The 1936 Abdication Crisis – Part 1: Popularity and Misgivings


Archbishop Cosmo Gordon Lang


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 wish 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.”

jumping Windsors

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.)

Victoria and Edward

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.

Edward’s collaborations resulted in his submitting detailed proposals for developments on royal estates and civic land. These initiatives echoed the work of his great-grandfather Prince Albert, and prefiguring the work of his great-nephew Prince Charles. Sadly, as in the case of his great-grandfather, Edward’s initiatives were not taken up by government.

edward coalminers cottage

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. His long-time friend Alexandra Metcalfe observed that it was in these circles that the prince seemed “most himself.”

edward steeplechase

As Prince of Wales Edward was a supremely active and confident sportsman. He was a successful jockey in steeplechase and won 13 derbies. He was the first member of the British Royal Family to fly a plane and gain a pilot’s license.

edward pilot

An eager surfer and a style captain on the golf course, Edward became known around the world as “The Sporting Prince.” His position as heir to the throne, his public presence and his youthful confidence and physique all contributed to the prince quickly becoming the most photographed man in the world, at that time.

Edward with the troops

The Prince of Wales in France with the troops in WWI

Edward’s ease among ordinary working men was a social ability he had honed in France during his service with the troops during WWI. Edward petitioned to be admitted to front-line service, but the government of the day blocked the request, not wanting to take unnecessary risks with the life of the heir to the throne.

Nevertheless, Edward was on active service near the front in France for most of the war. In 1917 the Prince was moved to North Italy, where British troops were reinforcing the line against the Austrians. Towards the end of the war, Edward was awarded the rank of Major and found himself posted to the Canadian Corps and later to the Australian Corps in Belgium. As the war ended, he was sent to Germany to support the occupation troops in place there.

These were the years that opened up Edward’s world and introduced him to a great spectrum of people and human experience. Edward referred to these years 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.”

edward in a bowler hat

As Prince of Wales and then as King, Edward embarked on royal tours that were markedly different to those of his royal predecessors. Edward’s visits targeted Britain’s areas of economic and social need, taking in slums in the industrial north, and other areas of mass unemployment. He was very concerned with what might be done to get the country’s economy moving again.

On a visit to the coalfields of South Wales in 1936 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.” Since the government had clearly failed to find “some solution,” the pressure created by the King’s remark was viewed by Stanley Baldwin’s Cabinet as a deeply unwelcome intrusion into the world of politics. The welfare of the South Welsh was the government’s business. Not the King’s! By publicly sympathising with the unemployed miners of South Wales, the King had made more enemies in government.

South Wales 1932i

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 this aspect of the King’s royal tours were unsettling. The King’s liberty in publicly venturing a strong opinion on a social-political matter, coupled with the unprecedented popular following Edward was developing presented something quite new for a British monarch. Previous monarchs had been revered and feared. Edward, by contrast excited a kind of populist movement around him, which made politicians at Westminster and officials at the Palace increasingly nervous. When the King made a trip to depressed areas in the North of the country PM Baldwin called the King in to his office to explain the reason for his visit.

That one instance is enough to show that the power dynamics between PM Baldwin and the King were already out of kilter. The fact that Edward complied so meekly with Baldwin’s demand that the King explain himself, hints at the possibility that Edward was almost enjoying goading and irritating the establishment. He expected the clash. Without a doubt, the 1936 tour of South Wales was an embarrassment to the Baldwin government. Was the King “out of control” too unconcerned with political niceties and too involved in political concerns to make for smooth sailing?

george v.jpg

In the years prior, for whatever his reasons, the old king, George V, had been unafraid to express his own misgivings about his son and heir, and to do so well beyond the family circle. It was clear to any observer that George V and Edward VIII saw things very differently to one another.

prince of wales in 1926

The Prince of Wales, with the Welsh Guards in 1926

For instance, King George saw it as poor form that Edward preferred not to wear his array of honorary war medals. King George saw these medals as totemic of the Sovereign’s solidarity with his armed forces. By contrast Edward’s relationship with the troops, after his years in service, was not totemic. It was warm and personal. Edward had seen the horrors of WWI at close quarters and he regarded it as disrespectful to those whose heroism had earned their medals if he were then to wear the same medals without ever having participated in front-line combat. Edward was particularly reluctant to wear his Military Cross when, though had been close to the front-line in WWI, he had never once been deployed in battle. However, Edward’s explanations to his father had fallen on deaf ears.

