The historical documentary series continues. Edward VIII is popularly remembered as the king who gave up the throne for the woman he loved. Yet his reputation has been tarnished by revelations that Hitler planned to install him as a pro-Nazi king in the event of a German occupation of Britain. Newly released FBI files reveal the extent to which Edward was distrusted by the British and US governments, and the risk he posed to the war effort.
Edward VIII was one of the most controversial kings in modern British history. His dramatic abdication in 1936, coupled with his pro-German views at a time of national crisis, made him a source of ongoing concern for the British government. "He'd always admired Hitler," says writer John Julius Norwich. "He was, frankly, very pro-Nazi."
Edward's affair with Wallis Simpson, a twicemarried American with a racy past, was of great concern to the Royal Family and the government, who had them followed by Special Branch. "The British secret service were watching the Windsors closely and reporting on their every movement," says historian Andrew Roberts. Wallis was known to have had numerous affairs and was rumoured to have slept with German diplomat Joachim von Ribbentrop - later Hitler's foreign minister.
The relationship with Simpson was merely the latest scandalous event in Edward's life. Popular, handsome and charming in public, Edward had a private reputation of carousing and seducing married women. "He could charm birds off trees, but it didn't stop him behaving badly," says former journalist and diplomat Frank Giles.
Edward's pro-German views inevitably brought him to the attention of Hitler, who was then plotting to reclaim the Rhineland. Around the time of his accession to the throne in 1936, Edward broke protocol by speaking directly to the German ambassador. He expressed his determination to avoid conflict with Germany. This was passed on to the Führer, who took confidence from Edward's remarks and pressed ahead with his conquest of the Rhineland - the first step on the road to war.
The FBI was also keeping tabs on the heir to the throne. Recently opened FBI files report that the British government and the prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, regarded Edward as dangerously pro-Nazi. "Baldwin recognised Edward as being very dangerous and very disruptive," says Professor Jonathan Petropoulos. When news of Edward's affair with a divorcée broke, it prompted a constitutional crisis. Yet the files show that Edward's unacceptable relationship in fact provided a convenient smokescreen for the government to remove him. "He got himself into a corner from which he couldn't get out, except by abdicating," says Lord Dudley. In December 1936, Edward surrendered the throne.
The couple married as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in 1937, and continued to cause trouble.
On a well-publicised tour of Germany, they met Hitler. "Hitler rolled out every red carpet that he could," says John Julius Norwich. With the outbreak of war, Edward was assigned an army job in France. Churchill, however, distrusted the duke and limited his access to military intelligence.
The prime minister had good reason to exercise care, as Edward continued to undermine the war effort. Historians suspect that he leaked vital information to the Germans, ensuring their invasion of France succeeded. Edward then fled to Spain, where he continued to make pro-German statements. Wallis, who was believed to be even more pro-fascist than her husband, may have still been in contact with Ribbentrop.
As Hitler plotted to seize the duke and use him as a puppet king, Churchill removed Edward and Wallis from Europe and banished them to the Bahamas.
Later, Edward gave newspaper interviews declaring his admiration for Hitler and, on a trip to the US, they were closely tailed by the FBI. After the war, the couple were shunned by the Royal Family and lived out the rest of their lives in exile.