Le Moulin de la Tuilerie, the eighteenth century mill that was the weekend residence of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor
The past is peppered with turmoil and scandals which decades later, once the dust has settled and minds have changed, seem like mere myths which complete our long and rich history. Eighty years ago this month one such scandal was breaking which at the time was seen as a great challenge for our country, the Commonwealth and our constitution. Now it has become a fabled story of love vs duty or frivolity vs order, immortalised in print, film and most recently television. On 11 December 1936, Edward VIII abdicated in favour of his brother, Bertie, who would become King George VI.
This was the culmination of a constitutional crisis which had been ongoing throughout most of Edward’s reign of 326 days, the shortest of any British monarch since Lady Jane Grey. As is commonly known, he gave up his throne in order to marry the American divorcee, Wallis Simpson. As he announced to the world in his radio broadcast speech on 10 December 1936:
“I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love”.
"1936 - the year of the three Kings"
The marriage was impossible if he were to remain King because, as head of the Church of England, he could not marry a divorced woman whose ex-husbands still lived. This was the view of the establishment, the Cabinet, the Church and even members of his own family. His mother, the dowager Queen Mary offered very little resistance to the abdication, suggesting that the powers that be had already decided that, considering his unorthodox behaviour as Prince of Wales, he may not be the best man for the job.
In contrast, Edward did have a lot of support from the people. They were charmed by his more relaxed attitude to monarchy. He was extremely popular for what they saw as his empathy for the plight of the general populace in these difficult economic times. At a visit to a struggling mine earlier that year, he had declared “something must be done”, obviously, with no suggestion as to what.This was in marked contrast to what was seen as the apathy of the government in the face of the economic crisis. Edward’s love affair captured the imagination of the people who cared less for the intricacies of a customary constitution.
So in December 1936 the country faced a crisis of the old established order being challenged by a leader who could on one hand be considered as an irresponsible scandal maker or a on the other a thoroughly modern monarch who was adamant that his emotional wellbeing came before tradition and duty to his country. Eighty years ago, the establishment prevailed.
Edward VIII broadcasting to the nation (image credited to Keystone Images/Heritage-Images/Imagestate)
Since then, time has taught us that the establishment was probably right. Britain today might be a very different place if Edward VIII had remained King with his controversial consort. The recent television series, The Crown, has portrayed the Duke of Windsor as a rancorous man who seemed to spend a lot of his life in exile railing against what he considered the raw deal he was dealt by the Royal family. This is certainly supported by his personal letters to the Duchess published after her death.
It was not such a bad deal though. After a stint as Governor of the Bahamas, a role on the other side of the Atlantic, possibly allocated in order to stymie his Nazi sympathies, the Duke and Duchess took up a life of privileged exile in France. While their main residence was a villa in the Bois de Boulogne, granted to them for a peppercorn rent by the French government, their home, and indeed the only property they ever owned themselves was an 18th Century mill house and outbuildings in Gif sur Yvette, 20 miles south of Paris.
Here, the Duke could revel in his love for gardening and supposedly living the simple life, in the Marie Antoinette style, he had his impressive gardens designed by Russell Page, a fashionable garden designer at the time with a glittering client list. The Duchess could indulge in her passions for interior design and socialising.
The Duchess's bedroom was a fantasy in pastel patchwork and stripes, evocative of her Maryland childhood. The bedspread was a present from Edward on her 56th birthday
A weekend invite to the Duke and Duchess’s country house was very prized and was enjoyed by such personalities as Maria Callas, Marlene Dietrich, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Diana Mitford Mosley, wife of the British fascist leader and a neighbour, said “I always felt it was the place to have fun and a good time”. Although perhaps the Duchess should have been more wary of what the beneficiaries of her generosity were thinking of her efforts. Cecil Beaton who was a frequent visitor described the décor as “chichi and overdone”, Diana Mosley derogatorily described it as “really more Palm Beach than English or French”.
Le Moulin in the present today
Following the death of the Duke, the Moulin was put on the market. Passed through several owners who could not afford the upkeep, it fell into decline until it was saved in 2005 by an Anglo-Belge couple, Patrick Deedes-Vincke and his wife Isabelle Townsend Deedes. The couple restored the property and the gardens and in 2010 passed it onto the Landmark Trust to finish and manage. For them it must have been a labour of love, not only due to the beauty of the place but also because of Isabelle’s link to it. Isabelle’s father was Group Captain Peter Townsend who had his own experience of a forbidding royal reaction to a controversial love affair. Following his separation from Princess Margaret he married a Belgian woman and lived close to the Windsor’s country home. He was a frequent visitor at the Moulin.
Today you can sleep in the Duke of Windsor’s private wing, or the rather grander rooms which the Duchess allocated to herself, or in the restored facilities they built for their starry guests. You can consider what might have been the right path to take eighty years ago - love or duty? The Crown or an enduring relationship? Windsor Palace or Le Moulin de la Tuilerie?
There are three Landmarks on site at Le Moulin de la Tuilerie available for short breaks:
La Célibataire (sleeps 2) is available from £291 for 4 nights
La Maison des Amis (sleeps 4) is available from £496 for 4 nights
Le Moulin (sleeps 12) is available from £997 for 4 nights