The destination for history

Why was Edward VIII’s abdication a necessity?


The conventional story of why Edward VIII came to abdicate in 1936 is well known and hardly needs any detailed rehearsal. The King abandoned the throne because he was determined on marrying the American divorcée Wallis Simpson, ‘the woman I love’, a union rejected by the political and royal Establishment. Was this opposition genuine or a convenient excuse to remove a monarch considered unsuitable?

It has to be said that even as heir to the throne, the Prince of Wales admitted doubts as early as 1919 about his fitness for the role he was born to. He wrote to his mistress Freda Dudley Ward, ‘I have so often told you sweetheart that I’m not ½ big enough man to take on what I consider is about the biggest job in the world.’ His father, George V, shared this lack of confidence, telling one court functionary that should Edward become King – as was inevitable – he would ‘wreck the monarchy and the Empire’. And to Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin George said, ‘After I’m dead the boy will ruin himself in twelve months.’

Once Edward succeeded to the throne on his father’s death in January 1936, concerns about his attitude and behaviour were soon confirmed. One essential quality demanded of a constitutional monarch was, and remains, discretion. For a quarter of a century George V had played his part impeccably through an era of war, revolution and political instability. Edward – as George feared – gave every impression this was beyond his ability. On a summer cruise round the Greek islands the new king flaunted his relationship with the still married Mrs Simpson, forcing her to plead with him to be more discreet. She recalled that he laughed her aside. ‘Discretion,’ he said, almost proudly, ‘is a quality which, though useful, I have never particularly admired.’

There was a far more serious aspect to the new King’s lack of prudence. Though Britain was slowly recovering from the Depression of the early 1930s, the economy and society remained fragile. In Europe, the rise of the dictators – Hitler in Germany, Mussolini in Italy – posed a growing threat to peace and to Britain’s imperial position. Despite this, Edward made little effort to hide his sympathy with right-wing authoritarianism. ‘I see we are to have a Fascist King, are we?’ one Labour MP told Prime Minister Baldwin.

Within a month of Edward’s accession in 1936, Britain’s three senior mandarins – Warren Fisher (head of the Home Civil Service), Maurice Hankey (Cabinet Secretary) and Robert Vansittart (Foreign Office Permanent Secretary) – met to discuss disquiet about the new monarch’s handling of confidential State papers: acts of Parliament, notes of confidential diplomatic discussions, drafts of treaties, details of naval and military organisation.

Secret files were left openly on display for any visitor to Edward’s Fort Belvedere weekend retreat to see. Among those socialising with the King were Italian and German diplomats. He was sharing highly sensitive documents with Mrs Simpson, discussing their contents with her. Interception by the intelligence services revealed the French and Swiss Embassies in London were reporting to their governments on her influence over the King. Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, Vansittart said, believed she was ‘in the pocket’ of the German Ambassador. The security implications were obvious.

Clive Wigram who, as the King’s private secretary, was as close to him as any man, reported to the Lord Chancellor his worries about Edward’s state of mind. ‘He might any day develop into a George III,’ he wrote, ‘and it was imperative to pass the Regency Bill as soon as possible, so that if necessary he could be certified.’ Alec Hardinge, Wigram’s assistant, complained of the new King’s irregular hours, which, combined with an irresponsible attitude to work, made the serious conduct of affairs all but impossible.

The public knew nothing of Establishment doubts about the King, the press and the BBC maintaining an effective blackout on his relationship with Mrs Simpson. The affair might be openly reported in Europe and the United States, but in Britain silence prevailed up to the eve of the abdication. As official desperation grew, Edward remained popular, a breath of fresh air, a charming and attractive maverick, with a frequently displayed and apparently genuinely felt compassion for the unemployed and for veterans of the First World War.

But Edward had to go and the Establishment eagerly seized the golden opportunity when he told Prime Minister Baldwin he was set upon marrying Mrs Simpson the moment her divorce was finalised. A form of morganatic marriage, with Edward remaining on the throne but his wife denied royal status, was raised but deemed out of the question.

One thing remains: had a section of the Establishment been prepared to go even further in its determination to remove Edward? Some elements may have been willing to turn a blind eye to what MI5 and the Metropolitan Police Special Branch had been reliably informed was a conspiracy to assassinate the King in broad daylight on 16 July 1936. Was incompetence or collusion involved? The question is open.

In the event, the attempt on the King’s life – farcical and confused – did not come off. Instead Edward was removed from the throne in December 1936 – reluctantly, he declared in his memoirs, but possibly with some sense of relief. Exiled to France, the former King was rebranded ‘Duke of Windsor’. There is a final historical irony in the fact that as the present Duke of York retreats from official life tainted by sexual scandal, it was an earlier Duke of York – Edward’s brother Albert – who restored confidence in the institution of monarchy when he succeeded, taking the title George VI in an act of symbolic continuity.

By James Parris

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