Hardcover: 432 pages
Publisher: Bloomsbury Circus (9 April 2015)
Princes at war tells the story of the British monarchy from the abdication of Edward VIII to the death of George VI. More specifically it looks at the internal problems that the royal family had to deal with during this time. As the name suggests it focuses on the four sons of George V during World War Two. Principally it is driven by two of them. The two Kings. George VI or “Bertie” and the ex King, Edward VIII or the Duke of Windsor.
Deborah Cadbury merges together much of the recent scholarship, and deep research on the wartime royal family into one cohesive narrative, taking what is essentially the full cast of Edward and Mrs Simpson and The King’s speech and then tied that in together with all those documentary story lines that we are familiar with from ITV, Channel 4 and BBC, every time the Queen has a birthday. What emerges is the story that comes after the Abdication and after the Speech, which are the two stories that of course dominate the story to the royal family at this time.
A recurring theme is the rift caused in the monarchy by the abdication crisis. How Windsor distanced himself from the family by marrying Wallace Simpson. Then how the war irrevocably widened the gap, and ultimately how the Monarchy survived the conflict.
This is a cohesive and lively narrative of the Royal Family at war. A period of great significance to the monarchy and the nation itself, which has a great bearing on the longevity of the institution. It is dramatically written and flows well. Though it is true that I could not help but notice something of an over fondness for the use of hindsight now and again, one can’t help but be impressed at the great care and detail the author has put into it. Nor can one miss that a main thrust is the pros of having a constitutional monarchy.
In all three great emphasis’ emerge from the book. He first (very common nowadays I must admit) focuses upon the speech impediment George VI and how he felt this alone disqualified him from kingship and how he and Lionel Logue worked throughout his reign to correct it. It is surprising nonetheless how much this storyline is given space by the author here, not least how supposedly unfit his impediment made George VI feel.
The second is examining, or certainly giving a good stir-up of the evidence against the Duke of Windsor that implicates him of treason. There is no doubt that the case built up against the Duke of Windsor is a damning one here and precious little in his defence. Most people only know of him as far as the abdication but the continuing story paints a rather more troubling picture. Here we find not the noble prince but the weak willed lead man, a petty, gullible, vain and callouss man. Wallace Simpson a sort is nothing short of a black widow, much hinting at gold-digging are not far away, a selfish and self absorbed prima Donna interested in nothing but attaining rank and position at the cost of the greater good, and having bewitched her prince continued to lead him around by the nose, while both courted the protection of the Germans.
She almost comes off worse. As a schemer a intriguer bent on the throne. The book raises a highly arched eyebrow at them. And indeed the case presented leaves at best the fact that the Duke of Windsor was a dopey defeatist and at worst a weak willed sellout.
As a consequence the third emphasis emerges as something of the family drama, a royal Dallas one might say, the love to hate role is given to the playboy prince. The Duke of Windsor remains almost a central antagonist to the hero figure of the King. Meanwhile the two other brothers do their bit, but play very much second fiddle to the others. As of course does their wives, Queen Elizabeth is there in the background as the smiling encouraging cypher, in fact we emerge with a much fuller picture of the Duke of Kent’s Wife than the Queen Mother. It is with this I dare to add that perhaps due to constraints of space I found the main characters drawn as fairly one dimensional, which sadly due to my relative inexperience with the sources here I cannot properly explain. What I will say is that the Duke of Windsor was flawed, but I find the casting of him as an almost pantomime villain, troubling.
I must admit my almost total ignorance of the “Was Windsor a traitor” debate, which fuels much of the book that is not taken up with King George’s stolid performance, and his interaction with Winston Churchill. This therefore has made me tread warily with how much I took to heart. It is said that ignorance is bliss but I might add that a little knowledge, as well as going a long way, is also sheer torture when you are confronted with a wealth of possibly controversial information, in a narrative form, that you have no way of putting in perspective alongside the other arguments.
There is no smoke without fire, and given the whacking great clouds this book sends up there must have been something fishy going on in the Windsor Camp, most people agree to this. Certainly Windsor was not exactly the popular romantic figure he was imagined as. Properly speaking it clarifies that the Germans weren’t so much interested in George to broker a peace, but Windsor, yet I am still not entirely convinced.
However the door is left propped open. And I personally am left with giving him the benefit of the doubt as there is no conclusive proof of treachery. It is probable that Windsor’s instinct was for peace at all costs and that peace would have required him to treat the Nazis with an open mind and a friendly demeanour, which in itself would have been disastrous for Churchill. In fact it may well still be the same noble sacrificing prince of the abdication that shines through here. The act of abdication was after all an act of self interest of national interest. Certainly for the rest of his life he pandered to every whim his wife wished, and fought for her to be raised to an HRH even in the most insensitive moments. That much of what he did was probably then to do with love would seem to support the very cold fairly one dimensional view of Wallace Simpson, and others, that is presented here.
This then is the story of the Royal Family at War, it is perhaps a touch too polarising and not as wide ranging as one first expects, yet it does provide an insight into the collective effort of the male members of the royal family, their struggles, failures, losses and successes, personal and public during the most trying time in British History and in large shows us why Britain’s monarchy survived into the modern age.