medalled edwardKing George and Prince Edward

King George and Edward, Prince of Wales

In a similar vein, the old King was never able to understand why the Prince of Wales refused to adhere to his father’s tradition in style and sport a top hat (the style of 1797) for his public outings. And why would Edward 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 of Wales not appreciate how common and unregal he made himself appear, each time he stepped out of an ordinary car wearing a bowler hat (the style of 1849)??

david and mary of teck

King Edward with his mother, the Dowager Queen Mary in 1936 shortly after the death of his father King George V

By contrast, Edward believed that for him to visit areas suffering the poverty and degradations of the Britain’s depression, and assert his royal presence there by grand displays of Rolls Royces and top hats, would send completely the wrong message. Edward regarded that kind of celebration of status as worse than irrelevant to the needs of a country desperately needing to pull itself out of the economic stagnation and decline which had begun three generations before under the reign of his great-grandmother Queen Victoria, and which in the 1930’s had been deepened by the dynamics of an international depression.

The priorities of life in Britain were profoundly altered by the experience of the Great War. This massive social shift clearly reflected in the Prince’s own priorities. The “old ways” of “pomp and ceremony” held no allure for Edward, and from the close of the First World War until his accession to the throne in 1936 it was observed by many in the Palace that the Prince was not averse to simply cancelling any ceremonial engagements which he regarded as pointless.

david and albert style brothers

Royal brothers, by their house-names, David and Albert

For palace officials whose whole employment revolved around matters of royal ceremonial Edward’s low opinion of it was inevitably a serious concern. Court functionaries viewed Edward’s attitude towards the world of palace ceremonial as undutiful and selfish. It was clear that he and they were simply not interested in the same things. So while popular in the country, Edward was far from popular among officials at the Palace.

Accordingly Edward’s modest innovations and proposals to streamline royal display and ceremonial 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 allowed his younger brother King George VI the opportunity to cut all the same pomp and ceremonial that Edward had targeted in his turn. George VI made these ceremonial cuts less than three years into his reign.


edward american style

A young Edward in a new American-cut suit

King George V deplored his son’s casual attitude towards formality – typified by Edward’s American-inspired dress sense. And the old King made no secret of his disapproval. But did the old King’s bluster about hats, cars, clothes and ceremony actually 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 the Prince a loose canon and altogether too independent to be relied on as a safe pair of hands?

the prince in a peaked cap

The Prince of Wales, sporting a peaked cap

On the other hand could it be that in the transition from George V to Edward VIII Britain’s 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.

King Edward Stamp

The King who had to go

Edward had no shortage of social and political convictions. On one occasion Edward received a visit from Herbert Morrison, then the chairman of the London County Council. They were at York House discussing plans for social housing in Kennington. Following the meeting, about to return to his car, Herbert Morrison realised he had left his briefcase in the dining room and rushed back to retrieve it. He apologised to the King, saying “I can’t leave the socialists’ secrets in this house!” The King smiled and replied warmly, “Mr. Morrison, they would be perfectly safe here!”

Political convictions aside, some of Edward’s actions could be said to evidence a serious 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. One wonders what evaluations might have been made of his siblings, given the same scrutiny. Only in the 21st century are such questions beginning to surface.

What we can say with certainly is that all three siblings Edward, Albert and George were engaged, at various times and in different ways in manoeuvrings towards accords and peace-treaties with the Nazi regime in Germany. Edward 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.

edward as a boy

Young Edward, as the Prince of Wales in 1910

Once the war was underway more could be seen of those traits which may have previously given cause for concern over Edward’s accession. 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 PM Winston Churchill for a meaningful position in wartime Britain, suggested a poor understanding on the Duke’s part of the difficulties his proximity might create for his less-confident, shier, younger brother, who was working hard to establish himself in challenging circumstances.

During the early months of the War, the Duke’s conversations with journalists and ambassadors about ways to foreshorten the conflict could also be said to reflect poor political sense on Edward’s part. The Duke’s friendship with pro-Nazi member of French High Society, Charles Bedaux, at the very least indicated naivety and poor judgment. Some have suggested that the friendship was a direct security threat to Britain and the allies on account of Edward’s apparent carelessness with dispatch boxes and what appeared to be a limited ability to self-censor when discussing sensitive war-time issues. Did Edward display a shortfall in the diplomatic skills needed from a senior royal in such complex times? There were those in high places who thought so.

These kinds of questions around Edward’s political acuity from a time after the abdication perhaps offer an idea of the kind of weightier concerns that might have given the Establishment pause over allowing him to continue as King.

duke sombre

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 a television interview with Kenneth Harris, recorded in October 1969, (which I have included in a later chapter) 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.”

Click here for the next chapter – and for more videos and interviews


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