By Philip Ziegler

Knopf. 552 pp. $24.95

The royal librarian escorted me through the queen's "dear mausoleum" at Frogmore. On the edge of the Windsor Castle grounds, the domed structure houses the tombs of Victoria and Albert, memorials to family members and even a plaque to Scot gillie John Brown. Outside the cemetery lawn, Oliver Everette pointed out, was a fresh grave. Next to her husband, king for 11 months, the Duchess of Windsor was finally ensconced at the royal seat.

Books about the ex-king, even the newest and most sympathetic of the lot, suggest that Britain lucked out. Winston Churchill, a loyalist who had assisted with the poignant "woman I love" abdication address in December 1936, even predicted wryly that "a grateful commonwealth," recognizing that the twice-married Mrs. Simpson had saved it, "will erect her statue." Charitably, Philip Ziegler does not quote Churchill in his biography "King Edward VIII."

Charity is the key in which the biography is composed, establishing an appeal to sentimentalists about fallen princes as well as to voyeurs of raffish royalties. Sister-in-law Elizabeth, Edward's most implacable enemy once she became queen, reproved him gently in 1926, "You are very, very naughty, but delicious." He had already slipped the stifling traces of what he called "Buckhouse prison" and had long rejected the mid-Victorian values of his severe parents, George V and Mary.

What he could not escape was being Prince of Wales and first in the line of succession. He liked the perquisites, but not what he labeled "princing," and saw no reason to let it spoil his private fun, however much of it got into the newspapers. Victoria had grieved that her playboy son Bertie, the Prince of Wales and future Edward VII, was unfit to be king, and vowed to outlive him. Of his own Prince of Wales, George V (Edward VII's humdrum son) confided, "If he were {only} a fool, we would not mind." Even Edward's oldest friend (and secretary), Godfrey Thomas, worried, "One could prop up the facade for a Prince of Wales -- not so easy for a king."

Since Edward's only impact upon history was his opting out of it, why another biography? Our attraction to high gossip aside, Ziegler implies that history has been unfair to Edward and owes him at least the measure of forgiveness due an abused child gone wrong. Badly schooled and reined in at every opportunity, he understood as he came of age that he had only two princely duties. He was to represent the monarch to the empire as surrogate for the reclusive king; and he was to sire the succession. Often diverted by drink and dalliance, he was a mixed success on the road. His boyish good looks lasted longer than his innocent earnestness, which gave way to hatred for the boring royal routine. An arrested adolescent with a martinet father and an exacting mother, he preferred married, maternal women to nubile potential brides.

Ziegler's major find is the correspondence with the first of them, Freda Dudley Ward, the pretty wife of a complaisant MP. The link lasted from 1917, when Edward was 23, until 1934, although toward the end another half-American beauty, Thelma Furness, was sharing the prince. A brief voyage to New York proved Lady Furness's undoing. She made the mistake of asking Baltimore-born Wallis Warfield Simpson to look after Edward in the interim.

Except for husbands, Mrs. Simpson never gave anything back. Although Duff Cooper, the prince's friend, later a cabinet minister, found Wallis "hard as nails," that quality captivated the 40-year-old Edward. Wallis at 38 dazzled him by her sophistication and demanded his total devotion. He gave it, abjectly, although the embarrassing evidence in the infantile letters published in 1986 as "Wallis and Edward" is curiously absent from Ziegler's pages.

Even after her second divorce she was no closer to becoming queen than before. The Royal Marriages Act of 1772 remained in the way. Edward bargained only to get off the throne with sufficient perks and pounds to maintain a lavish lifestyle, but his brother, succeeding him as George VI, wanted him nowhere near England.

Doomed as Duke of Windsor to a peripatetic life, Edward thought he might be rescued for some service by World War II. But an ill-conceived visit to Germany in October 1937, during which he was exploited by the Nazis, and appeasement sentiments no worse than those of many of his contemporaries, derailed any serious appointment. When France fell, and the Windsors fled to Spain, there was concern that he might be seized for further Nazi use, perhaps as puppet king. A backwater assignment as governor of the Bahamas was the answer, and he languished on the thin edge of history until the end of the war. Then it was back to France, where he and Wallis elegantly did nothing until the end of his life, nursing grievances abetted by the duchess that she was still not styled an HRH by George VI -- or later by the duke's niece, Elizabeth II.

"My duty as I saw it," claimed Wallis, "was to evoke for him the nearest equivalent to a kingly life that I could produce without a kingdom." And she did, but their postwar life, however opulent, was empty.

While conceding their faults, Ziegler is excessively generous to a singularly ungenerous couple. He glosses over or omits evidences of the meanness and malodorousness of Edward and his Wallis, both before the abdication and after, that would take pages here to enumerate. To a British bureaucrat assigned to keep tabs on the Windsors, they were "the arch-beachcombers of the world." Although they had escaped what Edward had scorned as the "tomb" of the monarchy, Wallis would have embraced it eagerly. Side by side at Windsor but only in death, Edward VIII and his consort achieved the small consolation of the Frogmore lawn.

The reviewer is the author of many books on 20th-century British literature and social history.