Palace plot that almost stopped her from being Queen: On the 60th anniversary of the Coronation, explosive documents reveal how her uncle Edward VIII wanted to regain throne after his abdication
How very different it might all have been. Instead of celebrating the 60th anniversary of her coronation tomorrow, the Queen might be reviewing a very different life.
For a sinister palace conspiracy was secretly hatched to try to stop her becoming sovereign in the years before the death of her father, George VI.
At the heart of this sensational plot was her uncle – the former Edward VIII, who had abdicated in shame in 1936.
The plan was a simple one. The Duke of Windsor, as he was titled after giving up the throne, would return to Britain to become Regent – on the grounds that his niece (in her early 20s) was too young to reign. Once on the throne again, it would be difficult to dislodge him.
Looked at with the benefit of hindsight, such an idea now seems outrageous and implausible – yet it might have worked.
For during the late-Forties, when the plot began to form, paranoia reigned at Buckingham Palace. The old guard who surrounded George VI were appalled at the thought that the apple of his eye, his elder daughter Princess Elizabeth, was in love with a penniless Greek princeling called Philip.
Even more unsettling was the suspected powerful influence of Philip’s fiendishly ambitious uncle, Earl Mountbatten, and the threat that he could become the new power behind the Throne.
The House of Windsor was at a low ebb. The King, battered by the years of war, had been negligent about his health and, according to Winston Churchill, was ‘walking with death’.
Lord Moran, Churchill’s physician, agreed in 1949: ‘Even if the King recovers he can scarcely live more than a year.’
On his death, he would be succeeded by Elizabeth, a young woman who was considered vulnerable to Philip, and through him, Mountbatten. It was feared that after Philip married the princess and she became Queen, ‘Dickie’ Mountbatten planned for his nephew to be pronounced King, or King Consort.
Certainly, the old sea-dog could barely conceal his glee at the prospect of the British Royal Family, known since 1917 as the House of Windsor, having to call themselves the House of Mountbatten after the couple’s marriage.
Princess Marina, widow of the Duke of Kent, spoke for many in the royal circle when she warned that the Mountbattens were ‘dangerous people… determined to be the power behind the Throne when Elizabeth succeeds’.
And so, as the King ailed, pandemonium reigned. The most influential figure at court, Sir Alan ‘Tommy’ Lascelles, the King’s Private Secretary, joined forces with the Master of the Household, Joey Legh, in bitter objection to Philip as a future consort.
They were joined by the King’s closest male friends – Lord Eldon, the Marquess of Salisbury, and Lord Stanley. Also voicing disdain of the young naval officer was the King’s brother-in-law, David Bowes-Lyon.
Plot: The Queen could have been usurped by her uncle the Duke of Windsor, who had abdicated as King Edward VIII after less than a year on the throne to be with his future wife Wallis Simpson (right, on their wedding day)
‘They were all bloody to him,’ recalls one of Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting.
Mountbatten’s daughter Patricia, now Countess Mountbatten in her own right, confirmed: ‘The old brigade really thought he could be a dangerous influence [on Elizabeth].’
Indeed, even those closest to Elizabeth had caught the anti-Mountbatten fever. Her Comptroller and devoted servant, the war hero ‘Boy’ Browning, warned: ‘Remember Dickie – he’d always rather do something under the table than above.’
And to a visitor to Elizabeth and Philip, briefly resident in Malta, Browning begged they ensured ‘Princess Elizabeth isn’t bossed about by Dickie’.
If many courtiers feared for the Royal Family’s future, they also feared for their own.
With the King at death’s door, they had to come up with something.
Their solution was a compromise: to appoint a Regent, rather than allowing the throne to go direct to Elizabeth, the rightful heir.
This risky idea had been discussed in 1936 in the terror-filled days and nights preceding the Abdication.
With Edward VIII on the brink of stepping down from the throne, when his younger brother Bertie – then Duke of York – was told he would have to be King, he cried on his mother’s shoulder.
A rumour circulated that he was suffering falling-down fits brought on by anxiety; another that he was made to undergo psychological tests to assess his fitness to rule.
Weighing up Bertie’s suitability to be King, senior courtiers did not like what they saw. They judged that the combination of a headstrong king in Edward VIII, followed by a weak one, could risk putting an end to the monarchy in Britain.
While researching an obscure file in Britain’s National Archives some years ago, I uncovered evidence that those self-same men, far from accepting Bertie as the only candidate – as official histories have it – had discussed putting Queen Mary, his mother, on the throne as Queen Regent.
This fact lay hidden in a report composed by a senior civil servant, Sir Horace Wilson.
The evidence is contained on a flimsy piece of paper bearing a single sentence written in an anonymous hand. It states coldly: ‘Suggested that Queen Mary should be appointed Queen Regent until the divorce and the Abdication should be over.’
But the Regency plan never took off and Bertie became King, as George VI.
Now, at the end of his reign, the men in tailcoats and stiff white collars were back with the same idea.
Enter the sinister figure of Kenneth de Courcy, who during the Thirties had been a confidant of Cabinet ministers and a dining companion of the future Edward VIII. He was an inveterate plotter and full of intrigue.
After the Abdication, he spent time in Paris with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, where he brought the latest gossip from Buckingham Palace: about the King’s health, concerns about Philip, the fear and loathing for Mountbatten.
And gradually the plot evolved. For the next three years, de Courcy encouraged the rudderless Windsors to think about a future back in England – a future at the top of the tree.
Already, the Duke had started to badger Ministers and the Palace for a high-profile job, highlighting his pre-Abdication popularity with the nation and his powerful international contacts.
