by Alexander Larman
Someone once said that there are only three really enjoyable parts of creating a book: the first royalty payment, the second royalty payment, and the third royalty payment, usually made on signature, manuscript delivery, and publication. Although this is one of those rather bitter jokes that authors like to make to show off their world-weary qualities, it is not without accuracy. Every author of non-fiction worries about whether they are going to find something really incendiary and exciting in their research, as otherwise, it is all too easy to find their book being ignored. But how do you make a discovery that’s going to change people’s perceptions about a subject?
I first started thinking about my fourth book in 2018, when I began researching the life story of Sir Walter Monckton, lawyer, politician, and adviser to Edward VIII during and after the abdication crisis of 1936. Monckton was a fascinating figure, and distinctly overlooked from a biographical perspective. Thirty years ago, I would have written a book about him and I could have expected blanket review coverage and decent sales. But now, with more books published than ever before, it takes something quite special to stand out from the throng. Thankfully, I found it.
Monckton donated his archive upon his death to his old college, Balliol in Oxford, which now holds his papers, letters and journals in a converted church, about a mile away from where I live in the city. There is a vast amount of interesting material in them, not least his unpublished memoir of his involvement in the abdication, which I drew on extensively. Yet it was something altogether more extraordinary that excited my imagination, a bizarre document entitled ‘He Was My King’. Its author, George Andrew McMahon, was not hitherto known to me, but it soon transpired that he had been briefly notorious for staging a disruption while Edward VIII was inspecting the royal cavalry.
He had merited perhaps a paragraph in most previous accounts of the abdication, being seen as little more than one of the innumerable cranks and irritants that any monarch briefly comes into contact with over the course of their reign. Yet, as I read McMahon’s incendiary document, two things became increasingly clear. Firstly, he had been a paid MI5 informant, despite a heavy drinking habit and obvious unreliability. And secondly, he claimed that none other than the Italian embassy had firstly paid him for information, and then to stage an assassination attempt on Edward on July 16, 1936. Yet the inference seemed clear; MI5 were all too aware of the attempt and had looked the other way, before covering the saga up when it became too embarrassing politically.
It was a fantastic story, full of drama and secrecy, and I felt honoured that I would be the first to tell it in its baroque and surprising detail. Here was the smoking gun, at last. What a brilliant start to my research, I thought. But would it work within a biography of Monckton? I gradually began to shift the focus of the book, first onto his involvement with Edward and then, inevitably, onto the abdication itself.
By the time that I began writing the book, now titled The Crown In Crisis, it was the first definitive saga of the strange events of 1936, using huge amounts of new material to explore my cast of characters including royalty, courtiers, politicians, the demi-monde, and writers. Monckton, of course, was prominent: more so than he had been in previous historical accounts. I travelled all over the country to conduct interviews with those who had known Edward and Wallis Simpson, visited archive after archive and library after library, and spent hundreds of hours finessing the research.
The final honour was that I was granted access to the Royal Archives, where a huge amount of fascinating (and, for a biographer, essential) material is contained. Here I found a revelatory memoir by Edward’s private secretary Alec Hardinge, who hated his master and poured out vitriol in closely-written pages of anger and contempt. It, along with the other letters, diaries, and journals, was located in the famous Round Tower of Windsor Castle, where all mobile phones and recording equipment are strictly forbidden. One has a few hours to go through as many documents as one can, quickly noting down the important details from them and desperately hoping that it will be enough to give the book the gravitas and authority that it needs. Thankfully, it proved to be more than up to the job.
When the book was published in the UK in the summer of 2020, the saga of McMahon attracted a great deal of attention, with big features in the national press and the international media, and I have been speaking about it in podcasts and films for anyone who wants to discuss it. The book was serialised in two major daily British newspapers, and I can say, proudly, that it is the best experience in publishing that I have written so far, and that the thrill of making a significant discovery—one that actually adds new details to historical accounts—has meant that I have, at least, achieved a long-desired ambition: to write a book that has actually made a difference.
Alexander Larman is a British historian and journalist. His acclaimed books of historical and literary biography include Blazing Star, Restoration, and Byron’s Women, and he has edited and ghostwritten for a variety of publications. He writes for the Times, Observer, and Telegraph, as well as The Spectator and The Critic. He lives in Oxford with his wife Nancy and daughter Rose.
Tags: Alexander Larman, british history, Edward VIII, The Crown In Crisis