The Abdication Crisis that for ten days in December 1936 convulsed a nation has often been viewed through the comforting prism of a love story, a passionate affair of the heart that brought a King to forsake his throne to marry the woman he loved. But it was always more complex than that.
As Prince of Wales and long before he inherited the throne, the future Edward VIII had displayed a deep streak of selfishness that regularly saw him put personal desire and self-gratification before his Royal duties which along with his inclination to mock in private the strict protocols and rigid formalities of Court life and a tendency to speak out of turn made him appear unreliable to those in power.
It was a view that would only be reinforced in the years to come but the doubts expressed as to the future King’s character were not evident to the people with whom he remained popular.
As a young man he’d had a good war serving with the Grenadier Guards and though he was not permitted to fight he was respected for not shirking his responsibilities and regularly visiting the Western Front meeting the troops and boosting morale. Now as Prince of Wales he exuded a relaxed informality preferring the latest American fashions to formal wear and military uniforms representing it seemed a new age and in the glare of the camera lens looking more like a matinee idol than the heir to the throne.
In private doubts persisted however, and his father King George V was appalled at his son’s behaviour – the drinking, the late night parties, and the whoring, particularly his many affairs with married women. He told the Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin:
“After I am dead the boy will ruin himself in twelve months.”
The Prince’s Private Secretary Alan Lascelles expressed similar doubts. He wrote to his wife:
“I can’t help thinking that the best thing that could happen to him and the country would be for him to break his neck.”
In the hope of inducing the Prince to take his Royal responsibilities more seriously he was sent on a tour of the Empire but it appeared to change little.
Whilst in Kenya he was informed that his father had been taken seriously ill.
Lascelles recorded in his diary:
“Then for the first and only time in our association I lost my temper with him. I said, the King of England is dying. If that means nothing to you it means a great deal to us. He looked at me without a word and spent the remainder of the evening in the successful seduction of a Mrs Barnes, the wife of the local Commissioner.”
Despite the insistence of Lascelles and others that he do so, the Prince refused to cancel the tour and return to Britain.
On 10 January 1931 at Burrough Court, the Stately Home of the Viscount Furness, whose wife at the time the Prince was having an affair, he was formally introduced to the married, and already once divorced American, Wallis Simpson. It seems likely that this wasn’t the first time they had met but it is from this moment that their affair is generally believed to have begun.
Wallis Warfield, the daughter of a Baltimore flour merchant and the soon to be famous Mrs Simpson was a well known figure in High Society on both sides of the Atlantic, very well known indeed, some would later suggest.
The Prince appeared smitten from the start and why this not particularly attractive middle-aged divorcee should so comprehensively win the heart of a man who’d had numerous affairs with far more beautiful and sophisticated women has continued to intrigue.
Wallis was described as being abrasive in manner, even rude and discourteous, and had little time for Royal etiquette, an impatience she shared with Edward. Indeed, she would often speak disparagingly of the Monarchy treating it as if it was an inconvenience, an absurd and archaic institution of little merit and out of step with the modern world. When in truth it meant everything to her.
Friends would describe how she spoke down to the Prince, how she bullied him, and how he seemed to enjoy, even relish doing so. It has been suggested that his sexual proclivities went beyond the conventional and indeed his own mother had written of her son’s sexual dysfunction, though did not elaborate further.
If so then it appears Mrs Simpson pressed all the right buttons.
No one could doubt that the Prince was utterly in her thrall, as if he had been bewitched, and he showered her with gifts of jewels and expensive clothes. If she was not yet Queen then she could still dress and behave like one.
For a long time the King and Queen refused to meet their son’s latest mistress until advised that this particular relationship was serious they finally relented and in early 1935 a private function was arranged for her at Buckingham Palace. They were not impressed and she was never invited to return with Queen Mary referring to her as that dreadful common American woman.
The Queen’s low opinion of Mrs Simpson was also shared by many within the Prince’s inner-circle who considered Wallis Simpson little better than a gold-digger and an old style courtesan of little regard and loose morals.
She’d certainly had a colourful past with a string of high-profile lovers that included not only the usual litany of wealthy businessmen and the well-connected but it was rumoured the Foreign Minister of Italy Count Ciano and the Foreign Minister of Nazi Germany Joachim von Ribbentrop.
Both Edward and Mrs Simpson were placed under surveillance by Special Branch while MI5 carried out investigations into Wallis’s past focussing in particular on her time in Singapore where rumours persisted that she had regularly attended brothels either as a prostitute or a Madame, that she had learned the dark arts of sexual seduction best left unspoken, unexplored, and relegated to the deeper recesses of the imagination in the rigid conformity of Edwardian Britain.
