Seldom spoken about, seldom seen at home, the man who gave up the throne for love of a woman still casts a certain spell over the House of Windsor. But to the people he'll always remain the restless Prince Charming of Wales

PIERRE BERTON April 1 1953


Seldom spoken about, seldom seen at home, the man who gave up the throne for love of a woman still casts a certain spell over the House of Windsor. But to the people he'll always remain the restless Prince Charming of Wales

PIERRE BERTON April 1 1953

ON HER twenty-first birthday, during the 1947 royal tour of South Africa, Elizabeth of England who was then a princess made her most memorable speech. “I declare before you all,” she told her father’s subjects, “that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service...”

She did not write the speech, nor did she change any of the speech writer’s words, though she cried a little when she read the draft. The ideas it contained corresponded with her own somewhat mystical feeling for the task.

But her father made one deletion. The speech would have had her say that, had she been born a boy, she would have carried the proud title of Prince of Wales. George VI struck it out. “I don’t want to give any excuse to anyone for dragging in this damn nonsense about my brother,” he said.

For the title “Prince of Wales” still conjures up a confusing dual picture in the minds of Elizabeth’s people. The first picture is that of a smiling prince charming, an ambassador to the world waving gaily to the cheering crowds; the other shows a diminutive worried-looking duke, biding his days in New York or Paris and only occasionally paying lonely calls to the country of his birth. The fact that the two are the same man and that for one tragic historical moment he was King, only heightens the confusion.

The Duke is the only man ever to quit the British throne voluntarily and, in the eyes of his people, he would be king today had it not been for the romantic accident that forced his abdication. But was it an accident? Future historians will almost certainly ask one question: if this accident hadn’t occurred, mightn’t there have been others? Could this man, whose whole character, personality and career suggests that he ran counter to the accepted pathways of monarchy, have remained for long on the throne?

In contemporary Britain this is an academic question, for most of his former subjects would like to forget the man they once revered. Around his memory a hedgerow of taboo has thickened. His wedding pictures were not shown in Britain; recordings of his abdication speech were not sold; not long ago a royal family group appeared in the newspapers: all the members were identified except a little boy in a sailor suit whose name was David Windsor. In family circles his name is seldom mentioned; and the name of that svelte little woman whom the world still thinks of as “Mrs. Simpson” seldom passes the royal lips.

Yet his slight form still casts its thin shadow across the palace, and Elizabeth, when she speaks of duty and service, cannot help but be haunted by the memory of the uncle who in her eyes failed in his.

He was born to duty in a Victorian household where little boys in sailor suits were to be seen and not heard and must never interrupt their betters. Once David spoke up at mealtime and was warned to be silent until the others had finished talking. He had been trying to warn his grandfather, Edward VII, that he was about to consume a juicy green caterpillar with his lettuce. When finally he was allowed to speak, lettuce and caterpillar had been eaten.

Throughout this childhood he was never alone with his parents. There were always footmen in livery, courtiers in black, aides, secretaries, ladies-in-waiting, nannies, gentlemen ushers, pages, equerries and all the human paraphernalia with which the great palace is peopled. What he himself has called “the relentless formality of their lives” stood between the two generations as a barrier. There were times when he longed to be informal. He told his father he wanted to be an engine driver when he grew up and when the astonished old King asked him why he replied, “because they get so lovely and dirty.”

A Prince of Wales can never choose his avocation. It is settled upon him at birth. The knowledge that he would attain the throne as surely as the trees would bud, bred in his soul a confusing dichotomy. He knew he would be king, and it pleased him; but it also pleased him to try to be just like anybody else. He could be one or the other. He could never be both. But this truth did not come home to him until a certain dark week in December 1936.

In his boyhood he was sometimes bothered by the idea. He and his brother Bertie were once turning the leaves of a picture album when they came upon his photograph with the inscription “Our Future King.” He swiftly turned the page in embarrassment. When he came to be invested with the Garter, the whole ceremony with its ancient dress and robes made him blush inwardly. Yet he was proud enough of his position at other times. “You wait until I’m king, I’ll chop your head off,” he once shouted at Bertie during a childhood tussle. Walking with his grandfather he was highly indignant because the guard, having returned the old King’s salute, didn’t return his. And he liked to get into the carriage first, so that he and not his brother would have the seat of honor.

