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Spying on the Royals

80 years ago King Edward VIII shocked the nation, and the world, when he announced his abdication. Sparking a constitutional crisis, and a Royal scandal, never encountered before, Edward became the first British monarch to voluntarily renounce the throne.
Spying on the Royals


But now, behind the unprecendented events lies a secret story. An espionage operation so controversial, it's been a state secret for the past eight decades. Only now, with astounding documents unearthed by Nottingham intelligence expert Dr Rory Cormac and co-researcher Professor Richard Aldrich (University of Warwick), have the startling truths of a secret dossier unlike any other in British history been uncovered, making for a fascinating Channel 4 documentary, Spying on the Royals.  

An extraordinary operation

December 1936. On a frozen winter weekend, King Edward VIII made a telephone call to his brother Albert, the future George VI, revealing that he could no longer be King if it meant abandoning the woman he loved. Discussing one of the most sensitive matters of the day, Edward assumed the conversation was private. But little did he know that his every word was being scrutinised. MI5 had bugged the phone lines coming in and out of royal residences in one of the most astonishing intelligence operations of modern times – and agent Tar Robertson had just found himself listening to something extraordinary.

The British Government has long denied spying on the Royal Family. But newly declassified documents reveal that back in the 1930s, MI5 did just that. And the operation was not conducted by an over-enthusiastic amateur or a rogue intelligence officer. It can be traced to the centre of Government, Number 10 Downing Street and the Prime Minister himself. Spying on the Head of State is one of the most controversial decisions a Government can take. So why was the operation authorised – and was it justified?

The Playboy Prince

In the mid-1930s, Edward's father King George V began to grow increasingly concerned about his son's temperament. Notoriously more interested in women than duty, the so-called Playboy Prince did not appear a natural heir to the throne. After receiving word that Edward had given his secret lover £110,000 worth of jewels the King, sensing blackmail, authorised Special Branch operatives to investigate.

The intelligence operation soon escalated and Edward's lover, Wallis Simpson, found herself subjected to in-depth surveillance. Attempting to understand the dynamics of this most unorthodox of relationships, officers embarked on a detailed operation, even questioning those who encountered the couple in public.

But the stakes escalated significantly when George V died in January 1936. Edward was now King and Emperor. The surveillance operation was no longer an investigation being conducted with the consent of the King against the Prince of Wales. This was now a surveillance operation authorised by the Prime Minister against the ruling monarch.

National security concerns

Matters intensified when Edward informed Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin of his determination to marry Wallis. The declaration threatened to tear Baldwin's Government apart. Not only was Wallis, a twice-divorced American, deemed an unsuitable choice for Queen, these were uncertain times. Hitler was on the rise and debates over appeasement circled the political landscape. A constitutional crisis was the last thing the Prime Minister wanted.

But more than this, Number 10 increasingly saw Edward as a security risk. Suspicious of the expensive gifts he lavished on Wallis, officials feared he was being blackmailed by nefarious foreign agents. They worried about his association with known right-wing personalities such as Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, and grew paranoid that supporters of the King may undermine a Government set on abdication, prompting riots and violence to break out across the country.

Against this background, Downing Street went above the heads of the Special Branch investigation and asked MI5 to spy on the King. The upper echelons of Government, Baldwin in particular, sought insight into the King's state of mind and thoughts on abdication. Tapping the Royal phone lines would be the best way to uncover his true intentions – and the secret state certainly had the means to do it. But was the King's personal life a threat to national security?

Spying on the Royal Family and the Head of State, a highly controversial action, can only be justified in these circumstances. The long-serving Head of MI5, Vernon Kell, was not immediately convinced. He feared the issue was a political or personal concern rather than one of security. Eventually, however, the Board at MI5 convinced Kell to conduct the operation. At Baldwin's request, MI5 tapped the phones of Edward, his younger brother Albert, Wallis, and residences on the continent. Events had been set in motion that would lead to the discovery of the earth-shattering news that would transform a nation.
One of the most astonishing intelligence operations of modern times has been uncovered. But was Downing Street justified in spying on the Royal Family – or did fear and paranoia lead the Government to overstep the mark? Dr Cormac and Professor Aldrich consider the operation in their new Channel 4 documentary, Spying on the Royals

Watch the series