What they produced was the ‘China Dossier’ which seemed to confirm everyone’s worst fears.
It is possible that the evidence produced in the ‘China Dossier’ was fabricated particularly as its source and details remain largely unknown but it was widely distributed to those who mattered.
The King and Queen would have nothing to do with her and she was refused access to the Palace whilst the wife of Joseph P Kennedy, the American Ambassador to London refused to have her dine with them.
The ‘China Dossier’ soon became the source of upper-class gossip and provided the first stirrings of a coup.
On 20 January 1936, King George V who had been ill for sometime died. His physician Bertrand Dawson who had issued the famous bulletin, ‘the King’s life is moving peacefully towards its close’, later admitted that he had hastened the King on his way with a lethal dose of morphine mixed with cocaine.
He had wanted to ensure that the King’s passing occurred at the right time for it to be properly announced in The Times newspaper and on the BBC.
In many respects, George V had been the ideal Constitutional Monarch. He lived quietly spending his days on his estates shooting pheasants and any other wildlife unfortunate enough to cross his path. At night he would catalogue his stamp collection. He carried out his Royal duties without complaint or demur and did not interfere in politics or the day-to-day activities of Government.
Dull and controversial he had proved a stable and reliable figurehead around which the nation had rallied during the trauma of the First World War but he feared for the future should the 'Playboy Prince' inherit the throne and expressed the hope that his eldest son would never marry and produce an heir so that the children of his second son Albert, Duke of York, would succeed him.
On 21 January, Edward broke with Royal protocol by watching the proclamation of his own accession from a window at St James Palace. Caught on camera in the background could be seen a woman. It was the people’s first glimpse of Wallis Simpson but a still deferential British press refused to publish details of the affair.
In August, Edward and Wallis embarked upon a ship-borne Mediterranean holiday that was to become the celebrity media event of the year, at least abroad, as crowds flocked to see the future King and his lover wherever they went. In the United States their affair played out in cinemas to enthusiastic audiences eager to see the future American Queen of England frolicking in the sea or drinking cocktails on the verandah with the King.
In Britain the press embargo continued but it was becoming increasingly obvious to those who knew him that Edward intended to marry Mrs Simpson.
On 27 October, Wallis was granted her divorce from her second husband and three weeks later Edward invited Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin to dine with him at Buckingham Palace where he told him of his intention to marry Wallis Simpson and what had been a tryst for furrowed brows, acid tongues, and sordid gossip now escalated into full-blown Constitutional Crisis.
It had long been the cause of concern that the King was neglecting his Royal duties often claiming to be indisposed when he was in fact romping with his mistress and increasingly his brother Albert would have to step into the breach.
Baldwin with all due deference curtly informed the King that the Government would not countenance his marriage to Mrs Simpson, and that though he could not and would not wish to prevent him from marrying whom he wished if he did so then he would have no choice but to call for a dissolution of Parliament thereby triggering a General Election.
If this were to occur then the election would inevitably be fought on the issue of the future of the Monarchy not only ending its neutrality in politics but threatening the Constitutional Settlement itself.
Also, though there was no specific law that prevented a ruling Monarch from marrying a divorcee to do so would jeopardise their position as Head of the Church of England which did not yet permit divorcees to remarry in Church whilst their ex-spouse remained alive. They also did not recognise the grounds upon which Mrs Simpson’s divorce had been granted.
Baldwin now sought the opinion of the Dominions regarding the marriage and though the responses were not uniformly hostile to the King’s intentions they were suitably doctored to make it appear as if they were.
Opponents to the marriage now emerged which included not just Baldwin and his Cabinet but also Cosmo Gordon Lang, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Dawson, the Editor of The Times, and most of the King’s own family.
But the King was also not without his supporters the most prominent among them being the former Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who unfortunately was distracted by an affair of his own, his close personal friend Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists, and most significantly Winston Churchill.
Publicly Churchill endorsed the line taken by the Conservative Government but worked behind the scenes to form an alliance within Parliament that would enable the marriage to be forced through. In the meantime, he begged the King not to act prematurely and abdicate.
On 18 November, the King visited the depressed mining areas of South Wales where he received a rapturous reception as the people turned out in their thousands to see him. Indeed, he was mobbed as if he were a film star. In Merthyr Tydfil such was the crush concerns were actually expressed for his safety.
