Pictured 30 years after the Abdication Crisis, The Duke and Duchess of Windsor in 1966 – aged 73 and 71 respectively
Below is a selection of glimpses into a fascinating moment in twentieth century British history. A king – hugely popular with the people, whom Prime Minister Winston Churchill worked assiduously to retain on the throne – yet one who his official biographer reveals – had expressed a desire to abdicate the throne more than a decade before he met the love of his life. And the love of his life, an American socialite – whose family lines descended from Charlemagne and King Edward I – who, having courted a king’s attention, found herself cornered by his passionate, life-long love and adulation.
In later life as the Duke of Windsor
Yet all this time later there’s still mystery to the story. Sifting through the pieces of an aggressive decades’ long smear-campaign to separate reality from disinformation is not a simple exercise. Absent of the hysteria, what was the truth of it? Enjoy the 9 posts and 4 videos below all reflecting different facets of this fascinating story…
Archbishop Cosmo Gordon Lang
THE 1936 ABDICATION CRISIS – PART ONE – POPULARITY & MISGIVINGS
From the beginning Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Gordon Lang, held a dim view of Edward. Archbishop Lang and King George V had been quite close. The Archbishop had coached King George in his media skills, had masterminded the King’s jubilee celebrations and served His Majesty as a personal counsellor. It was a relationship that gave the archbishop a great deal of importance and which firmly secured the relationship of the Crown with the Church of England.
Unfortunately Edward was the antithesis of everything for which the Archbishop would look in a successor to King George V. In his own memoir Edward spoke of his very first meeting with the archbishop shortly after his father’s funeral. “That encounter,” he wrote, “was my first intimation that I might be approaching an irreconcilable conflict.”
Photograph by French photographer Philippe Halsman in 1959
(A random fact: Prince Edward and his brother Prince Albert were regular patrons at Shim Shams, the fashionable jazz night club of the day. The club was then bringing the exciting new sounds of Harlem to London. It just happened to be the club where my paternal grand-father played the keys.)
Queen Victoria, holding her new great-grandson, Prince Edward
The Prince’s playboy lifestyle was par for the course for an heir to the British throne. The more exercising concern was around Edward’s political independence. Traditionally senior members of the royal family would receive their political guidance from palace-appointed officials. By contrast Edward sought his own experts and advisors. Both as Prince of Wales and as King Edward drew together business-men and industrialists to consider what could be done to address the country’s problems of poor housing, ailing industry, poverty and unemployment – even pitching proposals for developments on royal estates and civic land. (All of which mirrors work of Prince Charles’ over the last 30 years.)
As a response to the poor employment conditions in the country many churches at that time opened their halls and crypts as clubs for unemployed men. Edward made a habit of turning up unannounced of an evening to share in a beer or two or a game of darts. His ability to mix in such an informal way with working class men and have them laughing and joking with him was renowned. The men in turn found an ease with him to be themselves and to talk about their lives. It was a social ability Edward had honed in France during his service with the troops during WWI. He referred to this part of his life as his “real education.”
But not all applauded Edward’s ease with ordinary people. Some considered it quite worrying. Indeed Archbishop Lang wrote to one of his chaplains saying that he considered “dangerous” Edward’s “liking for vulgar society.”
As Prince of Wales and then as King, Edward embarked on royal tours that were markedly different to those of his predecessors. Edward’s visits targeted the country’s areas of economic and social need, taking in slums in the industrial north, and other areas of mass unemployment. Like his great-grandfather Albert, Edward had an active interest in new approaches to construction and affordable housing, and in what might be done to get the country’s economy moving again.
On a visit to the coalfields of South Wales in 1932 the King was visibly upset by the desperate conditions of poorly housed families suffering the privations of unemployment in a de-industrialized economy. “This is damnable,” he said. “Something ought to be done about it!” The King’s comments found their way into the papers and British Pathe news reported that the King’s visit was “bringing the whole problem of the depressed areas out of the shadows and into the floodlight of world attention,” instilling faith “that some solution will be found.“
The King in South Wales
The South Wales visit, in particular, which day after day filled streets and town-centers with enormous, cheering crowds, elevated the King’s popularity nationwide. But to some in politics Edward’s royal tours were unsettling. Indeed the King’s liberty in publicly venturing a strong opinion on a social-political matter made politicians at Westminster and officials at the Palace more than a little nervous. The 1936 tour of Wales was without doubt an embarrassment to the Baldwin government. Was the Prince simply too involved in political concerns to make for smooth sailing?
For whatever his reasons George V was unafraid to express his own misgivings about his son and heir well beyond the family circle. George V and Edward VIII saw things very differently to one another. George saw it as poor form that Edward tended not to wear his array of honorary war medals.
Edward, Prince of Wales in 1914
King George saw these medals as totemic of the Sovereign’s solidarity with the armed forces. Edward on the other hand saw it as disrespectful to those whose heroism these medals celebrated if he were to wear the same medals without ever seeing active combat. He was especially reluctant to wear his Military Cross when, though had accompanied troops in WWI, he had never been actively deployed in the theatre of war.
King George and Edward, Prince of Wales in 1914
Famously, the old king could never understand why the Prince of Wales refused to follow his father’s tradition and wear a top hat. And why would he not allow himself to be driven around in a local dignitary’s Rolls Royce, or a royal fleet of Daimler limousines for his visits to Britain’s depressed industrial areas? Did the Prince not appreciate how unregal he looked, stepping out of an ordinary car wearing a bowler hat??
King Edward with his mother, the Dowager Queen Mary in 1936 shortly after the death of his father King George V
But Edward believed that to visit areas suffering the stringencies of the depression and assert his royal presence by displays of Rolls Royces and top hats sent the wrong signal. He regarded that sort of status-asserting ceremonial as irrelevant to the needs of a country desperately needing to pull herself out of economic funk and stagnation. His modest innovations and proposals to streamline operations were met by what the Duchess of Windsor later described as “unyielding and unimaginative opposition.” In the end it was the priorities of war that gave his younger brother George VI the opportunity to cut much of the same ceremonial that had bothered Edward.
