Today, all anyone can talk about about is a British royal and his American love.
85 years ago Great Britain found itself in a similar situation, but the stakes were higher. Edward VIII had served as monarch for just under a year before abdicating because he had to choose between the crown and his lover, Wallis Simpson.
In his new book, "The Crown in Crisis: Countdown to Abdication" (St. Martin's Press), author Alexander Larman offers a new account (with over two years of extensive research at the royal archives inside Windsor Castle) on how Edward thought he could remain king and marry Wallis.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What inspired you to write the book from this particular angle?
"I was [initially] going to write a book about Edward VIII's lawyer, Walter Monckton. Then I thought that by far the most interesting thing Monckton was ever involved in was the abdication. I did some more research into the events of 1936 and I was struck by how dramatic and how interesting a period it was, not just for Edward and Wallis but for these other amazing characters as well. So I did quite a lot of research into it; I went to Balliol College, Oxford, where Monctkon’s papers are kept. At this stage I was still thinking I would do a book about the abdication, but with a focus on Monckton. Then it occurred to me that there hadn’t been an authoritative history of the abdication in a very long time, so I thought to myself, 'Why am I trying to overcomplicate this? Why don’t I just go back and use the new material I found that now exists and write the definitive book about the abdication of Edward VIII?'"
In your research, you found many people -- from commoners to absolute rulers -- who said Edward would not make a good ruler. If this were present day, would the opinion be the same?
"It's very hard to say either way, because on one hand I think that people are much more tolerant than they were in 1936. On the other hand, Edward behaved badly; there are no two ways of looking at that. That’s what the book is designed to be -- two things at once. It's an authoritative historical chronicle of what transpired that year and why the abdication occurred. But it’s also supposed to be a character study. It’s a fascinating experience to go into someone’s head (who happened to be the King of England for less than a year) and to understand why they made the decisions they did and why they acted the way they did."
"It’s quite easy to summarize it simply as this: Edward was selfish. He was obsessed with Wallis and let everything else go to hell. But, I think that’s a slightly oversimplified way of looking at it. It was a time that showed Edward both at his best and worst; it’s a time, for example, that his charm and his popularity meant that he could go to different European countries and offer a very informal kind of diplomacy."
Edward VIII was convinced he could marry Wallis and keep his crown, even though that wasn't likely back in 1936.
"Well he thought that since he was king, he had a set of privileges that were offered to him that would not be offered to a man on the street. He was right....up to a point, but only up to a point and that was the problem."
I find that there are conflicting opinions of Wallis Simpson due to depictions of her in popular culture. What was your takeaway after writing this book?
"I am less badly disposed towards Wallis than I am towards Edward. I think she had her faults and I am quite clear about them. I think she was obsessed with money and status. She was actually quite short-sighted in terms of what she was doing. But you can’t blame her for loss of that because she never seriously thought she was going to last forever. She thought she was going to be a royal mistress and initially she was quite happy about it. But when David became King, things changed publicly because the eyes of the world were on him. And even though their affair was kept out of the papers, everyone knew who she was and what she was doing. She was famous in a sense because she was associated with him. You’ve got to feel a little bit sorry for her because she was in over her head. As for Edward VIII -- it's interesting because if you look at what happens the rest of his life you think to yourself, 'He got worse.'"
So, the British monarchy -- one of the most popular in the world, I might add -- really could've ended up on an entire different path?
"What I found interesting is the idea that Edward nearly pulled down the monarchy. That’s an astonishing idea isn’t it? That he was a few days away from doing something absolutely outrageous that would have completely changed how the monarchy was regarded. George VI and Elizabeth the Queen Mother have guts and courage; they did not want to be in the situation they were thrown into. [They and] Queen Mary made the best of it because they knew that ultimately that was the only option."
Buy "The Crown in Crisis" here.
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