It was the first time that a ruling Monarch had adopted the walkabout style as a means of meeting the people, and they loved him for it. Later when asked what he had made of the poverty and desolation he had witnessed he replied – something must be done. It was a remark that resounded not only in the corridors of power but throughout the country and was viewed not just as an unacceptable interference in politics but as a direct challenge to the Government.
It was yet another example of why this King had to go.
On 1 December, with the endorsement of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Bishop Blunt of Bradford preached a sermon in which he condemned the King for his indifference towards the Church suggesting that it made him unworthy of his Coronation and that prayers should be said for him in his current dilemma. No mention was made of Wallis Simpson but the secret of the King’s difficulties had at last been made public – the secret was out.
The King’s affair now dominated the pages of the British press and the pressure was ratcheted up accordingly.
Concerned by possible press intrusion Wallis was advised to leave for the King’s villa in the South of France from where she wrote repeatedly to Edward begging him not to bow to pressure and abdicate.
Within the Royal Family Edward’s behaviour came as no surprise but caused great resentment and bitterness nonetheless.
His younger brother Albert, the soon to be George VI, was a shy and intensely private man afflicted with a stammer so severe that it made public speaking a painful and frightening experience. He’d had little preparation or training to be King and had no desire to be so but it seemed more and more likely that the burden would become his - it was the cause of increasing friction.
Relations between his wife, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the future Queen Mother, and Wallis Simpson were particularly strained. Once at a dinner party approached by Wallis she refused to make eye contact and brushing her aside remarked in a loud voice so all could hear – I have come to dine with the King.
In private, Wallis made fun of Elizabeth referring to her because of her stocky build and holier-than-thou attitude as The Temple and her favourite daughter Lillibet, the future Queen Elizabeth II, as that silly Shirley Temple.
Elizabeth would never forgive Edward for forcing her husband to take on the burden of Kingship and pick up the pieces of his disastrous reign, the responsibility for which she believed hastened him to his premature death at the age of just 51.
The King’s mother was also deeply upset at her son’s proposed marriage to Wallis Simpson and would often descend into tears at the thought of it.
Meanwhile, the King continued to ignore Royal protocol and when he declined to invite the Archbishop of Canterbury to stay with him at his Scottish residence Balmoral, yet again it was his brother the Duke of York who stepped in to smooth things over.
Despite the Church inveighing against the marriage and The Times and other broadsheets such as the Daily Herald and Daily Telegraph being largely critical of the King’s behaviour the popular press were enthusiastic in their support and it was their view that appeared to most closely monitor that of the public.
His continued popularity encouraged the King to propose an alternative.
In a meeting with the Prime Minister he suggested a morganatic marriage whereby Wallis Simpson would not become Queen and that any offspring they may have would not be entitled to inherit the throne. Exactly what Wallis may have made of this proposal remains unknown.
He also suggested that he address the nation to explain his desire to be married but also his wish to serve both his country and his people and to fulfill his duty as King. He would then depart abroad, he would say, to give his subjects time to reflect.
Baldwin was appalled at the suggestion and would not countenance it for to do so would be to appeal for the support of the people against the decision of their own Government. Also, the Constitution demanded that the Monarch consent to the advice given by his Ministers and the Government had decided against the marriage.
Baldwin told the King that he had only two options: he could abandon Wallis Simpson and remain on the throne or he could go through with the marriage and abdicate, though he added the caveat in a manner that made him sound like the King’s pimp that if he wished to retain Mrs Simpson as his mistress the Government and the Church would be willing to turn a blind eye.
Whilst the King negotiated with his Prime Minister pressure was being brought to bear on Wallis in France to reject the King and it appeared that she might be willing to do so were the rewards commensurate to her sacrifice.
Back in London the success or failure of the King’s cause now lay in the hands of Winston Churchill and his efforts to forge a pro-marriage majority within Parliament.
Churchill had received many private messages of support but when on 7 December he stood up to address the House of Commons on the issue of the King’s marriage he was greeted with boos, jeers, and demands that he sit down – the Government had done its work well.
In the meantime, the Duke of York had been sounded out about his willingness to ascend to the throne in the event of his brother’s abdication. He replied it would be with great sadness but he would of course do his duty.
As far as Edward was concerned this was a betrayal, it also proved the final straw and when he asked Churchill was there anything he could do and was greeted with silence his mind was made up.
At 10.00 am on 10 December 1936, in the drawing room of his home at Fort Belvedere and in the presence of his brother’s, Edward VIII signed the Abdication Document. The following day from Windsor Castle he recorded a message to the Nation and the Empire to be broadcast later that night:
"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!"