Royal brothers, by their house-names, David and Albert
From 1921 to 1936 in his 15 years of service as Prince of Wales, Edward had been not averse to simply cancelling ceremonial engagements which he regarded as pointless. For palace officials whose jobs revolved around royal ceremonial this was obviously a worry. Court functionaries saw his attitude towards their world as undutiful, willful and lazy. Clearly he and they were simply not committed to the same things. George V deplored his son’s casual attitude towards formality – typified by Edward’s American-inspired dress sense. And made no secret of his disapproval.
A young Edward in a new American-cut suit
But did the old King’s bluster about hats, cars and clothes mask weightier concerns? In a letter to PM Baldwin (now in the public domain) George V confided, “After I am dead, the boy will ruin himself within 12 months.” Clearly something greater than a question of style was at stake. Was it that the Prince was too independent to be relied on as a safe pair of hands?
On the other hand might it be that the conservative Establishment saw an opportune moment to grab a little more power from the Crown – perhaps wishing to avoid the prospect of a future regent with as political a presence as King George V – a sovereign who had proven himself to be far from the doormat that governments at Westminster might have preferred?! Or perhaps the abdication crisis of 1936 was simply one of those watershed moments when two eras collide.
The King who had to go
Edward had no shortage of socio-political convictions. However some of his actions could be said to evidence a lack of political acumen. During WWII some reported Edward’s communications with foreign ambassadors as naive, and deleterious to national security and the allied war effort. The three siblings Edward, Albert and George were all, at various times and in different ways engaged in manoeuvrings towards accords and peace-treaties. The critical difference is that Edward tended to operate as something of a free agent. He was surveilled by intelligence agencies on both sides of the Atlantic due to concerns that in the intricate politics of war Edward was a loose cannon and potentially a security risk for the Allies.
Young Edward, as the Prince of Wales
Perhaps it is difficult to empathize with the pain of a prince in exile at a time of national need and international strife. However the Duke’s petitioning of his brother, and of Winston Churchill for a meaningful position in wartime Britain, gave the appearance of a poor understanding of the difficulties his proximity might create for his less-confident, shier younger brother, working hard to establish himself in challenging circumstances.
The Duke’s conversations with journalists and ambassadors about ways to foreshorten the War could also be said to reflect poor political sense on Edward’s part. His apparent carelessness with dispatch boxes and what appeared to be a limited ability to self-censor when discussing sensitive war-time issues also suggest a shortfall in the diplomatic skills needed from a senior royal in such complex times.
These kinds of questions around Edward’s political acuity might give us some idea of the kind of weightier concerns that might have given the Establishment pause over allowing him to continue as King.
But these were the concerns of others not the concerns of the Prince. In her 1955 memoir “The Heart has its Reasons” the Duchess of Windsor insists that, as she got to know the Prince, she never heard anything from Edward that suggested that he was in any way reluctant or ambivalent about taking the throne. To the contrary she found him a buzz of ideas about the more modern way he would like to go about things as an “up-to-date king”.
In the Kenneth Harris interview below, recorded in October 1969, the Duke touches on his aspirations as monarch, had he been permitted to continue. He also speaks about his clashing with “The Establishment.” Revealingly, the Duke refers to his own exclusion from The Establishment while identifying his father George V and his brother Albert (who succeeded him as George VI) as both being a part of it. In these succinct, few words the Duke offers an insight into what he believed he was up against.
To this day there is some ambiguity over what the clash between Edward and the Establishment was really about. On the surface it appeared to be over his intention to marry the already divorced and re-married American, Mrs.Wallis Simpson, who was his mistress. However the Duke’s official, authorized biographer, Philip Ziegler, uncovers another layer to the story, detailing expectations, long pre-dating the advent of Wallis Simpson, that Edward would “not be king for long.”
Wallis and Edward in 1934
THE 1936 ABDICATION CRISIS – PART TWO – FINDING A REASON
In the pages of the Duchess of Windsor’s memoir, “The Heart has its Reasons” – for all its grace and tact – it is difficult to avoid the impression that, having enjoyed the thrill of an affair with the heir to the throne, Wallis found herself cornered by the King’s ardent affections.
Wallis and her sometime chaperone Aunt Bessie in 1934
In September 1934, as part of the Prince of Wales’ holiday party, Wallis’ Aunt Bessie expressed her grave concerns to her niece, saying, “Isn’t all this very dangerous for you?…I can see no happy outcome to such a situation.”
Wallis Simpson in 1936
Wallis had casually brushed the warning off but it soon became clear. Aunt Bessie was right. Wallis quickly found herself poised between her royal lover who was careering his way into a constitutional crisis on her account and her cuckholded husband, who had now found solace in the arms of another woman – Wallis’ own friend, Mary Kirk. (Ernest and Mary were later to marry.)
King Edward with Wallis Simpson and mutual friend Katherine Rogers on the holiday that busted Wallis and Edward’s cover
What happened next was clearly beyond Wallis’ control. The key players were the King, the Prime-Minister, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and older hands within the Palace. Wallis could only watch the spectacle from the bleachers as she found herself rapidly morphed from Edward’s latest affair into the King’s pretext for abdicating. By her own account, when Edward declared his intentions to her, her response was, “David…” (Edward’s house name) “You mustn’t talk this way. The idea is impossible. They’d never let you!…There’s your family! There’s your mother!…It is madness to think, let alone talk, of such a thing.”
On 13th November the King’s Private Secretary, Alexander Hardinge, received an alarming letter from PM Baldwin. It prompted him to dispatch a letter that same day to Edward to advise him that before the news should break in the press Mrs Simpson must take the opportunity to leave the country in order to avert what could only be a constitutional crisis. Wallis agreed but recalled in her memoir the King’s emphatic response: “You’ll do no such thing. I won’t have it. This letter is an impertinence. They can’t stop me. On the Throne or off, I am going to marry you!” When Wallis begged the King to let her leave Edward insisted that he could not live without her. If she left he would slit his throat, he said.
This drama kept Mrs Simpson in Britain for the next eighteen days. She saw herself as being check-mated in a no-win scenario and she hesitated before deciding in her own mind what action she should take. It turned out to be a critical delay.
