The First Time in British History That a King Abdicated
For the first time in British history, a monarch stepped down from the throne of his own free will. Edward VIII inherited the crown from his father George V but gave it up to marry twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson.
His abdication set the stage for his niece, Queen Elizabeth II, to become Britain’s longest-serving monarch. His reign lasted 325 days.
Edward VIII’s love affair with Wallis Simpson
The scandal erupted in 1936 when Edward, who had inherited the throne from his father, George V, fell head over heels for twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson. At the time, British law and tradition barred marriages between a member of the royal family and a divorcee.
The king was determined to marry her, but the prime minister and his family refused to accept his proposal. He then offered to marry her in a morganatic marriage in which she would keep her title but not inherit the throne.
Borman, whose book about the love affair is out in February, says that the letter shows how obsessive and head over heels Edward was for Simpson. However, she suspects that Simpson was never a candidate to become queen. Her desire may have been to enjoy the attention of a wealthy man. She was, by her own admission, bored stiff by him. She reportedly enjoyed her life as the king’s mistress but did not want to be his wife.
The abdication crisis
In a matter of months, King Edward’s decision to marry a divorced commoner plunged the British monarchy into an unprecedented constitutional crisis. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin manipulated the situation and, according to critics, used the event as an opportunity to revive his dwindling political career. The abdication crisis stripped the Crown of any remaining independent political power and guaranteed that it would never again occupy such a position in Britain.
On 11 December 1936 – ‘that dreadful day’ – he signed the Act of Abdication at Fort Belvedere, declaring that he was renouncing the throne. He left the country for France with Mrs Simpson and was demoted from ‘His Royal Highness’ to the Duke of Windsor. His exile was voluntary, but it’s highly unlikely that he will ever set foot on British soil again. It’s likely that his brother or sister will visit him occasionally, in order to maintain a semblance of family ties. His life interest in Balmoral and Sandringham will probably remain with him.
Edward’s abdication speech
The abdication crisis of 11 December 1936, the moment when Edward renounced his rights to the British throne in order to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson, has entered the history books as one of the most dramatic episodes of the modern monarchy. It was certainly the first time that a monarch had voluntarily abdicated.
The conventional story of why he chose to abdicate is well known: he fell in love with Wallis and decided that he could not be both king and her husband. The rest is history.
Britain’s senior mandarins were alarmed by Edward’s laissez-faire attitude towards his duties and responsibilities. Warren Fisher, the head of the Home Civil Service, and Maurice Hankey, the Cabinet Secretary, both expressed concern about Edward’s handling of confidential State papers – acts of Parliament, notes of confidential diplomatic discussions, drafts of treaties, details of naval and military organisation.
Clive Wigram, the King’s private secretary, warned that Edward might soon develop into a George III.
At the start of his reign, Edward was popular with most of the Establishment – he was seen as a breath of fresh air at a time of intense unemployment and political turmoil. He was an attractive maverick with a fondness for flying in fresh fish from Fortnum and Mason, which was delivered to his French castle every morning.
The only thing that marred his reign was the scandal of his love affair with Wallis Simpson. He had sought permission from the Church of England and the Royal Family to marry the American divorcee, but they refused.
It was never quite clear if he intended to succeed his father Canute, but when he died in 1042 he became the new king with the support of his powerful ally the Earl Godwine of Wessex. At this time, there were no clearly established principles on royal succession – kinship, designation as the late king’s heir, and support from the Church and nobility all played their part.