Traitor King by Andrew Lownie review: urgent reading for royals

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In 2019, Andrew Lownie scored a hit with his double biography of Lord and Lady Mountbatten, a book filled with sensational stories of social intrigue and sexual exploits, much of the material gained from new interviews and deep archive research. He clearly hopes to repeat this success with Traitor King, which takes a fresh look at the equally turbulent lives of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. It’s well trodden ground, but his claim to originality is that “no book before has started after the abdication in 1936 and looked fully at what happened to the Windsors in their exile”.

Nevertheless much of the material has been covered before, and a more timely reason for publishing this book now seems obvious. Lownie never alludes to the trials and tribulations of any current members of the royal family, but Traitor King - a tale of the ultimate stepping back - is so packed with stories of fraternal feuds, bickering sisters-in-law, arguments over titles and money, ill-judged memoirs and reckless relationships with unsavoury people, that the historical parallels need no signposting.

We join the story as the Duke leaves Britain for his life in exile, initially for four months as a guest at a castle belonging to Baron Rothschild in Austria where he waited for Wallis Simpson’s divorce to be finalised (she stayed in France). A pattern was immediately established, with bills for the Duke’s shopping and £800 in phone calls charged to his host. When Kitty Rothschild gave him Cartier studs for Christmas, the Duke reciprocated with a signed photo of himself.

Many of the expensive phone calls were made to London to negotiate a financial settlement. The Duke had agreed to sell his interests in Balmoral and Sandringham to his brother, George VI. The annual income from this invested sum, topped up by the king, came to £25,000 (£1.75m today). This was on top of the Duke’s assets, which amounted to £880,000 in cash (around £63.8m today). The diplomatic status he negotiated for himself in France (and later in the Bahamas) meant he never paid income tax in his life. He even acquired alcohol, petrol and other goods duty free.

Lownie is excellent on these financial details, which serve to illustrate the extraordinary greed of the couple who continued throughout their lives to rely on favours from rich acquaintances rather than spend money of their own.

Part of the problem was that these favours often came from very dubious people. The Franco-American millionaire Charles Bedaux, who lent the couple his chateau for their wedding in June 1937, is just one example. Later the same year, he organised their tour of Nazi Germany, where he had extensive business interests. The Duke and Duchess met senior Nazis in Berlin, toured a concentration camp and took tea with Hitler. The optics were terrible at a time when Hitler was already regarded as a grave threat to world peace.

Lownie goes on to describe the life of luxury the Windsors established at their townhouse in Paris and chateau in Cap d’Antibes (now owned by Roman Abramovich). If the Nazis hadn’t been on the rise, their decadence might have been the sole basis for their infamy. But much worse was to come.

After the outbreak of hostilities in 1939 the couple declined a special flight to England unless they were invited to stay at Windsor and the Duchess was granted the style of Royal Highness, which she had previously been denied. “You have just behaved as two spoiled children,” the Duke’s friend Fruity Metcalfe told them. “You forget everything in only thinking of yourselves, your property, your money and your stupid pride.”

The central section of Lownie’s book is concerned with the shady activities of the Windsors during the war. Most damning is the period they spent in Spain and Portugal in 1940 after the fall of France. Still worrying about their tax burden and diminished status if they returned to Britain, they headed to neutral Portugal to consider their options. A huge amount of intrigue accompanied them along the way, with Lownie’s descriptions of the antics of various intelligence agents outdoing anything you might read in spy fiction (one British agent was reportedly told to shoot them if they looked like falling into enemy hands). Again the Windsors made terrible choices, ending their journey with a stay in the palatial home of a Portuguese banker who also happened to be a German asset.

This part of the Windsor saga has been covered in detail before, but Lownie suggests a new interpretation of the incriminating German files on the couple held in the National Archives. Did the Duke knowingly collude with the Nazis? Every previous biographer has given him the benefit of the doubt, suggesting that while he became a pawn in their game, there is no direct evidence that he worked with them. Lownie sticks his neck out here. “The argument of this book is that there is plenty of evidence … that the Windsors were not foolish and naïve, but actively engaged with the German intrigues.”

For Lownie, the biggest giveaway is a “killer telegram” of 15 August 1940, in which the Duke - now on his way to the Bahamas - asked his Portuguese host to send “a communication” as soon as his action was required. The suggestion is that he was complicit in a scheme to install him as a puppet ruler in Britain after a negotiated peace, an accusation the Duke denied when the files became public in 1957.

Lownie is dutiful in compiling his evidence on this matter and his argument is convincing. But it’s a niche debate. The court of public opinion (along with The Crown) decided on the Duke’s guilt long ago.

For the rest of the war the couple were kept as far from Europe as possible, with the Duke serving as governor of the Bahamas. It didn’t stop them cosying up to other unsavoury exiles on the islands, including Sir Harry Oakes, who was murdered there in 1943. After peace was declared, the Duke and Duchess returned to France (the US and UK were again ruled out for tax reasons) where they lived in luxury and rancour until their deaths in 1972 and 1986 respectively.

Lownie’s decision to include all the scurrilous sex stories about the Mountbattens in his earlier book is repeated here with the Windsors. It’s very entertaining to read, but most of the lurid tales do not ring true. The speculation on the Duke’s homosexuality is the most far fetched, with Lownie rummaging around on gay blogs for old gossip. Nicky Haslam tells him: “The Duke was certainly gay. I know that for a fact.” But what evidence is there? It seems more likely that people mistook his strange, permanent state of adolescence for sexual ambiguity. He dressed and behaved like a boy his whole life, collected toys, and addressed his girlfriends in baby talk.

There has also been endless speculation about the Duchess’s sexual preferences. Much of this now reads as misogyny, although Lownie holds back from some of the most spiteful claims. He finds several sources to back up the story of her affair in the 1950s with the gay Woolworth heir Jimmy Donahue, but there is still no evidence that anything physical ever took place between them.

A problem for both Windsors was that through their greed and constant whinging, they opened themselves up to attacks from all quarters, whether there was any truth in the accusations or not.

While much of the material in this book is familiar, Lownie presents it in a way which makes it seem fresh again, as well as urgent reading for current and future royals. You feel like sending it to them with a note attached, marked: “Lessons to be learnt”.

Traitor King: The Scandalous Exile of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor by Andrew Lownie (Blink, £25)

Buy it here

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