Behind the Royal door: Edward VIII (part two)

14 July 2014 - 03:26pm
Edited by Jessica Hope - Spotted an Error?


The second part of Edward VIII’s Behind the Royal door will cover the Abdication Crisis and his relationship with Mrs Wallis Simpson. You can read about Edward’s early life in the first section of Behind the Royal door: Edward VIII (part one).

Bessie Wallis Warfield was born in Pennsylvania in 1896. She was supported by her wealthy relatives after her father died shortly after she was born and attended an expensive all-girls school in Maryland. Wallis met her first husband, Earl Winfield ‘Win’ Spencer, in April 1916 whilst in Florida; he was an aviator in the US Navy. The couple married in November of the same year, seeing Miss Warfield become Mrs Spencer.

They divorced 11 years later in 1927 and she was then married to an Anglo-American businessman, Ernest Simpson, in 1928. The couple moved to London where she befriended Lady Furness. Furness introduced Wallis Simpson to The Prince of Wales, who was continuing his string of affairs at his Windsor home. Edward’s relationship with Wallis, which began during this time that she was still married, further weakened his poor relationship with his father. Although his mother and father met Mrs Simpson in 1935, they later refused to receive her.


The relationship of a married woman with the heir to the throne was troubling and Special Branch Police were ordered to follow the couple to determine the nature of their relationship. A quote from an undated report detailed Edward and Wallis visiting an antique shop, and said that Wallis had The Prince of Wales firmly under her thumb, which was even more troubling for those in power; Edward was besotted.

Early 1936 saw the passing of George V and Edward therefore became King. Edward was nonplussed by the day-to-day duties of kingship and paid little attention to documents sent to him. He also lacked discretion regarding their content. Ministers were even more reluctant to send sensitive information to him, as they knew he did not give them the attention required. Officials also feared that Mrs Simpson or others staying at his house may see the information, in contravene with the country’s interests.

Edward VIII broke with the tradition of facing the opposite direction to their predecessor on the country’s coins, simply so that the parting in his hair could be seen. Therefore he and George V both faced left on their coins. Only a handful of coins were struck before his abdication, and so when George VI succeeded he also faced left on coins in order to maintain the tradition by suggesting that any coins minted during Edward’s reign faced right.

Jerome Bannigan, aka George Andrew McMahon, brandished a loaded gun as Edward rode on horseback at Constitution Hill in mid-1936 (incidentally also where Queen Victoria had a number of attempts on her life). Police spotted the gun and he was quickly arrested, but at his trial Bannigan alleged that “a foreign power” approached him to kill the new King and that MI5 knew of this, using him to catch those responsible. This was rejected and he was imprisoned for one year, but now it is thought that Bannigan had been actually in contact with MI5, though nothing has since been proven.

Wallis applied for a divorce from her second husband in 1936, and it became clear that Edward intended to marry her. The public, however, were surprised at the news of Edward and Wallis’s relationship, as the British press had been keeping silent on the affair, though the American press published the stories. In November, The King invited Stanley Baldwin, the Prime Minister, to Buckingham Palace to inform him of his desire to marry Wallis. Baldwin told Edward his subjects would find it unacceptable, as would the Church – as Head of the Church of England, Edward was expected to support the Churches teachings, which included a strong anti-divorce sentiment. Edward’s proposal of a morganatic marriage – a notion that Wallis would not become Queen, but take a lesser title, and all children would be barred from the succession – was rejected by not only the British Government, but also The Commonwealth and remainder of The Empire. Yet the Irish Prime Minister was indifferent to the proposal and the New Zealand counterpart wavered between his opinion, having never heard of Mrs Simpson before.


It was then that Edward threatened abdication if he could not marry his lover. The Prime Minister gave him three choices: marry against his Governments’s wishes, give up the idea of marrying Wallis, or abdicate. Knowing that his Government would resign if a union between the two occurred, leading to an unprecedented constitutional crisis, Edward chose to abdicate.


Edward’s letter of abdication can be read in full by clicking the image; note the signatures of those present.

The instruments of abdication were signed at Fort Belvedere on 10th December 1936; Albert, Duke of York, Henry, Duke of Gloucester and George, Duke of Kent, were all present to see their elder brother reject the Crown. The following day, the last act of Edward’s reign was the royal assent to his official ‘Declaration of Abdication Act 1936′.

