FROM EDXIT TO MEGXIT
Updated: Apr 14
Spectres at Coronation Banquets 1937 and 2023
The abdication of Edward VIII and its aftermath and the present unhappy relationship between Prince Harry and the royal family have much in common: a deeply beloved, divorcee, American wife with a forceful personality, the abandonment of royal duties, personal estrangement from the family, extensive legal action, a pending coronation and exile from Britain. The parallels, though, are far from exact and the differences might tell us more than the similarities.
Only two kings of England have left the throne voluntarily, by the official account at least, Richard II in 1399 and Edward VIII in 1936. Richard’s cousin who succeeded him as Henry IV suffered only minimal embarrassment from his predecessor, whom he imprisoned and quite probably starved to death within a few months of losing the kingship. For various reasons these expedients were not available to George VI when he and his advisers weighed how to deal with his elder brother, now the Duke of Windsor. The Duke of Windsor had left the throne by his own will and there was no question over George VI’s right to succeed him, but it was still felt to be highly desirable to establish him on the throne as firmly as possible. From an early stage it had been feared that the Duke might establish some kind of rival court or even to attempt to reverse the abdication.
The coronation of George VI and Queen Elizabeth, already the mother to two princesses next in line to the throne, in May 1937 would be an important step in cementing the legitimacy of his accession. It would also serve to heal wounds in the national psyche opened by the abdication crisis of 1936, proclaiming the continuity and stability of the royal house. The deep and obvious ill-will between the royal brothers lay in the future, but at the very least it was practically certain that the coronation would take place at approximately the same time as the marriage for which the Duke had abdicated. Even with the best will in the world it would be impossible to escape some degree of comparison, if not downright competition, between the two ceremonies. Mrs Simpson unwittingly did the court and the government a favour by deciding that the wedding should take place after the coronation, in effect conceding defeat in the battle for public attention. This created a time window for the government and palace authorities to drip-feed to the Duke the various signs that he and his bride would be treated as pariahs, which might have provoked him to disruptive fury had he known before the coronation. The most hurtful of these was the news that the title of Royal Highness would be withheld from the future Duchess and this was communicated to the Duke only days before his wedding.
The denial of the Royal Highness title was the first serious intervention by the royal family in the abdication crisis and its ramifications. Before that practically everything had gone through a dialogue between Edward VIII and the prime minister Stanley Baldwin. As the question involved the sovereign at a time when the standing of the monarchy was far higher, Edward’s marriage plans were a matter of state. Indeed the family aspect of the crisis only took serious shape when the relationship between the family and its latest and least welcome member came under discussion. George VI was willing to risk provoking his brother and potentially compromising his coronation, by denying the Duchess of Windsor HRH status. He overrode the advice of the government which would have been willing to appease the Duke of Windsor with a curtsey to his wife for the sake of a quiet life. Today’s politicians doubtless hope that the squabbles would go away but they are, above all, a family affair.
As Charles III awaits his coronation on 6th May, he and his court face the danger once again that a disaffected member of the royal family might overshadow the ceremony in pursuit of his own agenda. Like the Duke of Windsor Charles’s son, Prince Harry, stepped down from his royal duties. Like the Duke of Windsor, Prince Harry has become alienated from his family largely because of his choice of wife and his passionate devotion to her. The Duke of Windsor spent the remainder of his life attempting to undo what he saw as the insults to his wife and to secure her proper recognition; the Duke of Sussex is reported as having demanded an apology to his wife as a condition for his attending the coronation but none has been made, publicly at least. He will attend on his own without his wife, stopping short of an outright breach with his family. There was never the slightest thought on anyone’s part that the Duke of Windsor would attend his brother’s coronation.
The rancour of the Duke of Windsor against his family’s treatment of his wife is clearer cut than that of the Duke of Sussex. From the very start the royal family and most of the establishment rejected Mrs Simpson, whom they considered to be little better than a prostitute, whilst the Duchess of Sussex was given every honour as a royal bride. Only as the relationship between the Sussexes and the rest of the family soured, did the sincerity of her initial reception come into question. The grounds on which Mrs Simpson was condemned are open to debate and there will never be a certain answer to the question of how much of the blame for the abdication crisis can be placed on her. The rôle of the Duchess of Sussex is ferociously debated but it is certain that her personality has deeply influenced events.
