Book Review: The People’s King

The tale of the abdication of Edward VIII in 1936 has been told many times, but Susan Williams brings to bear twonew sources of information that cast the familiar saga in a new light. The first is a collection of papers released by the Public Record Office earlier this year. The second is a huge archive of letters from the general public to the King, most of them urging him not to abdicate, which the author was allowed to see in the Royal Archives. She has used this new, and much existing, ma- terial to revise her view of the unfortunate monarch. Like many people, she had always felt he was self-indulgent and selfish. Having looked at the evidence, she has decided he was the victim of a spiteful, hypocritical establishment, who forced him to renounce his throne and to leave the people he loved for a lifelong exile.

Certainly, there was much in the behaviourof the main establishment figures – Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, Archbishop of Canterbury Cosmo Lang and Geoffrey Dawson, editor of The Times – to support the belief that the affair was not handled well. Objectively, however, there was wrong on both sides: and it is a flaw in this otherwise excellent book that the author can see little fault on the part of the King.

What she undeniably succeeds in doing is illustrating better than most previous accounts of this crisis just how the public – Edward’s subjects – felt about the pressure he was put under to abdicate. To achieve this she has been to record offices and consulted private diaries, as well as reading that pile of letters at Windsor. However, public expressions of anger at the King’s treatment themselves need to carry a health warning. Opinion was undeniably divided: and it was not well-informed, not least because of the undeniable determination by the establishment to keep secret for as long as possible the King’s desire to marry Mrs Simpson.

This is good revisionist history, but whether or not all readers will be convinced is another matter. The author presents the facts comprehensively, although from time to time gives the impression that her dislike of the establishment and society exceeds her understanding of its contextual role. Despite the sentimentality of some of her supporting evidence, she is convincing when she argues that the King was hard done by. It is just a shame that she cannot concede that there was an element of wrong on both sides.

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