History is not repeating itself. Harry and Meghan are not Edward and Wallis. Prince Andrew’s transgressions are unlike those committed by other members of the royal family in the recent past. The slimmed down monarchy of 2020 looks different to the monarchy of 2010, let alone 1920. And yet the 20th century does contain three lessons that the House of Windsor would do well to heed if the crown is to regain its composure after the turbulence caused by recent events.

In this, the first of three articles by Dr Ed Owens, author of The Family Firm, we explore what the monarchy might learn from the last century in order to best prepare for the future.

Lesson one: be careful what you wish for

The last time I wrote about Prince Harry back in October 2019 he had just released an extraordinary public statement criticising the UK’s tabloids for what he described as the ‘bullying’ of his wife, Meghan. It was clear that he and the Duchess of Sussex were unhappy with their treatment by British journalists and that they were prepared to go to the courts in order to seek redress for past injustices. The statement came on the back of an emotional interview, filmed at the end of the couple’s tour of South Africa, in which they lamented the difficult nature of royal life in the public eye.

Unfortunately for Harry and Meghan, this intimate intervention was greeted with more bile from sections of the press. Commentators argued they had lost touch with reality: how could the hardships faced by the young royals possibly compare with the everyday suffering of the poverty-stricken South African people they had just visited? This criticism also merged with previous accusations of hypocrisy: how dare a couple who posed as environmental activists then charter private jets in order to carry out their public and private activities?

Whatever PR strategy they adopted, it seemed that Harry and Meghan could not win. Their confrontational approach poured fuel on an already raging fire. And the barrage of negative coverage subsequently aimed at the pair (and Meghan in particular) was certainly to blame for the decision they took at the start of January to give up their royal responsibilities in order to pursue new public roles – as yet undefined – and quieter private lives in North America.

The speed with which Elizabeth II and her advisers resolved the short-lived crisis over Harry and Meghan’s future was impressive. And, despite the positive vision set out by the queen in her statement on the ‘new arrangement’ that had been agreed with the couple, the message that we, the reading public, were left with could not have been clearer: you are either part of the family firm, or you are not. A battle-hardened expert in damage limitation, the monarch oversaw the creation of a blueprint for the future of the Sussexes which will see them lose their HRH titles, their civil list payments, and their connections with many of the charities and philanthropic programmes that they have, up until now, patronised.

It initially seemed that Harry and Meghan wanted to maintain a foothold in the royal camp, enabling them to retain some of the regal perks while plotting a new course that would see them become financially independent in the longer term. However, ever sensitive to public opinion as relayed by broadcasters and the press, Buckingham Palace rejected outright this idea knowing full well it would lead to increased complaints about royal self-indulgence. The Sussexes were breaking the pact that has evolved over the last one hundred years: to enjoy the privileges of royalty, one must commit oneself wholly to one’s duty and public service. You cannot have one without the other.

It was also necessary that Harry and Meghan be deprived of their royal status so that they could not bring the crown into further disrepute by carelessly trading on their titles for financial gain. Historically, the monarchy has been exacting in selecting which causes to endorse and businesses to support with the royal warrant. The Sussexes wanted to begin their own commercial ventures free from the supervision of courtiers back in the UK, but this represented too great a threat to the royal status quo.

The palace’s response might seem harsh, but the events of the 1930s and 1940s (which left a life-long impression on the current monarch) taught us that ‘ex-royals’ are a liability. Put simply, once separated from the family, they have struggled to re-invent themselves in ways that seem respectable.

There have been a lot of comparisons of Harry to King Edward VIII. Both men renounced their ‘duty’ in order to pursue personal happiness; both married strong-minded American women who also happened to be divorcées. However, this particular comparison ends there. The fallout of the abdication crisis of 1936 was much more serious than the impact of ‘Megxit’. It almost brought down the government of the day, and its effects were widely felt by a nation left divided by the impromptu departure of a man who was the most popular figure in the English-speaking world at the time. Indeed, many members of the British public sensed that the country had been irreparably damaged by the experience – a feeling which, for some, was only finally dispelled when the current monarch came to the throne aged 25 on a wave of optimism that heralded the beginning of a ‘new Elizabethan age’.

Other things the two men have in common is the promotion of philanthropic causes that have addressed some of the most pressing issues of the day. For instance, Harry, like his great, great uncle before him, has shown real compassion for war veterans. Edward spent most of the First World War on the Western Front and, deeply affected by what he saw, became the first young royal to take the plight of ex-servicemen seriously, setting up and leading numerous charitable ventures on their behalf.

But the crucial thing connecting Harry to the Duke of Windsor (as the former king was titled) is his ambition to maintain a high profile, despite having agreed to give up his old public position. In a speech delivered at a charity event the day after his and Meghan’s future plans were announced, Harry made it clear that they are ‘not walking away’, but instead intend to carve out dynamic new roles for themselves.

Edward never came to terms with his exclusion from the royal family. His relatives never forgave him for what they saw as his great betrayal and his wife, Wallis, Duchess of Windsor, was purposely denied the HRH style usually accorded to spouses of British princes because of her role in the abdication. Indeed, the deliberate side-lining of the duke after 1936 left him incensed and, most disconcertingly for a man of his intelligence and vim, extremely bored.

