Abdication Crisis of Edward VIII

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The Instrument of Abdication signed by Edward VIII

Like King Henry VIII of England, whose wish to marry Anne Boleyn in the 1530s rocked his kingdom, King Edward VIII created a crisis for the United Kingdom and the British Commonwealth in the 1930s when he wished to marry Wallis Simpson: many have argued that the problem for Edward was that as king he was also Supreme Governor of the Church of England, which did not allow divorced persons to remarry in church while a former spouse was still living, and Mrs. Simpson's first two husbands were still alive. (One of the great ironies of the situation is that Henry VIII separated English Catholicism from Roman control, thus creating the Church of England, so he could divorce 1 Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn while Catherine was still alive.) However, others point out that it was more of a problem with the Commonwealth governments being unwilling to accept the king's choice of consort.


The rumours about Wallis

If the king's advisors had considered Mrs. Simpson a suitable consort, they might have made more of an effort to find a legal solution to his problem. (Because her first marriage was dissolved in the United States, even if her second marriage had been annulled, she still would be in legal terms a "divorcée".) But his ministers (like his family) found Mrs. Simpson's background and behavior unthinkably unacceptable for a queen; his mother, the dowager Queen Mary, even suspecting that she held some sort of "sexual bond" over him (a situation similar to Cecily Neville's heated reaction to her son Edward IV's feelings for Elizabeth Woodville). Even Edward VIII's official biographer, Philip Ziegler, accepted that premise. He noted that:

There must have been some sort of sadomachistic relationship . . . [Edward] relished the contempt and bullying she bestowed on him. 2

The private papers of Walter Turner Monckton, legal advisor to Edward, were released by the Bodleian Library in Oxford on January 29, 2003 (except for one batch concerning private correspondence to Monckton from Queen Elizabeth, the mother of Queen Elizabeth II, which remains embargoed until 2037). They provide a valuable insight into the facts and attitudes behind the abdication, and the rumours and innuendo that shaped them, most notably concerning Wallis Simpson.

Wallis's other lovers

Police detectives following Mrs. Simpson reported back that while involved with King Edward, Wallis was in fact involved in another sexual relationship, with a married car mechanic and salesman named Guy Trundle. This fact may well have been made known to senior figures in the British establishment, including members of the royal family. King Edward, however, remained unaware of his mistress's infidelity with another man. A third lover has also been revealed, Edward Fitzgerald, Duke of Leinster, Ireland's premier peer and close friend of her future husband.

The Baltimore "gold digger"

Some correspondents from Wallis's home city of Baltimore, writing to the Royal Family and senior political figures, painted a less than impressive portrait of a woman some called a "prostitute". One correspondent, Joe Longton, wrote: "Being a Baltimorean of nigh on 30 years, we know this gold digger or 'prospector of the evening'" whom he further claimed was a "Queen of the Golden Gummet" (ie, lesbian). He further believed that the king was gay, with their prospective marriage a "Lavender Marriage", by which both could hide their true sexual orientations. Other Baltimoreans wrote less flattering claims, including that she was intersexed. Other correspondents suggested that it was "well known" that Mrs. Simpson had had an abortion, a crime in the vast majority of world states at the time. Another letter writer from the United States suggested Wallis's "hold" on the king's affections was because "she keeps him drinking and may be giving him drugs in his liquor."

Such venomous comments indicate the scale of Wallis's unpopularity. While it is not known whether such claims reached the ears of senior political or royal figures, they indicate the widely held view among the establishment (and among some of Wallis's own friends) that she was totally unsuited to be a royal consort, let alone the wife of the Supreme Governor of the Church of England.

These letters from Baltimore appear to be speculative at best and are just hearsay.

What the FBI reported

If some people from Baltimore were scathing in their unsubstantiated attacks on Wallis, the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation produced its own series of claims. The most damaging alleged that in 1936, while simultaneously having affairs with King Edward and Guy Trundle, she also had a third lover (not counting her husband), the German Reich's Ambassador to the Court of St. James's (i.e. Britain), Joachim von Ribbentrop. The Bureau not merely claimed that they had had a relationship, but that von Ribbentrop every day sent her 17 carnations, one for each time they slept together. It marked a further extremely damaging claim made against the woman who could become queen, that she (and indeed her husband) were Nazi sympathisers.

Wallis: A Nazi agent?

The British government was told that Wallis Simpson was a "Nazi agent", according to files released in January 2003. It was rumoured that Wallis had access to top secret government files which were sent to King Edward, and which he notoriously left unguarded at his Fort Belvedere residence. Even as Edward was abdicating, reports were sent to the Home Office from a Special Branch man following Wallis in exile in France, claiming that "Mrs. S. might flit at any moment . . . to G [flee to Germany]."

The options

As a result of these rumours, the belief strengthened among the British establishment that Wallis could not become a royal consort. The government of Stanley Baldwin explicitly informed King Edward VIII that it was opposed to him marrying Mrs. Simpson, indicating that if he did, in direct contravention of their advice, the Government would resign en masse. Under pressure from the King, Baldwin (who knew what the answer would be), agreed to suggest three options to the King's many prime ministers in his other kingdoms throughout the British Commonwealth. These were that:

  1. they marry and Mrs Simpson become queen (a "royal marriage")
  2. they marry and she not become queen but receive some courtesy title instead (a "morganatic marriage")
  3. he abdicate to marry Mrs Simpson.

The second option had European precedents (for example, Austria's heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand – whose assassination in 1914 triggered off World War I) but no parallel in British constitutional history. The Commonwealth's prime ministers were consulted, and all but one – Eamon de Valera of Ireland, who argued for the first option, on the basis that as divorce was legal, King Edward should be allowed to marry a divorcée – agreed that marriage to Mrs. Simpson in any form was not an option they would accept.

