The Man Who Would Not Be King: The Abdication of Edward VIII of Great Britain

One of King Edward’s last engagements: The Opening of Parliament November 3rd, 1936 | Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Winner of the Spring 2019 StMU History Media Award for

Best Article in the Category of “World History”

As the year 1936 dawned in the United Kingdom, a dark cloud hung over the British people. Their king, George V, the man that embodied British stoicism and traditionalism, was dying. His health had been failing for years, and now he was in his final days with his family gathered at his bedside. For his son and heir, David Prince of Wales, his father’s imminent death meant the beginning of a whole new life. As King-Emperor, he would be expected to continue the traditions set by his predecessors. That meant keeping a rigorous schedule of ceremonies and public appearances as well as meetings with important government ministers. As David sat by his father’s bedside, there is no doubt that his new role was on his mind. Finally, at five minutes past midnight on January 20, 1936 King George V took his last breath. David stood still not saying anything at all, but then his mother, Queen Mary, turned to him, bowed her head, took his hand, and kissed it. It was a small yet significant gesture of respect, as David was now King-Emperor. However, the new king had one serious issue: he was in love. The people of Great Britain did not know it then, but in less than a year David would shock the world and change the history of his nation by being the first British king to ever voluntarily give up his throne.1

As his reign began, David (now Edward VIII) found himself in a favorable position. He was young and handsome; his dark blonde hair and deep blue eyes made him the most eligible bachelor in the world. He was also unbelievably popular, having been on tours all over the world on behalf of the British nation. The prince had endeared himself to the world and he had become an instantly recognizable face. However, for all his charms, the new king had one terrible vice: his lust for women. As the Prince of Wales, David had carried on many affairs with married women. In fact, on one foreign tour, he seduced the wife of the British governor who also happened to be his host. It was one such lover, Thelma, Lady Furness, who introduced him to Mrs. Wallis Warfield Simpson in 1931. The two became fast friends, and when Thelma departed for the United States in 1934, Wallis took her place at the prince’s side. The prince adored Wallis; he enjoyed pampering her and giving her beautiful jewelry. By January of 1936, David was deeply in love with Wallis. However, he understood that the powers that be (namely, the Anglican Church, the ruling Conservative  party, and his own family) would never accept Wallis as a queen unless he could overturn the haughty traditions of his forbears.2

HRH The Prince of Wales with Wallis Simpson taken by Vincenzo Laviosa circa 1934 | Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

From the moment he took the throne, the new king was determined to rock the boat of state. He wanted to be a modern monarch, but more importantly, he wanted the people to accept him for who he was. He carried his own umbrella, wore stylish bowler hats, flew airplanes, and skipped church on Sundays. All this may seem normal to us today, but to the British people of 1936, the new king’s personal habits were shocking to say the least. His popularity in all circles began to ebb almost immediately. But nothing could have prepared anyone for the scandal that was Wallis Simpson. She was an American divorcée, and to those close to the king, she qualified as an avid social climber looking to catch the biggest prize of them all: the new King-Emperor. Nevertheless, Wallis continued to appear at the king’s side because, for him, none of those opinions mattered. He loved Wallis and that was all there was to it.3

In the summer of 1936, the king embarked on a tour of the Balkan states with Wallis by his side. They began their journey at the Yugoslavian port of Sibenik aboard the luxury yacht NahlinThe weather was beautiful, as the Nahlin and its eminent passengers sailed through the picturesque blue waters of the Adriatic, Aegean, and Mediterranean Seas. They stopped at quaint fishing villages and small seaside towns, as well as large capital cities such as Athens and Istanbul. It truly was the perfect romantic setting, and the king and Wallis’ courtship flourished. They were photographed holding hands and embracing each other on the deck of the Nahlin; and it was rumored that the couple also consummated their relationship during the trip. The couple was immensely happy, but around the world a storm was brewing and was about to envelop the happy couple.4

While the king was on holiday with Wallis, foreign papers, especially in the United States, began to report wildly on David’s relationship with Wallis. The sensational headlines that ran in the American press exposed the King—Wallis love affair to the entire American public. It was only a matter of time before the newspapers and magazines carried the shocking news to the United Kingdom. Indeed, when the American newspapers and magazines arrived, the king’s government had the story removed from their pages before release. It was not until after the king’s return in September that a London weekly magazine featured a picture of him and Wallis together on its front page with the caption, “The Duke of Lancaster (the king’s Alias) and a Guest.”5 The king, who was in Scotland at the time, received a telegram from his private secretary informing him that Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin wanted to have a word with him. He knew it could not be good news. Indeed, some of the most difficult days of his life lay just ahead.6

Edward VIII with Wallis Simpson August 1936 | Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