Later in life the confusion persisted. Returning on a visit to Oxford, where he had studied, he entered the junior common room at Magdalen and asked everybody to sit down for, he said, he was a Magdalen man and didn’t wish to be treated ceremoniously but as a member of the college. On his next visit no one stood up whereupon he tartly asked if that was any way to treat the Heir to the Throne. It is hard to say who was the more confused by this: the Prince or the Oxonians.

In one compartment of his mind he wanted desperately to be one of the boys. He rather enjoyed it when the Tommies in the trenches called him “Teddy.” When his family protested, comparing him with the dignified Lord Lascelles, who married his sister, he made his famous remark that “Lascelles gets royaler and royaler and I get commoner and commoner.” But in another compartment he knew that he was royal. Once when he was attending a private stage show in New York a magician asking for an assistant called out, “I want young David Windsor.” The ancient regality asserted itself and he stalked from the room.

Throughout his boyhood he was constantly being reminded in various subtle ways that he was different. Just as he was beginning to enjoy his naval training at Dartmouth he was packed off to Oxford, for an heir to the throne must have a rounded education. It was the beginning of a career that has been notable for its restlessness. And at both Dartmouth and Oxford the fact of his apartness was brought home to him in an annoying fashion. At Dartmouth, where he was nicknamed Sardine, he was beaten up periodically as a reminder that he was the same as everybody else. At Oxford, where he was called Pragger Wagger, he was ignored by his classmates so pointedly that he found himself almost without friends. “It was the very devil, as a kid,” he recalled some years later.

The war changed his life as it changed the lives of most of his generation. To him it was a bittersweet experience for, though it brought him face to face with the frustrations of his position, it allowed him to mingle with the world on terms approaching the equality he longed for.

He made his famous appeal to Kitchener and Kitchener told him bluntly that princes could not fight in the lines for, though it would not hurt to have one killed, it would be unthinkable to have one captured. He got to France in the end, where he was watched and guarded almost as carefully as he had been in the palace until, with tears in his eyes, he cried out, “I can’t stand it! I can’t stand it! They won’t let me take my chance!” Then, as if to cap the insult, he was awarded the Croix de Guerre and Military Cross which he tried not to wear for he knew he hadn’t earned them. Osbert Sitwell saw him at this period, “A very slight young figure... with his extreme charm, his melancholy smile and angry eyes.” Fritz Ponsonby, that polished and observant courtier, who came over to France with George V, saw him too—a young man, silent and nervous before his father, speaking only when spoken to, weighing each word carefully before it was uttered and exhibiting a marked dislike for being kissed on both cheeks in the French manner.

One day he came across a senior subaltern grousing because he had been in charge of fatigue duty for three days running. “I seem to spend my life in supervising,” the officer said. “You’re damn lucky,” the Prince replied. “I’ve spent all my life in being supervised.”

But all the same the war matured him. “In those four years I mixed with men,” he said in one of his better known speeches. “In those four years I found my manhood.” His car was struck by a shell just after he had left it and it brought home to him the strangely comforting realization that in the face of death at least, princes and commoners are on an equal footing. As the war ground slowly on he watched the Victorian Age crumble before his eyes. The gap between him and his Victorian parents widened. “I think my parents are the most old-fashioned couple in the world,” he remarked soberly one day. But he himself was anything but old-fashioned.

He became the symbol of everything that was dashing in the new era, and the memory of that smiling face and slight restless figure staring out of a hundred front pages still conjures up nostalgic visions of the tinseled Twenties. He seemed to be anywhere and everywhere: driving his golf ball in the shadow of the Great Pyramid in Egypt, riding a bucking bronco in Saskatchewan, dancing with a drugstore girl in Panama, shooting elephants in Africa and tigers in India, beating the drums in a dance band on Long Island, dancing and smiling his way around the world and down the corridors of the decade.

