The Prince of Wales in 1914 shortly before going to support front-line troops in France
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.
As Prince of Wales, Edward 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 totally rejected 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 the throne, and at a later point to marry Mrs Simpson, who would be styled the HRH The Duchess of Cornwall. These 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. It was his constitutional privilege to speak for the people and inform the King that the answer to the morganatic proposal was a resolute “no”. As to the real mood of the people, Edward’s instincts told him otherwise. From the moment the story broke in the British Press, crowds began to gather at Downing Street and 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 he 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 goodwill by making a radio broadcast 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