Traitor King by Andrew Lownie – a review

Much has been written about the dreadful antics of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. So much so that according to Andrew Lownie, the author of Traitor King, it was difficult to get reviewers to read and review his latest book. This might be because they believe, wrongly, that there is nothing new to add to the well trodden territory that has seen some fifty titles about the notorious couple. Or it might be that literary editors and reviewers are too lazy to want to learn more about them. But learning more is what Traitor King is all about: it’s new territory presented in eensy weensy detail.

The book covers the years following King Edward VIII’s abdication, his marriage to Wallis Simpson and their dubious career as celebrity royals. Much as seems to be happening with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex today, the Windsors went to immense effort to earn a very juicy living by exploiting their non-roles. No longer part of the monarchy, they continued to live the lifestyle that Edward had enjoyed prior to his new life with Wallis, except that he wasn’t king anymore. They married in 1937 as soon as her divorce from her second husband was finalised and spent the rest of their lives as glamourous nomads, mostly in Europe and often at the expense of others.

They did a stint in the Bahamas, then a British Crown Colony, where Edward was put out of harm’s way during World War II. At least that was Winston Churchill’s intention. But corruption, scandal and murder attended the Windsors’ time in the sun. Edward’s deficit of grey matter was a serious impediment when it came to making sensible choices, no matter how obvious they were. Mrs Windsor did at least make an effort in the Bahamas and got involved in good works to the benefit of the islanders. But the local murder of Harry Oakes, a British gold miner, tax exile and close friend of the Duke of Windsor, was never solved and the Duke was directly involved in the haphazard investigation into the death. In Traitor King Lownie presents compelling evidence that Windsor was implicated in Harry Oakes’ demise.

Churchill had sent the pair away for several reasons, but mainly to keep them out of range of the throne. This sounds outlandish but the close connections between the Windsors and the Nazis was more than a mere sharing of ideologies. It was easy to flatter Wallis and Edward with promises of wealth and power, as neither was politically astute. It was even easier to appeal to their shared vanity with a promise to reinstate Edward as the King of England, with Wallis as his queen once Germany had vanquished Great Britain.

Edward and Wallis were obvious security risks although much of the evidence for the gravity of the risk has only recently come to light. Sitting at the heart of the diplomatic circles in various European capitals, Edward was well-placed to keep up to date with developments as the war progressed. Unfortunately he was keen to brag over dinner about what he heard, regardless of its sensitivity and security implications. He professed he wanted to help and he craved position for most of his life. During the war, got only a token position as a military liaison official where he could do the least harm.

Wallis was known to have had Nazi sympathies and it turns out that before the war she had had an affair with Joachim von Ribbentrop. From 1938 to 1945 he was the Nazi’s Minister for Foreign Affairs. Does that title scream spymaster or what? As far as Wallis was concerned he lived up to his title. She had become of interest to intelligence services in the USA and elsewhere and a recently disclosed FBI report states that “because of her high official position, the duchess is obtaining a variety of information concerning the British and French activities that she is passing on to the Germans.”Once married to Edward the pair were targets for the British and French intelligence services as well. The 1937 tour of Germany and meeting Hitler and his odious crew didn’t help matters and nor did Edward’s close family connections in Germany. 

In 1940 the Germans set up Operation Willi, a pretty half-hearted effort to kidnap the couple. This was another reason to get the Windsors out of Europe. In the Bahamas they continued to be annoying, hobnobbing with known Nazi sympathisers and getting involved in what appears to be money laundering and currency gambles. Money was very important to the Windsors although they appear to have been takers more than givers.

Andrew Lownie documents all this and much more in granular detail. At times his book reads as if it were an elaborated list of every interaction the Windsors had with a vast miscellany of people as documented in security reports, sales catalogues, travel documents, letters and diaries. Lownie has scoured the planet for any references to the Windsors in the biographies, letters and diaries of their friends, colleagues, servants, guests, business partners and hangers on. This data overwhelm creates a tension with the book’s narrative flow and the drumbeat of meticulously documented facts too often drowns out the author’s voice. Bolder opinions on the facts presented would have made for a more compelling storyline and an easier read.

Traitor King doesn’t really hit its stride until the final quarter. By this time its 1953 and the couple is settling down in Paris where they continue to entertain on a grand scale and Edward is still trying to get his family to be nice to Wallis. That never happens and after his death in May 1972 Wallis lives on for another 14 years, still exiled, depressed and unloved. In her final days parasites posing as aides sell off her belongings and she is confined to her bedroom waiting to die. 

It’s all very sad, but although love was the reason for Edward’s abdication, love seems not to have been at the heart of the Windsors’ relationship. That is even sadder. He worshipped his idealised version of her and she treated him with condescension and distain. Ambition, greed, vanity, platforming, ostentatiousness, all ooze from these two people even at such a distance. They are odious individuals, selfish, mean and competitive narcissists of limited intelligence and perception. Beyond the romance that persistently overshadows the human reality Andrew Lownie’s book, with all its details, shows us the pair for who they really were.