His father looked upon these gyrations with growing dismay. He was a man whose approach to public ceremony was summed up in a single sentence: An aide suggested once that perhaps he might look more cheerful in the presence of large crowds; “We naval men never smile when on duty,” the King replied abruptly. The idea of young David, running after a crippled soldier’s hat when it blew off in Toronto, skipping dances with his official hostesses in favor of younger, prettier, but usually less aristocratic girls and learning the Charleston in America, did not fit in with his own theories on how princes should behave.

The King’s grave disapproving face can be seen staring out behind the lines of a letter he wrote the Duke of York when he married Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon in 1923: “You have been so sensible and easy to work with and you have always been with me to listen to any advice and to agree with my opinions about people and things and I feel we have always got on very well together.” And then, the bitter afterthought: “Very different to dear David.”

For David was different. In a family fanatical about punctuality, he was almost invariably late. In a family obsessed by the minutiae of dress and deportment, he was maddeningly casual. George V wore a frock coat all his life and insisted that visitors coming to see him wear one too. David turned up in the voluminous plus fours that became his trademark. Sometimes he seemed to be deliberately baiting his father. “My father doesn’t like me,” he would say to friends in his more confidential moments, and sometimes he would add: “Not at all sure I particularly like him.”

Just “To Be Let Alone”

The continual tours planned for him as the unofficial ambassador of his country contributed to the restlessness of his highly strung being. Queen Mary once remarked that if they kept up he would lose all his power of settling down. He had inherited the shyness and nervousness that is still a family characteristic of the Windsors. In public he was constantly fingering his tie and biting his underlip. In private he had a habit of squirming about in armchairs and tossing one leg over the side. His very relaxations had a restlessness about them for he found it difficult to sit still. He liked fast speedboats, polo and steeplechasing. He liked to tap dance, play the bagpipes or strum on the ukelele.

As he grew older, the constrictions of the royal task became more inhibiting. “There is no use being Prince of Wales someday unless I can do what I like,” he had said as a child. He was asked once what he would wish for if he could have anything he desired and he replied, “To be let alone, if only for an hour.” Someone once made a reference to his wealth whereupon he replied, “Money? I’d give it all away, if I could, for a little freedom. How would you like to be stared at from morning till night, to be followed about, to be guarded, to have everything you do made public property?” As a boy he had said his first action as King would be to remove the cheekreins from horses, for he thought them cruel. Now he felt the checkrein on himself.

He seemed to be trying to prove he could do something on his own, something that had nothing to do with his lineage or his inheritance. He learned to fly a plane but his father refused to let him solo. He soloed anyway, in secret. It was noticed that the horses lie rode were seventeen and a half hands high, too big for his small frame; and that sometimes, on official occasions, he would throw aside the speech that had been written for him and make an impromptu one of his own. He seemed to be trying to show that, though a prince, there were things he could do as a man.

He rebelled at the idea that things were being made easy for him. In Peshawar, during his visit to India, there was trouble on the border and in order to protect him the official route back to Government House was changed and the royal party traveled through back streets. The Prince was furious and ordered that the original route be adhered to. The Governor, Sir John Maffey, refused point blank, and in vain the Prince complained that he was being made to look like a coward. As a result he stayed in his room, refusing to attend the official dance in his honor until Lady Maffey strode in and told him he was acting like a spoiled child. Then he gave in.

Papers Called Him Galahad

On his memorable visit to the distressed areas in depression-racked Wales he was guided into what was supposed to be a typical miner’s cottage. It looked suspiciously prosperous and he ran an exploratory finger down a window frame. It had been freshly painted. He turned to his titled guide, smeared the white paint across his lapel and said icily: “Now take me to a place that hasn’t been prepared for me.” Years later a journalist reminded him of the incident and a look approaching glee came into his eyes. “Ah yes,” he said, “I remember. I was on to them!”

It was these very incidents—together with his own considerable charm—that contributed to his enormous popularity. The newspapers called him “Galahad” and, wherever he went, the people cheered. Books, articles and newspaper stories about him, larded with creamy adjectives, rolled off the presses. His personality dazzled everyone. He is probably the only living man who ever made Queen Victoria literally unbend. As a child he rebelliously refused to pick up his toys and the stern old Queen, after remonstrating vainly with him, bent over and picked them up for him. He had a habit of climbing up on her knee and kissing her fondly and from then on she was putty in his hands.

