Hopes of important revelations about the royal family’s past have been dashed. Historians and journalists gathered to read newly opened official files at the Bodleian library, Oxford, but discovered that the most crucial personal papers had been weeded from the archive and sealed until the year 2037. Historians already know in outline of the resentment which the Queen Mother felt for more than 40 years about the 1936 abdication crisis. She was bitter because it forced her husband – younger brother of King Edward VIII – on to the throne reluctant and unprepared.
She was also convinced that this had shortened King George VI’s life, leaving her to fill most of her later years as a widow. The late king’s doctors would almost certainly have agreed with her. She and George had knelt and prayed that the royal succession would not come to him. Shortly after he was crowned, someone remarked to her that the former King Edward, who became Duke of Windsor and lived abroad in virtual exile, no longer had bags of exhaustion under his eyes. “Yes,” she replied bitterly. “Who has the lines under his eyes now?”
She strongly supported George in refusing the title “Royal Highness” to the Duchess of Windsor, the American divorcee Wallis Simpson whom Edward had left the throne to marry. According to some, this refusal was constitutionally unjustified.
But it served the purpose of enraging the Duke so he, in turn, refused to return to Britain, where he had once been almost as much of a popular as Diana, Princess of Wales, later became.
But, for public consumption, the Queen Mother was said to have taken a much more philosophical view of the crisis. Officials stressed her words to the then archbishop of Canterbury: “I can hardly now believe that we have been called to this tremendous task – and the curious thing is that we are not afraid. I feel that God has enabled us to face the situation.”
Her hostility to the principle of royal divorces was said to have coloured her attitude to her daughter Princess Margaret’s desire to marry a divorced royal equerry, Peter Townsend, in the 1950s. When the Duchess of Windsor died in 1987, the Queen Mother attended her funeral at St George’s chapel, Windsor, but not her burial. However, it was later discovered that she had been sending the duchess friendly Christmas cards since the Duke’s death in 1972.
Now in her 100th year, she has always refused to discuss the abdication outside the family. The broadcaster Ludovic Kennedy once raised it with her while discussing a television series. “I’m afraid I just can’t talk about it,” she said. “But ma’am, it conditioned your whole life,” persisted Kennedy. “Yes, I know – but I just can’t,” she said.
It was this void which scholars hoped the Monckton papers would throw light on. But the powers of protection and discreet censorship around the royal family remain strong. For example, a letter from the Queen Mother, written a few weeks after she described Wallis Simpson as “the lowest of the low”, has been removed from the Monckton archive.
An index in the papers of Walter Monckton, who acted as lawyer and confidant for Edward VIII during his abdication, discloses that the then Queen wrote to him on Aug 14, 1940. The letter confirmed that the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were to arrive in the Bahamas, where the Duke had been sent as Governor, judged a safe occupation for the duration of the war.
Just a month before, the Queen had written on the same subject to the Colonial Secretary, Lord Lloyd. She made it clear that she disapproved of thee e posting. “The people in our own land are used to looking up to their King’s representative – the Duchess of Windsor is looked upon as the lowest of the low – it will be the first lowering of the standards hitherto set, and may lead to unimaginable trouble, if a Governor’s wife such as she is to lead and set an example to the Bahamas.”
Since in corresponding with Monckton the Queen was writing to a man she trusted as a friend, it is possible that she went even further. But the letter has been removed from the box, along with other material that might have proved embarrassing to the Royal Family.
An exchange of letters between Monckton and Gray Phillips, the Duke’s comptroller, also about their arrival in the Bahamas is missing, too, as well as copies of letters between the Duke and George VI about a disagreement the Duke had with Neville Chamberlain.
Historian Andrew Roberts said after examining part of the archive: “The Crown Jewels are not here.” The archives were previously held by the widow of the man who was to become the first Viscount Monckton of Brenchley and his literary executors.
It was not clear who might have “weeded” the papers. However, on Dec 3, 1948, a letter from Monckton to Buckingham Palace promises to deliver his “abdication material” or copies of it to the Royal Archives at Windsor.
