The prince found such restraints irksome, while his parents were upset by his refusal to marry and settle down. When the Prince’s choice fell on a twice-divorced American, Mrs Wallis Simpson, constitutional problems arose. Never steady or strong of will, the prince had to decide between Mrs Simpson and the Crown, which passed to him in 1936 on the death of his father George V. In the event, Edward VIII became the only British sovereign to resign the throne of his own will.
He abdicated on 10 December 1936, broadcasting a memorable farewell message by radio, and left the country to marry Mrs Simpson in France. He was made Duke of Windsor and lived abroad, maintaining friendly, if distant, links with his relatives until his death in 1972.
In this exclusive extract, we present a brief guide to Edward and Mrs Simpson’s relationship:
In January 1931, Lady Furness held a weekend house party at Burrough Court, near Melton Mowbray, to which she invited the Prince of Wales. A married couple who were also on the guest list suddenly fell ill, and in their place she invited Mr and Mrs Ernest Simpson.
Like Lady Furness, Mrs Simpson was born in America, and was already once divorced. In 1928 she made a second marriage to Ernest Simpson, a native of New York who had served in the Coldstream Guards and become a naturalised British citizen. Though Mrs Simpson had lived in England for several years she still clung fiercely to her ‘American ways and opinions’, and her Baltimore accent was very pronounced. Hard-faced and by no means attractive, she was always elegant and well-dressed, and the Prince of Wales found her sympathetic, understanding and witty. Though she made little impression on him at their first meeting, she and her husband invited him to dine at their London flat a year later, and soon an invitation to spend a weekend at Fort Belvedere followed. The association, as she remarked in her memoirs, ‘imperceptibly but swiftly passed from an acquaintanceship to a friendship.’ Mutual friends and members of the household soon noticed that the Prince appeared to be infatuated by her as never before.
Six days after the thanksgiving service for the 25th anniversary of the King and Queen’s accession to the throne, the King had a long and serious talk with the Prince of Wales about the future when he ascended to the throne, and regretting that he had never married. To this the Prince replied that he could never marry, as such a life had no appeal for him. When the King accused him of keeping Mrs Simpson as his mistress, the Prince reacted with anger and gave his word of honour that he had never had any immoral relations with her. He then begged the King to invite her to the Jubilee Ball at Buckingham Palace and to Ascot, which the King did with reluctance. It was a decision which caused the rest of the royal family as much mortification as it did the King to approve.
The Duke of York was especially shocked. He had already noticed with bitterness that Mrs Simpson was accepting large sums of money from the Prince of Wales, as well as jewellery – particularly family heirlooms bequeathed to the Prince by Queen Alexandra, who had taken it for granted that he would make a suitable marriage and would need them to give to his Queen Consort. On hearing about the interview that had passed between father and son he was aggrieved that the Prince of Wales should have lied to blatantly about his relationship with Mrs Simpson. He was sure that the two were lovers, suspicions soon to be confirmed by the Prince’s staff.*
*As Duke of Windsor, to the end of his days he denied that his wife had been his mistress during her second marriage. He successfully sued one author, Geoffrey Dennis, whose Coronation Commentary, published in 1937, referred to her having been his mistress, and some twenty years later threatened to take the official biographer of the late King George VI, John Wheeler-Bennett, to court if he did not drop the word ‘mistress’ from his book.
On the afternoon of 16 January 1936, as he was shooting in Windsor Great Park, the Prince of Wales was handed a note written by Queen Mary. She had advised him that the royal physician, Lord Dawson of Penn, was ‘not too pleased with Papa’s state at the present moment’, and he should come to Sandringham, but in a casual manner so as not to alarm him.
Next morning, he flew to Sandringham in his private aeroplane. Later that day he telephoned Mrs Simpson to tell her that the King was unlikely to live for than two or three days. The Dukes of York and Kent joined them, leaving the Duke of Gloucester who was at Buckingham Palace, recovering from his laryngitis. On 20 January, shortly after midday, the King received his Privvy Counsellors for the last time. Propped up in an armchair, wearing his dressing-gown, he was too weak to do more than answer ‘Approved’ when the Lord President read out the order paper, and make two shaky marks signifying his initials G.R. on the document. Shortly before midnight, in the words of Lord Dawson, his life moved ‘peacefully to its close’.
