In 1936 a constitutional crisis in the British Empire arose when King-Emperor Edward VIII proposed to marry Wallis Simpson, an American socialite who was divorced from her first husband and was pursuing the divorce of her second.
Opposition to the King and his marriage came from several directions. Edward’s desire to modernise the monarchy and make it more accessible, though appreciated by many of the public, was distrusted by the British Establishment. Edward upset the aristocracy by treating their traditions and ceremonies with disdain, and many were offended by his abandonment of accepted social norms and mores.
Social and moral
Government ministers and the royal family found Wallis Simpson’s background and behaviour unacceptable for a potential queen. Rumours and innuendo about her circulated in society. The King’s mother, Queen Mary, was even told that Simpson might have held some sort of sexual control over Edward, as she had released him from an undefined sexual dysfunction through practices learnt in a Chinese brothel. This view was partially shared by Alan Don, Chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who wrote that he suspected the King “is sexually abnormal which may account for the hold Mrs S. has over him”. Even Edward VIII’s official biographer, Philip Ziegler, noted that: “There must have been some sort of sadomasochistic relationship … [Edward] relished the contempt and bullying she bestowed on him.”
Religious and legal
In Edward’s lifetime, the Church of England forbade the remarriage of divorced people in church while a former spouse was still living. The monarch was required by law to be in communion with the Church of England, and was its nominal head or Supreme Governor. In 1935 the Church of England reaffirmed that, “in no circumstances can Christian men or women re-marry during the lifetime of a wife or a husband”. The archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Gordon Lang, held that the king, as the head of the Church of England, could not marry a divorcée.
If Edward married Wallis Simpson, a divorcée who would soon have two living ex-husbands, in a civil ceremony, it would directly conflict with Church teaching and his role as the Church’s ex officio head.
Wallis’s first divorce (in the United States on the grounds of “emotional incompatibility”) was not recognised by the Church of England and, if challenged in the English courts, might not have been recognised under English law. At that time, the Church and English law considered adultery to be the only grounds for divorce. Consequently, under this argument, her second marriage, as well as her marriage to Edward, would be considered bigamous and invalid.
As a result of these rumours and arguments, the belief strengthened among the British establishment that Simpson could not become a royal consort. British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin explicitly advised Edward that the majority of people would be opposed to his marrying Simpson, indicating that if he did, in direct contravention of his ministers’ advice, the government would resign en masse. The King responded, according to his own account later: “I intend to marry Mrs Simpson as soon as she is free to marry … if the Government opposed the marriage, as the Prime Minister had given me reason to believe it would, then I was prepared to go.” Under pressure from the King, and “startled” at the suggested abdication, Baldwin agreed to take further soundings on three options:
Edward and Simpson marry and she become queen (a royal marriage);
Edward and Simpson marry, but she not become queen, instead receiving some courtesy title (a morganatic marriage); or
Abdication for Edward and any potential heirs he might father, allowing him to make any marital decisions without further constitutional implications.
At Fort Belvedere, on December 10, 1936 King Edward VIII signed his written abdication notices, witnessed by his three younger brothers: Prince Albert, Duke of York (who succeeded Edward as King George VI); Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester; and Prince George, Duke of Kent.
The following day, it was given effect by Act of Parliament: His Majesty’s Declaration of Abdication Act 1936. Under changes introduced in 1931 by the Statute of Westminster, a single Crown for the entire empire had been replaced by multiple crowns, one for each Dominion, worn by a single monarch in an organisation then known as the British Commonwealth.
Though the British government, hoping for expediency and to avoid embarrassment, wished the Dominions to accept the actions of the “home” government, the Dominions held that Edward’s abdication required the consent of each Commonwealth state. Under the Statute of Westminster, the act passed by the UK parliament could become law in other Dominions at their request. This was duly given by the Parliament of Australia, which was at the time in session, and by the governments of Canada, South Africa, and New Zealand, whose parliaments were in recess.
The government of the Irish Free State, taking the opportunity presented by the crisis and in a major step towards its eventual transition to a republic, passed an amendment to its constitution on 11 December to remove references to the Crown and abolish the office of Governor-General of the Irish Free State; the King’s abdication was recognised a day later in the External Relations Act. In South Africa, His Majesty King Edward the Eighth’s Abdication Act 1937 declared that the abdication took effect there on December 10. Canada passed the Succession to the Throne Act 1937 to symbolically confirm the abdication.
Edward’s supporters felt that he had “been hounded from the throne by that arch humbug Baldwin”, but many members of the establishment were relieved by Edward’s departure.
On December 11, 1936, Edward made a BBC radio broadcast from Windsor Castle; having abdicated, he was introduced by Sir John Reith as “His Royal Highness Prince Edward”. The official address had been polished by Churchill and was moderate in tone, speaking about Edward’s inability to do his job “as I would have wished” without the support of “the woman I love”. Edward’s reign had lasted 327 days, the shortest of any British monarch since the disputed reigns of Lady Jane Grey over 380 years earlier, and Edgar II Ætheling who was elected King of the English after William I the Conqueror defeated Harold II Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings in October of 1066.
The day following the broadcast he left Britain for Austria.
George VI granted his elder brother the Peerage title of Duke of Windsor with the style His Royal Highness on December 12, 1936. On May 3 the following year, the Simpsons’ divorce was made final. The case was handled quietly and it barely featured in some newspapers.
The Times printed a single sentence below a separate, and seemingly unconnected, report announcing the Duke’s departure from Austria.
Edward married Wallis in France on June 3, 1937. She became the Duchess of Windsor, but, much to Edward’s disgust, George VI issued letters patent that denied her the style of Her Royal Highness. The couple settled in France, and the Duke received a tax-free allowance from his brother, which Edward supplemented by writing his memoirs and by illegal currency trading. He also profited from the sale of Balmoral Castle and Sandringham House to George VI. Both estates are private property and not part of the Royal Estate, and were therefore inherited and owned by Edward, regardless of the abdication