The Woman He Loved? Private Monarchy, Public Emotions and Mass-Observation

Woman he loved

When archive boxes and doors are closed to public view, as they are with the private collections of the Windsor family, it is easy to see why ‘leaks’ from such coveted documentation occur. The walls of Windsor Castle, from whence the re-branded royal family name derived, are wide open to the paying public. And yet the doors to the family archive within the fortress remain defiantly closed for public research. The recent ‘release’ of a private film of the Windsor family sieg-heiling at Balmoral in 1933 has caused a complex set of public reactions; from humour and anger, to humiliation and disgust. This previously closeted source concerns the primary actors of the abdication crisis of 1936, which has become an event synonymous with the emotions of love over duty. Edward, who would give up the throne,is seen to coax his young nieces and their mother into performing the fascist salute. The future king George is behind the camera, capturing a private, light-hearted family moment as Hitler came to power; three years before his brother relinquished his duties as king to marry an American divorcee. History and culture have embraced the romantic narrative; film, television and biography have glittered with the jewel-encrusted tale of ‘the woman he loved’. But this private family film, unlike popular culture, speaks to a far more contentious historical narrative of the events.

(From left to right) Edward and Mrs Simpson (1978), The Woman He Loved (1988), Wallis & Edward (2005), W.E. (2011)

(From left to right) Edward and Mrs Simpson (1978), The Woman He Loved (1988), Wallis & Edward (2005), W.E. (2011)

The acknowledgement of the depth of Edward Windsor’s fascist politics continues to evade official, popular and academic narratives of the crisis, despite recent historical revisions which demonstrate how prominent Edwards politics were in shaping establishment decisions made in 1936 to so dramatically end his short reign. We may well know that Edward and Wallis met Hitler in 1937, but less known are their tours of concentration camps; regular meetings with senior Nazi party members, advice on bombing Britain, disclosure of invasion tactics, and widespread fraud. These are well documented in German, Russian and Italian archives, but are all but hidden in ours. Love, according to this revision, was a fortuitous excuse by which a unwieldy monarch could be removed. That Edward was made to publicly choose love over duty enabled the church and government to reassert determinative family values in the ready-made form of his successors family. But as Claire Langhamer’s research so clearly demonstrates, love was a volatile emotion to construct and manipulate in inter-war Britain and beyond, and the messiness of public response to the abdication crisis is, I believe, largely a result of this volatility. But does it really matter if these complex public emotional response were founded upon a private cover-up? Does it change how we read and understand public emotions as well as the private, institutional narrative? What do the silences of the establishments archive say to us about our own histories, which we are increasingly exploring ourselves.


Frank Mort’s recent research from the thousands of letters sent to Edward VIII during the short period of public knowledge of the crisis beautifully demonstrates how emotions of a wide spectrum were fundamental in peoples subjective responses to the crisis, adding further weight to Claire Langhamer and Nick Thomas’ challenging the ‘evolutionary view’ of the 1960s as high-point of self-expression. Mort’s research demonstrates a ‘plurality of voices and emotions’, to borrow Langhamer’s exacting phrase; many for, against, bemused and enraged by the crisis. But what such letters cannot illuminate are the opinions of those who were completely indifferent to the events, nor do they texture the broader emotional effects of the events, beyond the moment of communication that a letter to a monarch or politician conveys. Mort charts how the abdication crisis was a fundamental event that shaped Mass-Observation’s desire to record an ‘anthropology of ourselves’, but the archive itself provides a rich source-base in which we can better understand the texture of ‘ordinary’ peoples emotional response to the event across time.


The New Statesman and Nation printed a letter from Geoffrey Pyke on 12th December, two days after the abdication. Acclaimed for being the correspondence that provoked the formation of Mass-Observation it called for a study of ‘public’ opinion in order to better understand the feelings of ‘ordinary’ people.  Despite acknowledging the importance that the abdication had in establishing M-O, Williams and Ziegler overlook the complex messiness of public opinion toward the abdication crisis which can be heard within the day survey of 12th May 1937. This was George and Elizabeth Windsor’s coronation day, the same date that had been planned for Edward’s coronation. Beyond the publication of this survey material by Mass-Observation in ’12th May’ 1937 lies a large number ordinary peoples opinions, via surveys and observational work, recorded from across Britain. Although they are opinions in retrospect, they indicate a far more varied  on the topic than has been acknowledged hitherto, and demonstrate as Mass-Observation’s Tom Harrisson and Charles Madge argued, that the the impact of the abdication had been realised as ‘the biggest of all recent crises – bigger than … the scares of war’.

