The Abdication of Edward VIII
- 10/11thDecember 1936 -
On 10th December 1936 Edward VIII executed an “Instrument of Abdication”. This was given legal effect the following day when he gave Royal assent to “His Majesty’s Declaration of Abdication Act” by which he, and any children he might have, are excluded from the succession. He broadcast, via BBC radio, to the nation. (See transcript below) His reign had lasted 325 days and he was never crowned. On 12th December his younger brother, Prince Albert, was declared King George VII. The new King bestowed on his brother the title Duke of Windsor and on June 3rd 1937, at Chateau de Candé, Edward married his long-term mistress Wallis Simpson. They lived happily together until his death on 28th May 1972 in Paris, and during the war in the Bahamas, where he served as governor.
Born in Richmond on 23rd June 1894 he was titled Prince Edward of York, the eldest son of King George V and Queen Mary, of Teck. During World War 1 he was not allowed to see active service, despite wishing to, but he did join both the Royal Navy and Air Force. He became very popular for taking such an interest and role in the services and the country took him to their hearts.
In 1930 he was given, by his father, Fort Belvedere, a royal residence, near Sunningdale. It was here that he had a series of affairs with both married and unmarried women. One of those was Thelma Furness who introduced him to an American lady called Wallis Simpson at a private party in 1931. Mrs Simpson, who had already been divorced once, and Edward struck up a relationship and soon she became accepted as his mistress. Life carried on.
George V was not pleased with his son’s choice of women or lifestyle and privately expressed the opinion that his younger son, Albert, might make a better King. George died on 20thJanuary 1936 and it was Edward who was proclaimed King on his death. He went on numerous tours of the country, particularly to economically depressed areas. He was popular for doing so. Often Wallis Simpson accompanied him. Her own marriage to Ernest Simpson was on the rocks and it became apparent that he had been having an affair of his own. By August of that year both the Government and the people were beginning to speculate about where this relationship was going. In October, Edward rented a house for Wallis. The Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, confronted the King about his relationship giving him advice on how to be more discreet. He told Edward that the government did not approve of his choice of partner.
The reason why his relationship was an issue was sown over 200 hundred years earlier with the 1701 Act of Succession. William III established this when it became obvious he was not going to produce an heir. It stated that, should anything happen to him or Anne, his wife Mary II’s sister, then the protestant Sophia, granddaughter of James I, would become Queen. There was concern that the Catholic James II would try and reclaim the throne. The Act stated, “Whosoever shall hereafter come to the possession of this crown, shall join in communion with the Church of England, as by law established.” As the Church of England did not recognise divorce at the time, and by declaring that all future monarchs must go along with what the Church says, the act was making it illegal for any future ruler to enter into a marriage with a divorcee whose partner was still alive. It must be remembered that in the 1930s divorce was very rare. The vow of “’till death do us part” was taken very seriously, even if that meant couples were trapped in unhappy relationships. Times have since changed.
The issue between Edward and Mrs Simpson was thrown into the public domain further when Wallis declared openly that she was to divorce her husband. In October a decree Nisi was obtained. In November Edward met with Baldwin and stated he was going to marry Wallis Simpson. Baldwin replied that neither the Government nor the people would accept this and that their voice should be heard.
The Prime Minister presented Edward with 3 options. Firstly that he marries Wallis but with the knowledge that his ministers would, in all probability, resign leaving the country ungovernable. Secondly he could have a Morganatic marriage which would mean that they marry but Wallis would not become Queen and that their heirs, should they have any, would not succeed him. Third and finally, he could abdicate in favour of his brother – who he knew to be reluctant to succeed. Other Commonwealth countries also had to agree this marriage, as Edward was their titular ruler too. They did not.
Edward decided that option 3 was the only one available and went to see Baldwin. At the last minute he changed his mind and when they met opted for number 2. This was a big compromise for him as he fully expected, and hoped, that Wallis would be his queen. He felt that both the Government and the people would accept this second option. Baldwin raised this with both the cabinet and the other Commonwealth countries. They all said that this option was not appropriate and turned it down. Baldwin passed this on to Edward.
On December 9th Edward met Baldwin again and informed him of his decision to abdicate. In his broadcast on December 11th he said the following:
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!
With that he was gone. He went to France where he lived as the Duke of Windsor. When he died in May 1972 he lay in state in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor. The Queen, Elizabeth II, and his wife the Duchess of Windsor, who stayed in Buckingham Palace for the duration of the event, attended his funeral on June 5th. His body was buried behind the Royal Mausoleum of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in Frogmore, an estate of 33 acres of private gardens within the Home Park adjoining Windsor Castle. 14 years later the Duchess died and she was buried alongside him ending an episode known as the “Abdication Crisis” when the very future of the monarchy was in doubt. Interestingly the marriage of Prince Charles to the divorced Camilla Parker Bowles in February 2005 has thrown up similar issues as to what she will be called when, or if, he inherits the throne. What will happen remains to be seen, but Charles, like Edward before him, seems keen for his wife to become his Queen. What the Government, Commonwealth and public reaction is will say a lot about how our values have changed - or not.