The future King Edward VIII and Duke of Windsor was born on 23 June 1894 as the eldest son of King George V and Queen Mary, who were then known as the Duke and Duchess of York. At the time of his birth, his great-grandmother Queen Victoria was on the throne.
Queen Victoria wrote to her eldest daughter Empress Frederick, “You rejoice as I do, indeed, and as the whole nation does, to the most wonderful degree, at the birth of dear Georgie’s boy.[…] As it is, however, it is true that it has never happened in this country that there should be three direct heirs as well as the sovereign alive.”1 He received the names Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David and would be known throughout his life as David. Just 18 months later, he was joined in the nursery by his brother Albert, known as Bertie, the future King George VI. This was followed by Princess Mary, later Princess Royal and Countess of Harewood, Henry, later Duke of Gloucester, George, later Duke of Kent and lastly Prince John, who would die in childhood.
During those early years, David’s father doted on him, boasting proudly of how many teeth he already had. This changed when David, and his siblings, reached an age when they were expected to behave themselves, and as a man of his time, he could be a frightening father and a harsh disciplinarian. Of his mother, David later wrote, “We used to have the most lovely time with her alone – always laughing and joking. […] She was a different human being away from him.”2 His early education consisted of reading, writing, history, French and German. Religious instruction was given by Canon Dalton but made little impression on David. He learned to crochet from his mother.
In 1901, Queen Victoria died, and David’s grandfather succeeded as King Edward VII. His father was made Prince of Wales in November of 1901, and David was now second in line to the throne. The following year, a tutor by the name of Henry Hansell was employed for David and Albert. David later wrote, “He never taught us anything at all. I am completely self-educated.”3
In 1907, David entered the Naval College, and although he was bullied by the other cadets, he was eventually accepted and given the nickname “Sardines.” He was never an excellent student, but he did the work and managed to improve. In 1909, he moved on to the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth, where he considered joining the choir. The following year, David’s grandfather passed away, and his father succeeded as King George V. David was now first in the line of succession, and he was created Prince of Wales on 23 June 1910 – his 16th birthday. He began reading newspapers, and Dartmouth introduced a course in Civics, which he enjoyed. He served as a midshipman aboard a battleship for three months before entering Magdalen College, Oxford. He left Oxford after eight terms and had loved escaping Oxford for trips to Germany, where he spent time with relatives.
However, any trips to Germany also brought about rumours of possible matches, such as with the Emperor’s daughter Victoria Louise. He particularly liked Caroline Mathilda of Schleswig-Holstein, but after he consulted his mother, the consensus was that he was too young to contemplate marriage. The First World War brought an end to any thought of a German match. By 1914, public functions became increasingly more common for David, and he found most “mighty poor fun…”4 Nevertheless, he always did the job well and left a good impression.
In June 1914, David joined the Grenadier Guards, and although he was not allowed to serve on the frontlines, he still saw plenty of action. These experiences would leave him with an intense desire to prevent a war from ever happening again. When the war was over in 1918, he wrote, “I feel it can’t be more than a marvellous dream, and I still feel in a sort of trance. But I suppose I shall soon wake up to the fact that it all really is true.”5
With his safe return from the war effort, attention now turned to finding the heir to the throne a suitable wife. In 1916, David – with the encouragement of his equerries – had lost his virginity to a French prostitute named Paulette. He later recalled she was “a heavenly little woman.”6 Not much later, he met Marguerite Alibert, to whom he wrote several letters. He asked her to burn them, but she never did, and those letters later caused some embarrassment. From then on, several women entered his life, and they were mostly married women.
His first great love was Marion Coke, Viscountess Coke and wife of the heir of the Earl of Leicester. She was also 12 years older than him. Then came Lady Sybil “Portia” Cadogan, Rosemary Leveson-Gower and more. In February 1918, he met Freda Dudley Ward, who was also married but lived a separate life from her husband, William Dudley Ward. From early 1919 until four years later, she was the main woman in his life. She was a good influence on him, though, and he smoked and drank less due to her. She also offered him something else he craved – a family life. He loved her two daughters and even saw them when their mother was away. Although he remained devoted to her throughout the 1920s, her devotion became less over time. Meanwhile, David’s duties continued, and he represented his father on many occasions, and he undertook 16 tours of the Empire between 1919 and 1935.
By 1930, the main woman in his life was Thelma Furness, Viscountess Furness. However, on 10 January 1931, he met the woman for whom he would change the course of his life – Wallis Simpson.