The Abdication of Edward VIII

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Podcast Transcript

In December 1936, the United Kingdom underwent its greatest constitutional crisis of the 20th century. 

The king, Edward VIII, abdicated the throne to marry an American divorcee. This might not seem like a scandal today, but at the time, it threatened to collapse the entire British government when Europe was on the brink of war. 

The aftermath of the abdication crisis saw the rise of a new king and the birth of an entirely new royal line, a legacy that endures to this day. 

Learn more about the abdication of Edward VIII, why it happened, and its fallout on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Looking at the events of 1936 through the lens of the modern world, the abdication crisis can seem very hard to understand. It isn’t just through a modern lens that this crisis doesn’t make sense. 

If it had happened several centuries beforehand, during the divine rule of kings, it also might not have caused controversy. Many, many kings did far worse things, and everyone overlooked it because…..they were the king. 

However, the events of this episode took place in a very particular time after the Victorian Era, but before the modern era.

The story starts in the reign of King George V. 

George V was the son of King Edward VII and the grandson of Queen Victoria. 

Born in 1865, he was not next in line to the throne when he was born. His older brother, Prince Albert Victor, died of pneumonia in 1892 at the age of 28. 

His father ascended to the throne in 1901 with the death of Queen Victoria, and then himself died in 1910, elevating George V to king. 

George V was a pivotal and often overlooked monarch in the 20th century. He was the king during the First World War, which saw the destruction of monarchies in Germany and Russia, monarchs who were his cousins. 

George reigned for over 25 years during significant changes to Britain and its empire. One thing that hadn’t changed at this time was the societal morals of the period. More on that in a bit. 

George was noteworthy for having changed the name of his royal house from Saxe-Coburgh Gotha to Windsor. The name axe-Coburg-Gotha came from the house of his grandfather, Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria. The reason why it became the name of the royal house was because the children of Victoria and Albert took the name of their father, as is the tradition in most cultures. 

George changed the name of the royal house during the war to something that sounded less German: Windsor. The name Windsor was taken from Windsor Castle in Berkshire, England. 

George had several sons. His eldest son was Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David, whom his family called David, but the world knew as Prince Edward.

He had four other younger sons, Albert, Henry, George, and John. John died at the age of 13, and George died in the second world war at the age of 39.

It was Edward, as the eldest, who was destined to be king. As was the practice at the time, he was primarily raised by nannies, although his parents were affectionate if demanding.

He was privately tutored and was admitted to the Royal Naval College, Osborne, in 1907. He then moved to the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth.

He was installed as the Prince of Wales in 1910 at the age of 16. He entered the navy for three months but later left to attend Oxford. 

According to those who knew him at the time, he was woefully unprepared for life at Oxford. He didn’t receive a degree or any credentials, but he did excel at polo. 

In 1914, he joined the Grenadier Guards 1914 with the intent of serving on the front lines but was denied by the Secretary of War, who thought it too great of a risk for the heir to the throne to be captured. 

He visited the front lines many times in his role as Prince of Wales, where he earned the respect of many soldiers. 

After the war, Edward, in his position as Prince of Wales, represented his father all over the world. He traveled to India, Australia, Canada, the United States and many other countries. 

In the early 1920s, Prince Edward became a media darling. He was a prince, he was good-looking, single, and he was extremely well-dressed. He became one of the male fashion icons of the era.  In 1924, Mens Wear magazine noted, “The average young man in America is more interested in the clothes of the Prince of Wales than in any other individual on earth.”

The Prince of Wales led an extremely active social life and was what you would call a playboy. 

He had many affairs and romances in the late 1920s and early 1930s, such that he began to develop a reputation.  Many people in the royal family and in the government began to express concerns about the behavior of the future king. 

He had multiple affairs, some with married women, which was extremely scandalous.

His father, King George V, favored his younger brother Albert. Albert was married to his wife, Elizabeth, and had a stable life with a family. He reportedly told one of his assistants, “I pray to God that my eldest son will never marry and have children and that nothing will come between Bertie and Lilibet and the throne.”

Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin expressed similar concerns to those of the king. 

In January 1934, Edward met the woman who was to be his future wife, an American named Wallace Simpson. Born Bessie Wallis Warfield, she was married and divorced to an American aviator named Earl Spencer and then remarried to a British businessman named Ernest Simpson. 

She was still married to Simpson when she began her affair with Prince Edward. 

Eventually, Edward began to give attention to Wallis to the exclusion of all other women he was involved with. They became quite serious even though she was still married. 

Edward and Wallis were extremely open about their relationship despite the fact that the King and Queen vehemently opposed it, as did members of the British government. 