Many observers placed the blame solely at Wallis Simpson’s door, one stating also that there were a number of women in her factory in Manchester who were “…loud in their disapproval of Mrs. Simpson for tying to the King.” An observer from Somerset divulged that during a village dance, the conversation had turned to a female acquaintance who had “…been warned that she should not sue (her husband) for divorce, owing to Mrs. Simpson’s position.”  Having agreed with her husband to utilize a fabricated ‘Brighton Quickie’ as grounds, Wallis’ second divorce was not only symptomatic of the gendered inequalities within contemporary British divorce laws, but her exile was clearly acting as a warning shot across the bows of women who sought freedom from marriage.  Further blame for Mrs. Simpson was placed by a housewife from Lancashire: “Mrs Simpson’s an ambitious woman whose (sic) tripped herself up. The Duke was popular I know, but weak. Spoilt. What he’s lacked are home ties.” A farmer from Norfolk also believed that it was better to have a monarch with ‘an admirable family life’. But whilst Mass-Observation mapped the extent of these complex feelings in relation to the crisis, and more broadly of the topic of monarchy, it also clearly illuminates those whose day was completely untouched by the public spectacle of monarchy that day, engaged in the beautifully rich minutiae of domestic, social and familial life.


Mass-Observation continued to use monarchy and marriage as a lens throughout post-war Britain, and it is possible to trace these elastic emotional tensions between love and duty, emotion and reason, throughout the 20th Century. From Margaret and Townsend, to Diana, Charles and Camilla, public royal romances and catastrophes have remained central to many peoples complex and shifting subjectivities throughout the Twentieth Century. The abdication’s legacy can be seen in many later debates, and yet Mass-Observation continually mapped people’s indifference to both the institution of monarchy, and public debates around them.

Beyond monarchy, Mass-Observations eclectic methodology enables us to measure a seemingly inestimable number of subjects, one of which being British fascism and antisemetism. From graffiti, newspaper clippings to discursive responses, Mass-Observation reveals an often alarming level of hostility to the Jewish population in the 1930s and 40s. As Guy Hodgeson’s research maps, although we can chart a complex and changing public attitudes toward British-based Germans and Italians across the 30s and 40s, so too can Mass-Observation reveals deep and volatile resentment towards Jews throughout its surveys. Mass-Observation found evidence of anti-Jewish sentiment in 55 percent of observers in a survey in 1939, and their Home Intelligence report of 1943 reported that there was ‘much latent anti-Semitism’. People were overheard saying ‘stinking lot of cowards they are, the Jews’, ‘Jews [sic] shops are always stocked up’ and ‘there’s no doubt they have too much power’. Mass-Observations directive panel, who were believed to be ‘a selection of the population more intelligent and better informed’, revealed that only 25 percent of them felt ‘favourable’ towards Jews.

sussex seafront buf newspapers edit

Community histories, which draw upon personal archives, life histories, family research and local newspapers, are further texturing the academic discourses of British fascisms. Photos reveal the public nature of such politics. Rather than celebrating the coronation, some people chose to distribute fascist propaganda on the Sussex coastline of Brighton (above left) whilst London continued to be a site of public opposition to the war in the name of the BUF. As historians, we often draw upon our own family archives, stories and experiences in our approaches to the history we write. My interviews with family members recently have revealed the prevalence of inter-war and wartime fascism in provincial Sussex, with BUF graffiti on our local railway bridge, and election limousines laid on by local BUF members to transport the working-classes to the voting halls. When we search, read family letters and diaries, or ask our family members who were there, many of us will find memories and records of fascisms, racisms, and abuse. Many of our histories will be disturbing, and undoubtedly shocking.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about the leaked video of the Windsor Family sieg-heiling is that so many of us are shocked that it exists. Whilst other countries are facing and embracing their histories of fascisms, our educational systems seems terrifyingly silent on the subject of British fascism and anti-Semitism. The historiography of the last few decades has demonstrated that antisemitism, in various forms, has been a menacing and persistent presence in Britain, and Tony Kushner argues that both non-organised and organised forms of antisemitism did and continues to have a profound effect on British society. Why then are we shocked? Perhaps until official narratives of our history are reasoned against the documentation which we are prevented from consulting, we will continue to be shocked by the more ugly and complex realities of our past. It is particularly infuriating to be told that the sieg-heiling video is being read ‘out of context’ when the establishment prevents access to attain such a context. I believe it is important that the ‘big history’ is understood fully, that archives must be opened. As a researcher of childhood emotions in 2015, it is all too clear that public records have been manipulated, closed and lost to silence the most appalling abuses of children. Only when we are allowed to measure memory against the establishments records can we begin to make a fuller sense of the messiness of peoples complex and shifting relationship between the public and private spheres, and how social change was experienced in relation to shifting cultural and political change. Perhaps then we can also engage in how we communicate the histories we write, outside of journals, to those in our communities who are actively engaged in understanding how the past is shaping the present.


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