He spoke well. “Little wretch,” said George V, when he was a child, “he speaks better than I do.” To the procession of cliches about “gallant troops,” “deep and lasting affection,” “distinguished tenure of high post,” and “warm-hearted welcome” he seemed to give new meaning. When he said he was “profoundly grateful for the opportunity which has thus been afforded me,” he sounded as if he meant it.

Once a mayor lost himself in the official address, breaking down in the middle of a sentence which began: “Not only do we welcome your Royal Highness as representative of His Majesty the King, but we—we... ” The Prince quickly prompted him sotto voce, "... we welcome you for yourself.”

But the adulation he inspired had its own effect on him: he began to believe some of it. He became testy with those who disagreed with him. After all, did not the Barotse hunters of the Zambesi applaud his hunting prowess? Did not the American papers say he could run for Congress and be elected? Did not the English commentators remark that, were he in business, he could easily head a large corporation? These things were flattering for they suggested he could amount to something on his own.

Yet there was one disturbing thing: Though his speeches made the front pages regularly and the leader writers joined in the anthems of praise, nobody who counted seemed really to listen to his ideas. He was keen about trade relations with Latin America, but he got no response from the Baldwin cabinet. He was keen to do something about unemployment and here he did get a response; he was told by inference to mind his own business. There is a story that he once received a complaint from a group of war veterans regarding hard treatment, and promptly wrote a cabinet minister about the matter. The minister went post haste to the palace and the Prince was sent for and told bluntly that he was a political cipher and must write no more letters. Whereupon, the story has it, he slammed the door, stalked into the hall and cried out, “Well, if I’m ever a king, I’ll be a king.”

He began to feel, perhaps rightly, that in his own immediate social circles he was surrounded by yes-men. Though he was intolerant of criticism on one hand, he had a great fear of toadies on the other.

If only he could meet one person who treated him as a human being, who neither dangled him on a string like a puppet nor placed him on a pedestal like a god! Then, on June 10, 1931, at the home of Somerset Maugham’s ex-wife, he encountered Mrs. Ernest Simpson, a trim brunette from Baltimore, of great vivacity and almost incredible neatness.

She had other qualities too. She did not stand in awe of him but she did not look down on him either. She succeeded in making the appelation “Sir” sound like a nickname. She listened carefully to what he had to say and, when she disagreed with him, did so boldly but charmingly. (“I think that’s very naughty of you, Sir,” she told him on the telephone when, after he became King, he abolished the “Sandringham time” established by his overpunctual grandfather and set all the clocks back half an hour.)

It is not surprising that he quickly fell head over heels in love with her. According to a well-confirmed but not widely known palace story he had been in love at least once before when, at the age of twenty-one, he had tried to marry a charming and attractive Englishwoman who was, unfortunately for him, a commoner. King, palace, and ministers had combined to oppose him. For the next decade a procession of foreign princesses were paraded figuratively past him like contestants at an Atlantic City beauty contest. But he had told his grandmother, as a child, that he would never marry except for love and he meant it.

Wallis Simpson delighted him. She and Ernest Simpson made a threesome with him which gave rise to the inevitable jest about “the importance of being Ernest.” The Prince had a propensity for overindulging in brandy. She cut him down to a single glass a day. He would come into her neat apartment on Portman Square and pour himself a drink and she would glide in, remove it easily from his hand, smile and say, “I think you’ve had yours for today, haven’t you, Sir?” She catered to his nervous stomach. He ate little breakfast and his lunch usually consisted of an apple, a sandwich and some Vichy water. It soothed him at the day’s end to arrive at her flat and sit down at her mirror-topped table with its pink china tea service to one of the delicately contrived meals she was noted for. The brook trout au beurre, the roast guinea hen, the pomme soufflé and crème brulle seemed chosen especially for him. After the baroque palace, everything seemed so neat and fragile: the consomme piping hot in cups of black Chinese lacquer with tiny lids, the salad crisp on crescent-shaped plates of delicate crystal. Later, when he was King, and she had moved, alone, to her flat at Cumberdand Terrace, Regent’s Park, there was champagne from the palace’s well-stocked cellars.