Though the news had not yet been released by the press, information about “The King’s Matter” was leaking out. Photographers and onlookers were now beginning to loiter outside the Simpson’s home in Cumberland Terrace. Stones were lobbed through the windows. And then began the death threats. Alarmed, the King acted decisively to protect Wallis and her Aunt Bessie, moving them on Wednesday November 25th to the safety of Fort Belvedere, Edward’s own private residence in Berkshire. Wallis was now firmly in the grip of the King’s protection.
Fort Belvedere in Berkshire – King Edward VIII’s private residence
But the King and Mrs Simpson were not completely of one mind. In the course of the next six days the mood at the fort darkened and the wisdom of the King’s Private Secretary Alex Hardinge’s advice became clearer. From the fort, Wallis dispatched a letter to her estranged husband Ernest, confiding with him that she intended to discreetly slip away from England that very week. She would tell “HM” (the King) that she was going to Paris to shop for hats (a pretext she had successfully used before.)
However Wallis’ real intention, as she revealed to Ernest, was to take the opportunity to escape England – either never to return or, if things didn’t cool off between her and the King, not until long after Edward’s Coronation. She sent the letter on Monday 31st November 1936. The fateful news of Edward and Wallis’ affair broke in the British Press the very next morning – at 4am Tuesday December 1st 1936.
With two decades of hindsight the Duchess wrote, “I was afterwards to reproach myself for being deflected from my decision to leave England immediately. I should have realized that this was the fateful moment – the last when any action of mine could have averted the crisis.”
As soon as he heard the news had broken Edward immediately took charge of their situation, sending Wallis, pursued by the paparazzi, at breakneck speed to Cannes in France under the charge of his loyal staff.
From Cannes Wallis wrote and phoned the King daily, pleading with him not to advance the conversation towards abdication. But each time Edward would inform Wallis, or ask a member of his staff to explain to her, that machinations towards his abdication were much further progressed than she realized. On December 7th Wallis enjoined the assistance of the King’s staff in Cannes to draft a statement for the press announcing her withdrawal from the situation. But it was too late. The King had made up his mind, signing the instrument of abdication only three days later.
By my reading of this sequence of events, if in this great intrigue of a story there was a victim backed into a corner, it was not the King but Wallis.
THE 1936 ABDICATION CRISIS – PART THREE – LETTERS FROM A CORNER
75 years after the events of 1936 a number of private letters between Wallis and Ernest were released to biographer, Anne Sebba. These deeply personal letters squarely confirmed the impression I have outlined in the post above.
Though often referred to, rather pejoratively, as a “twice divorced American socialite” the fact is that when the Prince of Wales’ ardor landed on her, Wallis had been once divorced – and that from an alcoholic husband, who by all accounts was a rather unpleasant and abusive man. Wallis was then happily married to her second husband, the ship-broker Ernest Simpson.
As Prince of Wales, Edward had previously made a mistress of Freda Dudley-Ward, who was then married to her second husband the Rt.Hon William Dudley-Ward MP. Mrs Dudley-Ward was followed by the half-American Thelma Furness, who was at the time married to her second husband, Viscount Marmaduke Furness. Evidently the Prince found himself attracted to other men’s wives – and specifically women on their second marriage. Especially Americans.
From every account it is clear that the initiative to turn his affair with the already married Mrs Simpson into her third marriage came entirely from Edward. We now know that Ernest Simpson agreed to give Wallis a divorce only after he had confronted the King for a personal assurance that the King genuinely intended to marry Wallis and that he would not, under duress, leave her stranded and ruined. Glossing over the rather ugly detail of what arranging a divorce meant back in 1930’s England, the King simply insisted on what he believed Ernest ought to have worked out for himself – namely that he had no intention of being crowned without first marrying Wallis.
Six weeks before the abdication, as divorce proceedings between Wallis and Ernest were about to commence at the Felixstowe Assizes, Wallis wrote a poignant letter to her husband Ernest saying, “I am terrified of the Court etc. I feel small and licked by it all. I can’t think what sort of mess I am leaving for. Am sorry for myself. Am sorry for the King. I hate stuffy British minds. And last but not least I don’t understand myself, which is the cause of all the misery. Love Wallis. PS I am so lonely!”
One month before the abdication, while the petition for divorce was working its way through the courts in Suffolk, Wallis wrote again to Ernest. In a letter dated October 30th she wrote, “What can I say when I am standing beside the grave of everything that was us. I can only cry as I say farewell and press your hand very tightly and pray to God.“
Wallis in more innocent days as a society debutante in Baltimore
Following the Simpsons’ divorce and the King’s abdication Wallis and Edward were separated for three months, Wallis in France and Edward in Austria. During this time Wallis was still corresponding with her former husband. “I miss you and worry about you…You are so good and sweet. My dearest love to you,” she wrote.
Ernest in turn wrote to Wallis, “I want you to believe – and I do believe – that you did everything in your power to prevent the final catastrophe. And you may rest assured that no-one has felt more deeply for you than I have.”
Given that these letters were carefully kept private for a full 75 years I am inclined to believe in their sincerity.
The theme of mutual care and regret did not disappear from Wallis and Ernest’s private correspondence for a full two years. It would appear that, just like Uriah and Bathsheba in the annals of Jewish history, Wallis and Ernest had discovered too late in the day the dangers of living too close to a king’s palace!
Yet, despite the regrettable, messy and emotionally unequal beginning to their relationship, Wallis and Edward were able to forge a happy and life-long partnership. From the moment of the King’s abdication the Duchess’ job was to recreate for her husband a royal sense of significance, and to substitute hers for the love of a whole commonwealth. It was a gargantuan expectation to fulfill – and a fact which she names subtly in her 1955 autobiography and openly and in her letters to Ernest from 1936-1938. Wallis knew she had to make the situation work. And this she did – and did for the next 36 years until Edward’s death from cancer in 1972 aged 78.
The Duchess, her lifelong friend Katherine Rogers and The Duke in 1938
Notwithstanding the ups-and-downs and bumps in the road that are the stuff of any lasting relationship, even the harshest critics among the Duchess of Windsor’s peers (which included her sister-in-law, Queen Elizabeth the late Queen Mother) credited Wallis with success in making the Duke a very happy married man.
