Today in 1936, King Edward VIII’s reign ended, one day after he submitted the Instrument of Abdication witnessed by his three brothers. The events leading up to Edward’s abdication and the damage left behind have never faded from royal memory and still help to shape the British monarchy’s handling of publicity, both good and bad. Today, the abdication is viewed by some as a national tragedy, while others view it as a love story in which a man born to rule an empire gave up his birthright for the woman he loved.
In the last 25 years, people from every corner of the planet have become accustomed to hearing about accusations over one royal scandal or another inside Britain’s Royal Family. During the first decades of the 20th century, however, there was a high social and cultural wall between the outside world and the inner workings of Buckingham Palace. So while those of us living in the first decade of the 21st century might not be shocked by the actions of Edward and Wallis, post-Victorian Europe and North America reacted to the affair as if it were a shockwave from a huge explosion.
Wallis Warfield was born in Pennsylvania, either in 1895 or 1896. She grew up in Baltimore, Maryland under difficult circumstances with a widowed mother who was financially dependent on wealthier members of the family. Through a turn of fortune, Wallis attended a very exclusive girls’ school, which gave her the first glimpse of what true wealth and power looked like. By all accounts, she liked what she saw.
Wallis married Earl Spencer, a US Navy pilot, in 1916. The marriage lasted for eleven years, during which time she allegedly had an affair with Benito Mussolini’s future son-in-law. It was probably during this period that she was first introduced to the ideals of fascism. By the time of her divorce in 1927, she was already involved with Ernest Simpson, an American by birth, British subject by choice and wealthy to be sure. Simpson divorced his first wife, allowing him to marry Wallis in London in July, 1928.
In early 1931, Wallis met Edward, the Prince of Wales. Ironically, they were introduced by Edward’s then-mistress. The Prince was the oldest son of King George V and Queen Mary and was thus heir apparent to the throne. For the next three years, the two encountered each other at various gatherings. It has been alleged that they began their affair in December, 1933, while Edward’s mistress was in the United States. At the time, Wallis was still married to her second husband.
Much has been written about the relationship between Wallis and Edward, but one thing is certain: by early 1934, the future king was madly in love with this new woman in his life. Witnesses to their interactions spoke of her overbearing manner and lack of respect for Edward’s royal position, something the Prince evidently found refreshing. The King and Queen were less than amused, especially when the affair began to take precedence over the Prince’s official duties. The King ordered Wallis followed, with the detectives soon claiming that she was having an affair with another man as well as Edward. Whether or not the Prince knew about this other man is unknown.
George V died on January 20th, 1936 and Edward gained the throne as Edward VIII. His affair with Wallis continued unabated, leading many in his inner circle to believe he intended to marry the once-divorced American who was, as of 1936, still not divorced from her second husband. In the view of the royal family and the government, such a match was unacceptable for several reasons. First, Wallis was an American. While there was no legal reason why Edward could not marry a woman from the United States, it was believed the British public, and especially the upper-class, would never accept her as Queen.
Second, no British monarch had ever divorced or married someone who was divorced. Henry VIII did not even divorce Catherine of Aragon; rather, he had their marriage annulled. To make matters more controversial, both of Wallis' husbands were still alive, a condition that was not recognized as defining a valid divorce by the Church of England at that time. Thus, it was believed the King would not be able to keep his traditional position as the Supreme Governor of the Church.
Third were the questions of Wallis' background and behavior. Rumors about her past lovers, public spectacles and open disdain for the royal family circulated wildly. The British press, almost without exception, had ignored the relationship between the King and Wallis. By the end of October, when Wallis began divorce proceedings against her second husband, it was clear that courteous silence was soon to end.
On November 16th, 1936, King Edward invited Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin to Buckingham Palace and told him, for the first time, that he intended to marry Wallis Simpson. Baldwin told the King in no uncertain terms that such a marriage was not acceptable for some of the reasons we have already discussed. Two weeks later, on December 1st , the press broke its silence about the proposed marriage. A huge public controversy loomed on the horizon.
In early December, Prime Minister Baldwin and the prime ministers of the five Dominions of which Edward was King: Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand and South Africa, presented the King with three options: marry Wallis and make her Queen, marry Wallis and give her a title other than Queen, or abdicate and give up his claim to the throne, both for himself and his heirs. The first option was impossible and Baldwin promised that if option two was chosen, he and the rest of the government would resign.
On December 10th, King Edward VIII chose the third option and dictated an abdication notice witnessed by his three brothers. The next day, the abdication became law by a special act of Parliament. Edward's next oldest brother, Albert, Duke of York, became King and took the name George VI as a sign that he would continue the traditional policies of his father. On the evening of the 11th, Edward, now referred to as Prince, told the Empire that he could not rule without the company and support of the woman he loved. His reign had last 327 days.
Prince Edward, Duke of Windsor, married Wallis Simpson in France on June 3rd, 1937. Wallis became the Duchess of Windsor, but did not receive the title of “Her Royal Highness”, an omission that Edward considered a personal affront.
Even after they were married and away from the royal family, Edward and Wallis continued to cause controversy. In 1937, the couple visited Nazi Germany and met Adolf Hitler at one of his personal retreats. The state-controlled media made much of the trip, especially the fact that Edward executed a Nazi salute as a mark of respect to Hitler. Many who knew Edward and Wallis believed the couple harbored pro-fascist views, reasoning that only a strongly controlled nation like Germany could stand up against Communism.
Such beliefs were politically difficult, especially at the beginning of the Second World War. After serving some time in uniform as a Major-General in France at the beginning of the war, Edward and Wallis moved to Portugal after German troops took Paris in May, 1940. Afraid of that Edward might return to Nazi-occupied France, Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the Duke home, threatening him with court-martial if he did not comply. Edward was notoriously lax with national security secrets and Churchill did not want to take any chances. The Duke was made governor of the Bahamas, a job that put him out of harm's way for the duration of the war.
After the war, Edward and Wallis returned to France, where they lived the rest of their lives as private citizens. They were socially active and visited both President Eisenhower and President Nixon at the White House. Most of the American public saw Edward and Wallis' lives as an amazing and touching love story; many in England who were were better informed were not, understandably, as kind.
Prince Edward, Duke of Windsor, died on May 28th, 1972. The Duchess died almost 14 years later, on April 24th, 1986. The two are buried together in the Royal Burial Ground at Frogmore.