Like his great-great uncle, the Duke of Sussex left his role in The Firm for a new life – and there are striking similarities
Watching fresh royal bloodletting in the latest episodes of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s Netflix documentary is saddening.
Any familial discord is regrettable, but the estrangement between the Royal family and the Sussexes now renders resolution between the two parties unlikely. This feels like a painful and pitiable echo of history, when 86 years ago this week, Prince Harry’s great-great uncle, Edward VIII, abdicated in order to marry an American divorcee, Wallis Simpson.
Edward renunciation of his role in “The Firm” was far more dramatic than Prince Harry’s, as he gave up the Crown, and it destroyed his relationship with the family for good. Once close to his brother, Bertie, the rift that developed between them proved unresolvable, just as it appears that the fraternal bond between Prince Harry and Prince William has been inexorably damaged.
Although Harry chose his self-imposed exile and was not ordered abroad by his family, as Edward VIII was, there are striking similarities in their shock departures from the House of Windsor. Harry suggests that the “Sandringham Summit” in Norfolk, in January 2020, was the last time he sat around a table with his family. The Queen, the then Prince Charles and Prince William were present. “It was terrifying to have my brother scream and shout at me and my father sit there and say things that weren’t true. And my grandmother sat there quietly and took it all in.”
A few days earlier, Meghan had left the country ahead of Harry to go back to Canada. In the documentary, she is photographed weeping as Harry waves her off to the airport. He was left to face the wrath of his family alone. Similarly, eight days before the abdication, Wallis left Edward and fled to France to escape the press explosion. Wallis later noted that her last moments with Edward in England were “poignant. We all had a sense of tragedy, or irretrievable finality.” Edward wiped away tears as he bade her farewell.
The difference between Edward and Harry’s situations is that Edward was surrounded by his family before he left them, whereas Harry’s departure – while equally swift – did not have a familial send-off. On December 11 1936, the entire Royal family (apart from Bertie’s wife Elizabeth, the new Queen, who was in bed with flu) gathered at Royal Lodge, Windsor, for a last supper. Queen Mary and Edward’s brothers – the new King, the Duke of Gloucester, the Duke of Kent – his sister, the Princess Royal, his uncle, the Earl of Athlone and Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone, were all present.
After dinner, Edward left to drive to Windsor Castle to issue his immortal abdication speech, then returned to say a final goodbye. His family listened to his radio address at Royal Lodge. Edward, who had said “during these hard days I have been comforted by my mother and my family”, sensed that when he returned to his family after the broadcast, what he “had said had to some extent eased the tension between us.”
As there was thick fog, Queen Mary left first to go back to Buckingham Palace. “And then came the dreadful goodbye as he was leaving that evening for Austria,” she wrote. “The whole thing was too pathetic for words.”
There was no private send-off for Prince Harry. He last saw his family amid the public glare of a Commonwealth Day service at Westminster Abbey in March 2020. “I felt really distant from the rest of my family,” he said. “So much of how they operate is about what it looks like, rather than what it feels like. And it looks cold. And it also felt cold.”
Afterwards, Harry flew to Los Angeles alone. In December 1936, the new Duke of Windsor similarly left Britain alone at 2am in the morning from Portsmouth harbour, on a Naval destroyer aptly named HMS Fury. Like Harry, he was unescorted, with only his dog, Slipper, for company. Ostracised from the Royal family, no one had thought where the Duke would go once he left Britain. It was Wallis who telephoned their friends, Baron and Baroness Eugène von Rothschild, and asked if the former King could stay at their castle, Enzesfeld, near Vienna.
Similarly, it was Meghan who contacted Tyler Perry, the billionaire filmmaker and actor, to ask for his hospitality and help. His Beverly Hills mansion was put at the couple’s disposal.
The ingrained narrative surrounding the abdication has long been that Edward did not pause to consider the damage his actions inflicted on the monarchy. He has long been viewed as spoilt and self-absorbed – accusations that could also be levelled at Harry. However, a fascinating letter unearthed from the Royal Archives this week, written by Edward to his mother hours after he abdicated, shows the extent of his regret. Unlike Harry, who appears to have a blanket refusal to acknowledge any royal viewpoint apart from his own, Edward’s grief at his decision – and awareness of what the abdication risked for the Crown – is laid bare.
“Most darling Mama,” he writes, thanking Queen Mary for her “understanding throughout these last trying days and especially for your sweetness to me last night. I loved our last few minutes together and at last being able to bring dear Papa into our talk. We were different in many ways, and yet you know how devoted I was to him and I cried when you said he was human. It would have been hard for him to understand what I have done – you do so much better and I love you for it and hate to think of the strain that this last month has been to you.”
In his copious hours of filming and footage, has Harry ever stopped to think of the strain that he has placed on his family, especially his father, King Charles?
Edward details his great love for Wallis and his discomfort at not being able to see her until April 27 (when her decree absolute was due). He continues: “We do want to return to England as soon as is convenient for Bertie and suitable to the country, for we know there is no other worth living in.”
While Harry and Meghan continue to bash Britain, deriding it as racist and archaic, this is further proof that Edward never expected his exile to last. He assumed that after a suitable cooling-off period, he and Wallis would be able to return to the country he adored.
Of his decision to abdicate, Edward writes: “It was a big thing to do, but I know it will be best for all in the end and Bertie will make a fine King and will be able to carry on without any upset and will find that I have left the Crown and the throne as Papa left it, on the same high level it has maintained for so many centuries.”
The Duke of Windsor faced decades of criticism that his abdication risked the stability of the House of Windsor. This letter proves that he genuinely believed that he was acting in its best interests. Alas, the same cannot be said of Prince Harry, who knows how to hit the “institution” exactly where it hurts.