The night of 11th December saw King Edward VIII revert to his title of Prince Edward. Through a radio transmission, he broadcasted the explanation for his decision to the nation and Empire, famously saying:  “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.” You can listen to Edward’s abdication speech below.

Edward’s brother, Albert, Duke of York, then ascended the throne, making the ten-year-old Princess Elizabeth heiress presumptive. Albert was known as ‘Bertie’ to the family, but chose the regnal name of George VI to support the idea of stability and continuity after his brother’s abdication, following his father’s name.

Edward left the country for Austria following his announcement, and Albert wanted his first act as King to be to give the title ‘The Duke of Windsor’ to his elder brother, but it took until March 1937 for this to be passed. Edward retained the title of His Royal Highness but Wallis and any children would not be allowed to take this title, angering Edward.

Wallis’s divorce was finalised in 1937 and Edward finally married Simpson in a private ceremony on 3rd June 1937 at Château de Candé, near Tours in France; Wallis changed her name to Wallis Warfield. The Church of England refused to authorise the marriage and George VI refused to allow any Royals to attend the wedding. A Darlington clergyman offered to sanction the union and Edward took him up on the offer.

The Duke of Windsor telephoned his brother, The King, daily, requesting money and urging that Wallis, now a Duchess after their wedding, be granted the style of Her Royal Highness. Albert (George VI) eventually ordered that the calls not be put through to him, feeling harassed. This was the final straw for the brothers and their relationship was strained for the rest of their lives. Edward’s relations with the rest of the family were poor. Edward even wrote to his mother in 1939 that her last letter, telling Edward he could not be invited to George V’s memorial, had “destroy[ed] the last vestige of feeling I had left for you … [and has] made further normal correspondence between us impossible.”

The Duke assumed that after spending a few years in exiles in France, he would be able to return to his homeland, but Albert, supported by his wife, Queen Elizabeth, and mother, Mary of Teck, threatened to stem Edward’s allowance if he returned uninvited.

After such trouble with his family, one might think Edward would lead a quiet life from that point forward: wrong. The Duke of Windsor now began to get involved in the politics leading up to and during the Second World War…

Pictures: Paul Gardner,  Archives New Zealand

  • SW

    I did not know that little fact about the coins and Edward’s vanity. Sounds like his selfishness knew no bounds. Makes the sacrifices and integrity of George VI all the more apparent. Thanks for an interesting article!

    • Ricky

      Even though no English or Scottish coins with Edward’s effigy entered circulation, postage stamps bearing his portrait were issued in four denominations and used during his reign.

      I have all four in my own collection; they’re very elegant looking, and relatively easy to obtain today.

      • Michael C

        Thank you Ricky for leading me (through your congrats comment to my husband & I) to this Royal Central site. I’m a bit of an Anglophile as well as Royals enthusiast.

        Several years ago I was able to attend the Windsor auction at Sotheby’s in NYC and was a lucky successful high bidder on a set of silver gilt spoons of Wallis’, a gift given to her by Lady Mendl.

        I have also found a silver dish made by Asprey that incorporates a commemorative medal for Edwards coronation in it.

        The stamps you mention in your comment sound interesting and I was wondering where you obtained them.

        Looking forward to seeing more of this site & will ,no doubt, run in to you again here .
        Thanks again,

    • Chloe Howard

      You’re welcome – glad you enjoyed it!

    • Michael C

      I had an English friend who still very much disliked the abdication and almost hated Wallis for “stealing” their king. I told her I thought she should Thank Wallis for taking him as I think George & Elizabeth made a better monarchy than Edward & Wallis would have.

      Though Wallis would have made a very stylish queen, Edward would not, I think, have made a very good king, especially during the war years.

  • Ricky

    I was looking forward to reading the full text of the four abdication documents, but when I clicked onto the images (as the byline instructs) nothing happened.

    Can this be fixed?

  • john hardman

    The recent(ish) Madonna film ‘W.E.’ showed the fictionalised Wallis and Edward going [horse-]riding together: did Wallis ever ride a horse again after leaving the U.S. (she had ridden in Warrenton,Virginia and,I believe, in China) ?

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