The Abdication Crisis
Posted on 3rd January 2021
The Abdication Crisis which for ten days in December 1936 divided a nation and held it spellbound has often since 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 complicated than that.
As Prince of Wales and long before he inherited the throne the future Edward VIII had displayed a selfishness that regularly saw him put self-gratification before his Royal duties. Also, his flippant manner and tendency to mock in private the strict protocols and rigid formalities of Court life made him appear unreliable to those in power. It was a view that would only be reinforced in the years to come.
Doubts expressed as to the future King’s character were not evident to the people at large however, with whom he remained popular.
As a young man he’d had a good war serving with the Grenadier Guards, and though not permitted to fight he did not shirk his responsibilities regularly visiting the Western Front to meet the troops and help boost morale. Now as Prince of Wales he exuded a relaxed informality preferring the latest American fashions to 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, with 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 unlikely this was the first time they had met but it is from this moment that their affair is generally believed to have begun.
Born Bessie Wallis Warfield, the daughter of a Baltimore flour merchant, the soon to be famous Mrs Simpson was already a well-known figure in High Society on both sides of the Atlantic, and the prince appeared smitten from the outset. 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 baffle and intrigue.
Wallis was described as 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 it. 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 this was so, then it appears Mrs Simpson pressed all the right buttons.
No one could doubt that the prince was utterly in thrall to her, as if he had been bewitched, and he showered her with gifts of jewels and expensive clothes. She may not yet be Queen, but she could still dress and behave like one.
For a long time, the King and Queen refused to meet their son’s latest mistress and it wasn’t until advised that this relationship was serious that 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 little better than a gold-digger and an old-style courtesan of loose morals and little regard. She’d certainly had a colourful past with a string of high-profile lovers that may have included not only the usual litany of wealthy businessmen and the well-connected but the Foreign Minister of Italy Count Ciano and the Foreign Minister of Nazi Germany Joachim von Ribbentrop.
Because of her connections both she and Edward were placed under surveillance by Special Branch whilst MI5 carried out investigations into Wallis’s past focussing on her time in Singapore where rumours persisted that she had regularly attended brothels either as a prostitute or as the Madame.
That she had learned dark arts of sexual seduction best left unexplored and unspoken of appeared clear in the production of the ‘China Dossier’ which seemed to confirm everyone’s worst fears.
It is possible that the evidence produced in the ‘China Dossier’ was fabricated, or at least exaggerated, in an attempt to cast Wallis Simpson in the worst possible light, and even now its details remain largely unknown, but it was widely distributed to those who mattered, nonetheless.
The ‘China Dossier’ soon became the source of upper-class gossip, and its contents were widely believed. The King and Queen would no longer have anything 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. It was the first stirrings of a coup.
On 20 January 1936, King George V who had been ill for some time died. His physician Bertrand Dawson who had earlier 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. During the Great War both he and Queen Mary had proved a stable and reliable figurehead around which the nation could rally and had become popular and widely admired as a result.
As dull and uncontroversial as the late King was, he possessed insight, and had once remarked that he hoped his eldest son would never marry and produce an heir so that the children of his second son Albert, Duke of York, would inherit the throne. He feared for the future should the so-called Playboy Prince become the Playboy King.
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 veranda with the King. In Britain meanwhile, 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 a 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. What had previously 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. Increasingly his brother Albert would have to step into the breach.
Baldwin with all due respect curtly informed the King that the Government would not countenance his marriage to Mrs Simpson. While acknowledging that he could not, and indeed, 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 and trigger a General Election. If this were to occur, then the election would inevitably be fought on the issue of the Monarchy’s future, ending its political neutrality, and thereby 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 while their ex-spouse remained alive. They had also made clear they 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.
A powerful cabal of 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 newspaper, and most significantly of all the King’s own family.
But the King was not without his supporters also, the most prominent among them being the former Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who was unfortunately distracted by an affair of his own, his close friend Oswald Mosley the leader of the British Union of Fascists, and 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 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 with the people but in the corridors of power. It was regarded by many as an unacceptable interference in politics and as a direct challenge to the Government and its economic policy. It was yet another example of why this King could not be depended upon.
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. He suggested that it made him unworthy of his Coronation Oath and that prayers should be said for him in his current dilemma.
No mention of Wallis Simpson was made 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 frightful 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 between the brothers who had previously been close.
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 as was the convention, it was yet again 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 was enthusiastic in their support and it was their view that appeared to monitor most closely that of the public. His continued popularity encouraged the King to propose a compromise. 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 fulfil 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. He 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.
While 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. He 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. 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 Albert, Duke of York, George, Duke of Kent, and Henry, Duke of Gloucester the King 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.
Under pressure from the Queen, Edward’s request to be allowed to return to England was denied and he was to be excluded from the Civil List and would henceforth be financially supported from the Royal Purse. It would be that many of his future requests for money would go unanswered.
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 investigations 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 King. It was ordered that in future sensitive information should be withheld from His Majesty.
Upon the outbreak of the Second World War Major-General the Duke of Windsor was appointed to the General Staff in France. He was in fact a titular Field Marshal and did not take kindly to his demotion. He did not however join his Regiment but instead remained in Paris where he partied with friends where it was said he drank too much and talked even more. His behaviour soon became a cause for concern.
When the Germans invaded France, he did not report back to his Regiment or contact General Headquarters but instead journeyed south to join Wallis from where they travelled to Spain and then onto Portugal.
The many known fascist sympathisers who were regular visitors to the residence in the hills just outside Lisbon that had been provided for them by a wealthy associate greatly concerned Churchill, as did information he had received that they were in frequent correspondence with Nazi officials. Indeed, it was known that Wallis had requested the Nazis 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 possibly a charge of desertion and a court martial.
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 and out of harm’s way. 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. He spent his days playing golf leaving the administration of the colony to his officials whilst she spent her days arranging that night’s party for their fascist sympathising friends.
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, the distant cousin of the Queen who would later be exposed as a Russian spy and one of the notorious Cambridge Four but was at the time 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.
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