The Duke and Duchess, partying in the 60s
If the Queen Mother, whose hatred toward the Duchess was an open secret, could credit Wallis with making the Duke’s life a happy one, I am skeptical of commentators further removed who prefer to paint a grimmer, more Machiavellian picture. (Again you can read the scenes for yourself in the videos below.) Yet fascination persists to this day around Wallis’ precise intentions.
The current Prince Edward produced a documentary (below) which examined the story of his Great Uncle and Great Aunt. Though far from uncritical of his Great Uncle, it is noticeable that Prince Edward distances himself from the official canon which cast the Duchess as a mischievous and ambitious social-climber – a kind of 20th century Becky Sharpe, who manipulated the Prince, being determined at all costs to attain the British Crown.
The Duke and Duchess in Portofino in 1951
Some of the often repeated claims about Wallis give the appearance of Establishment efforts, post-abdication, at re-positioning Edward VIII in the public imagination. These claims ranged from casting Wallis variously as a German spy, a Nazi agent, a serial adulteress, a seductress trained by a Chinese prostitute, a lesbian, inter-gender or even a man! The novelist Barbara Cartland (later step-grandmother to Princess Diana) summarized what she regarded as the essential problem with the Duchess of Windsor, describing her as “aggressively American!”
THE 1936 ABDICATION CRISIS – PART FOUR – MANAGING POPULARITY
In the wake of the abdication, the great affection of the Commonwealth for King Edward VIII was an issue that needed careful managing if not to detract from the people’s acceptance of King George VI. It was a significant issue. Edward’s personal popularity with the British general public was immense. At that time he was regarded as powerfully attractive and was the most photographed man in the world. He had gone to the front with the troops in France in WWI – an experience which gave him enormous popularity among the armed forces and an ease in conversation with the man in the street. He was the first British royal to be a qualified pilot and was celebrated as “The Sporting Prince” – winning 13 steeplechases as a jockey.
Edward’s patronizing of pubs and clubs open to ordinary citizens was well-known, and his personal tours of coalmines, factories and slums in the country’s most deprived areas had earned him widespread loyalty and popular affection. His ease with and empathy for the working people of his country were, for a monarch, almost unprecedented. This was what Edward saw as the approach of “an up-to-date king” and why Wallis regarded him as being “ahead of his time.”
So it was that a careworn population, suffering the privations of the 1930’s depression in warmed to a prince and then a king who showed concern, moved among them and was willing to advocate for them. Such was his level of popular approval that Edward was confident the public would, out of loyalty to him, accept his marriage to Wallis.
There were plenty of public figures who supported the King’s freedom to choose his own wife and who repeat the establishment mantra that the King would have to choose between Mrs Simpson and his duty to the country. The leading Labour politician Nye Bevan considered it a “manufactured crisis,” famously referring to the “King’s matter” as “boudoir hysteria!” Harry Pollitt another left-wing MP stated in parliament, “There is no crisis in this for the working class. Let the King marry whom he wants.”
Future PM Winston Churchill, former PM David Lloyd George, Lord Rothermere, and press barons Esmond Harmsworth and Lord Beaverbrook were among a number of leading lights who advocated for a morganatic marriage – an arrangement which would allow the sovereign to marry, with his wife accorded the title of HRH (a title sported even by minor royals) but not of Queen. Together they argued the case for Edward being allowed to take he throne, and at a later point to marry Mrs Simpson, who would be styled the HRH The Duchess of Cornwall. The leading lights were referred to as “The King’s Party” and their idea as “The Cornwall Proposal.” Stanley Baldwin the conservative Prime Minister of the day, however, was opposed.
From the beginning PM Stanley Baldwin told the king plainly that a marriage to Mrs Simpson would be totally unacceptable to the British public. Why could the King not follow centuries of royal precedent by marrying somebody suitable and keeping a mistress discreetly on the side.
As Prince of Wales, Edward had had a succession of mistresses, the most serious affairs being with married women, the most recent, Thelma Furness, an American. None of this had rocked the boat. Why then, the PM wanted to know, could Mrs Simpson – also on her second marriage – not remain in the same uncontroversial category – as the King’s royal mistress? Why did the King insist on marrying her? Because therein lay the key difference between Wallis Simpson and all the prince’s previous love interests.
When the morganatic proposal was put forward the PM told King Edward that the leaders of the Commonwealth would need to be consulted for their opinion. However the range of responses did not give the PM the clear mandate he had hoped for to rule the proposal out. We now know that Stanley Baldwin kept hidden from Edward the full extent of support for the King that been communicated by the various Commonwealth heads. In reality the consultation was a charade. The Establishment and Baldwin on its behalf had already made the call.
Baldwin insisted that it was uniquely his job as PM to communicate to the King what his subjects would or would not accept and that the answer to the morganatic proposal was a resolute “no”. Edward’s instincts told him otherwise. From the moment the story broke in the British Press, crowds began to gather at Downing Street, outside Buckingham Palace and letters began to swamp the papers, campaigning for the King to be left alone to make his own marriage decision. “Hands off our King!” “Save our King from Baldwin!” “We want Edward VIII!” So ran the placards. Edward felt that the momentum was towards him and judged the public mood to be in his favour.
Warmed by President Roosevelt’s famous fireside chats, Wallis suggested that the King could capitalize on this good by making a broadcast on the radio to appeal directly and personally for public support of their marriage – morganatic or not. This might just keep Edward from abdicating. Edward agreed enthusiastically, being confident that a personal appeal would result in strong public support.
When a picture is worth a thousand words…Edward VIII in what looks like a tense moment with Stanely Baldwin, the conservative Prime Minister of 1936
THE 1936 ABDICATION CRISIS – PART FIVE – VARYING THE SUCCESSION
As events progressed and the removal of Edward from the throne became a more imaginable prospect, Sir Horace Wilson (a freelance adviser to the PM) together with Sir Maurice Gwyer (the First Parliamentary Counsel) wrote to the PM suggesting that in the event of Edward’s removal from the throne, a possible way to re-stabilize things and recover the prestige of the monarchy would be to install the Dowager Queen Mary as the “Queen Regent.”
