King Edward VIII Abdicates to Marry an American Divorcée Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Less than one year after ascending to the throne of Great Britain, but before he was formally crowned, King Edward VIII, later known as the duke of Windsor, threw his country into a constitutional crisis by insisting on marrying a twice-divorced American socialite, Wallis Simpson.

Summary of Event

At 10 p.m. on December 11, 1936, the British people tuned in to the British Broadcasting Corporation British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) channel for a speech that became one of the most momentous of twentieth century Britain. In the space of just a few minutes, King Edward VIII, later known as the duke of Windsor, announced his abdication and immediate departure from England. The events leading up to this moment created a scandal that caught the public ear not only in England but also around the globe; it also defied tradition and brought the royal family into the modern era. Windsor, Duke of Simpson, Wallis Baldwin, Stanley Marriage;Edward VIII [kw]Edward VIII Abdicates to Marry an American Divorcée, King (Dec. 10, 1936) [kw]Abdicates to Marry an American Divorcée, King Edward VIII (Dec. 10, 1936) Windsor, Duke of Simpson, Wallis Baldwin, Stanley Marriage;Edward VIII [g]Europe;Dec. 10, 1936: King Edward VIII Abdicates to Marry an American Divorcée[00620] [g]England;Dec. 10, 1936: King Edward VIII Abdicates to Marry an American Divorcée[00620] [c]Government;Dec. 10, 1936: King Edward VIII Abdicates to Marry an American Divorcée[00620] [c]Politics;Dec. 10, 1936: King Edward VIII Abdicates to Marry an American Divorcée[00620] [c]Royalty;Dec. 10, 1936: King Edward VIII Abdicates to Marry an American Divorcée[00620] Monckton, Walter George VI

King Edward VIII announces his abdication in a December 11, 1936, address to the nation on British radio.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

From his youth, Windsor was a compelling individual, comparatively modern in his views, particularly regarding social issues such as poverty and care for World World War I[World War 01];veterans War I veterans. He had argued his way into serving in France, and although he was constrained to observing and inspecting the troops rather than engaging in direct combat, he spent much time at the front lines, earning the respect of the soldiers. This respect would resurface during the crisis leading up to his abdication and even later during his exile from England.

When he was invested as prince of Wales at Caernarfon Castle on July 13, 1911, much was expected of him in his role as heir apparent. By day, he performed the requisite royal duties, if not always in traditional form. Following the death of his father, George V, on January 20, 1936, Windsor became King Edward VIII. He was given to more casual dress and was less reserved in expressing his views. Most famously, while visiting poverty-stricken South Wales in November, 1936, he commented on the appalling living conditions and lack of work opportunities, saying “something must be done.” His coronation had not yet taken place and never would; by the end of the year, Windsor would be living in exile, no longer a king. The reason was Wallis Simpson.

Simpson, an American who had been divorced from her first husband and married to her second, met Windsor in January, 1931, at a party given by his lover, Lady Furness. Soon after, the prince fell deeply in love with the Baltimorean socialite, who was moving up in London society. Witty, incisive, acquisitive, and power-driven, Wallis became the prince’s paramour and confidant while still married to Ernest Simpson.

By autumn of 1936, Windsor became convinced that he must marry Wallis, who had been granted a decree nisi and was awaiting a decree absolute to dissolve her marriage. The king intended to make her his queen, announcing his intent to British prime minister Stanley Baldwin. Baldwin objected on the grounds that Wallis was not acceptable as queen because of her divorced status and the king’s position as titular head of the Church of England. The alternative of a morganatic marriage was suggested, in which Windsor and Wallis might marry and she not be queen but consort, but this would require a parliamentary bill. Put before the cabinet and the leadership of the dominions, this suggestion was rejected outright. International press had followed the scandalous love story for some time, and the British press finally broke its self-imposed silence on December 3, opening the situation to public uproar.

Some suggested that Windsor remain with Wallis as a lover, go ahead with the coronation, and perhaps marry someone else at a later date. On the surface, his decision to abdicate came down to a choice between true love and the throne, although there is evidence of additional complicating factors that may have forced the government’s hand. Both Windsor and Wallis had developed sympathetic views of Nazism. Windsor’s choice to step down elevated his brother, Albert, to the throne, even though the Windsors would continue to meet high-level Nazi officials, including Hitler, Adolf [p]Hitler, Adolf;and the Windsors[Windsors] Adolf Hitler, who sent them a gift for their wedding on June 3, 1937.

