All royal families are alike; all are unhappy in their own way. Most of their unhappiness is as common as their subjects, but the best of it has the resonance and unworldliness of a fairy tale. Royalty, as the proverb says of the Jews, are like other people, only more so.

“This is quite mad!” the duke of Kent protested in 1936, as Edward VIII renounced his crown for Wallis Simpson. In 2010, an excellent film, The King’s Speech, depicted Edward’s demotion to duke of Windsor, his sensitive, stuttering brother Bertie’s promotion to George VI, and George VI’s transformation into Colin Firth. Edward is the villain of Princes at War, too, but Deborah Cadbury’s canvas and cast are broader. This is a vivid, gripping portrait of an ordinary English family of German princelings in a disordered age. 

Once upon a time, before the First World War, George V and Queen Mary had five sons. The youngest, John, was epileptic and intellectually impaired. Hidden from view, he died at 14. The heir was handsome, stylish Edward (known to his family as David), the future Edward VIII. The “spare” was frog prince Bertie, the accidental George VI and future father of Elizabeth II. There were also a pair of surplus Shakespearean princes: Henry, duke of Gloucester, a professional soldier and good egg, and George, duke of Kent, who started out as a bad egg but improved with age. 

The family weathered the Great War, the Russian Revolution, the rise of socialism, and the fall of the pound. And then, the wicked witch of the west, Wallis Simpson, bewitched the prince of Wales—perhaps through the “Shanghai Squeeze,” perhaps because a twice-married Baltimorean seemed like fun to a spoiled man-child in his early 40s. As king, Edward proposed marriage, creating a constitutional crisis. For in that faraway kingdom, Anglicans, like swans, mated for life, and Edward was the head of the church. Abdicating, he became the world’s most glamorous remittance man.

Cadbury begins where the romance ends. George VI’s first command as king is an order to his younger brothers: “You two have got to pull yourselves together.” Gloucester stops drinking with his army pals; Kent, whose misdemeanors include cocaine abuse, affairs with actresses, and being arrested while dressed in drag with Noël Coward, becomes a Royal Air Force officer and a conscientious raiser of morale. Meanwhile, Edward and Wallis decamp to the south of France with Edward’s chum Fruity Metcalfe, whose brother-in-law is Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists. 

“Personal relations,” E. M. Forster claimed, “are the most important thing for ever and ever, and not this outer life of telegrams and anger.” In the Bloomsbury Group’s abdication from public duty to private gratification, the historian Noel Annan saw a moral decay that would manifest in the appeasers and aristocratic fascists of the thirties and the gentlemen spies Guy Burgess, Kim Philby, and Donald Maclean in the fifties. Edward VIII, a thoroughly modern prince, rejected sartorial and constitutional limits. He devised a personal signature for his necktie, the Windsor knot. He ordered his suit jackets in Savile Row and his trousers in New York. He abdicated his responsibilities like a modern king, too. 

Yet personal feelings were not enough. If Wallis ever loved Edward, she loved “wealth and money” more. Nor could Edward gratify her desire for status: His mother and brother refused to grant her the coveted “Royal Highness” status. Somehow, Edward had not foreseen that there was, as one courtier explained, “no place in the British cosmos for an ex-king.” Condemned to aimless and bitter luxury, and supported by the kindness of dubious strangers, he was a Windsor in a knot. 

While Edward was a fastidious dresser, he was less astute in his choice of friends. Some were crooks; many were fellow travelers with fascism and future collaborators. As prince of Wales, Edward had embraced the conventional wisdom that Hitler could be appeased and exploited as a bulwark against Soviet communism. After abdicating, Edward pursued a freelance diplomacy at odds with his constitutional position and, in time, the national interest as well. In 1937, he and Wallis toured Germany. They gave the Nazi salute, and Edward talked privately with Adolf Hitler. Next, the Windsors launched themselves in the United States. Their fixer, the future Vichy collaborator Charles Bedaux, asked the American press to refer to Wallis as “Her Royal Highness” and Edward as the “Head of the Peace Movement.” 