Queen Mary’s first act as a widow was to kiss the hand of the eldest son, the new sovereign. Immediately afterwards, the new King telephoned Mrs Simpson with the news.
The new King’s penny-pinching (he had made cuts, dismissing members of staff and only telling the family once it was a fait accompli) at a time when he was showering his mistress with lavish gifts lost him much sympathy from his servants and household. Shortly after his accession, a sanction was obtained that no man in royal employment should be dismissed without being offered alternative employment, but this rule was soon quietly dropped by the King. Servants resented having their wages cut when they spent much of their time loading furniture, plates and cases of champagne for despatch to Mrs Simpson’s flat. The King’s personal instruction that soap supplied for the guests in the royal residences, which was collected up after the guests had left and finished in the servants’ quarters, should in future be brought to his own rooms, was also ill-received below stairs.
At the time of her brother-in-law’s accession, the Duchess of York was in low spirits. Early in the new year she has been struck down with influenza, and was till very weak when the King died. She grieved for him, noting that unlike his own children she was never afraid of him, and in all the years she had known him ‘he never spoke one unkind or abrupt word to me.’ As yet she attached little importance to the King’s infatuation for Mrs Simpson, though a tasteless remark by the latter did nothing to raise her standing with the Duchess. She was told that in early February, during a conversation about court mourning, Mrs Simpson remarked that she had not worn black stockings since she gave up the Can-can.
It was noticed that the Yorks no longer visited Fort Belvedere, so much did they dislike what they heard of the King’s subservient behaviour towards Mrs Simpson. The Gloucesters did, but with deep misgivings. They were unhappy about the liaison, but the Duke felt personally obliged to go. The Kents did likewise, but the Duke was saddened that his eldest brother, who had always been so close, now appeared so remote and distant. Against her better judgement, the Duchess of Kent regularly invited her brother-in-law and Mrs Simpson to tea at Coppins and at their London home in Belgrave Square.
September 1936 had been a bad month for the royal family; October was to bring more portents of the impending crisis. Edward VIII’s private secretary, Hardinge, was informed by the Press Association that Mrs Simpson’s divorce petition was to be heard at Ipswich Assizes on the 27th of the month. Aghast, he discussed the news with Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, who went to see the King on 20 October to warn him what a scandal his ‘friendship’ with the lady was causing, and to ask him to try and prevent the divorce from going through. The King firmly declined. As yet, Baldwin took a less serious view of matters than Hardinge, who called upon the Duke and Duchess of York to warn them that the King’s abdication was a definite possibility.
Though the British press still adhered to a gentleman’s agreement that the name of Mrs Simpson should not appear in their columns, it was becoming an increasingly open secret that the King intended to marry her. Mrs Simpson’s decree nisi was granted on the grounds of Ernest’s adultery, but suspicion was rife that everything had been arranged for the convenience of her and the King. On 10 November, her name was publicly mentioned for the first time in the House of Commons. During question time, the Coronation was referred to, and Mr McGovern, Labour member for Shettleston, Glasgow, declared angrily that they need not bother to talk about it in view of the odds at Lloyd’s that there would be no Coronation. To cries of ‘Shame!’, he retorted, ‘Yes – Mrs Simpson!’
Abdication rapidly progressed from a grim but remote possibility, to inevitability. London was alive with rumours at all levels of society. Even friends of the King acknowledged, albeit with reluctance, that if the King married Wallis, he would have to abdicate immediately, otherwise there would be a renewed Socialist (and perhaps Republican) agitation, the formation of a King’s party, a Yorkist party, and a general election in which the King’s marriage and its acceptability or otherwise would be a major distraction at a time of recession and severe unemployment at home, and sabre-rattling from dictators abroad.