It was never going to happen. And maybe that reality was slowly beginning to dawn on him, to the extent that he could seriously entertain the idea of usurping his niece – and connive at a scheme so dastardly it was worthy of the Tudor court.
De Courcy’s plan was simple.
The Palace was in turmoil, fearing the coming Mountbatten juggernaut, and all too ready to consider playing the Regent card.
Yes, they could turn to Queen Mary as they had thought of doing back in 1936 – but by now the German-born former Princess May of Teck had passed her 80th birthday and was looking a remote and anachronistic figure, too haughty to be in tune with post-war Britain.
The list of alternative candidates for Regent was very short.
Nobody seriously entertained the idea of Windsor’s younger brother the Duke of Gloucester, a giggling toper who was something of a national joke. And there were no other close members of the family. So all the Duke of Windsor had to do was play his cards right — and the job could be his.
Windsor wrote to de Courcy in March 1946, ‘ …the subject we discussed in Paris… it certainly is a situation of great delicacy but, at the same time, one in which it would seem I hold fifty percent of the bargaining power.
‘For obvious reasons, I prefer to say no more to you in this letter but look forward to another talk with you when there is the opportunity. As you say, it needs very careful thought.’
Another letter followed – this time from the Duchess: ‘We are always turning things around and around in our heads,’ she wrote.
‘There’s no doubt something must be done – perhaps a good thunderstorm would clear the air. Anyway I can’t sit by and see the Duke wasted.’
In the spring of 1949, George VI lay in bed in Buckingham Palace following an operation to cut a nerve at the base of his spine. The procedure was designed to counteract the arteriosclerosis he suffered as a result of too much stress, and too many cigarettes.
De Courcy had secured all the latest court gossip and was eager to impart it to the Duchess, telling her: ‘The King is gravely ill and out of circulation and he will not be in circulation again… he faces the fearful tragedy of losing first one leg and then the other. The King will be able to do extremely little and moreover that those around him will gain greater and greater power.
‘I may tell you most confidentially that a Regency has already been discussed and it seems likely enough that presently [a Regent] will be appointed.’
De Courcy foresaw a lengthy period when the King would remain alive – but could not appear in public. ‘I do not think it too much to say that if the Regency should be one primarily influenced by the Mountbattens, the consequences for the [Windsor] dynasty might be fateful,’ he wrote to the Duke and Duchess, echoing the word spreading through the corridors of Buckingham Palace.
‘The Mountbattens, thoroughly well-informed of the situation, will do everything in their power to increase their influence.’
Now de Courcy outlined the details of his plot, advising the Windsors: ‘While in this case the Duke is of course not concerned with winning the Crown, he could be concerned in something even more important than that, namely, in laying entirely fresh foundation-stones in the place of those which are now endangered… none of this can be done without extremely careful and painstaking work.
‘The King is suffering from a grievous malady which is incurable, it has spread over his whole body.’
His message to the Duke of Windsor was clear and unequivocal – NOW is the time to move if you want to become Regent.
In a further letter to the Duchess, de Courcy urged: ‘The Duke could, in these difficult circumstances, be a decisive influence for good – making it absolutely impossible for the Mountbattens to become the decisive political and social influence upon the Regency and the future Monarch.’
This was surely treasonable talk – encouraging a failed monarch to wrest the crown from his young niece who, by rights, should be Queen.
He did not say how long he thought the Duke, as regent, might be able to hang on to the throne should it come his way – Elizabeth, after all, was the rightful heir and one day Windsor would have to make way for her – but in the heady atmosphere of plot and counterplot, that detail was seemingly ignored as unimportant.
De Courcy then told the Windsors how to go about securing their prize by softening up public opinion: ‘I should like to see you and the Duke buy an agricultural property somewhere near London, and the Duke devote a good deal of his time to experimental farming on the most advanced modern lines. This would make a great appeal to the country.’
He also advised against any behaviour that might be interpreted as him being a ‘playboy’.
He concluded: ‘I venture to say that if this advice were followed, the results would be remarkable.’
And, if the advice HAD been followed, who knows?
The Palace establishment was wobbling, their hatred for the Windsors matched only by their loathing for the Mountbattens.
In Downing Street, Prime Minister Clement Attlee was a man completely unversed in the Machiavellian ways of the royal court — so no advice or lead could be expected from that quarter.
There was nobody, apparently, equipped to stop the Duke of Windsor should he make an appeal to the country, and find the country willing to take him back.
It was the tipping-point.
But true to his nature, the Duke prevaricated, then did nothing.
And within weeks, the King was on the road to a recovery and would remain on the throne sufficiently long for the nay-sayers to finally get used to the idea of Prince Philip.
What stopped the Duke making his play for the Throne? A loss of nerve? Or had he grown to love the fleshpots of New York, Palm Beach and the Cote d’Azur too much?
Whatever the truth – and a brief visit to London didn’t help because it reminded the Duke how bloody awful the British weather could be – there was no coup, no usurpation.
Had the Duke of Windsor successfully won the Regency, it’s fair to suppose Queen Elizabeth II would not be celebrating the 60th anniversary of her Coronation tomorrow.
As it is, she, and the British people, had a lucky escape. For the alternative would inevitably have involved a titanic power-struggle for the Throne which could have risked the future of the monarchy in Britain.
No further correspondence between the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and their co-conspirator is yet available to the public – though, tantalisingly, one tranche of the de Courcy papers I uncovered in the Hoover Institution at California’s Stanford University remains under lock and key.
Maybe there, in a dusty archive, is an explanation from the Duke as to why he never challenged history – and just let it slide by.