Both the Duke of Windsor and the Duke of Sussex were the objects of close media attention from earliest childhood and both were shaped by this force, but in utterly different ways. In turn this shaped the events that led to each stepping away from royal duties and becoming alienated from their families. The media environments in which each grew up were radically different, so the treatment to which they were exposed was also different. In part the media’s loss of deference to the royal family merely reflects changing times, but the abdication of Edward VIII was unarguably a watershed between the reverential discretion that had ruled for the century before the crisis and the transformation of the royal family into mere celebrities.
The norms of press behaviour before the abdication meant that Edward as Prince of Wales was treated in an entirely uncritical fashion. Combined with his good looks, charm, sportsmanship, buoyant personality and friendliness to people from all walks of life, this almost guaranteed his status as a golden boy. His affairs with married women and sometimes cavalier behaviour on royal tours escaped comment. Edward drew dangerously false conclusions from his huge personal popularity: that it would last forever and that it gave him leverage over elected politicians. Edward would dearly have loved to played on his popularity by appealing over the head of the government to the people, but he was blocked. Fortunately for the country the rapid and brutal lesson in the limitations of celebrity during the abdication crisis was so comprehensive that the danger of an all-out media war over his marriage plans evaporated swiftly.
For Harry the press has been a malign force since his childhood. Paparazzi bore some responsibility for the death of his mother and he found the intrusive interest of the media hateful as he grew up. Potential long-term partners were daunted by being exposed to this interest and a number were deterred. Other royals, by birth or marriage, have adapted to this uniquely challenging environment and have learned to exploit those advantages that it offers. Most famously Harry’s mother was able to make use of favourable coverage in her battle with his father. Harry never established a modus vivendi and approaches the celebrity press as an outright evil that must be reformed or punished.
The Duke of Windsor openly complained of the HRH title being withheld from the Duchess, but otherwise said little in public of his relationship with his family. He seems to have been motivated by a residue of hope that the family might accord the Duchess the recognition and respect that her husband craved for her. He reserved his main ire for figures in the abdication crisis who were all dead by the time he published his account. Only one of them truly played a significant part: Stanley Baldwin, the prime minister who outmanoeuvred him and held him back from putting his popularity into play to force through his desire to marry Mrs Simpson and remain on the throne. The Duke of Windsor’s other two targets, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Geoffrey Dawson, editor of The Times, tell us more about his shaky grasp on what was actually happening, his loathing of criticism and the malign influence of the Duke’s ambivalent ally Lord Beaverbrook.
The Duke of Windsor’s actions in putting his side of the story broke convention and were deeply distasteful to the establishment. The Duke of Sussex has gone much further. He has not held back from attacking his family and has pushed closer to an irreparable breach. He has depicted his family as an objective ally of the celebrity press, accusing it of sordid bargains in which his interests were sacrificed to protect other, less deserving family members, notably his step-brother. The Duke of Windsor took legal action for the customary purpose of suppressing unwelcome press comment; the Duke of Sussex has taken his use of the courts to extreme lengths with expensive cases to punish newspapers and to challenge government decisions.
Everyone concerned, including the Duke of Windsor himself, had taken it as a natural step for him to leave Britain immediately after his abdication, but he did not expect this to be indefinite. Doubtless many in George’s court hoped that the Duke’s return to Britain would be delayed for a long time, and the tax-free status he obtained in France with establishment assistance served as a deterrent from returning to Britain. His very partial rehabilitation at the outbreak of the Second World War stopped short of giving him a wartime job in Britain and he had to stay in France. The Duke’s most unguarded and vehement complaints at his treatment came as he faced up to the unpleasant realities of the second and forcible leg of his double exile when he was despatched to the Bahamas.
The Duke of Sussex’s departure for California was by some measures the purpose of his stepping back from royal duties. He could escape from an identity that left him as little more than tabloid fodder. Will it bring him a more fulfilling life than the one he would have led if he had taken a more conventional path? His legal crusade against the celebrity press is futile and expensive. The Duke of Windsor spent his exile in the shadow of his wife’s ambitions to lead international café society and the Duke of Sussex seems doomed to take second place to his wife’s goals as a media figure. What he chooses to do about his father’s coronation might leave him with no career other than that of a top-level defector from the royal family.
(Updated 14th April 2023)
©Adrian Phillips 2023