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28 Jan 2022
updated 28 Jan 2022

Reined-in but not reigning

A new collection of letters proves that frustration has always been the fate of the Prince of Wales

28 Sep 1998

WHEN the present Prince of Wales was a young man his mentor, Lord Mountbatten, advised him to sow plenty of wild oats but to avoid writing love letters, for fear of trouble later. Two years ago Rupert Godfrey, a marketing consultant, was on holiday "abroad" when his host, a collector with a special interest in stamps, decided to open a trunkful of unread letters he had acquired in Canada in the early 1950s. Godfrey picked up a letter dated 1918 and thought at first it was written by a British soldier from Italy to his wife. However, he had recently been reading Philip Ziegleri's biography of Edward VIII, and it was not long before he realised that the letter, one of 263 discovered in the trunk, had in fact been written by the then Prince of Wales to his first great love, Freda Dudley Ward, who was only finally supplanted in his affections by Mrs Simpson in 1934.

This book presents the letters, which date from early 1918 to mid-1921, lightly but efficiently edited by Godfrey; and although it does not significantly alter Ziegler's account (which was based on access to private royal material including later correspondence between the Prince and Mrs Dudley Ward) it is full of fresh and vivid details which cannot fail to enhance our understanding of the flawed, unhappy man who abdicated for love in 1936.

Among royal mistresses, Freda Dudley Ward has always been regarded as a model of discretion. She died in 1983 at the age of 88, having never written or spoken publicly about her royal liaison; it remains mysterious how these letters came on the market, along with some from her other admirers, but Godfrey implies that it may have happened through her first husband, William Dudley Ward, who moved to Canada after their divorce in 1932. As there is no reference in the acknowledgements either to the Royal Family or to the Dudley Ward descendants, it would appear that both sides decided to accept, if not to encourage, publication. In fact, the letters are more poignant than scandalous, and cast new light on the plight of prominent personages, royal or not, who find their public role in conflict with their private needs and wishes.

When the Prince of Wales met Mrs Dudley Ward during an air raid in London, they were both 23. She had been married for five years to a man 16 years her senior and had two small daughters; her husband was a nephew of the Earl of Dudley, a Liberal MP and Vice Chamberlain to the Royal Household, described by a friend of them both as "kind, jolly and vague". By 1918 the marriage had become an amiable formality; both lived their own lives.

Freda was, by all accounts, pretty, amusing and easy to like; she also knew, by background and instinct, how to keep the rules of the romantic game. The affair between her and the Prince began at once; as the letters show, within a month "Mrs Ward" had become "My Angel!" and soon thereafter "My very own darling beloved one" and then "My vewy vewy own precious darling be loved little Freddie".

Although the Prince was not entirely without sexual experience, thanks to his brother officers who had arranged an encounter for him with a French prostitute three years earlier and other similar episodes, he was, as these letters make quite clear, emotionally inexperienced and desperately in need of love. When they were apart he wrote to her almost every day, often late at night, covering page after page in his clear schoolboyish writing, pouring out his heart in misspelt, barely punctuated torrents of words.

Even allowing for the romantic baby-talk fashionable at the time, it is apparent that the Prince was childish, even infantile, in his dependence on his lover. Although he seems to have enjoyed sex in a way that belies the later rumours about his inadequacies (there were cheerful references to "naughty" feelings and an exchange of suggestive rhymes), there is no doubt that he also needed Freda to be strict and comforting in a maternal way. He is her "little boy", her "poor little David", and eventually she is his "very own darling beloved little mummie".

From the very first, he makes it plain how much he dislikes formality, royal ritual and the demands of court and public life, what he calls his "ghastly official existence". The letters confirm his difficult relationship with his father, George V; he particularly hates having to accompany the King on royal business, "trotting round like a wee doggie". His references to his mother are less hostile but never warm, and whenever he is forced to spend time with his parents at "Buckhouse", Sandringham or Windsor his spirits sink and he can think of nothing but how to escape from "prison". Although not clever or reflective by nature, at this stage of his life the Prince was sensitive and observant; he sensed that the monarchy would have to change if it were to survive. In late 1918, as the war was ending, he wrote to Freda: "Oh! that court life, beloved one, that's what's going to hasten the end of it if it isn't vastly modified; people can't and won't stand it nowadays and how well do I understand it and abhor all that sort of rot!"

The words he chose to describe his royal duties are revealing: his engagements are "stunts" and "camouflage", and a successful event is "good propaganda". His constant complaints to Freda are of course in part how any lover presents to his beloved the work that prevents his presence at her side and they also do him a disservice; he is oddly modest about his enormous popularity and success with the public, for whom in the early postwar years he epitomised youth and glamour and a new freedom from convention. In 1919, when his affair with Freda was at its height – it seems that they were even hoping that she might be pregnant with his child – the Prince embarked on the series of long journeys around the Empire conceived by Lloyd George as a means of reinforcing loyalty to the mother country and the crown. This "stunt" was hugely successful, but the cost to the Prince was considerable.

These letters illustrate in excruciating detail what has long been known in outline: the combination of separation from the one person to whom he felt close and the relentlessly gruelling round of engagements and public appearances reduced the Prince to a nervous wreck. He lived for the arrival of the mail from home; his staff – who included the young Mountbatten, aged 20 – learnt to dread the days when no letters from Freda arrived to lift his spirits. His letters to her are increasingly pathetic and hysterical as he rails against his "ghastly and loathsome career as Prince of Wales".

By the time he arrives in Tasmania on his tour to New Zealand and Australia in 1920, and falls ill from physical and mental exhaustion, the officials accompanying the tour were worried enough to inform the British Government and the King that the Prince must have some rest. For all his limitations, and as these letters show they were considerable, it is impossible not to feel sympathy for him – as well as forebodings, not all informed by hindsight, for the future of the system he represented.