In a Channel 4 documentary, Spying on the Royals, which aired Sunday night in the UK, it was revealed that during and after his brief reign as King, Edward VIII was under surveillance by the British secret service.
Adrian Phillips, author of The King Who Had to Go, has said that ‘putting MI5 onto Edward VIII was to treat the unchallenged and legitimate head of state as a potential threat to national security.’
Arguably the first ‘celebrity royal’, Edward’s movie star looks and irresistible charm made him publicly popular but a ‘loose canon’ in the opinion of political players.
Phillips says that: ‘In the private eye there were already doubts about him. Ten years before his abdication Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin was saying it would be rather better if he had an accident in the hunting field and broke his neck.
‘There was a conflict between this wonderful public image, a youthful modernising character – not the semi-Victorian figure that his father was – and a lot of concern about his stability and his reliability.’
Though he received a princely education, Phillips argues that Edward ‘wanted to show he was important and influential, but his judgement was very poor, he had no sense of politics.’ It’s believed that this was the reason behind Edward’s surveillance – an attempt on behalf of ruling politicians to keep a close eye on him and anticipate dangers.
Wallis Simpson was, without a doubt, the most significant person in the Duke of Windsor’s life and so it’s not surprising to learn that she also came under surveillance when rumours of an affair with the then-Prince of Wales first surfaced.
Phillips says that ‘putting the police onto Wallis Simpson was unexceptional; it was a “lets find out about these guys” kind of thing. Blackmail was the thing that they were really worried about…at that stage they thought the Simpsons might have blackmailed Edward – she was still married.’ The surveillance was heightened in 1936 when Simpson announced her divorce from shipping executive Ernest Aldrich Simpson.
Whether the Special Branch was keeping tabs on Edward for security or political reasons is unknown but there is no denying that this was not the first instance of royals being carefully monitored by the government. Edward’s younger brother, the Duke of Kent, was also under surveillance and it’s believed that Prince Albert, Duke of Clarence was monitored during the Cleveland Street scandal.