The Dowager Queen Mary
Gwyer wrote to Baldwin saying, “The difficulty about the immediate ‘succession’ of [Albert] the Duke of York is that a substantial part of the country might still favour the present King and see his brother as a sort of interloper…Queen Mary as Regent would re-establish the reputation of the monarchy…The Duke of York could scarcely object and all the King’s subjects would only rejoice to see Queen Mary carrying on again.”
Unsure of the suitability for the throne of Edward’s younger brother, the stuttering Prince Albert, Wilson and Gwyer proposed that the Queen Regent could later sideline Albert from the succession, on the grounds of his various chronic health problems, clearing the path for the youngest brother, the supremely self-confident man-of-the-world, Prince George Duke of Kent, to succeed her as a King George VI. And what better name could there be than George to carry the message of royal continuity!
Three princes and heirs – George, Edward and Albert
The idea was not at all far-fetched. Varying the succession is nothing unusual in royal history. For instance Edward and Albert’s own great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, was the daughter of a prince no closer than 4th-in-line to the throne. So Victoria did not ascend the British throne without some rather intense conversation among members of the royal family of Europe. Two successions later, history reports that by the time George V came to the throne his older brother, Prince Albert-Victor, Duke of Clarence (the first in line to the throne) had died – but not before a family decision had been taken to exclude him from the succession (one way or another) over questions of his intellect and moral character.
KEEPING IT IN THE FAMILY
From a purely British perspective a voluntary abdication was an unprecedented aberration. In a thousand years the Crown had passed from one head to the next only through death by natural causes, murder or threat of murder. A wider perspective shows it in a less dramatic light. In that regard, consider the portrait above of 9 Kings. They are the royal heads of state of 9 independent, sovereign nations – Norway, Bulgaria, Portugal, Germany+Prussia, Greece, Belgium, Spain, UK and Denmark. Yet they are, simultaneously, members of one Extended Family. Each one is either descended from or related by marriage to John William Friso.
John William Friso, Prince of Orange 1687-1711
In 2018 the 7 remaining European monarchies are still reigned over by members this same one family. It is a royal monopoly unimpeded by the constitutional powers of nation states and the advent of democratic governments – a hegemony on which Edward VIII’s abdication in 1936 had precisely zero impact!
Europe-wide alterations to succession or abdications in times of political pressure are not as unusual as we tend to think. Although a voluntary abdication was without precedent in British history, throughout the course of the 20th century – and without any alloying of the Friso family monopoly – European thrones were in fact abdicated 11 times.
Prince George and Princess Marina of Greece – The Duke and Duchess of Kent
THE 1936 ABDICATION CRISIS – PART SIX – PREPARATIONS IN ADVANCE
As crisis loomed, Wilson and Gwyer’s Queen Mary + Prince George of Kent proposal fell by the wayside. It had been pre-empted by a series of meetings through the second half of 1936, convened by Prince Albert and Princess Elizabeth, which included PM Stanley Baldwin, and Archbishop Lang – quietly preparing the way for Albert’s accession to the throne. Prince Albert would be the one to be transformed into the new King George that the country needed.
Albert as King George VI
Edward’s official, authorised biographer, Philip Ziegler, identifies Balmoral in the Summer of 1922 as the place and occasion of Edward’s first clear intimation that he intended to avoid or abdicate the throne. It is therefore entirely possible that private conversations involving Prince Albert and his future in-laws, the Bowes-Lyon family, had anticipated Edward’s abdication by some considerable time – conceivably even preluding Prince Albert and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon’s engagement in 1923.
Prince Albert and Sheila Chisholm (Lady Loughborough) c.1920
In April 1920 King George V put an emphatic stop to a relationship between Prince Albert and a married woman – an Australian by the name of Sheila Chisholm. At the time Sheila Chisholm was married to her first of three husbands – Lord Loughborough. Unlike his older brother in the following decade, the young Prince Albert dutifully obeyed his father’s instructions and ended the relationship.
In the Spring of 1921, as an eligible and now available bachelor, Prince Albert made his overtures to Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. Lady Elizabeth was friendly with two of the King’s sons – Prince Albert and Prince Edward. Elizabeth accepted Albert’s proposal – but not without demurring. When Albert first proposed to Elizabeth in the Spring of 1921 and when he proposed a second time in March of 1922 it would seem that Elizabeth’s stronger interest lay elsewhere and she declined the extremely handsome Prince, who was then second in line to the throne. Quite a thing to do.
It was not until January 15th 1923 – three short months after the royals’ summer in Balmoral with its intrigues over Edward’s hinted early retirement – that Elizabeth found herself minded to accept Albert’s proposal after all, on his third time – and third year – of asking!
Prince Albert & Lady Elizabeth Bowes Lyon in 1923
When the two married in April the same year, Albert was joining his life with a person who could hardly have been more enthusiastically suited to royal life. In fact friends and family had referred to Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon as “Princess Lilibet” from her childhood!
In 1926, three years after their marriage, and at Elizabeth’s instigation, Albert began regular speech therapy with Lionel Logue to address his nervous stammer. King George V was sending Albert on a six-month tour of the Empire, which would necessitate dozens of speeches – the very last thing to which Albert was suited. Albert’s program of speech-therapy serendipitously prepared him for what were to be the demands of kingship in the new age of radio and newsreels. So it was that when the abdication crisis eventuated, ten years later in 1936, a ready royal alternative to Edward had been thoroughly-prepared.
Albert as King George VI – the third king of 1936
I do not believe that Prince Albert’s machinations emanated from any ambition to jockey Edward out of the way. Quite the opposite. As his accession to the throne approached Prince Albert wrote grimly that he felt “like a lamb being led to the slaughter,” and I believe his words were utterly sincere. Eyewitnesses credibly describe Albert on receiving news of his accession, experiencing the same anguish that his brother Edward had shown in his turn.
The Yorks provided a reassuring image of family and stability
Yet once crowned as the new King George, no one would deny that Albert absolutely rose to the needs of the hour and was loved as a sympathetic, steady and impressive monarch. It was clear that Albert, no less than his older brother Edward, suffered a legacy of frailties arising from their father’s overbearing approach to parenting. But in Elizabeth Albert had found the perfect companion and complement. Together they projected strength, stability and the virtues of a happy family. And by every account Elizabeth, absolutely thrived on being Queen – a title which, unprecedently, she never gave up.
