Troublesome Toffs: The Duke of Windsor and Bendor Westminster

Troublesome Toffs: The Duke of Windsor and Bendor Westminster

“A ful­ly equipped Duke costs as much to keep as two Dread­noughts; and Dukes are just as great a ter­ror and they last longer.”

The wise­crack, wrong­ly attrib­uted to Churchill, was actu­al­ly uttered by his Lib­er­al ally, David Lloyd George. (Alleged­ly LG said it in 1909, dur­ing their bat­tle to reform the House of Lords,) It didn’t make Churchill more wel­come at Blenheim Palace, where his cousin the Duke of Marl­bor­ough for­bade the name of LG in conversation.

Polo enthu­si­asts: Philip Sas­soon, Edward as Prince of Wales, and WSC, 1936. (Wiki­me­dia Commons)

The Duke of Wind­sor (for­mer­ly King Edward VIII) and the 2nd Duke of West­min­ster are occa­sion­al­ly attacked for their “near-trea­so­nous activ­i­ty in sup­port of the Third Reich.” Some add that Win­ston Churchill did not turn against those “top toffs,” both of whom were for a time his friends.

“Near-trea­so­nous” is going some in describ­ing their activ­i­ties. They may have been toffs, but they count­ed for lit­tle in the scheme of things, and, Churchill did try to silence them.

“Little Windsor”

The Duke of Wind­sor (as he became after abdi­cat­ing in 1936) cer­tain­ly had much to be mod­est about. He paid a social call on the Führer in Berlin and gave what looked like a Nazi salute. In 1940 Churchill got him out of Europe by appoint­ing him Gov­er­nor of the Bahamas. There he did not rehash his pre­war pro-Nazi state­ments. Still, descen­dants of promi­nent Bahami­ans still remem­ber the ker­fuf­fles in Nas­sau dur­ing his tenure. Back home, writes War­ren Kim­ball in Forged in War, 54, he caused Churchill

“some embar­rass­ment.”  He appar­ent­ly thought the Ger­mans would win…. Churchill claimed that the Duke’s “loy­al­ties are unim­peach­able,” while the doc­u­ments avail­able sug­gest that he was obsessed with mat­ters of per­son­al priv­i­lege and, like all the Wind­sors, with the safe­ty of the dynasty.  Nev­er­the­less, one plau­si­ble tale has the Duke send­ing a mes­sage in 1940 via Ful­ton Oursler, an Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist who had access to Roo­sevelt, ask­ing if the Pres­i­dent “would con­sid­er inter­ven­ing as a medi­a­tor when, as and if the prop­er time arrives?”….  FDR, who appar­ent­ly already knew of the pro­pos­al, con­temp­tu­ous­ly com­ment­ed: “When lit­tle Wind­sor says he doesn’t think there should be a rev­o­lu­tion in Ger­many, I tell you, Ful­ton, I would rather have April’s [Oursler’s teenage daugh­ter] opin­ion on that than his.”

“Ben­dor,” Sec­ond Duke of West­min­ster (1879-1953)

“The will of the nation…”

The oth­er Duke, “Ben­dor” West­min­ster (nick­named for the “Bend’Or” in his coat of arms) was a greater embar­rass­ment. He joined the anti-semit­ic Right Club and the Par­lia­men­tary Peace Aims Group in 1939, claim­ing to be in touch with “Nazi mod­er­ates.” The British gov­ern­ment, wrote his­to­ri­an Julian Jack­son, “did not take any of this too seri­ous­ly. None of the pro-peace peers were first-rank, or even third-rank polit­i­cal fig­ures.” (The Fall of France, 2004, 204.)

Ben­dor and Churchill were, how­ev­er, long­time friends, and once the war start­ed, Churchill chid­ed His Grace. From Mar­tin Gilbert, ed., The Churchill Doc­u­ments, vol. 14 (Hills­dale Col­lege Press, 2011), 91-92:

…there are some very seri­ous and bad things in [your Peace Aims Group state­ments]…. When a coun­try is fight­ing a war of this kind, very hard expe­ri­ences lie before those who preach defeatism and set them­selves against the main will of the nation.

Ben­dor sent a dis­sem­bling reply and Churchill fired back with a more point­ed mes­sage. From Churchill Archives Cen­tre, Churchill Papers, CHAR 19/2A/19-20:

…in time of peace, peo­ple in a free coun­try have a right to form their views about for­eign pol­i­cy; but when the coun­try is fight­ing for its life against a dead­ly ene­my, there are grave dan­gers in tak­ing a hos­tile line to the decid­ed plan….[Especially your] sug­gest­ing that all we were fight­ing for was to make mon­ey for the Jews and inter­na­tion­al finance, or words to that effect.

After that, the Duke sub­sided, and the Peace Aims Group dis­ap­peared after the bombs start­ed falling on London.

Win­ston Churchill had a lot of loy­al­ty toward his friends. But with the two Dukes, he cer­tain­ly was aware of the prob­lems and act­ed to squelch them.

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