Having been replaced by his shy and uninspiring younger brother, George VI, it was not long before Edward requested that he be given some official job that would enable him to make a dignified return to public life. And, despite his controversial private visit to Nazi Germany in 1937, he was thrown a lifeline by the new king at the beginning of the Second World War when instructed to undertake inspections of France’s military preparations on behalf of the British government.

However, as was so often the case with the duke, he failed to fulfil his brief. After the Nazis invaded France in May 1940, newspapers soon began publishing stories that claimed he had abandoned his post in favour of a hasty personal retreat to the Iberian Peninsula accompanied by his wife. These reports had a damaging effect on the way the monarchy was viewed by the public in the first year of the conflict. And it was left to George VI and Prime Minister Winston Churchill to pick up the pieces: they arranged for Edward to be removed from public view by dispatching him to the Bahamas where he served as Governor of the islands until 1945.

Having clearly failed to get the message, the ex-king continued to behave in ways that undermined the authority of his brother and further tarnished the crown. As the war neared its end, the king’s private secretary, Alan ‘Tommy’ Lascelles, wrote with exasperation that the Duke was again lobbying for a new role, possibly as some kind of envoy representing Britain in the US. The courtier did everything in his power to prevent the realisation of this idea because of his rigid belief that Edward could not be trusted with any kind of public office.

Lascelles remained a life-long critic of the Duke and had good reason to doubt his character. Having once served in his employ, he knew that Edward was a man of loose morals and looser purse strings. The duke had expensive tastes and, in his exile, struggled to achieve financial stability. After squeezing what he could out of his younger brother, Edward began writing his memoirs in the hope that he could sell them to the highest bidder.

The Duke’s ‘inside story’ on the abdication was serialized by the Sunday Express in 1950. For the first time, readers were provided with intimate details about the fateful events of December 1936. Buckingham Place was terrified by what Edward might reveal and tried – unsuccessfully – to stop the newspaper publishing the memoirs.

Courtiers were right to be worried. The Duke’s exposé revived his extraordinary popularity among the British public and drew attention away from George VI who, in spite of his best efforts and dutiful nature, was remarkable only for his ‘ordinariness’. As the editor of the Express described to the owner of the newspaper, Lord Beaverbrook: ‘if we are not careful we shall be putting the Duke back on the throne.’

The king and Lascelles viewed Edward’s resurgence with suspicion and fear. In response to this challenge, they doubled down in their efforts to publicise an image of dynastic stability through the new royal family line. It was notably in this moment that the royal household commissioned semi-official souvenir magazines and photographs, which focused the public’s attention on the now queen and her infant child and heir, Prince Charles.

The Duke of Windsor’s conduct in the years before George VI’s premature death in 1952 helps to explain why he was not invited to the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953. Rejected by the new generation of royals, he lived out the rest of his life mainly in France and continued to use newspaper columns and interviews with the media when it was financially expedient to do so, or when he felt it necessary to vent his anger against his family back in Britain.

So, what can we learn from this episode? The future currently looks uncertain, but history teaches us that the monarchy needs to deal carefully with ex-royals who have gone rogue. Following his exile, the Duke of Windsor was treated unsympathetically, which increased his distress and frustration. Hostility steadily built up on both sides and, when coupled with his shaky financial situation, the logical next step was to go to the tabloids in order to put across his side of the abdication story, knowing that it would earn him a pretty penny in the process.

Harry and Meghan’s wish for private lives free from the constant surveillance of paparazzi or, for the that matter, palace courtiers, will come with difficulties. Already questions are being asked about how they plan to fund themselves in the long term and who will pay for their security costs now that they live in Canada. Sections of the public there have voiced criticism of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after he reportedly suggested the Canadian taxpayer might help to pick up the tab for the royal couple’s 24-hour police protection.

Another problem faced by the Sussexes will be pursuing financial independence in a way that does not damage the crown. We can expect the world’s media to pick over their every move as they try to establish their new ‘royal routine’. Any dubious deal or untoward public remark is likely to result in criticism that will not only damage their reputations, but also the royal family’s profile back in the UK. The House of Windsor needs to steer a perilous course where Harry and Meghan are given sufficient freedom to carve out the new dynamic roles they desire, while also making sure that the couple do not engage in any activity that could lead to more serious questions arising about the purpose of royalty in the modern world.

Buckingham Palace and the royal households of Prince Charles and Prince William will thus be anxiously watching on to see if the Sussexes continue their unique freewheeling style – doing and saying what they want, when they want – or whether they opt for more discreet, tactful public roles, presumably as do-gooders. Elizabeth II will hope that Harry and Meghan pursue the latter course given how these roles could run alongside the charitable activities of the royal family. However, even philanthropy could spill into activism on controversial political topics – something which the monarchy has, up until now, generally managed to avoid.

Since their marriage in 2018, the Sussexes have redefined the role of young British royals in the way they have spoken out to address what they perceive as society’s wrongs. It remains to be seen whether their new transatlantic vision for royalty – whatever form it eventually takes – will compete with or complement the one that is currently taking shape around Harry’s father and older brother in anticipation of the succession.

Dr Ed Owens is a historian, royal commentator and public speaker. His recent publication, The Family Firm: Monarchy, Mass Media and the British Public, 1932-53, is the first book in the New Historical Perspectives series, a new publishing initiative for early career researchers in collaboration with the Royal Historical Society, the Institute for Historical Research and the University of London Press. For queries please contact edowens@live.com or tweet to @DrEdOwens.