Eighty-one years ago today King Edward VIII signed an instrument of abdication to step down from the throne, an act witnessed by his three younger brothers. On December 10, 1936, Edward had been on the throne for less than 11 months following the death of his father, George V, and his time in the top job had been a series of actions that lost him the trust of much of his government, horrified his family and broken any number of traditions that had once been taken for granted. His last task would come the next day when he issued royal assent for the declaration of abdication.
Thus far, this is the only voluntary abdication in British history. Former kings who relinquished the crown had been forced off, an act usually followed by a period of imprisonment and then assassination. As such, this caused an unprecedented situation – how does a modern king rule when a former king still lives? But even more than that, how could such an act come about when the throne was one’s birthright and one’s blood was “blue?” In the height of the crisis, it begged the question as to whether the monarchy had been indelibly damaged. For if there is an element of choice to who rules, then, well, who should have that choice?
We’re not going to focus too much on Edward and Wallis’s relationship today, except for the moments in which we must. Instead, I want to cover the mechanics of the abdication itself and the dynamics within the actual Windsor family.
Edward met Wallis for the first time back in 1931 when he was still the Prince of Wales, known as “David” to his friends and family. Their relationship didn’t deepen or become romantic until 1934, however in its early days it didn’t worry his family too much. David had long made it a habit to date inappropriate women, particularly those who were married. At various points David included his younger brother, Prince Albert, Duke of York, and his wife, Elizabeth, the Duchess of York, in social gatherings with Wallis, none of which ruffled too many feathers. The Yorks had been married for around a decade by then and had two daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret. Their personal brand of royalty was one of happy domesticity, while David was the handsome bachelor prince still in need of a wife.
However, the perception of Wallis by figures like the Yorks curdled long before David ascended the throne. The tenor of their relationship was seen as inappropriate and creepy by many and it was taken for granted that when duty called, David would put her aside and marry an available virgin with the necessary bloodlines. Many also held on to the hope that when the time came, David would adopt a more traditional lifestyle, adhere to protocol and respect the guidelines of monarch.
This last bit speaks to the aspect of the Abdication Crisis less focused on by popular culture – the extent to which David was ideologically unfit to rule, and the powerful role that politics played in his eventual departure. In 1936, when George V died and David became Edward VIII, Europe was but a hair away from World War II. The political neutrality of a sovereign within the structure of a constitutional monarchy is paramount – particularly in the dicey environment of a pre-war period. Consider then that within that context, David was best known as monarch for breaking traditions. He had no interest in moving to Buckingham Palace, a fact that came to haunt his niece two decades later, he cancelled meetings with his government at whim and had no problem expressing his own political inclinations. Most chillingly, he was a vehement admirer of German culture and deeply suspicious of the French.
David’s government certainly knew and cared about his relationship with Wallis, but it was first treated as a matter of concern and not crisis. Far from casting her aside or at least hiding her, she was on full display when he took the unprecedented step of watching his own proclamation of kingship in January 1936. Four months later she and her husband, Ernest Simpson, were present when David held a dinner party to which Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin was invited. In stereotypical British fashion, no one addressed the elephant in the room.
Things intensified when Ernest moved out of the couple’s home that July and Wallis accompanied David on a holiday along the coasts of Turkey, Greece and Yugoslavia. The British press declined to report on the relationship, however American and Canadian media felt no such uneasiness, creating a dynamic in which the King’s subjects abroad had a more urgent and current sense of what was building than the British public. By the autumn, Wallis moved to a house in Regent’s Park paid for by David, which finally prompted Baldwin to have the uncomfortable conversation. He didn’t ask him to break things off, but he did advise the King to be more discreet and to urge Wallis not to divorce her husband. An affair with a married woman was distasteful, but an affair with a divorcee, available for remarriage, was catastrophic.
Behind the scenes, David was dropping the ball. He rarely read his dispatches in a timely manner. He was unresponsive. He was indiscreet. As it became more and more apparent that war was looming, his government ministers – particularly those handling foreign affairs and intelligence – began to censor what information was shared with him. This was unprecedented and arguably unconstitutional, however the very real concern these men were grappling with was the suspicion that Wallis may have had ties to Nazi Germany, claims which have never been definitively proven, but were absolutely factors while David sat on the throne.