Long before this he had become her humble and obedient servant. At Biarritz, when she went to have her hair dressed, he followed her and sat with her as it was being dried. Al Kitzbühel, in the Austrian Tyrol, in 1934 when he grew out of sorts she simply moved to another table and sat alone. He followed, with apologies. An eyewitness watched them board the train for Vienna on a frosty midnight, the Prince, “looking slightly raffish,” walking down the platform, Mrs. Simpson just behind him. As they passed, her words came clearly through the crisp Tyrolean air: “For God’s sake, put your hat on straight and don’t forget to take it off when you say good-bye to the mayor.”

But, as the romance ripened, a complication terrifying in its potentialities occurred. George V died. The Prince standing by the bedside suddenly realized he was King when his youngest and favorite brother George, Duke of Kent, knelt before him and kissed his hand. He stumbled out of the room, laid his head on Queen Mary’s knees and cried out, “Mother, mother, mother!”

He was King. Bathed in the throne’s fierce light, his romance and his life now became immensely involved. The high wall of palace protocol began to close in upon him and there was no day on which he was not conscious of it. When he turned the clocks back at Sandringham and told the Beefeaters in the Tower they might cut off their beards, there were murmurs. When he cut short a garden party because of a rainstorm there were protests. The spectacle of a King who dialed numbers and answered phone calls in person, and walked across the Mall in bowler hat and umbrella when his predecessors had taken the Daimler, did not sit too easily with a parliament which had spent a hundred years perfecting its own conception of what a constitutional monarch should be.

The King’s own personality during these difficult months became itself increasingly difficult. He began to discharge old servants and cut the salaries of his aides. At Balmoral he reduced the number of servants’ canteens from three to one. It was a bewildering change in a man who had once been famous for his prodigality. It was said of him, as Prince, that people would line up to open the gates for him on the hunting field because he gave each a five-pound note. Now here he was personally poring over the palace milk bills, trying to save tuppence on the bottles. In his own eyes he was a reformer, paring costs in mid-depression. In palace eyes he was a meddler.

More and more the two lives that he was trying to lead—one as King, the other as a man—began to get inexorably mixed. His Buick would dart off at all hours toward Cumberland Terrace and the King could not be found. In Aberdeen there was a building to be opened. He turned the job over to the Duke of York, who was soon to take his place as King. He himself was meeting Mrs. Simpson.

And all the while the stage was being set for the drama that was to come. Somehow the King felt he could keep the curtain down, that he could marry Mrs. Simpson, make her his queen, or at least his wife, and stay on his throne. Yet surely an inner voice of common sense must have whispered to him that it could not be. It took every ounce of his stubborn resolve to have his way with as simple a matter as the profile on his stamps and coins. When it came to his own vacation he had to give way; he could not go to Italy: it would be undiplomatic at that moment in history. How then could he hope to force the immensely complicated and difficult problem of marriage to a twice-divorced American commoner through the needle-eye of British morality and royal tradition?

In the midlands, the seat of British respectability and conservatism, the Bishop of Bradford spoke and the Press broke its long self-imposed silence. In Fleet Street, the Jovian Times, which had been forging and reforging a carefully phrased editorial thunderbolt for some days, prepared to cast it. Over the phone that night to the editor, Geoffrey Dawson, came the slow homey tones of Stanley Baldwin. He was phoning for the King, and not himself, the Prime Minister said; he was merely a post office passing on information: “He asks if you are going to have a leader on the Bishop of Bradford’s sermon, and if so would like advance proofs so that he may suggest any amendments that occur to him that he thinks might be fitting. That is the end of the King’s message.” A pause. Then again Baldwin’s slow voice, slightly incredulous: “You know, Geoffrey, the little man hasn’t the least idea of how this country is governed!”

