By Andrew Lownie

Bonnier Books UK 2021

ISBN: 978 1 78870 487 8

RRP: $32.99 (PB)

Reviewed by Anne Henderson


In his Traitor King – The Scandalous Exile of The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, author Andrew Lownie quotes British writer Craig Brown asserting, “It is a rare writer who has not tackled at least one book on the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.” Brown in his ironic way was undoubtedly pointing the finger at the Windsor couple’s extraordinary notoriety rather than at writers in general, but Lownie uses the crack to emphasise his own purpose in tackling the subject himself. He writes in his concluding chapter:

No book before has started after the Abdication in 1936 and looked fully at what happened to the Windsors in their exile…. The argument of this book is that there is plenty of evidence demonstrated in the previous pages, that the Windsors were not foolish and naïve, but actively engaged with the German intrigues.

As he did in his earlier work on the Mountbattens, Lownie has written an exhaustively researched account of two prominent figures close to the British Royal family. His findings in each case are disturbing. Lownie can unpack such public figures, delving deeply through the written records, to reveal much false veneer, but also quite a number of venal truths.

In his page turner analysis of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson in exile, Lownie strips back the myths and the many attempts to pass them off as a naïve couple of, at worst, 1930s appeasement views on Germany. He also diminishes notions that theirs was a love match against the odds, arguing – backed up by numerous observations of their friends and others – that Wallis Simpson was trapped into marriage with a man she had hoped would make her Queen only to be left as the senior manager of his purposeless life after his abdication. He was besotted – for many reasons – by her while she was caught in an entrapment of her own making.

As early as the days immediately before Edward and Wallis’ nuptials and wedding preparations, tension was noted by many close to the action. Serious calls between Edward and his brother, the new king, over the former king’s financial settlement revealed the abdicated king would take some time to adjust to his new and powerless position. At first, although much wealthier than his brother had realised, he simply relied on others paying his bills, sending many accounts to the British Legation or leaving the few friends staying with him, or giving him accommodation, to pick up the tab. As the years went on, this habit of not paying would become a hallmark of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

Along with this, as his close friend Fruity Metcalfe revealed in letters to his wife, Wallis Simpson had become a forceful presence and – as Fruity wrote – “always seems to be picking on him or complaining about something she thinks he hasn’t done or ought to do.” At their wedding, on 3 June 1937, in the Château de Candé just south of Tours in France, Metcalfe’s wife Baba in her diary noted:

If she occasionally showed a glimmer of softness, took his arm, looked at him as though she loved him, one would warm towards her, but her attitude is so correct and hard. The effect is of an older woman unmoved by the infatuated love of a younger man.

It is from the moment of their wedding that the Windsors’ connections with Nazi collaborators really began. Château de Candé was owned by Charles Bedaux, an American businessman with what Lownie describes as “utopian ideas for world peace”. He had not only befriended the Duke but was also suspected by the Americans of being a German spy. Bedaux’s companies in Germany had been seized by the Nazis in 1934 and he had thenceforth ingratiated himself with the Nazi leadership as a means of staying afloat there. Bedaux would become an important figure in the Windsors’ lives which Lownie traces, including the Windsors’ movements and special closeness to Germany and its agents, until they left Lisbon for the Bahamas in August 1940.

A planned tour in 1937 by the Windsors of Germany, writes Lownie, “raised alarm bells in Whitehall and at Buckingham Palace”. British authorities had earlier in London kept Wallis under surveillance because of her links with the German ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop. Meanwhile, the Duke was known for his strong attachment to Germany, its language which he spoke fluently and his relations there; in March 1936, after his cousin the Duke of Coburg had made contact with him on behalf of the German government, he had threatened Prime Minister Baldwin over the phone that he would resign if Britain went to war over Hitler’s remilitarisation of the Rhineland.

