Traitor King: The scandalous exile of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, by Andrew Lownie

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Review by Elaine Simpson-Long

When I was about eleven years old I remember reading an article about the Abdication in the Sunday Express, which my mother used to take each week. I found it enthralling and thought how wonderfully romantic it all was that a King would give up his throne for the woman he loved. Later, when I was a little older and wiser and reading more on the subject, it struck me that the marriage simply had to succeed, as how could you leave somebody who had given up all that for you? And then, once I had read even more, I began to realise just what an awful life they had led, aimless and pointless.

Last year I read a wonderful book on the abdication by Alexander Larman, The Crown in Crisis is one of the best books I have read on this subject and, believe me, I have read the lot, but his book stopped after the ex-King left the country. This biography by Andrew Lownie takes up the tale and tells the story of their exile.  It is pretty unedifying.

It is extraordinarily difficult to find anything positive to say about this ghastly pair and, in particular, the Duke. I have to state right away that I do not think that for one moment he would view himself as a traitor no matter how overwhelming the evidence or the opinion of the government of the time. My main reason for coming to this conclusion is the utter immaturity, weakness and stupidity of the ex-King. He was venal, greedy, selfish and narcissistic, but I find the premise that he plotted against his country at a time of war and engaged in treasonable activities difficult to believe. It was crystal clear that the German hierarchy and Hitler himself viewed him purely as a useful tool, somebody easy to use and control because he thought of nobody but himself and his wife.

I do think he genuinely thought that avoiding war and coming to peaceful terms with them was the sensible thing to do and, on paper, it is difficult to disagree. But his reasons for this were purely for his own purposes. He wanted to be King again this time with Queen Wallis by his side and he thought the Germans would help him achieve this. It was all about him and what he wanted and the thought that he might be viewed as a traitor probably never crossed his mind.

Time after time when the Germans thought they had pinned him down he wriggled away finding excuses and avoiding practicalities and concrete plans. The Duke wanted a role which would allow him to come back to the UK and be King George’s representative and when this was refused he became increasingly impatient and bitter and this is where he was at his most vulnerable. He was offered the Governorship of the Bahamas which he was loath to accept as he was astute enough to realise that his brother just wanted him out of the way and in a place where he could do no harm.

The most intriguing part of this biography is the discovery of the so called ‘Marburg Papers’. These are alleged to have further detailed a plot by the Nazis called Operation Willi orchestrated in 1940, to persuade the Duke of Windsor to officially join sides with the Nazis and move him to Germany in a bid to bring the UK to peace negotiations. At the time, the Windsors were in Lisbon, refusing to move to a safer place and turning down taking the flight offered to them as they had too much luggage to be taken on board – hard though that may be to believe. Operation Willi proposed convincing the Duke of a phony plot by King George VI and Prime Minister Winston Churchill to have him assassinated upon his arrival in the Bahamas and conspiring with him to stage a kidnapping in the hope of blackmailing the monarchy and the UK into surrender. The papers are also alleged to show the possibility of a Nazi plan to reinstate the Duke as king, whilst also officially recognising his wife as queen, in exchange for Nazi forces being given free movement across Europe. It was alleged that among his final communications with the Nazis before leaving for the Bahamas he encouraged relentless bombing attacks on the United Kingdom in a bid to force the British government to begin peace negotiations.

How much of this is true is uncertain but Churchill and following governments tried to keep the papers under wraps. The Americans had obtained copies and a great deal of diplomatic activity was brought to play to persuade them to cooperate. They were ultimately published and it seems the Duke was extremely annoyed…

Whatever conclusion one reaches about this whole affair it clearly shows the character of the Duke and, as I have already mentioned, his selfishness and self-absorption. In such thrall to his wife and bitter at her not being accepted and her lack of title, he allowed himself to be seduced by false promises regarding her status to engage in what the UK government viewed as traitorous activities.

And so we come to Wallis with whom, no matter how awful she may appear, I do have some slight sympathy. From an impoverished childhood and background and being fiercely ambitious she became involved with the then Prince of Wales to gain a foothold in society which seems to have been her main aim. In her letters to her aunt in Baltimore, she described herself as “Wallis in Wonderland” and told her that she was determined to make the most of it as she was under no illusion it would all come to an end.   So she allowed the POW to become attached to her, spending hundreds and thousands on jewellery and giving her a lifestyle she could only have dreamed of.   Unfortunately, she underestimated his neediness and soon discovered there was no way she could be rid of him and, to give her credit, when she realised that he was threatening to abdicate, did all she could to stop him and tried to end it. The Prince then threatened to kill himself and said he would follow her if she left and then it was too late – Mrs Simpson was, not to put too fine a point on it, lumbered with him.

Various reports at the time of the Abdication and the time of their marriage were quite clear that she did not love him. Baba, wife of a long time friend of the Duke, “Fruity” Metcalfe wrote in her diary after the wedding ceremony:

I knew I should have kissed her but I just couldn’t….I don’t remember wishing her happiness or good luck as though she loved him. If she occasionally showed a glimmer of softness, took his arm, looked at him as if she loved him, one would warm towards her, but her attitude is so correct and hard. The effect is of an older woman unmoved by the infatuated love of a younger man. Let’s hope that she lets up in private with him else it must be grim

And, indeed, it was grim. Her patience was tried to the limit – if she left the room or went out he wandered around lost wanting to know where she was, what she was doing, every minute of the day. As the years passed she seemed to become more irritated and vicious with him and he was overheard to ask her whether she was going to send him to bed crying again.

Obsessed with money, though they were fabulously wealthy,  the Duke appeared to have engaged in what would appear to be fraudulent activity when in the Bahamas to hide his money and avoid taxes. After the death of the Duchess when her jewellery was auctioned certain pieces, which had been part of a burglary while visiting the UK and on which insurance was claimed, turned up in the sale. Spending freely while on a visit to the US during their tenure in the Bahamas and finding they were being criticised, the Duchess said she was buying Christmas presents for the poor children as they had nothing. It was reported acidly that one did not usually buy children’s presents at Cartier and Mainbocher.

It is so tawdry and sad.

I found while reading this biography that I had to keep putting it down and taking a break as the awfulness and emptiness of their lives was really depressing. To sum up, this is a story of a man who hated being Royal and who married a strong ambitious woman to whom he was totally in thrall. Once away from his royal life, it seemed he longed to return and when it was made clear to him this was not possible, became bitter calling his family cold and unfeeling, complaining about money and selling his and his wife’s story to the press.

Sound familiar?

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Elaine blogs at Random Jottings.

Andrew Lownie, Traitor King (Blink, 2021). 9781788704816, 410pp., hardback.

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  1. Well, I don’t think they were sad at all. I think they were selfish, mean, racists that deserved to be ostracized from the royal family. I have no sympathy for them in the least.

  2. Well I think it was sad. Sad because they were precisely what you say and led such a pointless and arid life.

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