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The House of Windsor is a house of secrets. Many secrets. For many decades the royal family has edited the records of its role by rigorously controlling access to its archives and to royal files in Britain’s National Archives. But this mania for secrecy is being seriously challenged for the first time by a broad new alliance of journalists and historians who contributed to a new report by the Index on Censorship.
One historian calls the royal family “the real enemies of history.”
Another says that the family’s “excessive secrecy combined with the length of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II means we probably have no more accurate a sense of how the monarchy has operated in our lifetimes than our grandparents and great-grandparents had in theirs.”
Index on Censorship is a London-based nonprofit that for fifty years has tracked censorship systems around the world. Introducing the report, they say: “The Index wouldn’t be doing a good job if it didn’t keep an eye on attacks to free expression that happen on home soil… the results of our special report are eye-opening. The number of historic files on the Royal Family which are unavailable, and the absurdity of the reasons for denying access to some of them, is staggering. Many historians and journalists are unable to carry out their work as a result.”
In Britain, many campaigns over many years for more transparency in government slowly opened up more access to the records of governments, law makers and officials: Between 1958 and 2010 the time during which public records could be kept secret shrank from 50 years to 20. And yet the royal family has not yielded an inch in keeping its secrets. Last year, Prince Philip’s will was put under seal for 90 years.
Successive governments have failed to change this. In fact, when the British version of a Freedom of Information Act was passed in 2000 the royal family was allowed to remain immune to it. It seems that the ultimate privilege among many enjoyed by the family is to escape accountability for anything they say or do and—more consequentially—they continue to frustrate historians by erasing from the records anything showing them in a negative light.
“The royal family are the real enemies of history. There is no area where restrictions and redactions are so severe.”
— Professor Rory Cormac and Professor Richard Aldrich, ‘The Secret Royals’
The ”enemies of history” charge in the report is made by Professor Rory Cormac of Nottingham University. He is the co-author, with Professor Richard Aldrich of Warwick University, of a 725-page investigation into the relationship between the royals and the British intelligence services, The Secret Royals.
In the book, they contrast the handling of records by the two institutions: “Both control and curate their own histories carefully; both are exempt from freedom of information requests. Historians have to wait a long time for intelligence files to make their way to the National Archives—but at least some do eventually arrive. The royal family, by contrast, are the real enemies of history. There is no area where restrictions and redactions are so severe.” Of the Royal Archives, they say, “Much goes in, but little comes out.”
The most contentious period of Windsor history involves the abdication of Edward VIII and his subsequent life as the Duke of Windsor, along with that of the woman for whom he gave up the throne, Wallis Simpson. Of that period, the records of the few months in 1940 when the duke was living in Portugal, before being shipped off to the Bahamas as governor general, have been the most pursued by historians and the most thoroughly erased by the Windsors.
It’s not hard to see why: The duke was being willingly seduced into a Nazi plot via emissaries sent by Hitler in which, following a British surrender, he would replace his brother, King George VI, as a puppet monarch—a narrative recently fleshed out in convincing detail by the historian Andrew Lownie in his book Traitor King: The Scandalous Exile of Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
As Lownie’s efforts show, none of the most damning evidence of the duke’s treachery comes from any British archive, royal or otherwise. It has been tracked down in other sources, including the Spanish and Portuguese archives and in messages sent to Washington by American diplomats in Madrid and Lisbon.
The most shocking detail of all was found in Madrid by the historian Karina Urbach in a file, dated 1993, collecting the papers left by the Spanish fascist despot Francisco Franco, recording a conversation between the duke and a Spanish diplomat in which the duke said that if the Germans “bombed England effectively this could bring peace”—adding that the duke “seemed very much to hope that this would occur. He wants peace at any price.” (This quote first appeared in Urbach’s 2015 book, Go-Betweens for Hitler, a brilliantly forensic investigation of the role of British and German royals in supporting Hitler’s conquest of Europe.)
Earlier biographers of the Duke of Windsor had discovered American monitoring of the duke’s conversations, including by Herbert Claiborne Pell, an American diplomat in Lisbon, who sent a top-secret telegram to Washington, reporting, “The Duke and Duchess are indiscreet and outspoken against the British government…they say whether Churchill likes it or not [they] desire to make propaganda for peace.”
The duke’s preference for a pact with Hitler, rather than follow Winston Churchill’s policy of making a stand against him, was shared by his younger brother, Prince George, Duke of Kent. Moreover, historians believe that George worked assiduously through back channels via his German royal relatives to negotiate a “peace” agreement with Hitler until the outbreak of war in September, 1939.
Martin Bright, the author of the Index on Censorship report, writes that “a veteran royal writer” who wished to remain anonymous gave up on writing a biography of Prince George after being stonewalled by both the Royal Archives and the National Archives.
After reviewing government papers, he suspected that following Edward VIII’s abdication Prince George believed that the successor, his brother George VI, was not up to the job and that, with the help of his mother, the widowed Queen Mary, he might replace him. Bright points out that if that had happened, Princess Elizabeth would never have become queen, and “the present Duke of Kent would have become king and not Charles III.”
“There is no public inventory and no files are available for the reign of Elizabeth II and, indeed, many before that remain closed.”
— Andrew Lownie
The Royal Archives claim that they hold none of the Duke of Kent’s private papers. Bright reports that nearly 500 files in the National Archives under the heading Royal Family are closed, extending as far back as the reign of George VI.