Out in the cold in 1937, the Windsors needed friends and the Germans were offering it. Lownie connects the dots showing how, as the British excluded the Windsors from their embassies, the Germans opened doors for them. Their tour of Germany in October 1937 was reported in the media as if British royals were making an official visit. Bedaux distanced himself but there is much evidence he was the organiser. The highlight of their trip was tea with Hitler at Berchtesgaden. As a result of the adverse publicity from the trip, in the UK and the USA, a forthcoming trip to America for the Windsors was subsequently cancelled.

Undoubtedly, as Lownie notes, what to do with the Windsors in exile was a great worry for British authorities and the Palace in the years immediately after the Abdication. Keeping Edward in a satisfactory role was important but the concern he could be a source of information for the Nazis was real. Various British protection officers given to the Duke reported back to Scotland Yard. Given a position in Paris as UK liaison official with the British Military Mission in France, in the early months of the war, the British military worried about the Duke’s “loose talk”. The Duke, back in close contact with Charles Bidaux, was in possession of military secrets via the French. It was believed there was a German agent on the Duke’s staff – Lownie goes further and offers evidence that one of the Duchess’ maids had a German code name “Fox” and, during the occupation, travelled from the south regularly to report directly to German Ambassador Otto Abetz in Paris.

As the British faced the German Luftwaffe night after night in 1940-41, the Windsors bided their time in Spain, then Lisbon, while the idea of returning to a defeated London as a German sponsored monarch was never far from their dreams. But London did not fall. Lownie demonstrates how the Windsors in exile were courted by the Germans up till the day they set sail for the Bermudas on 1 August 1940.

Lownie’s real achievement is not only to record the various moments of collaboration between the Windsors and the Nazis, but to parallel this with their self-absorbed search for status and easy wealth. And, from their failure in that, to chart the aimless life among the rich, and sometimes nefarious, society they would eventually enjoy.

The Duke clearly had been influenced by his German relatives in his anti-semitic and anti-communist views. He did believe that National Socialism could be a bulwark against Communist Russia and had a horror at what had happened to his cousin the Tsar and his family in 1918. This was a personal response. In fact, he had no understanding, appreciation or even interest for the horrors either communism or Nazi ideology might inflict on a democratically constituted society. For the most part, his weakness for the Nazi regime was about the possibility of offering a deal to have honours bestowed and his life given purpose. Alongside, his Duchess continued to push his cause.

Given the number of consequential people who knew or associated with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Lownie has a feast of documented commentary, reflections and records of their lives. This makes for a pacy read. The frankness of many who reflected on their experience of the Windsors in exile is startling at times but catches them in profile, broadly, as trapped people. Their sex lives are revealed, to say the least, as ambiguous and Lownie answers many of the questions long asked as to just what their personal relationship might have been. Including the long affair Wallis managed to enjoy with “so gay” Jimmy Donahue, heir to the Woolworths fortune and cousin of socialite Barbara Hutton. A relationship that had some saying Wallis was “giving up a king for a queen”.

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor were, in fact – except for their circle and his royal connections – inconsequential people. When Winston Churchill presented the Duke with an inscribed copy of his memoirs, the Duke said he would put it next to the “other volumes”. Lownie writes: “He had no interest in the arts or helping others.” He once asked Lady Cunard after a concert if “that chap Mozart” wrote anything else. As Lownie sums it up:

His life revolved around golf, gardening, being entertained, discussing his investments and musing about politics with the similarly minded – generally rich American businessmen who were anti-semitic and anti-communist. The problem was that the Duke wanted status not a job, to be recognised rather than to contribute.

Lownie’s read is a sumptuous one. The life of any high society’s main players is, for most, entertainment – even more so with today’s social media. Lownie, in Traitor King – The Scandalous Exile of The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, not only captures the story – in pertinent and considered reflection and record – of one of the twentieth century’s most glamorous and serious scandals, but also delivers to his reader copious accounts of the couple’s indulgence in material glamour and possessions. Along with descriptions to wallow in. This could be the makings of a documentary to die for, plus some serious history – on a streaming service yet to be determined.

Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History.