From history to the law – and back again
Former medievalist and Freshfields alumnus Ted Powell had a relatively short legal career before returning to history in retirement.
Ted talks to us about his professional life, and how he went about getting his 2018 book on King Edward VIII’s relationship with the United States published.
What prompted the move from academia to the law?
I’d been a lecturer in medieval history at Cambridge University, which I’d really enjoyed but had not been able to find a tenured position.
So I decided that a career change was for the best, and retrained as a solicitor. I started my two-year conversion course in 1989 and joined Freshfields as a trainee in 1991.
All this meant I was a relative latecomer to the legal industry – I didn’t start with Freshfields until the age of 35.
Tell us about your time with the firm
I was with Freshfields for four years, the first two as a trainee – or ‘articled clerk’ as we were known then. On joining the tax department, I thought it would be all about doing sums. But it was more about finding solutions to the issues raised by the legislation – an intellectual rather than a mathematical pursuit, you could say. Then there were the meetings. Given my age, people expected me to have all the answers. But in reality, I hardly knew anything!
I worked with Will Lawes, who later became senior partner, Colin Hargreaves, Sarah Falk and Matthew Cosans. After I qualified, I continued working with Colin and Sarah, and also began working with Tim Ling, Frank Sandison and Richard Ballard.
I really enjoyed my four years on Fleet Street – I was very well looked after and enjoyed the intellectual rigour. But the hours were long and, with a young family, I needed a change of gear. In 1995 I moved back to Cambridge to work in the tax department for Mills & Reeve, a UK law firm. I stayed there until I retired in 2015.
Why did you turn to writing in your retirement?
During my time at Cambridge University, I’d published an academic book on King Henry V, who in 1415 had defeated the French at Agincourt. It’s a famous battle in English history that established the dual monarchy: for a short period, the English monarch was also king of France.
While at Freshfields, I’d hankered after going back to research. When I arrived as a trainee, the Public Record Office – now the National Archives – was in a building on nearby Chancery Lane. I’d occasionally go there at lunchtime to read up on history. But I couldn’t go back to research full time until I retired.
Why did you choose Edward VIII?
I’d always been interested in him. But of course his life had been covered extensively already in numerous biographies. If I was going to write about Edward, I’d have to find another angle.
Edward abdicated in 1936 in order to marry Wallis Simpson, a twice-divorced American whom he’d met in the mid-30s. In those days, it was inconceivable for the monarch to wed a divorcee. But Edward was so in love with her that he was willing to give up the throne to marry her.
This is an episode of his life – along with his visit to Nazi Germany in 1937 – that many people are familiar with. But during my research I started coming across passing references in the literature to his tours of America, his American connections and his American friends. So I thought: why not see what the US sources have to say? With the amount of material I found, I was amazed that nobody had ever covered this part of his story before. So I decided that a US-based view of his life was the way forward.
How did Edward become interested in the United States?
He wasn’t allowed to fight of course, but Edward spent the First World War in uniform and met a lot of American troops after the United States joined the western allies in 1917.
These interactions piqued his interest in the American way of life. In 1919, he visited North America and recognised that, with the European powers all suffering the consequences of four years’ war, the United States was emerging as the leading world power.
Given it wasn’t part of the British empire, it was also a country that he felt more relaxed in: the Americans treated him more like a celebrity than a royal.
So to the British public, Edward is the Prince of Wales, heir to the throne. But in private he is becoming increasingly Americanised, adopting American slang, buying American products, enjoying American jazz, and cultivating Americans friends and lovers, one of whom becomes his wife.
What happened after Edward abdicated?
Needless to say, he was ostracised by the royal family and was rarely mentioned in the British press.
Many people imagine he moved to the States. But, despite having an American wife and life, he never lived there permanently for tax reasons and chose Paris instead.
He did buy a ranch in Canada though and, during the second world war, was appointed governor of the Bahamas in the Caribbean, which allowed him to visit the US more easily. By all accounts, Edward and President Roosevelt got on very well.
What challenges did you face when writing the book?
The main one was the sheer volume of material.
For example, the US press frequently published articles and photos of Edward as there were few restrictions on covering the royals, while the recipients of his letters tended to keep them.
I could’ve also used the royal archives. But you have to get your material vetted, which would’ve meant not being able to tell the story I wanted.
Thankfully getting the book published was relatively straightforward. Oxford University Press had published my Henry V book and, despite the Edward volume being more for the general rather than academic reader, they were happy to help.
What’s next on the agenda?
I’m toying with the idea of a book about Winston Churchill’s relations with the six monarchs he served under. Like Edward, there are hundreds of books that have been written about him, so it would be a challenge! It’s still early days though.
Ted Powell’s book, King Edward VIII: An American Life, is available from all good book retailers.