The meat of Lownie’s absorbing and easily digestible book, however, is embodied in its title. “Traitor” is a strong word, but it is not melodramatic: in purely legal terms, for example, the Duke should have been prosecuted under the Treachery Act 1940, in the light of evidence that he sent a coded telegram to a German Agent during the Battle of Britain.
Otherwise, he and the Duchess would seem to fall into the slightly less guilty category of being Hitler’s useful idiots, sensitive to his flattery and naive in giving so much credence to his protests and propaganda. Hitler had undoubtedly designated the Duke as a puppet king – his bidder Pétain – in the event of a successful invasion, and there can be no question of the Duchess’s closeness to Ribbentrop, the couple’s admiration for Nazism during their 1937 tour of Germany, or their occasional chatter in the presence of dignitaries, compromising our national security.
The Duke’s atavistic sense of being almost entirely of German blood (he was fluent in the language) played a part in this attitude, as did his banal sense as a survivor of the Great War and a witness to the trenches that peace had to be preserved. . costs. But he was also driven by pure personal spite, aggrieved by the way he was fired after the abdication and refusal to grant the Duchess HRH status and the reverence that came with it.
It’s hard to avoid the word stupid. The duke was a man devoid of any intellectual or cultural interest – unenthusiastic, indeed, for anything but golf, gardening (at a spade’s distance) and his wardrobe. MP Robert Bernays thought shrewdly, “his case appears to be an arrested development…the spoiled child of success with the movie star mentality”, and there was something childish, if not pathological, about his obsessive addiction to the Duchess, who was annoyed with him and probably unfaithful too.
In the end, he just comes across as a weak, barren, pathetic figure that Britain and the Empire were well off of; and Lownie is surely correct in concluding that “if his renunciation of the throne threatened to destroy the monarchy, his brother and niece saved it.” Now we wonder: can the Sussexes undo their good work?
An updated paperback edition of Traitor King by Andrew Lownie, with new material, will be released by Blink for £10.99 in May