A Prisoner In His Cell

The drama moved swiftly to its inevitable climax. His whole restless life seems, in retrospect, to have been moving relentlessly toward the single tragic week that followed. All his frustrations, his nonconformities, his rebellions, all the prodding doubts that sprang from the duplexity of his instincts seemed to be distilled in the crucible of those seven days.

The decision was never really in doubt. Since the days of the Reform Bill there could be only one outcome in any serious dispute between sovereign and prime minister.

The King fretted his brief hour upon the stage. His grey preoccupied face, framed in the windows of his maroon Daimler, merely hinted at his inner turmoil. Closer observers noted one phenomenon: he nervously ripped the carnation from his buttonhole every ten minutes and substituted a fresh one. But one night he walked to his room with his legal adviser Sir Walter Monckton and prepared for bed. “I’ll leave you now, Sir,” Monckton said. “No, Walter, stay with me awhile,” the King replied. The two sat there in silence, Monckton in a chair, the King in his bed. Then, suddenly, the King buried his face in his hands and began to cry.

On one of his final mornings his valet called him and remarked that the lights were still burning in his room. “Isn’t that quite normal for a prisoner in his cell?” the King asked.

Wallis Simpson, her face veiled, her slender body enveloped in furs, had already left the country and was speeding across France in a black Buick, pursued by journalists. Baldwin’s stocky figure dominated the footlights. The pugnacious Churchill and the wizened Beaverbrook who had sprung to the King’s side had both retired. The tall brooding figure of Cosmo Lang, Archbishop of Canterbury, with his grave eagle’s face waited in the wings to have the last word.

At long last the King spoke. The country listened and sighed. All his life this man who now quarreled with his destiny had been seeking a chance to show what he was made of. Finally, dramatically, the chance had come. Had he taken it? The King undoubtedly thought he had. Most of his countrymen disagreed.

For a week the land had held its breath. Trade suffered a relapse. One book publisher’s sales dropped to one seventh. Unemployment increased. Now the wheels began to turn again. The memorable words faded and the popular songs took their place on the wireless—“Love in Bloom,” “These Foolish Things Remind Me of You.”

At 5 a.m. of a cold morning the King who was now a Duke slipped into the harbor of Boulogne with his cairn terrier under his arm. In England the shy bowler-hatted figure of his brother was already picking up the reins of monarchy, initiating the endless small talk, reviewing the numberless troops, shaking the countless hands and performing the various tasks of varying boredom that are the lot of the sovereign. And yet, of the two brothers, it is probable that in the end, it was the elder who was the more bored. He kept asking for a job to do, but the best that could be found was on an obscure possession in the Caribbean, where he too could shake unnumbered hands, but never to quite the same purpose.

In some future era his story will be told and retold. Plays will be written about the King who gave up his throne; novels, movie scripts, definitive histories, nostalgic romances. Today, at fifty-eight, he is less of a historical figure than a sort of international curiosity, roaming restlessly across the Atlantic and back again. His face still appears in the public prints, but he smiles less today. His slight form is occasionally seen dancing in a Paris nightclub, or airing the Duchess’ dogs Pookie, Preezie, Gremlin, Bundles and Yackie along Park Avenue. Occasionally he has had to deny published suggestions that he and his Duchess are on the brink of divorce. Few doubt the denials; for whatever else comes, these two must stay in love forever.

Occasionally he pays a lone visit to the country over which he briefly reigned. Here he sees his mother, Queen Mary, who is still fond of him, and here he periodically brings up the question of his Duchess being received at court. But the answer is always a stubborn “no.” The Duke described one of these interviews to a friend.

“How can you expect me to receive a woman who has two other living husbands?” Queen Mary had said.

“Really, mother,” replied the Duke. “What do you want me to do—bump them both off?”

Her answer is unrecorded. She does not refer to the Duchess by name, nor do the rest of the court. But above her mantelpiece she still keeps a picture of her exiled son. It does not show him as Duke of Windsor, or as King Edward VIII, but as he was in those nostalgic days when as Edward, Prince of Wales, the country was at his feet, the world seemed his for the asking and romance lay just around the corner.