Royal albums: The Prince of Wales's Private Souvenir 1912-14: Pictures that show how Edward loved the family who would disown him

Romance which ended in a sad exile; Paul Vallely delves into an astonishing family record
Click to follow
The Independent Online
IT WAS the greatest love story of the century. In 1936 the most eligible bachelor in the world, King Edward VIII, after less than a year as British monarch, abdicated before he could be crowned. He had long been in love with an unknown American divorcee who was not generally considered beautiful. Yet the king gave up his throne and an empire to marry her.

But the story went sour. After the Abdication, Edward moved to France, where he married his beloved, Wallis Simpson, and although the new king, George VI, made Edward the Duke of Windsor he refused to extend to the new duchess the rank of "Her Royal Highness" - even as four decades later that title was to be removed from Diana, Princess of Wales on her divorce from the present heir apparent. For more than 30 years the Windsors lived a sad exile.

Small wonder that on the Duke's death in 1972 the Duchess gave away her husband's photograph album containing the most intimate pictures yet seen of the family which had spurned her, including as it did so many photographs of the new monarch, George VI - the father of our present Queen - who appears frequently in the album captioned, in the Duke's own hand, under the family name "Bertie".

After more than a decade in exile the former monarch wrote a unique set of memoirs, which were serialised in Life magazine and then published in a book, A King's Story. It contained a few photographs from the album - but none was the more intimate shots which will appear over the next five days in The Independent.

Today's selection, which were taken when the future king was around the age of 18, reveal the first signs in the thawing of the glacial royal reticence and aloofness which was the hallmark of the Victorian era. Evidence of the old rigidity was all around the young Edward. The photographs are peopled with stiff aunts encased in gowns of starch and whalebone, including Edward's great-aunt Princess Beatrice, daughter of Queen Victoria and the curse of historians since she took her mother's diaries, copied out the parts she considered edifying and burned the rest. Even in supposedly informal moments men such as Lord Kitchener, pictured the year before he took up the post of Minister for War, appear with spines of ramrod iron. And men such as Lord Farquhar (who, whisper it quietly, later absconded with a large amount of other people's money) give no trace of impropriety in their bearing or countenance.

It was a world in which the women confined themselves to the lawn or the gravelled drive while the men, ill-equipped in tweed jackets with collars turned up, climbed to the tops of snow-blown mountains rode to hounds or set out in stag-hunting parties - Edward's younger brother George (the father of the present Duke of Kent) is pictured, his forehead smeared, after being "blooded" on one such outing. The setting was the family's massive Scottish estate which, in the imperial nomenclature of the age, was recorded as "Balmoral, NB"; the abbreviation stood for North Britain in an era when Scottish nationalism would have provoked incomprehension.

It was also a world which left its mark on young Edward. His father, George V, was the incarnation of the old world of order and stability, obsessed with tradition, propriety, decorum and punctuality. He was, though kind-hearted, a martinet in his treatment of his son and heir. Edward's mother was evidently deficient in the normal maternal instincts. Neither were easily able to communicate with their children, who consequently suffered from a lack of human warmth and encouragement in early life. The man chosen to be the boy's tutor, Henry Peter Hansell, was supposed to make up for what his parents lacked: a good chap, and a good shot, he was a fairly hopeless tutor. Edward, though an intelligent and curious child with a powerful memory, was poorly educated and although a competent linguist, was never able to spell properly.

But it is the photographs of the young Prince John which tell the saddest story of the repressive royal rigidity of the era. The boy, about nine years old in the photographs here, was the youngest son of George V. When he was aged four he developed epilepsy. So discomfited were the royals at his disability that, throughout his short life, he was hidden away from the public, lest one of his fits should be seen and cause the royal household embarrassment. Their shame was so acute that he was kept in a separate house at Sandringham, for fear even that he should be seen by other house guests. His brothers and sisters, who demonstrated great affection for the child, were his only playmates. Only one photograph of him has ever been seen before today.

But it was a time in which the first signs of change were appearing. There are photographs of Edward's brother Harry - the first member of the royal family ever to go to school - at Eton. His sister Mary, though snapped "with her hair-up" in drawing room formality, is also pictured in softer mood flinging open her bedroom window. Edward displays a good eye for an unposed photograph throughout, but nowhere more so than in the set of pictures of Mary, Bertie and himself which he engagingly captioned "Queer Faces" in the album.

It was 1913, three years since Edward had become Prince of Wales and two since he became the first holder of that title to be formally invested at Caernarvon Castle. He was beginning to travel to broaden his education. He went to France and twice to Germany, to visit cousins who were the King and Queen of Wurttenberg, and to Denmark, the birthplace of his grandmother, Queen Alexandra. After four years in the Royal Navy, Edward went up to Magdalen College, Oxford where he joined the university's Officer Training Corps. Its manoeuvres seemed a jolly jape in those days.

Only months later they would begin in earnest as the world was plunged unexpectedly into a war which was to change the face of British society and its monarchy with it.

Comments