After the death of her husband King George VI, Elizebeth rejected the tradition that would have styled her “Dowager Queen.” Accordingly protocols were changed to make Elizabeth “Queen” for a full 66 years (1936-2002) – Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.
Suffice it to say, neither PM Stanley Baldwin nor the Palace found it necessary to delve further into other accession possibilities. The Queen Mary – Prince George of Kent solution was not needed. The Establishment would find other ways of managing the public goodwill towards Edward, once he had gone.
THE 1936 ABDICATION CRISIS – PART SEVEN – THE LAST STRAW
It was Lord Rothermere, Esmond Harmsworth, Lord Beaverbrook, David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill’s support for the morganatic “Cornwall proposal” and the King’s plan to appeal directly to his popular support that finally catalyzed the events of the abdication.
Horrified by the dual proposal upon hearing it, and clearly alarmed that it would gain further traction, Archbishop Lang wrote immediately to the Prime Minister, sending the letter by courier on that same day – Wednesday November 25th 1936 – to 10 Downing Street, insisting that Edward must be removed swiftly. In a letter now in the public domain the archbishop wrote: “He must leave as soon as possible…The announcement should appear as a free act…I understand that you are seeing him tonight and, doubtless, you would make this plain.”
Accordingly Stanley Baldwin used his powers to prevent the King from making his appeal to the public as he had wished, ruling that such an action would be unconstitutional, because it would abrogate the constitutional prerogatives of the prime-minister and of parliament. The PM immediately announced this position to parliament, moving things with all haste towards a public broadcast from the King. The broadcast went ahead a little more than a fortnight later on December 11th 1936. It was not the broadcast Edward had intended, but the announcement of his abdication. He had signed the instrument of abdication the day before.
“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….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…God bless you all! God save the King!” (Extract)
Was this a miscarriage of justice? Was the Prime Minister manipulated by the powers of the Establishment to re-conservatize the monarchy and the nation? Was Edward robbed of his right to be an “up to date King” for whatever his chosen tenure was to be, long or short?
The Duchess later wrote with surprising candour that she could never understand why Edward would choose to invite such trouble by forcing a crisis with the Prime Minister. By inviting the cabinet to consider the Morganatic/Cornwall proposal surely, she said, the King “would be putting his head on Mr.Baldwin’s chopping block.”
And what was the urgency? Why not be crowned and return to the question of marriage later? PM Baldwin could not understand why the King was forcing a crisis by insisting on marrying Wallis. Why could he not keep Mrs Simpson discreetly as a mistress. The PM could see no problem with that and believed that the British public would accept it. It was, after all, a time-honored royal tradition.
Archbishop Cosmo Lang, leaving a late-night meeting with Prime-Minister Stanley Baldwin at 10 Downing Street, November 1936
For Archbishop Lang even that scenario was unacceptable. In a confidential memo (now in the public domain) Lang recalled discussing the PM’s suggestion at a private meeting on November 1st 1936. The two men differed. It was contrary to Church of England law for divorced persons to marry. So for the Supreme Governor of the Church of England to marry a woman who by then would be twice divorced was simply untenable.
As to the Prime Minister’s suggestion of tolerating a royal mistress, Lang felt it was untenable to anoint as King a man whose private, unrepentant adultery was known to the world. When PM Baldwin finally understood Lang’s position he wrote on November 13th warning the King that if he pressed his intention to marry Mrs Simpson it would pitch the King, the Government and the Church of England into an unavoidable crisis from which the King would emerge either government-less or crown-less. This was the letter that had so alarmed The King’s Private Secretary Alex Hardinge and moved him to advise Mrs Simpson’s removal to the Continent – indeed to anywhere but Britain.
With the ball now firmly in Edward’s court, why did The King force the question? Certainly he wanted to keep Wallis for life. The mistress proposal suited neither the Archbishop nor the King. But what about the suggestion made by Wallis and other friends that he should drop the relationship, if not permanently, at least until long after the coronation. Why force a crisis at that time?
Might the answer be that Edward was in truth not very perturbed by the prospect of losing the stand-off with the PM and the Archbishop? Is it possible that the crisis enabled Edward to achieve a freedom he had actually long desired, all the while appearing to be the victim of an Establishment coup?
Wallis Windsor in 1937 – by royal photographer Cecil Beaton
In his abdication speech Edward placed unique emphasis on the underlined words, “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.”
Putting everything together I wonder if, in his service as Prince of Wales through the 20s and 30s as Prince of Wales, Edward had given him a shrewd idea of what he was up against in the conservatism of the Establishment. My reading is that Edward gauged that the freedom to do his Kingly duties in an “up-to-date” way as he would wish to do would in all probability be denied him with or without Wallis. I wonder if Edward simply did not want the job on those terms and felt defeated-in-advance of the contest. In that sense I wonder if, both for the King and for the Establishment, Edward’s proposal to marry Wallis Simpson presented a rather convenient peg on which to hang a whole number of concerns and issues.
With great deference and tact Kenneth Harris puts this interpretation as a question to the Duke in the 1969 interview below. By my reading the answer the Duke gives is a clear “Yes.” (Listen to the full interview below and see what you think.)
Wallis and Edward in their 60s
THE ABDICATION CRISIS – PART EIGHT – FAMILY TIES AND NAZI SYMPATHIES
One of the most persistent stories of Edward and Wallis was that they were a potential disaster for Britain because of alleged sympathies towards Nazi Germany. One of the most published photographs of the couple is of them greeting Adolf Hitler on a visit they made to Germany in 1937 to view innovations in medium density housing. But it would be wrong to view this picture in isolation.
Certainly it is true that Edward and Wallis met with Hitler during a visit in 1937 – but then so had Edward’s younger brother Prince George, Duke of Kent along with half the British cabinet! It is arguable that Edward and Wallis’ 1937 visit should not be over-interpreted, since the only eye-witness of Hitler’s private conversation with the Duke reported Edward’s patriotism, rectitude and displeasure at the encounter.
