King Edward VIII: An American Life by Ted Powell Takes a Fresh Look at the Celebrity Monarch
Privilege doesn’t always deliver contentment. Fairly tales don’t always produce happy endings. Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David Windsor, also known as the Prince of Wales and then King Edward VIII of England, was born into wealth, privilege and expectation. As the first-born son of George V, he was monarch-in-waiting. Ultimately, he reigned for eleven months and gave it all up for a twice-divorced American, Wallis Simpson.
Although most people know the dramatic ending of Edward VIII’s abdication, many are unaware of his earlier life—the contribution he made during World War I, the support he gave to King and Empire after the war, and the role he played during the later years of his father’s life when George V was ill. And few are aware of his lifelong attachment to America. The story Ted Powell has chosen to tell in his non-fiction book King Edward VIII: an American Life (Oxford University Press, 2018) centres on Edward’s keen interest in American attitudes, successes, and its robust democracy, his celebrity status, and the contribution he made as Prince of Wales and heir presumptive.
Being a member of the royal family is a life of service and obligation. Edward learned this from a young age. When World War I broke out, he wanted to serve his country by enlisting, but was prevented from doing so by his father. Instead, the prince served ‘behind the lines’ although he slipped off close to the front whenever possible and spent much time with troops from different parts of the Commonwealth. This inability to participate fully in the war left him feeling inferior even as the roles he did play gave him a taste of freedom and privacy.
After the war, Anglo-American feelings were very positive. Heavily indebted to American banks, the British government sent Edward on a lengthy tour of Canada and the United States followed by tours of other parts of the Commonwealth to strengthen the bonds with America and enhance Britain’s standing as a world power. With his informal, democratic style learned from interactions with British and American troops, the prince’s appeal was magnetic. He was charming, good looking and the world’s most eligible bachelor—a modern prince for a new age. Travelling through North America, Edward became an instant celebrity who was lauded and fawned over wherever he went. Ted Powell writes that the prince’s work during the post-war years can be thought of as a campaign “for the survival of the British Empire, and indeed the British monarchy.”
While the British press treated Edward’s affairs and amusements with discretion, the American press featured the prince’s marriage prospects, his lifestyle, and his work on behalf of the British Empire—the kind of human interest stories their readers valued. There was endless speculation on who he would marry and frequent, titillating stories about the American women that had caught his eye. Edward had several flings while travelling. He also carried on a lengthy love affair with Freda Dudley Ward, who was married to a British politician, and following that an affair with Thelma Morgan Furness, the married daughter of an American diplomat. With Freda, he dreamed of escaping the obligations of royal duties to a Canadian ranch he’d purchased. In 1919 Edward wrote the following: ‘If only WE could settle West darling, what heaven and we could be the happiest couple in the whole world.’ Ted Powell writes that “The seed of abdication had already germinated in Edward’s mind, nurtured by the desire to share his life with the woman he loved.”
Edward carried an air of royal superiority mixed with feelings of inferiority and unworthiness made worse by his small stature. Depression was a frequent concern. His travels to the US sparked American friendships and an interest in American values, industry, sports, jazz, dancing, and language. “In America he caught a tantalizing taste of a life of freedom, opportunity, and modernity which was denied to him by the accident of his birth. As he wrote in his memoirs, ‘America meant to me a country in which nothing is impossible.’”
Edward’s lover Thelma Morgan Furness introduced the prince to Wallis Simpson. By 1934, Thelma realized Edward’s deepening attachment to Wallis and stepped away. Edward admired Wallis’s independence, forthrightness, her understanding of his loneliness and isolation. His new love became an obsession. It destroyed the equilibrium he had attained while serving at his father’s side, advocating for the people of Britain, and representing the monarch when needed. “The relationship between Edward and Wallis was asymmetrical. Edward was the lover, Wallis the beloved; Edward was the submissive partner, Wallis the dominant one.”
Edward’s family and his staff grew “deeply worried about his infatuation with Wallis, and the consequent deterioration of his behaviour. Aird [Edward’s equerry] concluded that Edward was going mad. Lionel Halsey and Godfrey Thomas, Edward’s most senior advisers, steeled themselves to present their concerns formally in writing. At the same time, the ailing King George fretted over his son’s unsuitability for the task ahead of him and made his famous prediction, ‘After I am dead, the boy will ruin himself within twelve months’, when Edward’s affair with Wallis was in full swing.”
A crisis struck when George V died and Edward insisted on marrying Wallis. “Soon after he became King, he set in motion a plan to make Wallis his wife and, if possible, his Queen.” The British government, the Church of England, and Edward’s family were firmly opposed. As King, Edward “carried with him the nation’s hopes for the future.” The monarchy had to “embody the traditional values of family, nation, and empire; and to provide the focus for national identity and stability.” How could those objectives be achieved if Edward married Wallis Simpson?
Reading King Edward VIII: An American Life, one might conclude that Edward VIII was a fundamentally weak character with occasional glimmers of strength. Ted Powell has a similar conclusion: “He was well intentioned, and worked hard for many years to fulfil his role, but ultimately he was a rather ordinary man in an extraordinary position.” Does Powell feel that Edward VIII might have abdicated even if he hadn’t met Wallis Simpson? “George V was seriously ill in 1928. If he had died then, and Edward had become King (before Wallis), he might have reigned quite successfully. The affair with Wallis was undoubtedly the catalyst [for Edward’s abdication.]”
Did Edward’s family make any attempts to introduce Edward to suitable women? According to the author, “The First World War changed everything. But for the war, Edward would most likely have married one of his German royal cousins. After the war, that was unthinkable, and anyway the German royal families were all swept away by the war. By the time the war ended, Edward had lost his virginity and was already embarked on a serious love affair with a married woman, Freda Dudley Ward.”
Edward was the prince’s official name; David was the name he used with family and his closest friends. Throughout the biography, Ted Powell features the influence of America and Americans on Edward’s life. “If the abdication was an act of renunciation, it was also an act of affirmation by ‘David’, a final assertion of his true self.” The author concludes: “Psychologically the abdication represented a form of suicide by ‘Edward’, cutting ‘David’ free from his alter ego.”
About the contributor: M.K. (Mary) Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, Time and Regret was published by Lake Union. Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her award-winning blog A Writer of History.