The abdication

Having in effect been told that he could not keep the throne and marry Mrs. Simpson, and having had his request to broadcast to the British nation to explain "his side of the story" blocked on constitutional grounds by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin (see below), Edward chose the third option, becoming the first monarch in modern British history to abdicate voluntarily. As he had not been crowned yet, the coronation that had been planned for Edward VIII became that of his brother George VI instead.

Edward VIII's written abdication notice was witnessed by his three younger brothers at Fort Belvedere: Albert, the Duke of York, who became King George VI by it, Henry, Duke of Gloucester, and George, Duke of Kent. It was then given legislative form by a special Act of Parliament (His Majesty's Declaration of Abdication Act, 1936). It was Royal Assent to this Act, rather than the abdication notice, which gave legal effect to the abdication in the United Kingdom and the British Empire.

Under changes introduced in the relationship between the monarch and his commonwealth crowns under the Royal Titles Act in the 1920s (by which a singular all Commonwealth crown was replaced by multiple crowns worn by a singular monarch) Edward's abdication required legal acknowledgment in each Commonwealth state. In the Irish Free State, however, that acknowledgment, in the External Relations Act, occurred a day later than elsewhere, leaving Edward technically as "King of Ireland" for a day, while George VI was king of all other Commonwealth Realms.

The new King George created his elder brother Duke of Windsor with the style His Royal Highness. When the Duke later married Mrs Simpson, she became the Duchess of Windsor but much to Edward's disgust was not styled Her Royal Highness.

Edward's speech: The broadcast version and the version that was banned

Following his abdication, Edward (his title reverting for a few hours to "His Royal Highness The Prince Edward" before his brother created him "Duke of Windsor" the following morning) broadcast a message to the people from Windsor Castle. The official address broadcast was moderate in tone, speaking about his inability to do his job "as I would have wished" without the support of "the woman I love".

However, an earlier draft, which Edward proposed to deliver as king before deciding whether to abdicate, was much more radical in tone, until blocked by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, who said it would entail a 'grave breach of constitutional principles' and would 'shock many people'. In one censored section, Edward 3 proposed to say:

With her I shall have a home and all the companionship and mutual sympathy and understanding which married life can bring. Neither Mrs. Simpson nor I have ever sought to insist that she should be queen. All we desired was that our married happiness should carry with it a proper title and dignity for her, befitting my wife.
Now that I have at last been able to take you so fully into my confidence, I feel it is best to go away for a while, so that you may reflect calmly and quietly, but without undue delay, on what I have said.

In the speech, Edward clearly was indicating his desire to remain on the throne or to be recalled to it if forced to abdicate, while marrying Mrs. Simpson. In seeking the people's support against the government, he was opting to ignore the binding advice of the Government, a fundamental breach of British constitutional principles dating back at least to the Glorious Revolution of 1688, perhaps earlier. Indeed he was seeking to ignore the advice of the governments of all the Commonwealth states (except Ireland, where de Valera had supported the right of the king to marry a divorcée). Given the content of the speech, and what it reveals about his attitude towards the British constitution, it is small surprise that most historians judge Edward VIII's abdication a "lucky break" for both Britain and the House of Windsor. It is not surprising that his own Private Secretary, Alan Lascelles, commented:

The best thing that could happen to him would be for him to break his neck. 4

The Duke of Windsor went on to serve during the war as Governor of the Bahamas, where, in a revealing comment to an acquaintance, he commented:

After the war is over and Hitler will crush the Americans . . . we'll take over. . . They (the British) don't want me as their king, but I'll soon be back as their leader. 5

He told another acquaintance that "it would be a tragic thing for the world if Hitler was overthrown". Such comments reinforced the belief that the Duke and Duchess held Nazi sympathies and that the Abdication Crisis of 1936's effect was to force off the throne a man whose political views could have been a threat to his country, and replace him with a king (George VI) who showed no such sympathies.

The feelings of his former subjects about King Edward's abdication were much like those of Americans when President Richard Nixon resigned that office in 1974 to resolve the Watergate scandal: relief that the crisis paralyzing the national government was over, pride that the legal mechanisms designed to resolve such crises had worked properly, sorrow about the situation that had created the crisis, and lingering doubts about whether the crisis could have been resolved in a better way.


Note 1: Technically, their "divorces" were different: Though called a "divorce" then, what Henry VIII actually sought was an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon (i.e., a declaration from the Catholic Church, under canon law, that the marriage was null and void ab initio and, therefore, they had never been validly married). Mrs. Simpson's divorces, however, were legal terminations, under the civil law, of legally valid marriages. Whereas a person with an annulment can enter into a new "first" marriage, a person with a divorce already has been married. Note 2: Philip Ziegler, quoted on the BBCi website, covering the release of the Monckton Papers on the Abdication Crisis. Note 3: Once Edward VIII abdicated, it is difficult to see how he could have regained the throne even if he wanted to, without wholesale revolution or a coup d'état. While there was precedent for the deposition of a monarch (King James II/VII of England/Scotland) and his heir, and his replacement of Queen Mary II and her husband, King William III, Mary was already second-in-line, so all that was required was for parliament to argue that James had abdicated and to remove his young son from the line of succession. But by his abdication, Edward was no longer in the line of succession, so it would have required the deposition of King George VI and the repeal of the Abdication Act by all the parliaments in the Commonwealth. That Edward seemed to think that possible suggests the scale of his ignorance of the English constitution. Note 4: BBCi website. Note 5: ibid.



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