Edward VIII Abdicates the British Throne Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Edward VIII gave up the British throne in the wake of the public scandal surrounding his romantic involvement with an American divorcée.

Summary of Event

Edward VIII was unconventional but popular both as Prince of Wales and as king—popular, perhaps, because he seemed modern and unconventional. His father, George V, had endowed the British monarchy with a comfortable sense of middle-class propriety. His eldest son, however, had a less clear sense of the duties and responsibilities of the monarch. Edward wanted to attune the monarchy to the times and to the people, and he was suspicious of what seemed to him the unimaginative and insensitive leadership of tired old men that characterized British politics in the 1930’s. [kw]Edward VIII Abdicates the British Throne (Dec. 10, 1936) [kw]Abdicates the British Throne, Edward VIII (Dec. 10, 1936) [kw]British Throne, Edward VIII Abdicates the (Dec. 10, 1936) [kw]Throne, Edward VIII Abdicates the British (Dec. 10, 1936) Abdication of Edward VIII Great Britain;abdication of Edward VIII [g]England;Dec. 10, 1936: Edward VIII Abdicates the British Throne[09320] [g]Ireland;Dec. 10, 1936: Edward VIII Abdicates the British Throne[09320] [g]Scotland;Dec. 10, 1936: Edward VIII Abdicates the British Throne[09320] [g]Wales;Dec. 10, 1936: Edward VIII Abdicates the British Throne[09320] [c]Government and politics;Dec. 10, 1936: Edward VIII Abdicates the British Throne[09320] [c]Crime and scandal;Dec. 10, 1936: Edward VIII Abdicates the British Throne[09320] Windsor, duke of Windsor, duchess of (Wallis Warfield Simpson) Baldwin, Stanley Churchill, Winston Dawson, George Geoffrey Lang, William Cosmo Gordon

Because of his intimate relationships with married women and his pro-German sympathies, the Prince of Wales was regarded in many circles with distaste and even suspicion. A constitutional crisis drove him from the throne before he had reigned one year. The king, who at age forty-one was still a bachelor, fell in love with Wallis Warfield Simpson, an American and a commoner. Not only was Mrs. Simpson married at the time to Ernest Simpson, a London stockbroker, but she had a former husband from whom she had been divorced many years before. The intimate friendship between the king and Mrs. Simpson soon became a matter of gossip in London society and of comment in the American press. The British press, with its traditional respect for the royal family’s privacy, treated Mrs. Simpson as if she did not exist. Stanley Baldwin, the Conservative prime minister, chose to bide his time and wait for the king to make a mistake or come to his senses.

In October of 1936, Mrs. Simpson sought and was awarded a divorce from her husband. This decree freed her to marry again after six months. At this point, the king told Baldwin that he intended to marry Mrs. Simpson. Baldwin and the entire cabinet opposed the marriage. They believed that the king’s marrying a twice-divorced woman would violate the principles of the Church of England (of which the king was supreme governor) regarding divorce and remarriage. The archbishop of Canterbury, William Cosmo Gordon Lang, strongly upheld the church’s view. Divorce still barred a man from public life in Britain, and it would be an intolerable affront if the king were to marry Mrs. Simpson. The cabinet correctly assumed that public opinion, in Great Britain and in the even more conservative countries of the Commonwealth, would display a similar outrage at what the king wanted to do. The king, the monarchy, and the government would be drawn into the storm of political controversy. There would likely be permanent political damage to the monarchy and all that it represented for the unity of the British people and the solidarity of the Commonwealth.

The king was legally free to marry any woman he wished, but he was constitutionally obliged to accept the advice of the cabinet. If he did not, the cabinet would be justified in resigning, as it now threatened to do. The question of the king’s marriage became a constitutional crisis. Baldwin endeavored to convince the king to renounce Mrs. Simpson; otherwise it was his duty to abdicate. For Edward VIII, who apparently had little sense of the duties of the royal family, the choice was simple. He decided to marry the woman he loved. Meanwhile, the British public knew nothing because the secret was so well guarded. Then, suddenly, on December 3, the press broke its self-imposed silence. The nation was shocked and disbelieving. There was some popular support for the king and numerous demonstrations were held. Yet Baldwin and the cabinet had been right; most of the British people disapproved and public sentiment in the Commonwealth against the king also ran high. Most of the British press was against the monarch. Winston Churchill’s attempts to stir up support in the House of Commons failed dismally.

