It is 80 years since Edward VIII’s abdication shocked the nation. Chris Bond looks back at what triggered the crisis, the impact it had and the legacy it left behind.
In December 1936 a creeping fear was gathering hold in the world. The reverberations of the Depression were still being felt by many and now a dark shadow was looming over Europe.
Less than 20 years after the guns fell silent, marking the end of one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history, the dread, jungle beat of war was once again pounding. And in Britain, a year that had started badly was about to get even worse.
On January 20, 1936, George V died and Edward VIII succeeded him as king. The previous year George had celebrated his silver jubilee and the British monarchy appeared more popular than ever. There was little indication, outwardly at least, of the impending storm that was soon to blow through Buckingham Palace and Westminster and rock the nation.
As a dashing Prince of Wales, the popularity of Edward had outstripped that of his uncommunicative and distant father. After serving in the Grenadier Guards during the First World War, Prince Edward became the darling of high society during the 1920s.
In the Depression which followed the Wall Street Crash of 1929, he visited stricken areas like the South Wales coalfield and encouraged 200,000 unemployed to join his back-to-work scheme, displaying an enthusiasm to get stuck into important social issues.
At the same time, though, Edward was a reluctant monarch and his relationship with American divorcee Wallis Simpson exposed this reticence.
The pair met at a party in 1931. At the time Mrs Simpson was married to her second husband but Edward was smitten. Over the next few years their relationship deepened and in November 1934, at a party at Buckingham Palace, Edward introduced Wallis to his mother. George V, however, was furious and refused to meet her.
By 1936 journalists and newspaper editors knew about the goings-on between Edward and Mrs Simpson, who was regularly seen with her royal consort, even if their readers didn’t. That summer photographs of the pair together cruising in the Mediterranean were splashed across the foreign Press.
Today, criticism of the royals has become the norm, but 80 years ago the Press had a “gentleman’s agreement” when it came to keeping up royal appearances.
In October, a decree nisi was granted in the Simpsons’ divorce case and the following month matters came to a head when Edward informed the Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin that he intended to marry the woman he loved. Baldwin told him that whoever the King married would have to become Queen, and the British public wouldn’t accept her.
On December 2, they met again when Baldwin told the King he had three choices: either end the relationship with Mrs Simpson; marry against the advice of his ministers – who would then resign – or abdicate.
Still the British public was none the wiser until the following day when The Yorkshire Post broke the story that would change the course of British history.
The man who set in motion this extraordinary sequence of events was the former Wool Textiles correspondent of The Yorkshire Post, Harry Franz. Early on the afternoon of December 1, he was sent to walk over to the home of Dr Alfred Blunt, the Bishop of Bradford, to collect some copy.
The Bishop had written out the presidential address he was about to give to the Bradford Diocesan Conference, and Harry dutifully carried it back to his newsroom.
All routine stuff. But Arthur Mann, the editor of The Yorkshire Post and a gifted newspaper man, believed he detected, in the Bishop’s reference to the forthcoming coronation of Edward VIII, a coded warning to the King about his relationship with Mrs Wallis Simpson – the affair which all Fleet Street knew about but had voluntarily agreed not to publish.
The leader article printed in next day’s Yorkshire Post was picked up by the rest of the Press, the story was out, and within days Edward VIII had abdicated.
Edward, now Duke of Windsor, left for Austria. In May the following year George VI was crowned King and a month later Edward and Wallis Simpson married in France.
Depending on how you look at the 1936 constitutional crisis, it was either one of the great love stories of the 20th century, or a lurid tale of royalty, sex and a spectacular demonstration of pathetic weakness triumphing over national duty.
Dickie Arbiter, a former Buckingham Palace Press secretary and an expert on the Royal Family, says the abdication crisis couldn’t have erupted at a worse time.
“Britain was still suffering from the legacy of the First World War and the Depression and there were storm clouds gathering over Europe. These were difficult times and what the nation didn’t need was the monarchy falling apart as well.”
When news broke that Edward was abdicating there was dismay rather than anger. “The public reaction was one of great shock, people couldn’t understand how he could do it. You have to remember the monarchy was still revered in a way we wouldn’t recognise today.
“People stood up whenever they heard the national anthem even when they were listening to the King’s Christmas message on the radio. Today the majority of people like the royal family but they don’t love them in the way people did.”
Wallis Simpson is often depicted as a predatory sex siren but Arbiter believes it was Edward’s decision that caused the greatest consternation.
“She was blamed subsequently for what happened by many people but Edward put his feelings above the needs of his country and that is what was unacceptable to many people. The country should have come first.”
Nevertheless, Arbiter believes the events that unfolded were a blessing in disguise. “It could have been a disaster. The Prince of Wales had flirted with Germany and some people jokingly say we could have been speaking German today. He was a weak king who was incapable of making decisions and there was a feeling that Wallis pulled the strings.”
A lot has been made of Edward’s admiration of Adolf Hitler and there has been much conjecture over what have happened had he remained King when Britain and Germany went to war. “George visited people who had been bombed in the East End and Coventry. Would Edward have done that? We don’t know.
“But with George VI we got a good king and his wife [the late Queen Mother] was a very strong woman who was British and had a vested interest in the country. She had lost a brother in the war so she knew about pain and suffering.”
Had Edward remained King then because he and Mrs Simpson had no children Elizabeth would still have come to the throne, albeit 20 years later than she did.
“We have a strong monarchy today that is recognised and respected around the world. You can go anywhere and people know who the Queen of the United Kingdom is.
“The Queen has seen leaders come and go and despots come and go, she has met popes and presidents and she remains an inspirational figure,” he says.
“We should be thankful that Edward did go when he did because we got a good king and we have a monarchy that still matters to people.”
A timeline of the abdication crisis
Nov 16: The King tells Baldwin he wants to marry Mrs Simpson. Baldwin tells him the British public would not accept her as Queen.
Nov 25: Edward tells PM he wants a morganatic marriage to Simpson, in which he could still be King but she would not be Queen. Baldwin says it was not acceptable.
Dec 2: Baldwin gives the King three choices: Finish with Mrs Simpson; marry against the advice of his ministers – who would then resign; or abdicate.
Dec 10: The King signs Instrument of Abdication.
Dec 11: Abdication endorsed by Parliament. The former King broadcasts to the nation.
Dec 12: Edward’s brother proclaimed King George VI.