Battle of the Royal Brothers: King Edward VIII, King George VI and the Rift That Changed History
It was a cold winter day at Royal Lodge Windsor on December 11, 1936. Two brothers, one a former king, the other the new king, took leave of each other and their roles. they had assumed their whole life. The former king, Edward, Duke of Windsor, had left with American divorcee Wallis Simpson, the woman for whom he had abdicated his birthright. According to the biographer Sarah bradford, Edward kissed the hand of his younger brother Bertie, now King George VI.
“Thank you, sir, for all your kindness to me,” Edward said. When George VI protested, his older brother put a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “It’s true, buddy, I have to get off on the right foot from the start. “
Despite the stoic separation, it would be the start of a new strained relationship between the brothers, leading to decades of injury, recriminations and intrigue. “The dynamic between the two [is] infinitely fascinating – the betrayal, the attempts to behave in a civilized manner on the rare post-abdication occasions they saw each other, and of course, the influence the wives of the two men had on their thinking, ”explains the biographer Alexandre larman, author of The Crown in Crisis: Countdown to Abdication.
The parallels with the current feud between Prince william and Prince harry are striking. But for George VI and the Duke of Windsor the stakes were much higher – with the world in turmoil as a result of World War II, their private family feud had the potential to change the course of history.
From the start, the two seemed born for their respective roles, heir and replacement. Edward (called David), born in 1894, was blond and charismatic, while Bertie, born the following year, was calm and awkward. The comparison was not pleasant. “It’s like comparing an ugly duckling with a pheasant rooster,” said an acquaintance, according to Bradford.
The brothers endured abusive nannies and brutal guardians. Their father, the future King George V, was harsh and cold, while their mother, Mary, was distant and preoccupied. Their father was particularly cruel to his eldest son. According to Bradford, Bertie would later recall that “he really went for David.”
Despite the constant weakening, Edward naturally took on the role of leader over his five younger siblings, acting, according to Reginald Brett, Lord Esher, as a “kind of head nurse”.
“I could still handle Bertie,” the Duke of Windsor later wrote. This natural domination was not always apparent. When boys entered their teens, their arguments often broke out in the classroom. “It’s extraordinary how the presence of one acts as a kind of ‘red rag’ for the other,” noted their guardian.
During the 1920s, the paths of the brothers will radically diverge. Edward, now Prince of Wales, was considered a photogenic and international sex symbol with a common twist. “Edward was an accomplished artist whose charm, charisma and beauty couldn’t mask the vacancy of his core,” Larman explains. “He was never particularly bothered by the idea of patriotism… and wanted to go on with his own life rather than being bothered by any sense of responsibility.”
His diligent and sober brother, now Duke of York, relegated to the background, becoming a career naval officer and marrying the gentle but courageous Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon in 1923. “He was a man. much less demonstrative than his brother, and often sought the advice and guidance of father figures rather than relying on his own judgment, ”explains Larman. “The importance of Elizabeth in her life cannot be overstated.”
According to Larman, Bertie was more than happy to let his brother take the limelight. “I think George, or ‘Bertie’ as he was called, was relieved that he wasn’t under the pressure the Prince of Wales felt,” he says. While Edward was an accomplished orator who seemed to genuinely enjoy the adulation of crowds and masses, Bertie disliked appearing in public and found any kind of public expression somewhere between a chore and a hardship, thanks to his debilitating stuttering. “
Indeed, the brothers had good relations. The retired Yorks often visited the Prince of Wales at his toy castle at Fort Belvedere and got along well with his twice-married mistress Thelma, Viscountess Furness. There were ice skating trips, cocktails, and swimming parties. Bradford writes in George VI:
Everything changed with the arrival of the fascinating and fashionable Wallis Simpson. According to Bradford, by the summer of 1934 Bertie had learned of the affair and believed her brother was being dominated by the brash, twice-married Mrs. Simpson. Their father was also suspicious of his eldest son’s state of mind. “When I’m dead,” he reportedly said, “the boy will go broke in 12 months.”
His prediction would soon come true. On January 20, 1936, King George V died on his estate at Sandringham. The Prince of Wales was now King Edward VIII. But there was a problem: Wallis Simpson. Due to her divorced status, the new king, now head of the Anglican Church, was barred from marrying his beloved and making her queen.