As Prince Harry arrives back in England for Prince Philip’s funeral, there are echoes of the Duke of Windsor’s journey 70 years earlier.
As Prince Harry boarded a plane from Los Angeles to London, we can only imagine the inner turmoil he must have felt as he prepared for the long and lonely journey home.
His adored grandfather had died at a time of unprecedented familial discord, with the Royal Family still reeling from the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s corrosive, finger-pointing Oprah Winfrey interview.
Prince Philip’s death may have prompted an outpouring of national gratitude and affection, but the question now is whether it can cement the deep fissures within the House of Windsor itself.
How will Harry be welcomed by Princes William and Charles, after accusing his family of racism? Not to mention following reports, via Gayle King, a US news anchor and friend of Meghan, that private telephone calls between the California-based prince and his father and brother had been “unproductive” – disclosures said to have gone down badly at the Palace.
That Harry had not seen his grandfather for more than a year, after he whisked his wife and son, Archie, to the other side of the world to escape being “trapped” by the monarchy, can only add to the Duke of Sussex’s inevitable feelings of wretchedness and grief. His sense of isolation will likely have been compounded by the fact that Meghan, heavily pregnant with their second child, hasn’t been able to accompany him.
The echoes of history here are uncanny as, nearly 70 years ago, a similar scenario played out.
Another once-beloved member of the Royal Family had to leave his American wife behind in the United States to make the solitary journey home for a royal funeral, where he had to face his frosty relations, saddened that he had quit monarchical life.
In 1952, when King George VI died, his brother Edward, the Duke of Windsor – exiled to France after the abdication – was staying in New York with his wife, Wallis Simpson.
Edward and Bertie’s relationship had been further strained by the antipathy between the royal sisters-in-law, Wallis and Queen Elizabeth, later the Queen Mother. Just as Meghan made clear in her Oprah confessional, her relationship with Kate Middleton has been far from sisterly and cosy.
The tragedy for Edward was that no rifts had been healed before the King died. While Harry has not seen his family for over a year, Edward had not seen his relatives for 15 years after he left Britain in 1936.
Just as one imagines poor Prince Harry receiving a jolting call in the middle of the night last Thursday at his Montecito mansion, telling him that the Duke of Edinburgh had died, the Windsors had that distressing phone conversation in their six-room apartment on the 28th floor of the Waldorf Towers on February 6 1952.
For the Duke of Windsor, it came as a stunning shock. Even though his rancour towards his family was – as Harry’s seems to be – mired in resentful fury that his wife had been mistreated, he was blindsided by the tragic news.
Just as for Harry, immediate arrangements were made for Edward to return home. Yet unlike Meghan, for whom an invitation for the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral would have been de rigueur, the Duke of Windsor was bluntly told by Buckingham Palace – even before his niece, the new Queen Elizabeth had returned from Kenya where she was on tour with Prince Philip – that there could be no question of Wallis accompanying him.
This was a source of endless anguish for Edward, whose lifelong wish was that his family would accept his wife.
On the evening of February 7, he held a press conference in the Verandah Grill of the Queen Mary. It was, an observer noted: “the most macabre setting in which British Royalty can ever have appeared,” as amid the gum-chewing reporters, acrobats and ballet dancers leapt, accompanied by the bizarre presence of a witch with her cauldron and cat.
The Duke, with a black mourning band on one sleeve, read out a prepared statement: “This voyage, upon which I am embarking aboard the Queen Mary tonight is indeed sad – and it is all the sadder for me because I am undertaking it alone. The Duchess is remaining here to await my return.”
That formal tone contrasts with the conversational tribute put out by Prince Harry yesterday, in which he called his grandfather “master of the barbecue, legend of banter, and cheeky right ‘til the end”. He also thanked Prince Philip for his “dedication to Granny” – something that was noticeably absent from the Duke of Windsor’s words in 1952. He offered his comfort and support to Queen Mary – “Her Majesty, my mother” – but omitted to refer to the one person who would feel the king’s loss most keenly; his widow, Elizabeth.
His sister-in-law, after all, had led the charge against Wallis, calling her “that woman” and ensuring she never received the coveted HRH title that Edward craved so keenly for his wife.
Yet, in spite of her constant exclusion by the Royal Family – unlike Meghan who was warmly welcomed – Wallis kept her agonies private. She never once spoke out against her in-laws. Instead, perspicacious to the potential familial tensions ahead, she sent her husband off to England with the sage advice: “Do not mention or ask for anything regarding recognition of me.” Many will find it hard to imagine Meghan offering Harry such selfless instruction.
The prince’s flight from LAX to London was just shy of 11 hours. Seven decades ago, it took the Duke of Windsor six long and lonely days to dock at Southampton and arrive at his mother’s London residence, Marlborough House, where he stayed for the funeral.
That afternoon, he went to Buckingham Palace for tea with the Queen Mother and his niece Princess Elizabeth, the new sovereign. Queen Mary had sent a letter to the Queen Mother requesting that she “and the girls” see the Duke and “bury the hatchet after 15 whole years”.
Sadly, any attempt at reconciliation was perfunctory. The Queen Mother gave no quarter. Edward noted in a letter to Wallis that “Cookie [the Windsors’ nickname for her] listened without comment and closed on the note that it was nice to be able to talk about Bertie with someone who had known him so well.”
Queen Mary was over-optimistic about the meeting: “so that feud is over, I hope, a great relief to me,” she wrote to a friend.
The Queen must feel similarly about William and Harry, fervently hoping that they can lay their resentments aside to mourn their grandfather. The family has reportedly called for a “truce” to allow the brothers and their father to focus on Prince Philip, and apparently sees this as the best chance for reconciliation since the Sussexes split from the family in 2020.
Yet grief is an unruly beast. In the throes of loss, our closest loved ones can offer reassuring solace. Sadly though, heightened emotion at funerals often triggers further acrimony.
In the case of the Duke of Windsor, too much regret and heartbreak had occurred for the family to let the past go. Hopefully, Harry can learn from the suffering of his great great uncle’s separation and make amends while he still has time. Nothing would honour the Duke of Edinburgh, or have delighted him, more.