To be a Nazi-sympathizer in 2018 is something morally indefensible. Accordingly, to apply the label “Nazi-sympathizer” to a person becomes a way of instantly demonizing them and shaming any sympathy for them. But what did it mean for a Brit to be soft towards the Nazi administration in Germany in the 1930s?
On this side of WWII we can only regard Hitler in the light of the holocaust of six million Jews. That is the Nazi horror. With that knowledge in our minds it is hard to understand let alone excuse the support others lent him before that horror came to light. When with hindsight we consider the Nazi propaganda machine, the denial of employment and rights to the children and grand-children of Jewish refugees, the dehumanizing rhetoric towards Jews and homosexuals, followed by their compulsory detention, the significance of these measures is clear to us and we understand that they were horrific and clear portents of what was to come. “How,” we ask, “could sympathizers overlook those atrocities?” But the fact is they did. Not knowing the end of the story makes a difference. Tolerance of parallel patterns in America post 2016 illustrates that powerfully.
The fact is that in the years before the truth of the Holocaust emerged Hitler was viewed by many among Britain’s aristocracy largely through the lens of Germany’s phenomenal economic reconstruction. People who admired Roosevelt for the regeneration of the American economy admired Hitler’s Germany for exactly the same reason.
In addition many viewed the Nazi regime’s military strength as a positive bulwark against what they viewed as the greater threat of Soviet Communism with its power to promote and support revolutions in the West. The Nazi regime was seen as helpful to Britain and the West for that reason. A number of sources associate both Edward VIII and George VI with that view.
As the War got underway and hostilities reached Britain in the form of the Blitz some still preferred the idea of an alliance with Germany over and against the idea of an alliance with America, understanding that to become dependent on America would be to lose Britain’s footing as an imperial power. There was more confidence that an alliance with Germany would “keep it in the family.”
More darkly, though, it is undeniable that prior to the War a significant layer of anti-Semitism desensitized many in Britain’s upper crust to the Nazi regime’s fascism, its emboldening of anti-Jewish xenophobia and the compulsory detention of Germany’s Jewish population.
PM Neville Chamberlain visiting with Adolf Hitler in 1938
It is also a matter of fact that many among Britain’s nobility, both before and during the war, engaged in efforts overt and covert to avert or foreshorten war. This bias was shared by a number of significant royals, including King George V’s three surviving sons. George VI emphatically supported PM Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement. Wanting to do all he could to anchor a treaty with Germany George VI took the unprecedented step of standing the PM alongside the King and Queen on the balcony of Buckingham Palace to wave to the cheering crowds.
The occasion was the PM’s return from a visit to agree and sign the “Munich Agreement” with Hitler. The PM’s landing at Northolt Airport was marked by his famous speech – “I have in my hand a piece of paper…Peace in our time” – a speech in which the PM championed the “great news” of Britain’s peace accord with Adolf Hitler.
King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and PM Neville Chamberlain celebrating Hitler’s infamous peace accord with Britain – waving together from Buckingham Palace
Again for context we must factor in the John William Friso family connection. Grassroots European citizens would conceive of a parochial Europe of independent nations, jostling in friendly or uneasy competition. By contrast Europe’s extended royal family must surely regard their territory as something of a familial empire.
It’s worth remembering that By 1936 Edward had sported an English surname – Windsor – for less than half his life. He and his brothers were born bearing the surname of their German ancestral family – Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. He once told his friend, Lady Diana Mitford, “Every drop of blood in me is German.” And there were members of the British royal family who were carefully kept out of the limelight on account of their pronounced German accents. Indeed German culture was so prominent in the life of the royal family that Edward often referred to the German language, in which we was fully fluent, as his “mother tongue”. So it is perfectly understandable that the royals could only have hoped against hope that their family empire would not go to war with itself once again.
Strikingly similar cousins: Russian Tsar Nicholas II & British King George V, both proudly sporting their German regimental uniforms – 14 months before the outbreak of WWI
Only twenty years previously, when Russia fell to revolution in 1917, King George V was forced to sign what was in effect the death warrants of the family of his doppelganger cousin Tsar Nicholas II. In 1918 Britain went to war against Germany, pitching King George V against the Kaiser – who was George V’s first cousin. So it is not hard to see why those with any royal blood in their veins would have viewed with absolute horror the prospect of more murderous conflict being forced on the family once again. It is easy to see why, for the British royals, the attraction of accords with Germany would have been so strong and why, behind the scenes, members of the family became directly invested in efforts towards peace agreements.
The Ishiguro novel and movie “The Remains of the Day” dramatizes an example of one of these covert negotiations for peace between senior British figures and senior German figures held in the privacy of aristocratic country homes. One home used for exactly this purpose in the 1930’s was the home of Queen Mary’s brother. Some writers have sensationalized these conversations and have sought to present the British Royal Family as traitors. But I think that to shine a light on the royals’ bias towards peace and accords is in no way to diminish the royal family’s loyalty and patriotism towards Britain. But the context speaks to what they would have felt was in Britain’s best interest.
Clandestine negotiations by British upper crust in “The Remains of the Day”
As Duke of Windsor, Edward’s insistence on wanting to serve his country post-abdication evidences the same patriotism held by his younger brother. And as for King George VI, for all his enthusiasm for the Hitler-Chamberlain peace accord, he more than proved his loyalty and love for Britain through the long hard years of the war. That the King remained with his Queen in the war-torn and bombarded capital gave courage to the whole nation.
The most questionable of the three brothers was the youngest – Prince George, Duke of Kent. It is commonly known that during WW2 Heinrich Himmler and Rudolf Hess were among a number involved in secret negotiations with figures among the Allies – a cohort which may have included members of the royal family.
Against this background of of intrigue Prince George, Duke of Kent was killed in an air crash in a covert operation – the details of which are to this day kept from the public by the Official Secrets Act.
Prince George’s involvement in a covert operation clearly identifies him as an ambassador-negotiator. There would be no reason to send the Prince other than to anchor a negotiation. However the intent to broker a deal – most likely with Rudolf Hess – can not automatically be equated with support for the Holocaust or for Hitler.