On Tuesday morning, October 23, the king greeted Prime Minister Baldwin at his home at Fort Belvedere. The two men adjourned to the drawing room where the Prime Minister poured himself a drink. Outwardly, both men were calm, but there was a tension in the air. It became clear to the king that the subject on his prime minister’s mind was Wallis’ impending divorce case that was due to be heard in court later that week. Prime Minister Baldwin asked if the king intended to interfere in the divorce proceedings. The king replied in the negative, citing that he had no right to interfere in the life of a private individual. He knew that Baldwin was beating around the bush; the real question Baldwin wanted to ask was whether or not he and Wallis intended to marry. Perhaps, mercifully, Baldwin departed the king’s company without having posed the question. The answer, of course, was yes, the king had every intention of marrying Wallis and making her his queen. Four days later, Wallis was granted a decree nisi, granting her a full divorce in six months. If the king had his way, he would be free to marry Wallis in late April 1937, and then he and Wallis would be crowned together the following month. However, this was never to be. In fact, the king’s meeting with Baldwin was the beginning of the end of his reign.7

As October lapsed into November, the king continued to keep his laundry list of appointments. He met with foreign dignitaries (including the new ambassador from Nazi Germany Herr Joachim von Ribbentrop), and on November 3, in a grand ceremony, he opened Parliament. However, the king’s personal issues continued to cast a dark pall over his reign. The press had heightened its attacks against Wallis, and public opinion in the United Kingdom and other parts of the empire began to show a clear consensus: Wallis would never be Queen-Empress. On the 13th, the king received a letter from his private secretary, Alec Hardinge, that informed him that the Prime Minister and his cabinet intended to meet tomorrow to discuss the “serious situation which is developing.” Hardinge confessed that the resignation of prominent government minsters was a serious possibility if the king carried on with Wallis. He then concluded his letter by suggesting Wallis be sent abroad, permanently. The king was so incensed by this suggestion that he could hardly sleep that night. He never thought that the woman he loved would be the cause of such great trouble, but indeed she was. However, he remained determined in his resolve to marry Wallis, even if he had to give up everything in order to do so. As he lay tossing and turning in his bed that night, the king decided that he wanted to meet with his Prime Minister and speak to him himself.8

The meeting between monarch and minister took place just two days after the king received the letter from his personal secretary. The two men met at Buckingham Palace at 6:30 in the evening, and this time there would be no beating around the bush from either of them. The king asked Baldwin outright if any cabinet ministers would resign if he married Wallis. Baldwin replied that at least three would almost certainly resign, and he also stated his belief that no king of England should ever marry a divorced woman. Baldwin asked the king if his marriage to Wallis was inevitable. The king replied that the marriage was a condition of his staying on the throne, and if that was unacceptable, he was “prepared to go.”9 Prime Minister Baldwin was awestruck, and merely replied that he thought, “it is impossible for me to make any comment on it today.”10 The Prime Minister then departed, but nevertheless, the foundation was now laid for the final act in the harrowing drama that was Edward VIII’s short reign.11

Later that night, while at dinner with his mother Queen Mary, the king informed her and his sister of his intention to marry Wallis. The two women were naturally sympathetic until the king told them he was willing to abdicate in order to marry Wallis. At that Queen Mary, usually remarkably composed, was visibly flustered. Duty-bound as she was, she could not accept that her son was willing to give up his sacred duty to his people for a woman. Her reaction was one that summed up the feeling of the entire royal family. They believed that if the king were to abdicate, it would bring the greatest shame upon them, and permanently damage their standing with their peoples all over the world. The king asked his mother just to meet Wallis once, but she refused. Over the next several days the king took his brothers into his confidence as well. The hardest hit was Albert, who stood to inherit the throne if the king decided to abdicate, and that is indeed the direction the king was headed in. However, before his decision became final, the king had one last card to play.12

By the close of November, the king had exhausted almost all his options. He knew by now that there was no hope of Wallis ever becoming queen. However, he decided to proffer to his government a morganatic marriage. In such an arrangement, he and Wallis would marry, but she would not inherit any of his royal titles. He would remain king, and she would be a commoner still. Personally, the king found the option distasteful, but it was the only one he had left to make. Once the proposition was made to Prime Minister Baldwin, all the king had to do now was wait. In the interim, Baldwin consulted Parliament, the Cabinet, and the British Dominions. Finally, in the first week of December, the long-awaited answer came: it was a unanimous no. A marriage between Wallis and the king was unacceptable no matter the terms. For the king, it was a devastating blow, but he knew now what he must do. He had said that he was prepared to go, and now he was going to do just that.13

Edward VIII Instrument of Abdication December 10th, 1936 | Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