The remaining papers in the 10 boxes opened to the public “dot the i’s and cross the t’s on the episode”, according to Vernon Bogdanor, Professor of Government at Oxford University. He said: “They show that a lot of decisions for which the Duke blamed George VI were taken on the advice of the government.”
The new documents disclose Monckton trying to restrain the Duke of Windsor from embarrassing the Royal Family or himself. When the Duke decided to write his memoirs, A King’s Story, published in 1951, Monckton wrote that he hoped to exercise “a blue pencil” on them. In an early version, the Duke wrote that “within two years” of his first meeting with Mrs Simpson in 1931, “the hope had formed within me that one day I should be able to marry Wallis”. She was at that time married to Ernest Simpson.
But Monckton wrote: “Readers ought not to be given the smallest hint when the author admitted to himself his love for the lady, still less his wish for marriage. Such information invites criticism that either he was ready to break a home, or divorce was collusive.”
The archive contains a full draft of a speech in which Edward VIII hoped to persuade his people that they should allow him to marry the woman he loved.
As the day approached when it seemed inevitable the King would have to leave his throne, Mrs Simpson suggested that he should make a radio broadcast directly to the nation to appeal for understanding. She believed that his popularity was such that when they heard the voice of their King explaining the depth of his love and need for her that they would make allowances, despite the fact that divorce was not allowed.
The Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, and the Cabinet refused permission, fearing the speech might divide the country and damage the monarchy irreparably.
The files describe the pivotal role played by Monckton, the Duke and Duchess’s exile in France, the Duke’s attempts to return to England before the war, his growing exasperation with his brother and his flirtation with the Nazis while in Spain and Portugal.
One of the most fascinating series of documents were the drafts of Edward VIII’s Abdication speech, the final version of which shocked the nation. The original, written by the King before heavy censoring and rewriting after intervention from Stanley Baldwin and lengthy advice from Winston Churchill, contained long passages devoted to “Mrs Simpson” and the subject of marriage.
After about a dozen redrafts, the speech that was delivered contained no mention of marriage, a special tribute to the Prime Minister and heavy endorsement for the Duke of York. In a personal account of the Abdication written by Monckton a few months later, and contained in the archives opened yesterday, he told of the “intensity and the depth of the King’s devotion to Mrs Simpson.
“To him she was the perfect woman. It is a great mistake to assume he was merely in love with her . . . There was an intellectual relationship and there’s no doubt that his lonely nature found in her a spiritual comradeship . . .
When he said in his final broadcast that he could not carry on his task without her by his side, he said what he really meant from the heart.”
Also withheld were government documents relating to the Abdication, which are to be kept secret until 2037. There was growing evidence that the truly sensitive documents revealing the Queen Mother’s involvement were removed from the Monckton files and handed to Buckingham Palace as long ago as 1970.
When Monckton died in 1965, his files were divided between his literary trustees – mostly correspondence before 1950 – and his widow, Viscountess Monckton. By 1974, all of the papers had been placed with Balliol College, Monckton’s alma mater. The collection was passed to the Bodliean for archiving.
Many of his papers were, however, sent straight to the private Windsor archive by Monckton’s literary trustees. A Buckingham Palace spokesman said: “Some letters were passed direct to the royal archive in the early 1970s.” He said those papers would remain private until further notice.
In another missing letter, Queen Elizabeth condemned “the sheer vulgarity” of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor it has been revealed. The Queen Mother’s letter, one of at least three mentioned on indexes but taken out of the boxes, was dated Aug 14, 1940, when the Duke of Windsor was en route to Nassau in the Bahamas to take up his post as Governor. The letter refers to some cables which Monckton had copied to the King. Those related to the Duke of Windsor’s attempts to recapture certain items from his house in occupied France so as to take them with him to Nassau.
The Duke and Duchess of Windsors’ preoccupation with such trivia at this moment in history struck the Queen, as she then was, of a country fighting for its survival, as distasteful. She said: “For sheer vulgarity it is hard to beat and though it made us laugh, one’s mind went automatically from pink sheets to our poor people spending nights in little tin shelters, and then going to work in the morning.”
(First published in Royalty Magazine in 2004.)