A mystery in the Bodleian

Stephen Smith joins journalists who, looking for new revelations about Edward VIII, found only a ver

Like a saint's bones, the cache of royal letters disinterred at Oxford University inspired a terrible awe. For the first time in half a century, sunlight was allowed to play upon the papers of the late Walter Monckton, solicitor and confidant to Edward VIII, or the Duke of Windsor as he became. Journalists were invited to witness the sepulchre giving up its numinous relics. We presented ourselves bright and early in a bicycle-loud Broad Street, the scent of a scoop in our nostrils: would Edward's rumoured exchange of telegrams with Hitler confirm him as the Fuhrer's fool? Would we learn more about the abdication crisis? What would Lord Monckton's archive disclose about the feud between the Queen Mother and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor?

Alas, the old letters reeked of nothing so much as lavender-water, the perfume of sanitised embarrassment. Unknown hands had removed a note that, according to a catalogue, had been penned at the Queen Mother's escritoire in 1940. This was at about the time when she was referring to the Duchess of Windsor as "the lowest of the low", and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, with the abdication behind them, were settling into the Governor's House in Nassau to see out the war.

It was a very British cover-up. No use imagining MI5 dissolving the Buck House headed writing-paper in acid; even the name for this practice is redolent of a quintessentially British pastime. It's called "weeding". The palace admitted that some of Monckton's trove had been deposited for sake-keeping in the royal archives at Windsor: it was all too easy to picture the liveried retainer truffling among the document wallets, his murmur of satisfaction at the sight of a familiar seal, a gloved hand doing the rest.

At the Bodleian Library, flummoxed archivists denied any responsibility for the excision. One stack-denizen estimated that the document in question might have disappeared as early as the 1970s.

"I can't think, at her venerable age, the Queen Mother would be embarrassed by something she wrote 60 years ago," said Andrew Roberts, author of Eminent Churchillians. It has since been claimed, in the Independent on Sunday, that the withheld documents - Box 24 of the Monckton collection - would have disclosed the Queen Mother's pro-appeasement sympathies, though given that they probably won't be released until 2037, it may be some time before this can be confirmed.

Under the tutelage of Roberts and one or two other scholars who knew what they were looking for, the press set about turning the missing material, the no-show, into the story. But, as if in a third-rate Oxford novel, this consternated the varsity types. To them, the very sight and touch of the revealed archive, its sheer stuffiness, was its glory. What was new about the Monckton documents, we wanted to know. What was new was that you could see them for yourselves, replied the nonplussed academics.

Well, yes, I suppose this was true. But only after we had been fingerprinted and body-searched, and made to change into sterile boilersuits and hairnets. I exaggerate, but not by much. Before we were allowed anywhere near the 20 or so manila document cases, we had to produce letters from our editors, confirming that we were in fact who we claimed to be, (though in our case, the Bodleian waived a rule requiring proof of our home addresses, too). You couldn't quibble about filling out a form and sitting for a photograph in exchange for a reader's card. Journalists were tolerated - just. Before the day was out, you suspected that the experience of having us up was turning the SCR sherry to vinegar on many donnish palates.

The less prestigiously educated of the reporters were surprised to be asked to swear an arcane oath, the burden of which was that we agreed not to take firewood into the reading-rooms. After all these conditions had been met, we discovered that we couldn't just quote from the papers, as we had assumed. We had to apply for permission to the Master of Balliol - Monckton had left his papers to his old college - though, in a concession to the age, e-mail requests were acceptable.

"This is ridiculous," I said under my breath. Or so I thought.

"What did you say?" It was the senior librarian. That's torn it, I thought. I fully expected to be gated, or perhaps even rusticated. But just at that moment, the senior librarian was distracted by the sight of one of my colleagues brandishing a Biro instead of the regulation HB pencil. "Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah!" cried the senior librarian.

In the document case that I signed for - roughly the dimensions of a takeout pizza box - I found carbons of the Duke of Windsor's memoirs. On page 85, he had written: "Publicity was part of my heritage, and I was never so naive as to expect that my romance was a tender shoot that -" the sentence was unfinished, and scored out in blue ink. The Duke's exchange of telegrams with Hitler in 1939 found the former monarch making a personal appeal for "a peaceful solution to the present problem". The Nazi leader wired back that it "depends on England whether relations between the Germans and the English can find the correct channel". The old monster must have had them eating out of his hands with his punctilious observance of the social niceties: "Thank you for your telegram of the 27th," his cable begins.

The Duke evidently believed that doing his bit in the Last Unpleasantness involved giving interviews to the American media. Allies' losses tended to prompt dreamy ducal maunderings about the new order that was on the way in Europe. Not surprisingly, these interventions were considered "unhelpful" in Downing Street. On 6 June 1941, Winston Churchill memoed the colonial secretary: "What is wanted is a competent and important American publicist who would come down from time to time to Nassau and try to instil sound ideas into that circle. It does not matter if there is a row."

This was a precocious case of spin- doctoring. There was, of course, no suggestion of this activity going on amid the dreaming spires when a distinguished don contrived to mention the weeded Monckton archive and freedom of information in the same breath. The professor held that since the cache contained none of the anticipated goodies - on the abdication, the war, and so on - it should never have been kept secret in the first place.

But where did this argument leave Box 24, the one with the goodies in, the one that has been suppressed?

"I can't comment on that," said the professor. "I haven't seen it."

Stephen Smith is a "Channel 4 News" reporter. His book "Colombia, Cocaine Train" is published by Little, Brown (£17.99)