And so we come to the last in our series of 5 Moments That Defined The British Monarchy. We hope you have enjoyed the series and found it informative – we certainly enjoyed writing it. This fifth and final moment we’ve chosen that we believe has defined the British Monarchy is the abdication and scandal of King Edward VIII.
On 20 January 1936, Britain’s King George V died. George V was a popular Monarch with strong public morals, his son, the Prince of Wales [then known as Prince David] acceded to the throne upon his father’s death. He became King Edward VIII, a name chosen as opposed to King David as there had been no British King David before.
To start with, Edward VIII’s public popularity was promising. But this wasn’t to last, behind the scenes, Edward was locked in a battle with the Church Of England and the Government of the day. He wished to marry his lover, the twice-divorced American, Wallis Simpson. Some say her effect on the Monarchy is so that even mentioning her name in The Queen’s presence causes Her Majesty to shudder.
The problem wasn’t that King Edward wanted to marry an American, that was the least of the problems. The problem was that she was a twice divorced American.
Because King Edward VIII was head of the Church Of England (just like all British Monarchs since Henry VIII), he could not marry Wallis Simpson because of her status as a divorcee.
Edward tried in so many different ways to have Wallis as his wife, but all he was told is that Wallis could remain as his mistress. This is not what Edward wanted, he wanted her as his Queen.
His battle continued, with the British public absolutely oblivious, until he, with the assistance of Parliament, decided that the only way he could be with Wallis was to abdicate the throne and marry Wallis Simpson.
By October in 1936, there were rumours in high-society that King Edward planned to marry Wallis as soon as he was free to do so. And on 10th December 1936, King Edward VIII, accompanied by his three brothers next in line to the throne, attended Fort Belvedere where the Act of Abdication was signed by all four parties. This meant that Edward renounced the right of Kingship from him and all of his descendants.
After abdication, Edward was all but banished from the United Kingdom and went to live in France with Wallis Simpson, whom he married. He wasn’t completely outcast however. He was given the title of HRH The Duke Of Windsor, but his wife was denied the style of HRH and became just Wallis, Duchess Of Windsor – styled as a peer and not a Royal.
Elizabeth II is said to attribute her father, George VI’s early demise to stress caused by the sudden abdication of Edward and the shock of coming to power to George. She has still never spoken of Wallis publicly.
Then, King George VI acceded to the throne as King. If Edward hadn’t abdicated, then we may not have the Queen we do now, the whole future of the Monarchy would have been different. This is why Edward’s abdication is a defining moment in the British Monarchy.
Wallis Simpson was Her Grace, the Duchess of Windsor, like other non-royal dukes and duchesses.
The reasons for Edward VIII’s abdication were more shaded. He was personally popular and seemed willing to use that popularity to have a say in government policy, which did not sit well with the elected government. Worse were his German sympathies in the latter half of the 1930s and his apparent personal liking of Hitler and some of his domestic programs. Government saw Edward as a threat to the carefully balanced status quo of a constitutional monarchy.
The royal family had problems with Edward’s nightclub lifestyle and his manifest dislike of royal ceremonial duties and protocols. They worried that he was unwilling to carry on the role that the royal family had carefully developed for a 20th century monarchy and their strategy for survival. All around them they saw monarchies being pushed out and exiled and they felt the danger. The royal family saw Edward’s approach to the monarchy as a threat to its future.
In short, neither the royal family nor Parliament much liked Edward’s attitudes. Finally, there was the Church of England and the monarchy’s role as its head. A bachelor king was barely acceptable, a king with a permanent mistress was rank hypocrisy as was a morganatic marriage, and marriage to a cafe society divorcee of many extramarital affairs injected an unacceptable note of debauchery into the monarchy. Worse, Mrs. Simpson was had even less interest in ceremony and protocol and royal duty than Edward. Those factors meant that no insitution was willing to work out a way for Edward to stay and keep Mrs. Simpson.
WWI had done in the czar, the kaiser and the Austro-Hungarian emperor. Spain, Italy and Greece, to name a few, had also forced out their kings in the years following the war. Survival of the British monarchy seemed at stake and the royal family viewed the abdication as a constitutional crisis. Thoroughly traumatized, they perhaps overreacted in the aftermath. Princess Margaret was forced to give up an engagement to the man she loved because, though thoroughly respectable, and arguably more stable and respectable than the man she married, he was divorced. Charles was told the young and single Camilla had “blotted her copy book” and was not a candidate for royal marriage. He was sent on a quest for an aristocratic girl with no “history.” The abdication became a pernicious rationale for decades of requiring a hyper-respectable surface that would refute the transgressions of Edward and Wallis. Years after the monarchy was past the crisis and on solid footing, the threat posed by the abdication ruled its thinking and poisoned the lives of the core of the royal family. I think some of that was due to the influence the Queen Mother, who bore the brunt of the post-abdication clean up and seems not to have gotten over it.
To receive the latest Royal Central posts straight to your email inbox, enter your email address below and press subscribe.
Join 437 other subscribers