David, however, had little interest in finding a suitable woman to marry and was dead set on not only keeping Wallis, but elevating her. This begs the question, what was his motivation? Love, of course, but as a member of the Royal Family since birth he would have been well-aware of how extreme his actions were. It’s possible he thought that as king he would be able to strong-arm his way into getting what he wanted, but the argument that he was self-sabotaging is compelling. Nothing about David’s character or behavior before or after becoming king paint a portrait of a man interested in ruling. Was he in fact forcing a situation that would allow him to step down? Was his government, knowing his rule wasn’t sustainable? I would argue the answer to both is yes, however not in a vacuum – an abdication was a catastrophe, but as 1936 played out it was becoming clear that David’s rule would be worse than a moment of reckoning for the government. A “bad” monarch had been seen before, but not of this ilk in the modern era and there’s a credible argument to be made that one could irreparably damage the institution far more. Can you, for example, imagine Great Britain getting through World War II with a pro-German king?
David announced his intention to marry Wallis to Baldwin on November 16, 1936. Baldwin responded that the British public would never accept her for queen, while David’s final word was that he would abdicate if not able to have his way. Where was Wallis in all of this? Not whispering in his ear encouraging him, that’s for sure. And that’s an important point for two reasons – Wallis was no Anne Boleyn. Her end game was not to be crowned or to become a working royal. Instead she would have preferred to carry on as David’s mistress and, if the issue came to a head, retreat. She was adamantly against the abdication, which brings up the next important point: this was all David’s doing. That in and of itself, to me, points to David looking for an excuse to stop being king.
Nine days after that initial meeting, David again met with Baldwin and broached the subject of a morganatic marriage. In this scenario, David and Wallis would marry, however Wallis wouldn’t be queen. Instead she would only be David’s wife privately. This is a practice that has occurred a few times in other European monarchies through history, but never in Britain. Implementing it would have required the passage of legislation not only in British Parliament, but in the governments of all its dominions. David pushed Baldwin to broach the subject; he did, and it was roundly rejected.
On December 2, Baldwin laid out three scenarios for David: 1) end his relationship with Wallis; 2) marry Wallis against the advice of his government and have all of his ministers resign in protest; or 3) abdicate the throne.
The next day the British papers finally broke the story of what was happening between David and Wallis, as well as between David and his government. By then David’s heir, the Duke of York, was fully looped into the dynamics and well-aware the prospect of succeeding his brother on the throne imminently was on the table. York, like Wallis, was not in favor of an abdication and had zero desire to rule. Wallis, meanwhile, was forced to depart England for France that same day thanks to the level of press attention and public derision. David asked Baldwin to address his people directly and essentially plead his case, but Baldwin barred him, arguing it would be unconstitutional.
A week out from the abdication, there are a few dynamics worth considering. David’s government wasn’t unified in its rejection of the marriage. Wallis was no one’s first choice, but there were a number of officials who believed the idea of an abdication was worse, or who urged that some delay be found in the hopes David would eventually fall out of love. Among those ministers was none other than Winston Churchill, however neither Baldwin nor David seemed interested in a delay, but rather an immediate reckoning, however dramatic and painful. Then there is also the fact that the working class was in favor of the King and believed he should be able to marry as he wished. Notably, it was only the upper and middle classes who thoroughly disapproved of Wallis on moral and ideological grounds.
On December 9, David informed Baldwin and his government of his intention to abdicate. The following day he signed an Instrument of Abdication in front of York and their younger brothers, the Dukes of Kent and Gloucester, at his favorite home, Fort Belvedere.
On December 11 the Abdication was endorsed by Parliament and David finally addressed the British public, not as a monarch but as a private citizen. The speech read:
At long last I am able to say a few words of my own. I have never wanted to withhold anything, but until now it has not been constitutionally possible for me to speak.
A few hours ago I discharged my last duty as King and Emperor, and now that I have been succeeded by my brother, the Duke of York, my first words must be to declare my allegiance to him. This I do with all my heart.
You all know the reasons which have impelled me to renounce the throne. But I want you to understand that in making up my mind I did not forget the country or the empire, which, as Prince of Wales and lately as King, I have for twenty-five years tried to serve.
