Yes, Edward VIII was racist, like most of his time. But he was a sad figure, not a contemptible one – Telegraph Blogs

David, the Prince of Wales, who abdicated as King Edward VIII in 1936

David, the Prince of Wales, who abdicated as King Edward VIII in 1936. (Photo: Getty)

Well, it seems to be stale news week. “Burgess and Maclean were drunks” was scarcely earth-shattering news. Now, a report informs us that a letter from Edward VIII, when Prince of Wales, to his mistress, Mrs Dudley Ward, reveals him to have been racist and sexist.

Golly or, if you think that word inappropriate, gadzooks! Sorry to trespass on Boris Johnson-as-Bertie Wooster territory, but, really, what other response is possible? A young man, aged 25, in 1920, tells his girlfriend that he finds the black population of Barbados “revolting” and speaks dismissively of the girls he dances with at official receptions, calling one of the less unattractive ones “an American bit” So what? And indeed, what else would you expect or be entitled to expect?

It’s very reprehensible, no doubt, but the fact is that a hundred years ago almost every white man or woman regarded other races as inferior, sometimes dangerous and sinister, sometimes comic. This is very sad, and, obviously, stupid, nasty and wrong, but that’s how it was. What is now called “racism” was endemic, and only exceptional people were free of it. The Chinese and Japanese, one might add, took a similarly disparaging view of whites. That’s how the world was then. Landladies renting rooms put a notice reading “No Coloureds” in their window; sometimes they might put “No Irish”. During the Second World War, one of the first great West Indian cricketers, Learie Constantine (later a member of the House of Lords) was refused admission to a London hotel. (He sued and won the case.) Actually, as Prince of Wales, Edward was, marginally, less racist than many. He befriended the black entertainer Hutch (Leslie Hutchinson), rumoured to be also the lover of Edwina Mountbatten, the wife of the Prince’s cousin and close friend, Lord Louis Mountbatten.

As for the sexism, one should remember that Edward wrote this letter to the woman he was in love with. It’s a rather pathetic letter, in which he not only protests his love for her but is clearly anxious to stress that he didn’t fancy any of the girls with whom he had to dance. (Mountbatten, his chief aide on this official visit, vetted prospective dance partners before presenting them to the Prince.) Edward, bullied by his father and starved of any display of affection from his icy mother, was desperately in need of affection, what we should now call “needy”. Mrs Dudley Ward provided him with this, and he was evidently afraid of losing her.

Edward’s reputation plummeted very quickly after his abdication in December 1936, when he put his determination to marry “the woman I love” over his duty to his country. He made an ill-advised visit to Germany and was accused of Nazi sympathies. He certainly had German ones, not surprisingly. The eight Hanoverian monarchs since 1714 had all married Germans. As for Hitler, Edward, who had a genuine, if spasmodic, concern for the plight of the unemployed in the years of the Depression, was impressed by what seemed to be Hitler’s success in getting Germans back to work and turning the economy round. This wasn’t unusual. Lloyd George, who laid the foundations of our Welfare State and was Prime Minister 1916-22, also visited Hitler and praised him. My own father, who spent a couple of weeks in Germany in February 1935 while home on leave from the Far East, sent my grandmother a postcard in which he wrote: “If things were as bad here before as people say they were, then Hitler seems to be doing a wonderful job.” We now know so much about the horrors of the Nazi regime that it requires an effort to realise, or even remember, that, at least till 1938, it was possible for people to find more to admire than deplore in its record. They were wrong, but then most of us are wrong about foreign politics much of the time. Arguably they were no more wrong than those on the Left who admired Stalin and hailed the “New Civilisation” of Soviet Communism.

The passage of time changes the way we look at things. It’s easy now to regard Edward VIII as a deplorable, even contemptible, figure. Certainly there is little to admire in the second half of his life, when as, Duke of Windsor, he led a rather futile existence. But, as Prince of Wales, he was immensely popular, the Royal Family’s first real star, who, with his disregard of convention and protocol, seemed set to be the first truly modern monarch. He may not have been very bright, but he had good looks, boyish charm, charisma. and – it was believed – good intentions. Stuffy courtiers thought his reign would be disastrous but the public expected much of him. He retained admirers and defenders in the weeks leading up to the Abdication, notably those two Romantics, Winston Churchill and the novelist Compton Mackenzie. In the end his is rather a sad story.

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