Other royals can learn a great deal about healing family rifts from her exemplary actions and sensitivity
There were so many remarkable attributes to Queen Elizabeth II that it’s almost impossible to catalogue them all but her relationship with her uncle, Edward VIII, is testimony to what an exceptional woman our sovereign was.
She never grumbled or questioned that because of Edward’s abdication in 1936 to marry Wallis Simpson, she was thrust into the line of succession aged 10. Even without the abdication, it is possible that she still would have become Queen eventually, as it is believed that Edward was infertile after catching mumps at Dartmouth Naval College.
Yet not once did she hold it against her uncle that because of her father’s early demise in 1952, she became Queen at the tender age of 25. Even though her own mother actively detested Wallis, blaming her husband, George VI’s death on the Duchess of Windsor, Elizabeth only ever showed both the Duke and Duchess of Windsor profound and thoughtful kindness.
The theme of forgiveness, as exemplified by the Queen, feels pertinent this week as we witness other errant members of the Royal Family firmly back in the fold. Watching Prince Andrew walking behind his mother’s coffin alongside his siblings would have pleased Queen Elizabeth – who refused to cast him out. Just as the new Prince of Wales and Prince Harry’s impromptu walkabout signalled that they were united in their desire to honour their grandmother by putting their differences aside to follow her exemplary lead of forgiveness.
It would have been easy for Elizabeth to resent her “Uncle David”, as the family referred to him, yet what is striking is that she always treated him with respect. Although the Windsors were exiled from Britain and considered persona non grata by the Royal Family post the abdication, on the few occasions when Elizabeth saw Edward, she was unfailingly gracious. While the other royals tried their best to push the Windsors’ very existence from their minds, the late Queen was always considerate. On the Duke’s 70th birthday, in 1964, she sent a telegram of congratulation. Considering that the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s marriage did not even merit a mention in the Court Circular, this was an ameliorative act.
That December, the Duke underwent an operation in Houston, Texas, to remove an aorta aneurysm. The Queen, who had asked the consul for reports on the Duke’s operation as soon as it was finished, reportedly sent flowers after learning that it had been a success. Months later, when he underwent an operation for a detached retina in a London clinic, the monarch visited him in person.
In June 1967, the Queen made a startlingly kind gesture towards the Windsors. She invited them both (for the first time not excluding Wallis) to the dedication of a plaque outside Marlborough House in memory of Queen Mary. It had been the Queen’s original intention to hold the unveiling ceremony on Friday 26th May – the centenary of Queen Mary’s birth – but the Duke and Duchess were in America and unable to attend. Signalling that their presence was important, Elizabeth postponed the occasion until Wednesday 7th June.
At the unveiling ceremony, where Wallis did not curtsy to the Queen Mother (later explaining to a surprised girlfriend “she stopped people from curtseying to me. Why should I curtsy to her?”), when Elizabeth II walked past the royal line up, the Duke bowed his head deeply and the Duchess curtsied. Wallis respected the Queen, gratefully recognising her as generous-spirited, unlike her unyielding in-laws. Although the Windsors did not attend the monarch’s luncheon party at the Derby that afternoon, after a small lunch with Princess Marina at Kensington Palace, according to Sarah Bradford’s biography, they were flown back to Paris in her aircraft.
One year later, on August 17th 1968, in failing health, Edward wrote to his niece, concerned that the £10,000 a year allowance that his brother, Bertie, had guaranteed for his life (at the time of the abdication) would continue after his death for Wallis. The Queen replied to “Dear Uncle David,” the following February 26th 1969 from Buckingham Palace, apologising that it “has taken time to find out the details.” The Queen stated that she would guarantee an allowance of £5,000 per annum for Wallis before, amusingly, continuing in a letter now in the royal archives: “I also appreciate what you say about the deterioration of your own financial position but it is unfortunately true that some at least of these considerations have applied to me as well.”
Ever the diplomat, she sensitively concluded: “As you know Charles’s Investiture at Caernarvon takes place on July 1st but I have hesitated to inquire whether you would like an invitation considering all the circumstances. But if you would reply to this indirect form of invitation in whatever way you feel, I shall quite understand.” She signs off: “I hope you are both keeping well and with love and affectionate thoughts from Lilibet.” That she indirectly acknowledges Wallis would have meant everything to Edward.