I think we can be confident that there could never be a pact between Churchill and Hitler. Any deal to foreshorten the war and negotiate a treaty would therefore require that either German powers usurp Hitler’s leadership or that on the British side George VI would have to prorogue parliament, and convene an emergency powers committee to run the war.
This action would be perfectly constitutional and quite understandable given the intensifying conditions of war and the physical impediments to convening parliament. Such a manoeuvre would also move PM Winston Churchill neatly to one side. There may have been alternative avenues. But it is difficult to conceive of what other device a member of the British royal family could possibly have to offer covertly in such a negotiation.
HRH George, Duke of Kent
The very fact that the details of the Duke of Kent’s clandestine mission remain suppressed to this day tells us something. Logically the information protected by British official secrecy laws can have nothing to do with making the German side of the equation look better. Logically it can only be a story that would reflect darkly on Britain’s leadership-story. And that dark story revolves around Prince George, Duke of Kent.
Whatever the true details of that scenario, contrast the level of official George, Duke of Kent with the unflattering and open press handling of Edward VIII’s alleged softness towards the Nazi administration. We have all seen the photograph of Edward and Wallis meeting Hitler. Are you familiar with the photographs of Prince George with senior Nazis in 1937? The contrast is telling.
So to isolate Edward VIII’s soft position in that way is to misunderstand significantly what was happening at the time and it significantly distorts the picture. Because of the strong support of Winston Churchill for retaining Edward on the throne I suspect that the claims about Edward and Wallis as the “Nazi-sympathizers” have been exaggerated after the event and deliberately highlighted out of context as a way of diminishing public goodwill towards the former King, and diverting attention away from what might be more embarrassing closer to home.
Consider for yourself; Winston Churchill was a national leader who could not have been more anti-German or more anti-appeasement. Of all people would Churchill really have wished to stick his neck out politically and, against his own political advantage, advance Edward as monarch if he had regarded Edward for one moment as vulnerable to, let alone as being a covert supporter of the Nazi powers? I don’t think so.
FILES & CONSPIRACIES
Immediately post-war, Winston Churchill was privy to the contents of the Marburg Files -which surfaced in 1945. These included covert correspondence between senior Britons and senior Nazis through the course of the war. The files were not made public.
Politics during wars are more layered and contradictory than makes for comfortable reading. Think of the Bush family’s ties with Saudi Arabia and the Bin Laden family, or the secret negotiations between Conservative British governments and the IRA, or the provision of armaments, torture equipment and operational training by Western allies to their own military opponents.
Suffice it to say that, given how secret the diplomacy and how messy the realpolitik of war can be, it is not in the least surprising that Churchill would decide the contents of the Marburg Files needed to be suppressed.
Churchill was also shown intercepted telegrams from the time of the war, when they surfaced in 1953 – some of which revealed an aspiration among some Nazi conspirators to reinstall Edward as a puppet monarch in the event of Nazi victory. However Churchill regarded this telegram record as unconvincing. Such subterfuges can only raise questions. It is no more than a statement of fact to say that the secrets of our governments and those of the Windsor-Saxe-Coburg-Gotha family are kept from public knowledge by a great array of legal means. So one has to acknowledge that there is a great deal we can not be certain of.
The Windsors in France in the 1950s
As for the list of other detractions against Edward and chiefly Wallis – that she was a foreign spy, a Nazi agent, a serial adulteress, a seductress trained by a Chinese prostitute, a lesbian, inter-gender or a man – the very least than can be stated is that they can’t all be true! The most consistent feature of the official smear campaigns was that they generally aimed to manage the level of public goodwill towards Edward by casting the Prince, in one way or another, as an unfortunate victim of Wallis, and Wallis as the real menace.
THE 1936 ABDICATION CRISIS – PART NINE – GOODWILL & INFAMY
In the preface to her autobiography the Duchess revealed that she well understood the widespread judgement of herself and the Duke. Its pages allow us a glimpse into what it may have meant to walk in their shoes; in the face of suspicion and in the aftermath of exclusion and vilification – a more than 50 year long thread within their story. The royal biographer Hugo Vickers referred to the Duchess as “the most maligned woman in the C20th!” Indeed the bitterness and intensely negative feeling towards both the Duke and Duchess persisting into the C21st is a phenomenon to be wondered at.
The Windsors’ Wedding in 1937
The Duchess made her one venture into print in the express hope that a generation after her time might review the events of her life more dispassionately and arrive at a more generous conclusion than the one drawn by her contemporaries. The Duchess of Windsor was herself in no doubt as to the byword her name had become in the C20th.
Even at the time of the death of the Duke of Windsor in 1972 the bereavement of the now ailing 75 year old Duchess of Windsor was reported in Britain with something of a bitter note. Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper, reported the Duchess’ return to France, having buried her beloved. The headline read, with an unmistakable undertone of schadenfreude, “So now she is alone.”
Wallis and Edward
If any of these questions interest you, then the interviews below may interest you further. For an BBC interview of the period (it was recorded in October 1969 when the Duke was 75 and the Duchess 73) there is a surprising liberty in the the Duke and Duchess’ conversation with Kenneth Harris, below. Note that the first video is heavily edited and so gives a more stilted. However the full interview in the second video (audio only) reveals the much more relaxed tone and content of the Duke and Duchess’ full conversation with Kenneth Harris.
Another surprisingly informal moment is captured in the brief impromptu conversation with the 78 year old Duchess – just two years after the Duke’s death, filmed during a visit to New York in 1974. Fourthly watch the current Prince Edward’s documentary on his Great Uncle. Enjoy…
PS If you think this is an incredible story you might like to follow the story of George VI ‘s married mistress – the Australian socialite Sheila Chisholm, who on her third marriage ended up as a Russian Princess – therefore related by marriage both to John William Friso and Wallis, Duchess of Windsor!!
The Duke and Duchess in party mood in the USA in the 1960s
The Heart has its Reasons – The Duchess of Windsor (D.McKay)
King Edward VIII – The Official Biography – Philip Ziegler (Harper Collins)
That Woman – Anne Sebba (St Martin’s Press)
Go-Betweens for Hitler – Dr Karina Urbach, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London .(Oxford University Press)