On January 21, 1936, this happened. Now, I only recently found this out, having given it literally no amount of thought, but monarchs don’t watch the formal proclamation of their accession. In Edward’s case, he not only did it, but he did it publicly from a window in St. James’s Palace next to none other than his long-time, still-married companion, Wallis Simpson. #Scandal. Well, sort of.
Edward’s father, George V, died on January 20 at Sandringham House in Norfolk after a 25-year reign. Edward was 43, unmarried, childless and had, in certain circles, a reputation for being a bit of playboy, particularly if the women in question were married.
At the time that he became king, his relationship with Wallis Simpson wasn’t well-known to the public – thus, seeing them together wouldn’t raise alarm bells for most people. But it certainly did for those who knew who Wallis was, particularly members of Edward’s government, his family and his courtiers. As Edward was about to find out, what had been tolerated for the throne’s heir, would emphatically not be for its king.
A relationship had been underway since the winter of 1434 when Edward’s then-girlfriend, Thelma Furness left England to visit her sister in the United States and asked her friend, Wallis, to keep an eye on the prince. Edward and Wallis had known each other for about three years at that point, having been introduced by Thelma on January 10, 1931.
By the time Thelma returned to England in March 1934, the rather strange, obsessive relationship between Edward and Wallis had begun and the rest was history. Especially if by “history” you mean the “abdication crisis.”
By January 1936, the relationship was certainly known within the family. The year before, Edward had brought Wallis to a court function at the Palace and essentially tricked his mother, Queen Mary, into receiving her. This didn’t go over too well with George V.
And while Albert, Duke of York and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, Duchess of York, Edward’s brother and sister-in-law, had met and socialized with the couple on occasion, the relationships were becoming increasingly frosty.
It was also known by the government, particularly as members of the Metropolitan Police Special Branch were tailing them, uneasy about the influence Wallis appeared to have over the Prince.
A gentlemen’s agreement kept news of the relationship out of the British papers, but American and Canadian media had a field day. Once Edward was king, Wallis appeared more frequently at court, showing up in the Court Circular, significantly, without mention of her husband, Ernest Simpson.
Showing little interest in governing and with rumors circulating that Wallis had had, or was having, a side relationship that put her in the position of serving as a German spy, ministers began editing and withholding what information was shared with the King. Three years out from the outbreak of World War II, it’s not difficult to understand why. It was the first time such a precaution between government and monarch had been installed. And though constitutionally murky, it also spoke to the extent that Wallis and her friends – as well as Edward’s judgment and discretion – were mistrusted.
In October the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, finally approached Edward and asked him to distance himself from the relationship. Far from being well-received, Wallis was soon divorced from her husband and Edward proposed marrying her, even in a morganatic union so that she didn’t assume the title of queen. By November 27, this idea had been rejected by the Cabinet. On December 2, Baldwin informed Edward that if he was set on marrying Wallis he would have to abdicate. On December 10, he did.
The next day the abdication was confirmed by the government and Edward left England for Austria, not knowing he wouldn’t be able to eventually return full-time. Per an agreement with his younger brother, Albert, Duke of York, now George VI, he styled himself as the Duke of Windsor, a title that was formalized in March 1937.
In June of that year Edward and Wallis were married at the Chateau de Cande in France, but not before George VI passed letters patent – days before the wedding – stating that neither his brother’s wife nor his children would be allowed an HRH. Edward would never get over the insult.
In October of that year, the new Duke and Duchess of Windsor traveled to Germany against the advice of the British government and met Adolf Hitler, likely confirming whatever doubts there had been about the couple’s judgment and sympathies during Edward’s kingship. There’s been a lot of speculation in the subsequent decades about what Edward and Wallis’s true feelings were towards Hitler and the Nazi party, but it’s important to recognize the full extent of the Nazi agenda wasn’t fully appreciated by the public, especially in 1937.
Hitler, for his part, remarked about Wallis after meeting her, “She would have made a good queen.” Not quite a ringing endorsement for the British.
In 1940 the couple was posted in The Bahamas to keep them out of the way, a fact they both resented. Once World War II ended in 1945, Edward and Wallis returned to France, where they remained until Edward’s death in 1972.
Wallis traveled back to England to attend Edward’s funeral, where his body was laid to rest in Frogmore at Windsor. She was received by the Queen Mother, Elizabeth II and other members of the royal family, and stayed at Buckingham Palace for the visit. For the next 14 years she lived mostly as a recluse in Paris, supported by Edward’s estates and an allowance from the Queen. She died on April 24, 1986 and is buried next to her husband at Frogmore.
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