Windsor’s (Edward’s) abdication speech was written by his longtime friend and legal adviser, Walter Monckton, who also drew up the Instrument of Abdication. This moving statement sealed history’s commemoration of the romantic view of the event. It stated, in part, “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.” It also dismissed any collusion of government against him. He signed the Instrument of Abdication on December 10, gave his speech to the nation the following evening, and by December 12 left England for Austria. Shortly afterward, he was given the title duke of Windsor.

Impact

The scandal surrounding the abdication of Edward VIII (Windsor) profoundly affected Britain’s role during World World War II[World War 02];and British royal family[British royal family] War II, the relationship between British royalty and the press, and the line of succession that continued into the twenty-first century. Windsor embodied the paradox of public persona, private individual, and monarch as no royal had during the modern era, but it was a paradox impossible to contain for long.

In its own way, the press declared war on its own long-held gentlemen’s agreement not to expose the royal family’s foibles and misdeeds. The appearance of the press placards on December 3, 1936, effectively ushered in the modern era of royal-family coverage that continues to range from investigative reporting to digging up possible scandals.

Viewing fascism as preferable to communism, Windsor threw his support behind the Nazis and likely would have supported Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policies, whereas his brother, George VI, fell in with Churchill’s views. This ensured a unified monarchy and government in the face of the looming Nazi threat and drew an absolute line between Britain and Germany. Although in exile from England, the Windsors continued to associate with various individuals of Hitler’s party, but their support was effectively moot, especially once Britain declared war and they were dispatched to the Bahamas.

The task of restoring the image of the royal family fell to George VI and his queen, Elizabeth. Ironically, much of this occurred as a result of World World War II[World War 02];and British royal family[British royal family] War II, when the royal family refused to leave London and instead made a very visible presence of support and endurance to the people. Princess Elizabeth, later Queen Elizabeth II, served during the war. She continued to stabilize the public’s view of the royal family, steering a steady course of tradition and accommodating change in the face of her own children’s rocky marriages.

Wallis became duchess of Windsor when she married the duke of Windsor. The two never returned to England, a fact often attributed to direct intervention by George VI and Elizabeth. Windsor’s desire that Wallis be given the title Her Royal Highness was never granted, and this upset Windsor especially. He died from throat cancer in 1972, and Wallis lived another fourteen years alone in Paris.

The scandal attending Edward VIII’s precedent-setting abdication left a legacy of royal romance, intrigue, and governmental intervention, and even an impression of what constitutes a noble action. Delving into any one of these areas opens up new debates about the only king ever to abdicate from the British throne. Windsor, Duke of Simpson, Wallis Baldwin, Stanley Marriage;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. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1986. Reveals the Windsors’s romantic language and particularly the duke’s attachment, supporting the legendary love story.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Donaldson, Frances. Edward VIII. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1974. Long viewed as the standard biography, this work is noted for using the personal papers of both Stanley Baldwin and acquaintances who witnessed the Windsors’s private lives.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Higham, Charles. Mrs. Simpson: Secret Lives of the Duchess of Windsor. 1988. Rev. ed. London: Pan Macmillan, 2004. This work examines Simpson’s early life and her passage through society, extraordinary political views and connections, relationship with the duke, and the Windsors’s support of the Nazi regime. Includes extensive notes on sources and comments on new material.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Paxman, Jeremy. On Royalty: A Very Polite Inquiry into Some Strangely Related Families. New York: PublicAffairs, 2006. A serious exploration of the institution of royalty, with some insightful attention to the problems of the House of Windsor.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">White, J. Lincoln. The Abdication of Edward VIII. London: Routledge, 1937. A contemporary view of the duke’s shocking abdication.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Williams, Susan. The People’s King: The True Story of the Abdication. London: Penguin-Allen Lane, 2003. Williams takes a populist perspective, drawing upon the 2003 British National Archives release of abdication documents and on private papers and letters from the public. Lists archive sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ziegler, Philip. King Edward VIII: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001. This excellent modern biography of the duke of Windsor presents a thorough and balanced treatment of the abdication. Allowed full access to the Royal Archives, Ziegler incorporates in this work government, security, police, and personal files.

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