The Windsors at War: The King, His Brother, and a Family Divided

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Release Date: 
April 18, 2023
St. Martin's Press
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“As war clouds gathered in Europe and the Far East, the British royal family faced internal and external crises. Larman’s new book details how they dealt with them.”

British historian and journalist Alexander Larman describes his new book The Windsors at War as “a story about a squabbling and dysfunctional family being tested to the limits under unimaginable pressure.” The “unimaginable pressure” was the abdication of one English king, Edward VIII, and the reign of his younger brother George VI in the years preceding and during the Second World War.

Larman’s book is the sequel to The Crown in Crisis where he chronicled the events leading to Edward’s abdication in 1936, his marriage to Wallis Simpson in 1937, and their forced exile to France. As war clouds gathered in Europe and the Far East, the British royal family faced internal and external crises. Larman’s new book details how they dealt with them.

The internal friction within the royal family makes up the bulk of Larman’s story. None of the royals liked Wallis Simpson and they all decried her hold over Edward. After the abdication, the royals insisted—as did government officials—that Wallis never receive the title of Her Royal Highness. The unhappy couple spent most of the war in the Bahamas, where the duke served as Royal Governor. They longed to return to England and gain what they believed was their rightful place among the royals. But it was not to be.

As British and American soldiers were fighting and dying in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, northwest Europe, the Far East, and the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, Edward and Wallis complained of being outcasts to the wealth and privilege they imagined they deserved. It was unseemly behavior, and it continued throughout the war.

The British royal family, Larman writes, consisted of “flawed, often capricious human beings, whose internal struggles could seem petty and self-indulgent at a time of national crisis.” The villain of the story is Edward, the Duke of Windsor, who not only abdicated the throne to marry the American divorcee Mrs. Simpson, but who also exhibited pro-Nazi sympathies even as his nation was at war with Hitler’s Germany.

The hero of the story is George VI, who overcame considerable self-doubt and a noticeable speech impediment to, in Larman’s words, lead “his country through the greatest trial it had ever faced . . . with courage, humour and good grace.” George VI ultimately became a beloved figure in England, while Edward was labeled a “traitor king.”

George VI began his reign as a proponent of appeasement, agreeing with Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s diplomacy with Germany. The king didn’t want Churchill to become Prime Minister in May 1940, but soon warmed to Churchill’s valiant war leadership. The two men became quite friendly during the war, meeting on a weekly basis to discuss the progress of Britain’s war effort. After the war in Europe ended, the king praised Churchill publicly and privately, and expressed regret that an “ungrateful” British electorate voted him out of power in the 1945 parliamentary elections.

Larman’s account of the turmoil within the royal family benefited from access to never-before-published memoranda, letters, and diaries, including those of the king’s private secretaries Alec Hardinge and Alan Lascelles. Edward’s abdication scandalized the family and the British government. The Duke and especially the Duchess of Windsor were persona non grata among most of the royals and at the upper levels of the government. Churchill, who had acted as Edward’s champion during the abdication crisis, remained loyal and friendly in correspondence, but England was never again to be their home.

The most explosive of Larman’s allegations is based on the so-called “Marburg Files” or “Windsor Files,” which were documents discovered near the Harz Mountains by U.S. troops in May 1945 and compiled at Marburg Castle, and which provide, writes Larman, “incontrovertible proof that the former monarch had committed treachery against his country.”

The Marburg documents reference a Nazi plan to overthrow the British monarchy and place the Duke of Windsor back on the throne, supposedly with the duke’s knowledge and concurrence. These documents were initially suppressed by both the British and American governments. After their release, the duke denounced them as fabrications, but his known Nazi associations lent credence to the documents. Historians still debate whether Edward was a traitor or just a naive appeaser of Hitler.