"Most ordinary people were for the king; most important people were against him," was the judgement of the abdication crisis made by Robert Graves and Alan Lodge in The Long Weekend , published only four years after the event. Susan Williams, whose book's title, The People's King , seems designed to evoke parallels with Diana, the "people's princess", comes to the same conclusion. She has the advantage of having acted as historical adviser for the release, this year, of the government records relating to the abdication and of having read the thousands of letters that Edward VIII received just before he gave up his throne.
Edward, for long the nation's prince charming, had the affection of a broad swath of British society. He nevertheless aroused deep misgivings at court and at Westminster as a wilful and self-indulgent maverick, impatient of custom and tradition. The king's determination to marry Wallis Simpson, a twice-married American, led to the abdication. But, as Williams suggests, the opportunity to get rid of a king who was refusing to play the role written for him, may not have been unwelcome to the establishment. Edward's enthusiastic reception in South Wales, where he visited the most depressed areas and, in implicit criticism of the government, declared that "something must be done", was not appreciated by ministers nor by leaders of the opposition.
Could things have gone differently? Would British society and the societies of the Dominions have accepted Simpson, if not as queen then as the king's morganatic wife? The king was easily outmanoeuvred by the skilful Stanley Baldwin and was rushed into abdicating, ignoring the advice of his supporter, Winston Churchill. The leader of the opposition, Clement Attlee, held that Labour voters would not accept Mrs Simpson or a morganatic marriage and maintained that "with the exception of the intelligentsia, who can be trusted to take the wrong view on any subject", his party agreed.
Yet, perhaps, it was not only Edward but also the British public that was outmanoeuvred. British society, Williams argues, may not have been so hidebound in its attitude to its king's love for a divorced American as Baldwin, Canterbury, Attlee and The Times asserted. The problem is that "public opinion" is a slippery and ephemeral creature.
The account of the abdication that is still the received version became established, while the rather sad lives of the duke and duchess of Windsor seemed to underline its accuracy. This is a brave but one-sided book. It says little about the faults of Edward and Simpson and does not consider whether Baldwin may not have been right in judging the king irresponsible and Simpson impossible. It is, nevertheless, an overdue assertion of the case for King Edward, and its portrayal of the abdication as an establishment coup is compelling.
A. W. Purdue is reader in British history, Open University.
The People's King: The True Story of the Abdication
Author - Susan Williams
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Pages - 375
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 0 7139 9573 4