On the morning of December 10, 1936, the king rose for breakfast and began to sign his abdication papers, including his Instrument of Abdication. Once he finished, his brothers added their signatures as well. From the moment he signed his name to the documents, he ceased being King-Emperor. In accordance with the agreement he made with his brother, the new king George VI, David would be given the title His Royal Highness Duke of Windsor, and would receive an annual allowance. Unfortunately, he was also forced to leave his former kingdom for at least six months. The next morning, December 11, 1936, when the Duke woke up he was no longer king of one of the world’s most powerful nations. He was no longer emperor of history’s largest empire, or head of his illustrious family. However he was free to marry Wallis, and that was all he desired. His first act as ex-king was to broadcast an abdication speech to his former subjects. Once complete, he departed from the United Kingdom to join Wallis in their new life together.14 Both of them had been through so much in the last eleven months. David had given up everything for Wallis, and she had suffered at the hands of the vicious and unrelenting press. In the end, it was all worth it, as the two were married on June 3, 1937, and lived thirty-five happy years together. However, David’s quest for love did have negative repercussions. He left his poor brother, George VI, to fill his enormous shoes. David had been groomed for the role of monarch since he was a little boy, but his brother had no such grooming. On top of that, David had been immensely popular before his reign, but his shy and awkward brother enjoyed very little popularity. Perhaps worst of all was the impact his actions had on his niece, the ten year old Princess Elizabeth. She was now next in line to become queen. A life of endless scrutiny and criticism awaited her, such is the burden of wearing the crown. It was a life her father never wanted for her, but she never had a voice in the matter. David had made the decision for her, for them all, when he gave up his throne.  15

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.16

  1.  HRH Duke of Windsor, A King’s Story: The Memoirs of the Duke of Windsor (New York: G.P. Putnam and Sons, 1951), 263-266.
  2.  Robert Lacey, The Crown: The Official Companion Volume One, Elizabeth II, Winston Churchill, and the Making of a Young Queen 1947-1952 (New York: Crown Archetype, 2017), 110-112.
  3. Ralph G. Martin, The Woman He Loved (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973), 165.
  4. HRH Duke of Windsor, A King’s Story: The Memoirs of the Duke of Windsor (New York: G.P. Putnam and Sons, 1951), 308-309.
  5.  Ralph G. Martin, The Woman He Loved (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973), 173.
  6.  HRH Duke of Windsor, A King’s Story: The Memoirs of the Duke of Windsor (New York: G.P. Putnam and Sons, 1951), 316-317.
  7.  HRH Duke of Windsor, A King’s Story: The Memoirs of the Duke of Windsor (New York: G.P. Putnam and Sons, 1951), 318-321.
  8.  HRH Duke of Windsor, A King’s Story: The Memoirs of the Duke of Windsor (New York: G.P. Putnam and Sons, 1951), 322-328.
  9. HRH Duke of Windsor, quoted in HRH Duke of Windsor, A King’s Story: The Memoirs of the Duke of Windsor (New York: G.P. Putnam and Sons, 1951), 332.
  10. Stanley Baldwin, quoted in HRH Duke of Windsor, A King’s Story: The Memoirs of the Duke of Windsor (New York: G.P. Putnam and Sons, 1951), 333.
  11.  HRH Duke of Windsor, A King’s Story: The Memoirs of the Duke of Windsor (New York: G.P. Putnam and Sons, 1951), 329-333.
  12.  HRH Duke of Windsor, A King’s Story: The Memoirs of the Duke of Windsor (New York: G.P. Putnam and Sons, 1951), 333-336.
  13.  HRH Duke of Windsor, A King’s Story: The Memoirs of the Duke of Windsor (New York: G.P. Putnam and Sons, 1951), 341-343.
  14.  HRH Duke of Windsor, A King’s Story: The Memoirs of the Duke of Windsor (New York: G.P. Putnam and Sons, 1951), 405-410.
  15.  Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2004, s.v. “Edward VIII.”
  16. HRH Duke of Windsor, “Speech to his people addressing his abdication” (1936), in A King’s Story: The Memoirs of the Duke of Windsor, HRH Duke of Windsor (New York: G.P. Putnam and Sons, 1951), 410.
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46 Comments

  • I absolutely love that with the article, there is a video of the speech itself. This story is something that I myself was unaware of, but it was really surprising to me that he gave up the role that he had in his community, and the fact that he did it all for love is even more astonishing. Given the actual time period this took place makes him seem weak to other men more than likely, but it definitely showed what type of man he was.

  • This article was very interesting to read , I had never heard of this event. It was amazing to see what great lengths people will go for love. Giving up such a powerful position is not an easy thing to do, Edward VIII knew the consequences of making this decision, but still followed through with it. The video of the speech really helps give an idea of what was going through his mind. Overall, this was a great article to read.

  • Reading the title made me curious why anyone would refuse the position of king. If anything, I have read so many stories where people would kill just to be in a position of power. It amazes how much the power of love can affect someone, or even a whole kingdom. It reminds me a lot of the movie Crazy Rich Asians, where someone is so willing to throw away all their wealth and riches for the sake of staying with the one they love. Very good article!

  • What an impressive article! Congratulations on your nomination! This story has by far been one of my favorites as it tells the story of how one should do what it is that they want to do with their lives regardless of what others may think. Many think that money and power are things that will bring happiness. However, Edward VIII decided that love was far more rewarding.

  • This is a great and very in-depth article. I love how you included the video at the end of the article. After watching it, I highly recommend for readers to re-read the article because it helps to envision everything better. I think this is one of the best love stories of all time, and I feel that more people should hear about it. This is my first time hearing about this part of history.

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