The 1936 Abdication Crisis – Part 2: Finding a Reason

wande on holiday

Wallis and Edward in 1934


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 Aunt Bessie

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 in 1936

Wallis Simpson in 1936

Wallis casually brushed the warning off but it soon became clear that 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.)

Katherine Rogers King-Edward and Wallis

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 in the drama that unfolded 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. However the King was adamant. In the pages of her memoir Wallis recalls 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.

Wallis trapped

This drama kept Wallis 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. This hesitation proved to be a critical delay.

Though the news had not yet been released by the press, information about “The King’s Matter” was already 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.

the fort

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. This was 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.”

escape to cannes

As soon as he heard that 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 already 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 British 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.

Click here for the next chapter and for videos and interviews…

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