He brought her to Buckingham Palace in 1935, but the King and Queen refused to receive her. 

King George V died on January 20, 1936, and Edward Prince of Wales became King Edward VIII.

When his ascension to the crown was proclaimed the next day, Edward observed it from the balcony of St. James Palaace with Wallis at his side.

What was a before concern about the prince and his personal behavior now became a panic. As king, he wasn’t just the king. He was also the head of the Church of England, and the head of the Church couldn’t be involved with a twice-married woman. 

Having ascended to the throne, Edward didn’t break off his relationship with Wallis. In fact, he doubled down. He was seen socially with her at many events. In August 1936, he took a cruise in the Mediterranean with her which became very public. 

Wallis was going through divorce proceedings, and Edward let it become known that he intended to marry Wallis. The idea of a twice-divorced American woman with two living ex-husbands as the queen consort of the British Empire and her husband being the head of the Church of England was simply too much for many in government. 

Gossip about the couple was published freely in the United States but was not run by the press in the UK. Most of Britain’s gossip was done in whispers and not in public.

On November 16, 1936, Edward formally told the Prime Minister of his plans to marry Wallis Simpson as soon as her divorce was finalized. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Gordon Lang, insisted that Edward had to be removed as king. 

Edward proposed a solution known as a morganatic marriage. A morganatic marriage is almost unheard of today, but it was a type of marriage between people of unequal social rank. Edward proposed the he would remain king, but Wallis would not become queen, and their children would not be in line for the throne. 

However, this was rejected by the British cabinet and the dominion governments of Canada, Australia, and South Africa, where Edward was king. 

Another cause of concern was something that was kept secret for decades. Scotland Yard followed Wallis Simpson, and they found that she was having an affair behind the back of Edward with a car salesman by the name of Guy Trundle. 

Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin eventually presented Edward with three choices: the first was not to marry Wallis and move on. The second was to marry despite the wishes of the British and Dominion governments, in which case the governments would resign, spurring a constitutional crisis that might end the monarchy. 

His third choice was to abdicate and marry Wallis. 

The British press had been silent on the whole matter, but it finally became front-page news on December 3. Wallis fled for the south of France at the suggestion of the royal advisors for her safety and to keep out of the public eye. 

Here, I should note that the affair with Wallis Simpson was not the only concern public officials had. Edward often opined on political matters which was not supposed to be done by the king. British intelligence officials had intercepted German communications to their British embassy, which hinted that Simpson might have been working for them. 

Edward himself also expressed statements that were sympathetic to Nazi Germany. 

Facing the choice of the woman he loved and his position as king, Edward decided to abdicate the throne. On December 10, he signed a deceleration of abdication, and the next day, Parliament passed His Majesty’s Declaration of Abdication Act 1936. His last act as king was to consent to the law, thus ending his monarchy.

He had been king for less than a year. 

His brother Albert, who was known as Bertie, became king and took the royal name George VI. 

The question now was, what do you do with a former king? Nothing quite like this had ever happened before. Edward became stylized a prince, which was his right as the son and brother of a king.

He was given the title Duke of Windsor and was to be called His Royal Highness. By making him a duke, he was given a prestigious title and ensured he couldn’t run for parliament. 

Wallis Simpson’s divorce was finalized on May 3, 1937, and the couple married exactly one month later in France. King George forbade any members of the royal family to attend.

In October of 1937, Edward and Wallis conducted a tour of Nazi Germany, against the advice of the British Government, and had a private meeting with Hitler. Supposedly, in the Nazi plans for the conquest of Britain, they would have installed Edward back on the throne as a puppet ruler.

He was appointed the Governor of the Bahamans in 1940, which was largely thought to be a move to get him out of Europe.

He and Wallis, now the Dutchess of Windsor, spent the rest of their lives in a state of retirement in France, hobnobbing with celebrities and making occasional visits back to Britain for funerals. 

Edward, the Duke of Windsor, died on May 28, 1972, at the age of 77. Wallis, the Duchess of Windsor, died on April 29, 1986, at the age of 89.

They are buried together at the Royal Burial Ground at the Frogmore Estate in England. 

For the rest of his life, and long after, the Royal Family, especially Queen Elizabeth, had a deep animosity towards Edward. He was shunned from all official activities, and despite being slowed in her later years, she refused to abdicate for her son because of the precedent set by her uncle. 

If it hadn’t been for the abdication of King Edward VIII, the British monarchy would look radically different today.

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel. 

The associate producers are Ben Long and Cameron Kieffer. 

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This podcast has been quite an experience for me, and launching it is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

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