Andrew Lownie told me, “The Royal Archives are not regarded as U.K. public records and, as well as being exempt from freedom of information claims, they do not share the statutory obligation of the National Archives to admit any eligible person to read them. There is no public inventory and no files are available for the reign of Elizabeth II and, indeed, many before that remain closed.”
Bright writes, “After the death of Elizabeth II, two contradictory narratives about her historical legacy came to dominate the instant analysis of her 70-year reign. The first was that she assiduously took a back seat in matters of state and adopted a largely passive constitutional role. The second was that she was instrumental in guiding the country in the post-war period from Empire to Commonwealth. Neither can be entirely true.”
Professor Cormac adds, “She was a political actor and there are consequences. The idea that all she did was cut a ribbon from time to time is a grotesque misrepresentation. They have managed their past incredibly effectively.”
Two areas where historians say lack of documentation on the queen’s role leaves critical gaps in recent history are the Suez crisis of 1956, where America stepped in to end a British invasion of Egypt, and her part ending the conflict between the British Army and Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland. (In 2012 the queen greeted the former commander of the IRA, Martin McGuinness, who was involved in the assassination of her cousin, Lord Louis Mountbatten, with a very public handshake, taken to signal a reconciliation between the previous enemies.)
The royal erasure machine can reach into American archives. When Lownie was researching a book on Mountbatten, and his wife Edwina, he made an FOI request to the FBI where, he knew, there were files on the couple from the 1940s. He found a report claiming that Mountbatten was “a homosexual with a perversion for young boys.” Lownie returned to the FBI for more files, to be told that they had been destroyed, presumably after a request from British authorities.
“When did that happen?” he asked. “After you had asked for them” he was told.
“American archivists will suggest further avenues of research, while in Britain a culture of caution and secrecy holds sway.”
— Andrew Lownie
Lownie contrasts the effectiveness of freedom of information requests in Britain and America. “In America the onus is on the government to justify closure, while in Britain the opposite is the case. American archivists will suggest further avenues of research, while in Britain a culture of caution and secrecy holds sway. The regulator, the Information Commissioner’s Office, is starved of money and resources. They can take a year to look at complaints that have previously been kicked down the road for a year by a public authority.”
Finally, the dirtiest secret of all is probably the royal censorship system itself. In the kind of totalitarian state censorship systems normally tracked by the Index on Censorship—China, Russia, Iran—the actual censors are known and appear, the rules, however odious, are clear and the penalties often severe. They all have a known hierarchy, from the top down. Here, with the Windsors, nothing is transparent: how the system actually works, who holds the power to either keep closed or destroy files, and whose interests are being served.
Lownie told me: “The various government departments handling FOI requests go under various Orwellian titles—Knowledge and Information Management Unit (Official Histories Team), Information Rights, etc.—they don’t have phone numbers or even addresses and all emails and responses are anonymous so one has no idea who one is dealing with. The people who vet documents before release are generally retired government officials, known as weeders. I am told that when in doubt they are told to apply absolute exemptions without a public interest test, such as national security or law enforcement. Internal reviews are not independent, but conducted by the same department.”
The report cites a rare success in fighting the system: the campaign waged in Australian courts by Professor Jenny Hocking of Monash University in Melbourne to open the files that exposed direct interference by Buckingham Palace in the removal of an Australian prime minister, Gough Whitlam, in 1975, by the queen’s governor general. Hocking defines the royal method of fixing history in their favor as “falsification by omission.”
Philip Murphy, director of history and policy at the Institute of Historical Research, believes that King Charles’s censors will find it hard to shut down investigations into Britain’s colonial past as other historians follow Hocking’s example: “This push-back against the royal family’s obsession with secrecy is likely to be more effective outside the UK than in Britain itself, where there is a distinctly deferential political class.”
Robert Lacey, the bestselling royal historian, told me, “Historians should now be given access to all files relating to the monarchy’s farewell to Empire during the reign of Elizabeth II. It’s an area where the queen herself certainly did play a personal role (I remain to be convinced that she ever interfered in British domestic politics) and where the revelations might turn out to be her credit – the Commonwealth is a more fruitful post-imperial structure than any other colonial power achieved.”
I asked the Royal Archives to comment on the Index of Censorship report. That request bounced up from an archivist to Bill Stockting, who has the title of Archives Manager and who serves in the office of the king’s private secretary. He said, “We at the Royal Archives have no comment to make on the Index to [sic] Censorship Report.”
I then asked him if he could provide an organizational chart that would show how the decision chain covering the archives connects with the hierarchy of the private secretary’s office—the most powerful of the offices serving the monarch. Unsurprisingly, there was no response.
“This censorship regime is a disgrace to any modern state or institution that claims to be constitutionally democratic—and it makes a mockery of any claims by the new king to be a modernizer.”
— Clive Irving
The irrationality and capriciousness of the system as well as its iron grip on vital episodes in Windsor history display the same level of disregard for the public interest that the British ruling caste upheld in Victorian Britain, long before universal suffrage and the many later hard-fought battles to get more public accountability in government—and in the affairs of the royal family.
Civil servants who frequently move from government into positions as courtiers in the royal household seem swiftly to relish the chance of unfettered power, after years of having to answer for their actions to probing parliamentary committees and activist lawmakers. This censorship regime is a disgrace to any modern state or institution that claims to be constitutionally democratic—and it makes a mockery of any claims by the new king to be a modernizer.
As it is, members of the royal family, no matter how sleazy, can continue to go their graves securely embalmed in a shroud of lies.