On 16 November the King invited Baldwin to Buckingham Palace, and told him that he intended to marry Wallis Simpson at the earliest possible opportunity, whether his ministers approved or not. If they did not, he was prepared to abdicate. Later that evening he went to see Queen Mary at Marlborough House, and told her and the Princess Royal.
Since King George V’s death, mother and daughter had drawn very close to each other. Whenever she and her husband were at their London residence, the Princess Royal spent as much time as possible with the Queen, and during the crisis she was her mother’s greatest support. They were ‘astounded and shocked’ at his threat – or intention – to relinquish the throne. The Queen told him firmly that he must give up Wallis or the throne; and it was his duty to give up the former. To this, he countered that he felt unable to function as King without marrying her, and therefore his ultimate duty was to leave the throne.
On the morning of 10 December, all four brothers were present at the signing of the Instrument of Abdication. With a degree of calmness which astonished the others, King Edward signed several copies of the Instrument and then five copies of his message to Parliament, one for each Dominion Parliament.
There were still difficulties to be resolved in what was an unprecedented situation. Never before had a British monarch voluntarily abdicated the British throne. The last King to be deposed, James II (in 1688, coincidentally also on 11 December), had never formally renounced the throne and still called himself King during his remaining twelve years of exile abroad. Edward was suddenly worried about how badly off he would be, and requested that the terms of his father’s will should be strictly observed as regards his life interest in Balmoral and Sandringham; they should be treated as absolutely his, for him to dispose of as he saw fit. There was uncertainty as to whether he would be provided for by government, and whether the life or freehold interest in Balmoral passed to the crown under Scottish law. A few minor alterations were agreed and signed. Neither his brother nor Lord Wigram realised that he had made huge savings in his personal fortune for such an eventuality. When they did, it added to the anger and resentment they already felt at his rejecting his responsibilities as King and head of the family, while being unwilling to accept the financial consequences of doing so.
Another issue to be settled was the outgoing sovereign’s future title. As he was born the son of a Duke, he would be Lord (instead of a plain Mr) Edward Windsor, and under such a name he could stand for election to the House of Commons. The chance that Mrs Simpson might persuade him to do so did not escape their notice. Only be confirming him as HRH Duke of Windsor could he be barred from doing so, and the Duke of York maintained that he could not speak or vote in the House of Lords;† but he would not be deprived of his position in the army, navy or Royal Air Force.
At 1:52 p.m. on Friday 11 December, ‘that dreadful day’, in the phrase of the new King, Britain witnessed her third sovereign in eleven months. Prince Albert, Duke of York, was now King George VI. He had chosen his regnal name a few days earlier preferring to take the same one as his father in order to demonstrate a sense of continuity with the latter’s reign, and in preference to the name of Albert, which he recognised had too Germanic a ring.
† This was technically incorrect. Royal dukes can speak in the House of Lords. The sons of King George III, and King Edward VII as Prince of Wale, had previously done so; as would Prince Charles and Richard, Duke of Gloucester many years later. The former King Edward VIII’s title was created by Letters Patent on 8 March 1937.
A week before King George’s 1937 Coronation, the Duke of Windsor and Mrs Simpson were reunited. On 3 May, she was informed that the decree had been made absolute, and she called the Duke in Austria. He caught the ‘Orient Express’ from Salzburg that afternoon and met her at the Château de Candé, central France, at lunchtime the following day.
Candé, which belonged to a very rich French-born naturalised American named Charles Bedaux, had been chosen for the Windsors’ marriage. The Duke had sadly resigned himself to the fact that none of his family would be attending, and Sir Edward Metcalfe accepted an invitation to be his best man. What rankled far more deeply, however, was King George VI’s refusal to raise Wallis to royal rank upon their marriage.
The wedding took place as arranged on 3 June. A civil marriage by the Mayor of Monts was followed by a religious ceremony at which the Reverend R. Anderson Jardine officiated. Jardine, vicar of St Paul’s Church, Darlington, was warned by the Bishop of Durham that he had ‘no episcopal licence or consent’ to conduct the ceremony, but went ahead anyway.
Extracted from George V's Children by John Van Der Kiste