The British government tapped King Edward VIII’s phones five days before he abdicated in 1936, according to documents so sensitive they were hidden in a basement strongroom for nearly 80 years.
The order was given two days after Wallis Simpson, the American divorcee Edward wanted to marry, left London for Europe. A written order, marked “most secret,” confirmed an oral instruction from one of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin’s advisers that calls from Buckingham Palace and Fort Belvedere, Edward’s country home, to London and “the continent of Europe” should be intercepted.
The decision to listen to the king’s calls was deemed so incendiary that it wasn’t filed in the U.K.’s official records. Instead, it sat, forgotten, in a basement room in the Cabinet Office in London, alongside other secrets too sensitive even for the government’s classified files.
“These are the sort of papers that get put into the ‘too difficult, too sensitive’ category,” said Gill Bennett, a retired government historian who sorted through the strongroom files ahead of their release by the National Archives today. “You do have to go through it line by line and page by page. Sometimes it is like a detective story.”
As the end of 1936 approached, Edward’s relationship with Simpson, a twice-married socialite, had been widely reported outside Britain. The Church of England, of which Edward as king was head, was opposed to his marrying a divorcee, and government ministers took the view that she would be unsuitable as queen. British newspapers remained silent on their relationship until two weeks before his Dec. 10 abdication.
The secret file released today shows Edward, without consulting government ministers, ordered the police to put a guard on Simpson’s house in London. When challenged by U.S. reporters, the police denied it. In a three-page handwritten letter to the home secretary after newspaper reports appeared, the head of London’s police, Philip Game, explained that when the king gave the order, he told the officer he was speaking to he should “keep it to himself and as few others as possible.”
As well as listening to the king’s calls while he decided whether to abdicate, the government was trying to stop news of the possibility leaking abroad. The file shows telegrams sent to newspapers in Johannesburg and Bombay before Edward had abdicated that were intercepted and stopped by the government. The first read simply: “HIS MAJESTY ABDICATED INFORMATION OLIVER.”
A memo in the file describes how one of the reporters who sent telegrams was questioned about his source and told “there was no truth in the statement it contained.”
The files have been undisturbed for decades. Richard Wilson, who was Cabinet secretary and head of the civil service from 1998 to 2002, told reporters that on taking the job his predecessor Robin Butler said “By the way, there’s a strongroom downstairs. I’ve never had time to go and look.”
Wilson described how the access was down a “little staircase you can easily not notice” off the Cabinet secretary’s offices. One day he went down the spiral stairs, and found a dark dusty room, with a barred window at ground level onto the garden of 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s official residence. It was full of piles of paper.
“My eyes swiveled,” Wilson told reporters as he described the day he first went into the strongroom. “I gave myself an hour to just take papers at random. People had simply dumped papers which they didn’t know what to do with on these shelves.”
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