Royal albums: The Prince of Wales's Souvenir: 1932-36 - Edward and Mrs Simpson make Fort Belvedere the home of the Fast Set

The day Wallis and her husband met the prince and his mistress; Duty versus romance, diligence versus wildness. Paul Vallely examines the contradictions in Edward's character which led to his abdication in 1936
Click to follow
The Independent Online
IN HIS farewell broadcast to the nation, Edward VIII, King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and of the British dominions and Emperor of India, made reference to the brother who would succeed him as his abdication took effect. He called him "the Dook of York". Even before he married a citizen of the United States, the divorcee Wallis Simpson, Edward had acquired a number of American habits.

The process began soon after the First World War, when Edward set out on a foreign tour at the behest of the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, who perceived that "the appearance of the popular Prince of Wales in far corners of the Empire might do more than half a dozen solemn imperial conferences". After Canada he moved to New York, and a ticker-tape welcome. On his return to London he was full of the place and the song "A Pretty Girl is like a Melody", which he had heard at the Ziegfeld Follies, was constantly on his lips. His endless whistling of this "damned tune" caused considerable irritation to his irascible father.

Fashionable in this, as in all things, the prince was one of the harbingers of the Americanisation of Europe. More significantly it was a sign that he was becoming his own man. It was not before time. He was 36 before he moved from St James's Palace and the immediate orbit of his censorious parents, who had recently instructed him to give up steeplechasing, as they considered it too dangerous a pastime for the heir to the throne. It was at this point that he moved to Fort Belvedere, an early 19th-century house belonging to the Crown, near Ascot.

At the fort, as he always called it, he could live a life away from the disapproving eyes of the King and Queen. And how they would have disapproved had they known. For the fort became not just a refuge from the official world he increasingly disliked. It was also where he began to entertain a private circle of friends not drawn from court circles or the conventional aristocracy. They were an altogether more louche crowd of moneyed socialites, former army officers and toff politicians who shared his taste for the "high society" pastimes of the age.

The prince turned the fort's old-fashioned parterre into a poolside terrace for lunches adorned by young things with bobbed hair and dark glasses in pencil skirts. Having given up horse-jumping, away from parental scrutiny he took up the more perilous sport of flying. He frequently danced till dawn and had a taste for clubs; Sir Oswald Mosley, in his final interview before he died, told me of the enthusiasm with which the prince enticed him out to a seedy spot to see what Edward called a "damn fine nigger drummer".

This was the generation whose friends had perished in such large numbers in the trenches. Many who survived lost fortunes in the Great Depression. Those who could, therefore, partied with a gaiety which bordered on desperation. It is hard to say whether the prince was happy. For Fort Belvedere brought out another side to his character. Over the next six years he worked in its gardens and woods, clearing and burning acres of old planting to turn it from a wilderness into an organised landscape. He loathed laurel hedges and had a particular aversion to clipped yew and box; instead he applied Gertrude Jekyll's woodland planting theories and became something of an authority on roses. The opening pages of the second of his private albums, from which today's selection of photographs is taken, are full of sketches and plans of the house and gardens and "before and after" pictures, and snaps of the prince working with hatchet and hoe and his sleeves rolled up. But, unlike the earlier album, it has none of the prince's endearing picture captions.

These two aspects of his private life, the compulsive partying and the diligent gardener, spoke to contrasting parts of his personality. His upbringing had veered between the oppressive propriety of his parents and the surreal experience of a war in which he was never at the front line but living constantly with its anarchic consequences. It had left him craving warmth, yet unsure of how to find it. His personality was emotional and yet he was seemingly incapable of deep reflection and unreliable in his judgements. His gift for communicating easily with people of all backgrounds, honed by his work during the war, gave him an indefinable charisma and yet he could also be inconsiderate, selfish and even callous, as if he was rather spoilt by the universal adulation to which he was exposed.

For all the social whirl, he seemed, as his brothers married one by one, an increasingly solitary figure. "When will Edward marry?" his parents wondered to one another. But the prince's taste was not so much for marriage as for married women rather than marriage. During the 1920s he had a succession of mistresses, from Mrs Freda Dudley Ward to Thelma Furness, a 25-year- old beauty known to him as "Toodles". Yet even in that there were proprieties. When he was a guest at weekend house parties with her he ensured there were others to chaperone them.

In 1931 Ernest Simpson, an American ship broker who had taken British citizenship, and his wife were invited, as last-minute guests when someone else cried off, to such a a party at Burrough Court, the Leicestershire country house of Lady Furness. In later years Ernest Simpson recalled: "We all got hastily to our feet, the ladies curtseying and the men giving a slight bow as Thelma introduced us in turn. I thought the Prince of Wales looked perfectly awful. I just couldn't take my eyes off his violent check tweed suit. He looked like that music-hall comedian Max Miller - about the same height, too". The jaundice of hindsight was clearly speaking there. "I glanced sideways at Wallis to see what she was making of it," he added. "Her curtsey was quite a professional effort, and in no time at all she was rattling away to the prince like she'd known him all her life."

The next time they met Edward had recently returned from a tour of depressed Yorkshire villages. The prince began to talk of what he had seen but the company was uncomfortable with the subject and the conversation swiftly returned to safe topics such as balls, hunting, and golf. Mrs Simpson alone turned to the prince and questioned him further. He spoke of his worries, of his limited constitutional powers, of his wish to achieve something with his life. In response, she asked him of his responsibilities and of how he filled his days. No woman had ever talked to him like that before, the prince later said. She was the first woman to show any real interest in his job. The die was cast.