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The Lesson King Charles III Learned From His Notorious Great Uncle

As King Charles III prepares for his coronation on 6 May, he will inevitably be thinking of his forbears: from his mother Elizabeth II to the other men and women who have sat in Westminster Abbey and been crowned king or queen. He joins a select band. Since the creation of the United Kingdom in 1707, there have only been twelve monarchs before him who have done the same. Yet when Charles proceeds into the ceremony, with all the inevitable pomp and circumstance that it requires, his thoughts may lie with the member of the dozen who, although he reigned as king for slightly less than a year, never had a coronation ceremony: Edward VIII, the subsequent Duke of Windsor.

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There are few obvious similarities between King Charles III and Edward VIII. Charles is a man who is committed to philanthropy (not least through his Prince’s Trust initiative), ecological research, and social outreach: not for nothing did his 2022’s King’s Speech concentrate on deprivation and the need for community. His great-uncle, meanwhile, was a man of near-unfathomable selfishness, whose primary interests were his mistress-turned-wife Wallis Simpson, acquiring money to spend on Wallis and complaining bitterly to his family about his perceived wrongs. Most politicians and courtiersand even Cosmo Lang, the Archbishop of Canterburybelieved that his abdication in December 1936 was a blessing, saving the country from a feckless, even dangerous king. The full revelation of his Nazi sympathies, which had simmered during his time as Prince of Wales and monarch, proved them correct.

Nobody has ever described King Charles as a fascist or a dangerous threat to international security. Yet it was not out of mere curiosity that the then-Prince of Wales visited the disgraced Duke of Windsor at his Parisian home on October 4 1970, when Charles was 21 and Edward was 76. It was a meeting brokered by Lord ‘Dickie’ Mountbatten, Charles’s great-uncle, who was closer to the Duke of Windsor than the Royal Family were. The meeting, which was dramatized in the fourth season of The Crown—with Derek Jacobi playing Edward to Josh O’Connor’s Prince Charles—was not, in the Prince’s recollection, especially auspicious. He wrote in a diary entry of “the most dreadful American guests I have ever seen,” and observed “The whole thing seemed so tragic—the existence, the people and the atmosphere—that I was relieved to escape it after 45 minutes.”

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Yet the encounter left its impression on the future monarch. Not only did Charles start dressing in imitation—conscious or otherwise—of his famously sartorially-minded great-uncle, but he also began to consider the idea of kingship in a different fashion. His grandfather George VI and mother Elizabeth II had always prized duty above personal happiness, and had led their lives on such a basis. When Elizabeth had declared on her 21st birthday that “I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong,” she established a compact with her nation that she never wavered from until her death.

Her uncle Edward, however, was a different figure altogether. Although he was self-absorbed to an almost sociopathic extent, he was also unafraid to interfere in the workings of society in a way that no modern monarch before (or after) him would have dreamt of doing. Sometimes, this was noble, as in his appalled statement upon seeing out-of-work miners in late 1936 that “These works brought all these people here. Something should be done to get them at work again.” At other times, it verged on the dictatorial. He commented, ‘loudly with a laugh’, when he was informed that the BBC was not under government influence, “I’ll change that . . . It will be the last thing I do before I go.”

While Charles, either as Prince of Wales or in the few months that he has been king, has shown no signs of wishing to exert overt influence over the media, he has nonetheless at times been a modernising, interventionist figure in the vein of his great-uncle. His notorious ‘black spider memos,’ in which he wrote highly personal, even emotive letters to the governments of the day in an attempt either to influence or direct policy, were given to the press in 2015, after years of attempts to frustrate their appearance. It was especially notable that Charles openly referred to himself as a ‘dissident,’ working against the established orthodoxy of the day. This, one feels, is something that the Duke of Windsor would dearly have loved to do, had anyone paid attention to him.

Both men’s personal lives contain parallels, too. Although the skilful public relations job that has been done on making Queen Camilla not just acceptable but beloved by the British public is a triumph, Charles’s relationship with her before, during and after his marriage to Princess Diana was the most scandalous royal affair since that of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. While Wallis’s husband Ernest was as acquiescent in being cuckolded as Camilla’s first husband Andrew Parker Bowles, the relationship between the Prince of Wales and Camilla was one that echoed that of Edward and Wallis: an adulterous affair between a member of the Royal Family and someone from a ‘lesser’ background who was felt to be unacceptable as royal wife material. The difference, in our changing society, is that Charles was allowed to marry Camilla and will ascend the throne with her as Queen Consort; Edward spent his life frustrated that Wallis never received the HRH title that he coveted for her.

It is too strong to describe Charles III and Edward VIII as true kindred spirits. Yet the parallels between them are far more than mere coincidence of birth. Should the new king think of his disgraced great-uncle on 6 May, it should be as a cautionary warning from history and a vivid example of how not to behave as a monarch. If he has the sense and intelligence he is supposed to, he will remember their fateful meeting over half a century ago, and remember the right lessons from it. The alternative is too grim to contemplate.

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