The secret files on Wallis Simpson

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Despite the talk of “constitutional crisis” when the Prince and Princess of Wales separated and divorced a decade ago, the abdication of Edward VIII in 1936 was the real thing – a full-blown crisis that involved the Royal Family, the British government and the politicians in the then British Commonwealth.

The release of more files from the period have given us more detail and, possibly, insight into the events but the longer state documents are kept secret, the greater the suspicion about the damaging material they might contain. The files released concern the removal of Britain’s Head of State and his relationship with a supposedly insatiable double-divorcée who was on social terms with prominent Nazis. It is little wonder historians have been eager to examine their contents.

In 1967, Harold Wilson’s Government decided not to release the documents until 2036, but there was speculation that they would remain classified only during Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’s lifetime. It was widely supposed that this was because they contained revelations about the alleged feud between her and Mrs Simpson.

In fact there is nothing damaging to the Queen Mother in the documents and the decision to release the material does not appear to be a consequence of her death last year.

Historians are now being assured that the Government has released every scrap of paper in its possession relating to the Abdication crisis. So do we finally have the whole story?

We certainly have more of it. The voluminous communication between Whitehall and the Dominion governments is revealing. Opponents of the King’s marriage maintained that the Dominions were adamantly opposed to it and that he risked breaking the Empire’s bond to the Crown.

It is now clear that the Dominion governments were indeed concerned but that they looked to the British Government for guidance. One of the backroom figures intimately involved in the drama was Sir Horace Wilson, a Downing Street adviser close both to the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, and his successor, Neville Chamberlain.

He warned Chamberlain of the danger of Mrs Simpson — she was “in touch with the Nazi movement and has definite ideas as to dictatorship” — establishing her own court in Britain. In conversation with Baldwin, Wilson wondered if “historians of the future” would ask why the King was not put under pressure before it was too late.

In reply, Baldwin claimed that he had not imagined that Edward would stick with Mrs Simpson once he was King. Furthermore, Edward’s infrequent contact with his brothers prevented them from exercising “any influence upon him. Mrs Simpson had, in fact, as frequently happens in such cases, come between him and the members of his family”.

The notes that Wilson made on the Abdication crisis endorse the sequence of events described in Philip Ziegler’s official biography of King Edward VIII, published in 1990. Inevitably the search for evidence will continue. The latest disclosures concern the Abdication and related matters. Speculation continues that there are other papers relating to the Duke of Windsor’s subsequent career that remain closed.

There is also private correspondence that may yet be unearthed. Cambridge University Library is still awaiting permission to release two slim files on the Abdication in Baldwin’s archive. Perhaps more importantly, the Queen Mother’s personal papers have been lodged in the Royal Archives at Windsor. Cataloguing them will take time and the first scholar likely to be able to refer to them will be the official biographer, who has yet to be appointed. With Whitehall claiming it has nothing more in store, attention will now shift to what is awaiting scrutiny behind the walls of Windsor Castle.

But the BBC is to dramatise the latest revelations with Gwyneth Paltrow playing Wallis Simpson. The American Woman will explore the alleged affair between Ribbentrop, the German Ambassador in 1936, and Simpson.

The files confirm that Winston Churchill played desperately for time on the king’s behalf in the hope of rallying public opinion behind him. In an urgent, handwritten letter to prime minister Stanley Baldwin, he claimed that Edward VIII was very near breaking point and was even suffering blackouts.

They show Mrs Simpson playing an even higher risk strategy, perhaps maintaining an illicit lover even while she was pursuing the king. Her divorce from Ernest Simpson is fully documented for the first time, revealing how senior law officers covered up obvious evidence of collusion that would have invalidated the separation.

It is evident that Mrs Simpson was under police surveillance long before the crisis erupted, but there is no absolute confirmation that the duke committed adultery with her. That she aroused the fury and contempt of the establishment is clear from the damning memorandum written by the Downing Street “fixer” Sir Horace Wilson shortly after the king’s departure.

He observed: “There was on her side no indication of any affection. On the contrary, her line throughout seemed to be to feather her own nest and to save her own skin. “She steadily ‘fed’ [the American Hearst press]with material which gradually brought matters to a head in a way which made the king’s position untenable.

“To know all is to forgive all, and all is not known. But subject to that, the conclusion seems to be: selfish, self-seeking, hard, calculating, ambitious, scheming and dangerous.”

Once the story broke in the British press in the first week of December 1936, public opinion rapidly moved against the king. The prime minister was receiving confidential messages that institutions that had previously enthusiastically supported Edward would turn against him.

Twelve years after George VI denied Wallis Simpson the title of Her Royal Highness on her marriage to his brother, the King’s continued opposition ensured that Clement Attlee rejected the Duke of Windsor’s strenuous appeals. A file among the Prime Minister’s private correspondence released with the Abdication papers makes clear “the deliberate steps taken to deprive the Duchess of the title”, an issue which poisoned the relationship between the royal brothers to the end.

Once the story broke in the British press in the first week of December 1936, public opinion rapidly moved against the king. The prime minister was receiving confidential messages that institutions that had previously enthusiastically supported Edward would turn against him.

Twelve years after George VI denied Wallis Simpson the title of Her Royal Highness on her marriage to his brother, the King’s continued opposition ensured that Clement Attlee rejected the Duke of Windsor’s strenuous appeals. A file among the Prime Minister’s private correspondence released with the Abdication papers makes clear “the deliberate steps taken to deprive the Duchess of the title”, an issue which poisoned the relationship between the royal brothers to the end.

(First published in Royalty Magazine Volume 18-05.)