook was more serious, life stabler. Instead, she was silent. This, coupled with inflexible opposition to divorce, meant she disapproved.
‘The fact that I did not marry bothered her. On my 30th birthday [in 1924] she raised the question tentatively, but I dodged it, saying I had not met anyone I loved and I absolutely refused to enter into a marriage of convenience.’
In an essay entitled Family, Edward expanded on these sentiments: ‘I had developed an abhorrence of arranged marriages for they were no guarantee of private happiness, which to me was the essential and basic element of existence in this world.
‘I had seen too many unhappy marriages amongst my contemporaries and had admired those who found greater happiness with a divorce more than those who chose the path of conventional pretence to a life [of] matrimonial misery.
‘But royalty lived in the fierce glare of publicity and presence of the State. There was no loophole for unhappy royal marriages or divorce as a merciful release. Once you took the step it was a life sentence and that I could not contemplate.
‘Of course there have been many happy marriages of convenience, my brother George’s as a fine example. But it all depends on one’s make-up and mine just wasn’t that sort.
At the end of the summer of 1936, Wallis joined Edward at Balmoral in a group that included the Duke and Duchess of Kent, Lord and Lady Louis Mountbatten and the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough
‘My abhorrence of the system and my fear of getting trapped and losing my freedom until I had found the right person — the ‘right’ person for me without regard to any other consideration — became strongly engrained in me. I was determined to wait until I really fell in love.’
At the end of the summer of 1936, Wallis joined Edward at Balmoral in a group that included the Duke and Duchess of Kent, Lord and Lady Louis Mountbatten and the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough. Her presence was controversial and overshadowed the aristocratic tenor of the gathering.
Even Winston Churchill, usually sympathetic to the King, deplored ‘Mrs Simpson going to such a highly official place’. Adding to the contention was Edward’s insistence that she be named in the Court Circular as one of his guests.
In an essay he wrote for Murphy entitled Notes On The Hypocritical British Attitude Toward Divorce, he asserted: ‘I could have camouflaged her presence and catered to gossiping tongue-wagging by merely stating ‘The King is entertaining a few friends at the Castle’.
‘It was my honesty, my chivalry and my good manners that offended in certain quarters, whereas duplicity and camouflage would have satisfied my hypocritical critics.’
But the stay at Balmoral proved a critical milestone in testing public and official appetite for his relationship with Wallis, not least in bringing the British Press into the equation.
Edward would later conclude that he had not handled this well.
‘In my childhood,’ he wrote, ‘the Royal Family had remained outside the ravenous appetites of the daily Press. I have come to believe that one of the most unfortunate aspects of the crisis which before long burst around me was the long censorship which the British Press in this connection imposed upon itself.
‘As a result, when the facts were finally presented to the British people they came in a lightning burst. In the first shock of revelation, much that was human and honourable was seamed by scandal and twisted by politics. The people were staggered.
With Mrs Simpson’s divorce from her husband going through the courts and speculation mounting about the King’s intentions towards her once she was free, matters came to a head
‘Whether the eventual outcome would have been different had they known earlier what was involved, I cannot say; nor am I inclined to speculate, for what was done is done, and I am no longer King.
‘But this I do believe: that had the facts seeped out during the summer of 1936, the frightful blow-up of constitutional politics in the winter might never have come to pass; or had a crisis been inevitable, the cleavages might have been resolved without so heavy a legacy of bitterness.
‘But I was myself to blame in no small measure for this misjudgment; and the ordeal which was to break around me, shattering my world.’
With Mrs Simpson’s divorce from her husband going through the courts and speculation mounting about the King’s intentions towards her once she was free, matters came to a head.
Edward summoned the prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, to tell him he was determined on ‘marriage and a home with the woman I loved’.
‘The instant he entered my room, I realised from his demeanour that I would not get what I wanted. Baldwin confirmed that neither his Cabinet nor the Dominions would be willing to support Wallis as Queen.
‘Three options remained: to give up the marriage, to marry against the advice of his ministers or to abdicate.’
Baldwin told Edward he ‘prayed’ for the first of these three outcomes. But for Edward ‘the idea of abandoning W was so preposterous that I would not even dignify his prayer with a rejection.
He had ‘no intention of going through this, then springing on an unsuspecting public a plan to marry a divorced woman’
‘I decided if I could not remain under my conditions, I would not stay. I would abdicate.’
In a last search for an alternative Edward turned to his and Wallis’s friend Duff Cooper, Secretary of State for War.
He urged Edward ‘to steer away from all risk of an immediate collision with Baldwin. He said the question of my marrying W could not arise until her divorce became absolute and, meanwhile, Baldwin could not press me on the constitutional issue.
‘Duff in substance said, ‘Be patient. You are to be crowned in May. Say nothing now; let the people get used to you as King. You should then be able to marry on your own terms’.’
But Duff, Edward told Murphy later, ‘didn’t understand the curious position of the King in the Coronation ceremony; a sanctified person; Head of Church; taking a sacrament’.
He had ‘no intention of going through this, then springing on an unsuspecting public a plan to marry a divorced woman. Had I followed Duff’s advice, the subsequent course of events might well have been radically altered and I might even still be King and W my Consort.
‘However, I could not bring myself to adopt the course of action he recommended.
‘I did not possess the subtlety and patience to play so tricky a game. It would have required my resorting to a subterfuge on a matter affecting the highest and most delicate sentiments of the British people.
Few have credited Edward’s belief in the sacred nature of the Coronation as the real reason for his unwillingness to pursue Cooper’s suggested subterfuge. Instead, it has been interpreted as a suitable excuse for a man now committed to escaping his high office (Edward pictured during his abdication broadcast)
Once A King by Jane Marguerite Tippett (Hodder & Stoughton, £25) is published today
‘Duff’s opportunistic approach also overlooked the anomaly of my dual function as not just Head of State, but also Head of the Church of England. As Head of State, I was technically free to marry whoever I pleased. But as Head of the Church, I was under restraints which were nonetheless powerful for being unwritten.’
Few have credited Edward’s belief in the sacred nature of the Coronation as the real reason for his unwillingness to pursue Cooper’s suggested subterfuge. Instead, it has been interpreted as a suitable excuse for a man now committed to escaping his high office.
Yet Edward returned to the point repeatedly. Though admitting he was not a religious man, he could ‘never have brought myself to submit to the Coronation Service with the secret intention of later on marrying under circumstances at variance with the doctrines I would have sworn to uphold’.
The ceremony would also have entailed him taking, very publicly, the sacrament of communion — which Wallis, as a divorcee, was not allowed. This hypocrisy, he declared, did not suit. He told Murphy: ‘I would not wish to take that which my wife was denied.’
- Once A King by Jane Marguerite Tippett (Hodder & Stoughton, £25) is published today. © Jane Marguerite Tippett 2023. To order a copy for £22.50 (offer valid until November 6, 2023; UK P&P free on orders over £25) go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.