In May 1972, Elizabeth II made her famous visit to see her uncle, aged 77, shortly before his death. She was on a state visit to France on 18th May. Throughout that month, daily bulletins concerning the Duke’s health were sent to Buckingham Palace. After attending the races at Longchamps, she arrived at 4.45pm at the Windsor’s Bois de Boulogne mansion, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh and the Prince of Wales. While Charles later dismissed the Windsors’ circle as “dreadful,” the Queen would never have passed judgement. The Duchess personally served her husband’s relatives tea in the library, before taking the Queen upstairs to say goodbye to her Uncle David, alone. The Duke had insisted on getting dressed to receive his niece; a Herculean effort considering how ill he was. When she entered, Edward rose slowly, summoning every last bit of energy to bow to his sovereign. According to royal biographers, he then kissed her on each cheek.
The Duke’s former private secretary, Johanna Schutz, who was in the house at the time, told me: “The Duke would always rage about the royal family, and how badly they had treated him, except for the Queen. That last visit was very healing. Nobody knows exactly what was said but it was very important. He always said to me that he loved her.” Given Elizabeth’s tenderness towards her uncle, we can assume it was reciprocated.
Ten days later, the Duke died. The Queen ordered nine days of court mourning and honoured the Duke’s wishes over the funeral arrangements. These, they had agreed, a decade before. Wallis, desolate and alone, arrived in Britain on the second day of the Duke’s lying-in-state at St George’s Chapel, Windsor. Again, the sovereign sent one of her aircraft, and despatched Lord Mountbatten to greet the grieving widow at Heathrow.
Touchingly, she had ordered that all cross-traffic along the Duchess’s route into London was blocked off until her four-car procession had passed, to spare Wallis gawking stares at traffic lights. Wallis stayed at Buckingham Palace. The following morning, according to royal biographers, Elizabeth II asked if the Duchess would like to join the other members of the Royal Family for the Trooping the Colour. Her painful loss too intense – it would have been her 35th wedding anniversary that day – Wallis declined.
To honour her uncle, the Queen wore a black armband on the left arm of her scarlet tunic. There was a roll of drums, followed by a minute’s silence, a further roll of drums, then Edward’s favourite lament, the “Flowers of the Forest” was played by the piper of the Scots Guards. There is a haunting photograph of Wallis peering from behind the curtain at Buckingham Palace looking out at the Mall, her face the image of stunned grief.
At the funeral, two days later, Wallis, who sat between the Queen and Prince Philip appeared lost and distraught. Lady Avon told the photographer, Cecil Beaton, that throughout the service, “the Queen showed a motherly and nanny-like tenderness and kept putting her hand on the Duchess’s arm and glove.”
After lunch at Windsor Castle, a private burial followed at Frogmore. At 2.25pm the Queen stood next to the Duchess as her uncle’s body was lowered into the grave on the site he had chosen. Beneath a wide-spreading plane tree, it was close to where he had played as a child. The Queen, with tears in her eyes, asked the Duchess where she would eventually like to be laid to rest. To the right side of Edward’s grave or the left? The Duchess chose the left.
That Christmas, Wallis was not forgotten by the Queen. Johanna Schutz gave me the Christmas card that Elizabeth II sent to Wallis, signed by her and Prince Philip. Inside is a family photograph of her, Philip and their children at Balmoral, smiling in summer shirts and kilts. When the Duchess died fourteen years later, in April 1986, the royal machine clicked into action and her body was returned to Britain in an aircraft of the Queen’s Flight. In death, the Duchess was afforded the dignity of a royal funeral. As ever, the Queen was vigilant in the detail. “The Queen, in her clever way gave the best seats to George and Ofelia” Wallis’s long-standing servants, noted guest, Diana Mosley.
While Queen Elizabeth II has iconic status on the world stage, the warmth of her relationship with Edward illustrates her simple humanity. She did the opposite of her uncle, always putting duty first. But family and forgiveness came a close second.