The king notified Baldwin on December 5 of his decision to abdicate. Certain conventions had to be honored, and Parliament was not informed until December 10. On December 11, a Declaration of Abdication Bill was introduced in Parliament, passed both houses, and received royal assent. Edward was now a private citizen. The new king, the former duke of York, succeeded as George VI. George VI That evening, Edward broadcast a touching farewell message to the people of Great Britain and the Commonwealth in which he said that he could not continue his life without the help of “the woman I love.” Immediately afterward, he went into self-imposed exile in France, where he married Mrs. Simpson the following June. Although Edward was created duke of Windsor, his wife was not accorded the title of royal highness. The British royal family, bitter at how Edward had behaved during the abdication crisis and convinced that Mrs. Simpson was responsible, refused to receive her or acknowledge her as duchess of Windsor. There was some softening of their attitude, however, before the duke of Windsor’s death in 1972.

Significance

Edward VIII’s abdication became one of the most controversial episodes in the history of the British monarchy. Modern scholarship now contends that Edward VIII mishandled his personal and public affairs throughout the period that led up to the abdication, and in the process he alienated many members of Parliament. His later expressions of pro-German sentiment in the 1930’s and 1940’s have also hurt his historical reputation. After his abdication, the duke met with several Nazi Party officials and even had an audience with Adolf Hitler; the Nazis hoped to reinstall the duke on the throne and thereby establish a Nazi presence in England. The plan was not a serious one, however, and in 1945 the duke accepted Churchill’s offer of a post as governor in the Bahamas. Fortunately, the duke’s departure had proved no more than a minor tremor for the British monarchy, and though Windsor family relations were severely strained, their conflicts were not made as public as some later disagreements. Furthermore, the spotlight quickly turned to the duke’s brother, King George VI, who made an excellent monarch. As a result, the abdication controversy passed quickly and was almost as quickly forgotten. Eventually, the duke returned to England for visits and for the funerals of his brother in 1952 and his mother, Queen Mary, in 1953. Fourteen more years would pass before the duke and duchess were formally invited to a royal gathering, although the pair were ultimately buried together at Windsor Castle’s Frogmore. Abdication of Edward VIII Great Britain;abdication of Edward VIII

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bloch, Michael, ed. Wallis and Edward: Letters, 1931-1937—The Intimate Correspondence of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. New York: Summit Books, 1986. A valuable primary source for understanding how King Edward VIII and the woman he loved viewed the constitutional crisis that had changed their lives.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bradford, Sarah. The Reluctant King: The Life and Reign of George VI, 1985-1952. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. Looks at the abdication crisis from the point of view of Edward VIII’s brother and successor and is critical of the performance of the future duke of Windsor.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Donaldson, Frances. Edward VIII: A Biography of the Duke of Windsor. New York: J. B. Lippincott, 1974. The first thorough and critical biography of the duke of Windsor, one that began the reappraisal of his life and the implications of the abdication and its background.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Edward VIII, King of Great Britain. A King’s Story: The Memoirs of H.R.H. the Duke of Windsor. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1951. The ghostwritten memoirs of the king illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of his personality and approach to his royal responsibilities.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Williams, Susan. The People’s King: The True Story of the Abdication. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Williams was the first of Edward VIII’s biographers to have access to scores of official records andprivate diaries, and so she is able to argue convincingly that the duke’s democratic leanings were just as—and perhaps more—responsible for his ouster than his desire to marry Simpson.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Windsor, Wallis Warfield, Duchess of. The Heart Has Its Reasons: The Memoirs of the Duchess of Windsor. New York: David McKay, 1956. The duchess of Windsor offers her account of the abdication crisis, which reveals how little she understood the British monarchy and the political system of the country.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ziegler, Philip. King Edward VIII: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001. Excellent modern biography of the king presents a thorough and balanced treatment of the abdication crisis and its aftermath.

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