A few years ago I reviewed an interesting book: That Woman by Anne Sebba. “That Woman” was, of course, Wallis Simpson, who sparked the Abdication crisis of 1936. What was revelatory about the book, to me at least, was the light it shed on the personality of Edward VIII, who was given the title of Duke of Windsor after his abdication. I had not realised quite what a worthless character he was: vain, shallow and self-absorbed. The book relates how courtiers could not understand his chronically irresponsible behaviour and thought him mad. Stanley Baldwin, the prime minister at the time of the Abdication, remarked that on his last visit to Fort Belvedere where the King was living and where he signed the abdication papers, “there simply was no moral struggle and it appalled me”.
Sebba writes that George V despaired of his oldest son and hoped he would never marry or have children. Most telling of all is the anecdote she relates of 1927, when he was Prince of Wales and nine years before he became king: Baldwin and the Prince’s private secretary, Allan Lascelles, both confessed to each other that whenever the Prince went hunting (he was a reckless horseman) they both prayed that he would break his neck.
My review concluded that Wallis Simpson did the country and the empire an enormous service; by her marriage she spared the country the spectacle of a king wholly unfit to perform the duties and obligations of his rank and position. I was amused to see that in a letter to the Herald of June 26, John Jolliffe concurred with me, writing “nobody did greater service to the monarchy and the nation than Mrs Simpson, by saving them from a weak and feckless sovereign in their darkest hour.”
Why do I mention this? Because the photos of a home movie made at Birkhall in 1933 and splashed over the pages of The Sun on Saturday show us another revealing aspect of this deeply flawed man. My guess is that where his young nieces and their parents were larking about – as Lady Antonia Fraser commented yesterday morning on Radio 4, Hitler was generally seen as a Charlie Chaplin-type figure in 1933 and it was common to parody his Nazi salute – the Prince of Wales wasn’t joking at all. In retrospect it is known he was a Nazi sympathiser. By getting his family to participate in the charade he was revealing his own ominous enthusiasm for the new German chancellor.
The one thing we expect of our constitutional monarchs is a sense of duty. The shy and awkward George VI, unlike his glamorous older brother, possessed this virtue to a heroic degree. I once knew an elderly gentleman who had been a young officer in the Blues and Royals doing military duties at Windsor Castle in the early 1950s. He told me that he saw the King at close range and was shocked to note how heavily made-up he was: to disguise the pallor of his skin and his evident frailty and ill-health. The Queen Mother always believed that the stress of kingship shortened her husband’s life. One could say that in his own way George VI sacrificed himself for his country just as much as those who fought in the War.
And our present Queen, who blithely and innocently followed her uncle’s instructions in that 80-year-old home movie, has displayed a similarly profound sense of duty throughout her long reign. Like John Jolliffe, I am inclined to think the nation should raise a statue to Mrs Simpson.