The Abdication of King Edward VIII in 1936 and the wartime reign of his younger brother and successor, King George VI is well known. In contrast, their two youngest brothers, Henry, Duke of Gloucester and George, Duke of Kent are virtually unknown today. Members of the public sometimes to struggle to recall how the Queen’s cousins, the current Dukes of Gloucester and Kent, are connected to the rest of the royal family. Edward VIII’s career after his abdication has also received less attention than the tumultuous events of 1936. In Princes at War: The Bitter Battle Inside Britains Royal Family in the Darkest Days of WWII, Deborah Cadbury, a BBC documentary producer and author of Chocolate Wars and The Lost King of France: How DNA Solved the Mystery of the Murdered Son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, tells the story of all four royal brothers and the Second World War.
Cadbury’s history of the royal family at war reads like a novel, emphasizing the uncertainty of the early years of the hostilities when the outcome was unknown. While the British press reported the impending Blitz with defiant good humour including headlines like “French sign peace treaty. We’re in the finals!,” Buckingham Palace prepared for the worst. Barbed wire was laid in the gardens and Queen Elizabeth took shooting lessons. The Duke and Duchess of Gloucester and the Duke and Duchess of Kent assumed new leadership positions and traveled extensively, raising morale and welcoming commonwealth forces.
In contrast to the three dutiful younger brothers and their wives, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the former Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, spent the early months of the war on a series of European holidays, surrounded by the intrigues of dubious financiers and Nazi informants. The Duke of Windsor was appointed Governor of the Bahamas – a position he accepted with great reluctance – to remove him from Europe for the duration of the war. Cadbury provides a page turning account of the Duke of Windsor’s last minute departure for the Bahamas as British agents persuaded him to leave while German agents implored him to remain on the continent. While George VI, his younger brothers, and their families observed wartime rationing in England, the Duchess of Windsor purchased one hundred dresses per year in the Bahamas.
Throughout the book, Cadbury places the House of Windsor in context, highlighting the harrowing experiences of Europe’s other ruling houses during the Second World War. Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands had to flee the Nazi invading force so quickly that she arrived in England in her nightdress covered by a raincoat. King Haakon VII of Norway refused to follow the example of his cousin, King Christian X of Denmark by capitulating to a Nazi occupation and declared “For my part I cannot accept the German demands. It would conflict with all that I have considered to be my duty as King of Norway since I came to this country nearly thirty-five years ago.” Haakon – King George VI’s “Uncle Charles”- spent his final wartime days in Norway in a log cabin near the Arctic Circle with only the local rifle association as a guard before going abroad to form a government in exile. Princess Mafalda of Italy died in a concentration camp. The rulers of the Balkan states found themselves squeezed between the Nazis and the Soviets on either side with devastating consequences.
Cadbury does not only look at the four royal brothers in the United Kingdom but writes about their travels around the Commonwealth including Canada. In his role as Air Commodore, the Duke of Kent toured Canada to inspect the Canadian war effort including the British Commonwealth Air Training Program. While the 1939 tour by George VI and Queen Elizabeth had been a traditional whistle-stop tour, the Duke of Kent crossed the country by air, in the manner of a modern royal visit. The Duke of Kent reported to George VI, “Canada has done a great work and they are 20% ahead of schedule.” The Second World War revitalized the relationship between the monarchy and the Commonwealth nations. Princes at War is a gripping account of a royal family at war and the lasting consequences of the conflict for the modern monarchy.
Next Week: John Guy, The Children of Henry VIII