In The Code of the Woosters (1938), P. G. Wodehouse spoofed Britain’s aristocratic fascists: Oswald Mosley becomes Roderick Spode, leader of the Black Shorts. Disastrously, Edward had positioned himself to lead Britain’s appeasers and Mosley sympathizers. Reading Princes at War, you wonder if Wodehouse’s fancies are, like those of Dickens, truths stranger than fiction: 

On September 3, the duke was summoned to the telephone to take a call from the British ambassador in Paris. He returned to the pool where Fruity Metcalfe and Wallis were soaking up the sun. “Great Britain has just declared war on Germany,” he said. “I’m afraid in the end, this may open the way for world Communism.” His words were abruptly punctuated with a splash as he dived into the water.

Edward, like Wodehouse, was out of his depth with Nazi Germany. In 1939, he joined the British military staff at Paris; his brother, the king, ordered that Edward should not be trusted with military secrets. As France collapsed and the British retreated to Dunkirk, Edward and Wallis returned to their villa in the south of France, with “seemingly traitorous intent.” While the duke of Gloucester was wounded when his car was strafed, and emerged from sleeping in a hotel basement to find that the building had been blown up in the night, Edward and Wallis intrigued with the Nazis through intermediaries for the return of the linen and plate in their Paris home. While George VI and Winston Churchill were leading Londoners through the Blitz, the Windsors sunned themselves in neutral Spain and Portugal, where another set of intermediaries—all, Cadbury shows, keen fascists—facilitated contacts with Joachim von Ribbentrop’s foreign ministry. 

Edward, Cadbury writes, was “playing for time, and ready to become a quisling, or worse.” His conduct in the summer of 1940 made the strongest case for a British republic since the trial of Charles I. “With him,” Joseph Goebbels reflected, “an alliance would have been possible.” Eventually, Churchill reminded Edward that, as a British soldier, he had committed a court-martial offence by refusing to return home as ordered. Edward and Wallis were exiled to the Bahamas, to mix in further rum business with the local cads. 

Meanwhile, the bravery of Edward’s brothers restored the standing of the monarchy. The duke of Gloucester worked ceaselessly to raise morale and dodged death once more when his convoy was attacked by a U-boat in the Irish Sea. George VI exhausted himself in leading his people, permanently weakening his health. The duke of Kent, serving in naval intelligence, died in a flying accident in 1942.

Deborah Cadbury comes from another beloved British dynasty, the Cadbury chocolate makers. Her prose is higher in calories than nutrients, and its velvety smoothness has a honey-comb center of cliché. The rise of the Third Reich casts an “ominous shadow”; George VI trusts Neville Chamberlain as “a safe pair of hands”; and Churchill’s “clarion cry” falls on “deaf ears.” The duke of Windsor, planning to visit Hitler, keeps his friends “out of the loop.” Wallis puts a “brave face” on her isolation. Alarmingly, one of Kent’s lovers, the singer Florence Mills, emerges “warm and sultry from cabaret,” like a tropical vegetable from a steamer. 

Here, though, Cadbury is true to her sources. Most of the protagonists speak like characters in a Nancy Mitford novel. Only Churchill can coin a phrase, especially when Gibbon and Macaulay have coined it first; everyone else understates heroically. Deputizing for the king, Gloucester considers his constitutional duty: “To keep my wicket up and just take the edge off the bowling until the star turns are ready to go in.” 

The British, having taken the edge off Hitler’s bowling, were eclipsed when the United States entered the war. As Britain’s standing declines, Cadbury’s tale melts into domestic melodrama. Evelyn Waugh called George VI’s reign “the most disastrous” since the Middle Ages: an empire lost, a country demolished by war, and socialists ruling the rubble. It could have been worse. What if Edward VIII had listened to his brothers in 1936 and been king in 1939? 

Dominic Green is the author of The Double Life of Dr. Lopez and Three Empires on the Nile.