Among the many subplots spinning in the “Downton Abbey” season finale, the one most interesting to the student of history involved a would-be blackmailer’s theft of a love letter written from the Prince of Wales to Freda Dudley Ward, and an amateurish scheme by Lord Grantham, a self-described monarchist, to steal it back.
Historical dramas are often at their shakiest when they introduce characters who actually existed, but “Downton Abbey” seems to have handled Prince Edward fairly. Edward’s notorious affair with Mrs. Winifred Dudley Ward produced hundreds, perhaps thousands, of bizarre letters, so it’s hardly beyond supposition that one might have wound up in the wrong hands. And the chances are that the letter would have been quite direct and inculpatory, for the future king was not one to express himself with cautious indirection.
He also would have sounded quite empty-headed.
For example, in a letter to Freda sold at auction in 2011, he sounded exactly like the eternal adolescent he was occasionally accused of being: “This is only just a teeny weeny little scrawl to catch the last post sweetheart & to tell you how fearfully madly I’m loving you this afternoon angel & looking forward to 4.30 tomorrow. Although I only said all this about 12 hrs ago I can't help saying it all again this afternoon only I mean it even more sweetheart!!”
In another letter, part of the manuscript collection at the State Library in New South Wales, the prince addressed her as “My vewy vewy [sic] own precious darling beloved little Freddie.”
Nobody but a royal could get away with such solemn silliness. In 2003, when Sotheby’s sold a batch of the letters, the New York Times described them as “written in childish pencil scrawls on yellowing sheets of notepaper emblazoned with the addresses of Nepalese base camps, Canadian locomotives and the royal retreat of Sandringham.” As to the substance, the Times was primly censorious: “Alternately self-pitying and condescending, speckled with misspellings and erratic punctuation, the letters reveal a man alarmingly spoiled, relentlessly misogynistic, caustically racist, and determined to avoid his ordained role in life at all costs.” And then there was this: “Especially astonishing to read are frantic avowals of undying love, rendered in a creepy combination of saccharine baby talk and pathological desperation.”
To call Edward a libertine is perhaps too gentle. While carrying on his relationship with Freda, the prince also found time for a fling with the very married Lady Marion Coke. He may also have continued his earlier relationship with Marguerite Meller in Paris.
And this perhaps is where Julian Fellowes found the inspiration for his blackmail subplot. Marguerite, to whom the prince had written letters similarly full of baby talk, is said to have demanded money for their return. Instead, after Marguerite’s arrest on the charge of murdering her wealthy husband, a deal seems to have been arranged in which she returned most of the letters and was in turn acquitted of the crime.
Now, I realize that in the spirit of the present age, we might say that the prince’s disapproving family should have backed off and let the young man live a little. A better argument, however, was expressed by Lady Mary Grantham: The prince fully earned the ignominy that was publicly his.
Later in life, Edward would famously abdicate for love less than a year after his coronation, but it is not evident that he gained any wisdom. If Charles Higham’s biography of Wallis Simpson is to be believed, the prince might have had an affair with a German spy in the years just before the war. Edward’s foolishness was evident in everything from his embrace of Naziism (on this point historians have largely routed the doubters) to his casual and open racism toward the people of the Bahamas while he served there as royal governor. He treated his house staff badly, even though proper respect for the servants had been a hallmark of the Windsor family. Gore Vidal, who got to know him later in life, wrote that Edward “was of a stupidity more suitable to the pen of Wodehouse than of Shakespeare.”
Sounds like "Downton Abbey" got him just about right.
(Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University. He is the author of “The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama” and the novel “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln.” Follow him on Twitter at @StepCarter.)
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