The Playboy Prince so feared by the Establishment had been ousted from the throne in what had been a very British coup. Soon after the ex-King departed for France to be with the woman he loved.
A political crisis had been averted and the country soon rallied behind their new King and even though some saw the now titled Duke of Windsor’s behaviour as a dereliction of duty most still considered it an affair of the heart.
On 3 June 1937, Edward and Wallis married at the Chateau de Conde in France.
The Church of England under instruction from the Archbishop of Canterbury had refused to sanction the marriage but did provide a clergyman to preside at the service. The recently installed George VI had also ordered that no member of the Royal Family was to attend. The new King also ruled that although Wallis was to hold the title Duchess of Windsor she was not entitled to be addressed as Her Royal Highness. It was a snub that hurt the Duke deeply and one he would never forgive.
Also, the Duke was to be excluded from the Civil List and would henceforth be supported from the Royal Purse. and many of his future requests for money would go unanswered.
Under pressure from the Queen, Edward’s request to be allowed to return to England was also denied.
In the coming years the doubts that had been expressed regarding the Duke’s character and judgement appeared to be confirmed. In October 1937, Edward and Wallis visited Germany as the personal guests of Adolf Hitler and were feted in what was considered a great propaganda coup for the Nazi regime.
To those within the Duke’s inner-circle this came as no surprise as he and Wallis had often expressed pro-Nazi sympathies. Indeed, in March 1936 he had intervened to prevent a more forceful British response to the German reoccupation of the Rhineland.
A little after this the German Ambassador to the Court of St James Joachim von Ribbentrop inadvertently revealed discussions that had taken place in the British Cabinet earlier that same morning. This was reported to British Intelligence who following an investigation found that he could only have received this information from Wallis Simpson who was a regular visitor to the German Embassy and that the only way she could have learned of it was from the Duke.
It was ordered that in future sensitive information should be withheld from the Duke of Windsor.
Upon the outbreak of the Second World War as a Major-General, the Duke of Windsor was appointed to the General Staff in France. He was in fact a titular Field Marshal and had not taken kindly to his demotion.
Rather than join his Regiment however, he remained in Paris where he partied with fascist friends and it was said was drinking to excess and talking too much. The loose-tongued Duke was causing concern.
When the Germans invaded France he did not report back to his Regiment or contact General Headquarters but instead journeyed south to rejoin Wallis from where he travelled to Spain and then onto Portugal.
The many known fascist sympathisers who were regular visitors to their residence in the hills just outside Lisbon greatly concerned Churchill as did information he had received that they were in frequent correspondence with Nazi officials. Indeed, Wallis had requested that they return some personal belongings that she had left at their villa in France.
Despite repeated requests from the Government that he do so the Duke refused to return to Britain prompting a strongly worded letter from Churchill suggesting his actions could result in serious consequences. He was in effect threatening him with court martial for desertion.
Still the Duke remained non-committal about a return to Britain so Churchill sent a special envoy with a private letter and orders that the Duke take up the Governorship of the Bahamas. It is not known what the letter contained but within a few hours of receiving it the Duke and Wallis had boarded a ship bound for the Caribbean.
It was an insignificant posting for the former King/Emperor but as far as the Government was concerned a convenient one for it removed him far from the zone of conflict.
It was believed that he had been in negotiations with the Nazi’s to regain his throne in the event of a successful German invasion of Britain, and had accepted an offer of 50,000.000 Swiss francs for his co-operation from von Ribbentrop.
Broiling with frustration at their enforced exile away from the High Society they were used to the Duke and Duchess did not enjoy being big fish in a small pond. Neither did he enjoy the prospect of work spending his days playing golf and leaving the administration of the colony to his officials while Wallis arranged that night’s party.
Following the end of the war great efforts were undertaken to conceal what might be considered the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s unpatriotic behaviour.
In July 1945, incriminating correspondence between the Duke and Hitler were recovered from Germany by Anthony Blunt, a distant cousin of the Queen who would later be exposed as a Russian spy and one of the notorious Cambridge Four who was then an MI5 Officer.
The first on the guest list of any High Society function the post-war life of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor descended into an endless round of cocktail parties, Mediterranean holidays, and illegal currency speculation.
Though the Duke was to meet his brother the King and the rest of his family from time to time they were never truly reconciled and he returned to Britain only rarely.
He died on 28 May 1972, aged 77.
Following the Duke’s death the increasingly frail Duchess became an effective recluse as she descended into bed-ridden dementia.
She died on 24 April 1986, aged 89.