But you must believe me when I tell you that I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.
And I want you to know that the decision I have made has been mine and mine alone. This was a thing I had to judge entirely for myself. The other person most nearly concerned has tried up to the last to persuade me to take a different course.
I have made this, the most serious decision of my life, only upon the single thought of what would, in the end, be best for all.
This decision has been made less difficult to me by the sure knowledge that my brother, with his long training in the public affairs of this country and with his fine qualities, will be able to take my place forthwith without interruption or injury to the life and progress of the empire. And he has one matchless blessing, enjoyed by so many of you, and not bestowed on me — a happy home with his wife and children.
During these hard days I have been comforted by her majesty my mother and by my family. The ministers of the crown, and in particular, Mr. Baldwin, the Prime Minister, have always treated me with full consideration. There has never been any constitutional difference between me and them, and between me and Parliament. Bred in the constitutional tradition by my father, I should never have allowed any such issue to arise.
Ever since I was Prince of Wales, and later on when I occupied the throne, I have been treated with the greatest kindness by all classes of the people wherever I have lived or journeyed throughout the empire. For that I am very grateful.
I now quit altogether public affairs and I lay down my burden. It may be some time before I return to my native land, but I shall always follow the fortunes of the British race and empire with profound interest, and if at any time in the future I can be found of service to his majesty in a private station, I shall not fail.
And now, we all have a new King. I wish him and you, his people, happiness and prosperity with all my heart. God bless you all! God save the King!
You can listen to the original recording here:
That evening, David spent his last night in Britain and the next day, December 12, he left England for Austria. That same day the Duke of York was proclaimed King George VI, whose first act was to bestow on his brother the title Duke of Windsor. The planned coronation for David the following spring instead became the new King’s coronation, which was carried out alongside Queen Elizabeth on May 12, 1937.
For the next several months, David remained in Austria while Wallis lived in France, waiting for her divorce to be finalized. It was finally made legal on May 3, a fact which barely made a blip in the international press, despite the fact it was followed by news that David finally made his way to France to join her. The two were married on June 3, 1937 just outside of Tours. While Wallis was legally the Duchess of Windsor as her husband’s wife, she was denied the styling of Her Royal Highness, an insult that David never forgot and which helped permanently spoil his relationship with the rest of his family until his death.
The impact of the Abdication can still be felt today. It is, after all, why Queen Elizabeth II sits on the throne. At the time of her birth she was expected to carry the same dynastic significance of today’s Princess Beatrice, and even if David had never married, her accession would have been postponed until at least the 1970s, changing her life remarkably. The fact that she, at the age of 10, watched her father take on the mantle of sovereign through duty and carry it admirably well through World War II explains so very much about her own attitude towards her role and why it is still so difficult today for many to contemplate a scenario in which she fully steps down from the throne even in her 90s.
We’ve seen the Abdication’s ripple effects in other ways. Certainly it was a reference point less than 20 years later when David’s niece, Princess Margaret, was contemplating marrying Group Captain Peter Townsend, a divorced man. It helps to explain the Royal Family’s attitude towards it and why Margaret eventually chose duty over love, ending the relationship to stay a member of her family.
Its ghost was again called upon when today’s Prince of Wales sought to marry the Duchess of Cornwall, his long-term, off-and-on mistress through the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. Most recently, Wallis was brought forth as a counterpoint to Meghan Markle, for it would certainly have been impossible for Prince Harry to announce such an engagement a century ago. What we have learned in subsequent years, thanks to changing attitudes about morality, family and marriage, is that personal preference and happiness have space within the institution. Arguably they are imperative in today’s media environment.
But the Abdication Crisis has to be considered within its own time. Even if one feels personal empathy for David and Wallis, it is not a small thing to acknowledge the sheer volume of government officials who opposed it. We can disagree with that opposition, but the fact remains, such is the role of a sovereign within a constitutional monarchy.
And then there is the far more important fact that David wasn’t a good king. His sitting on the throne during World War II could very well have changed the course of the 20th century. In that sense, with the enormous benefit of hindsight, the Abdication and the reckoning it wrought was positive. Because of it we have had George VI and Elizabeth II, two of the most successful monarchs Britain has ever seen.