Edward VIII: a king at war with his country

Over eight decades after Edward VIII gave up the throne to marry Wallis Simpson, Stephen Bates reveals how the king’s obsession with an American divorcee set him on a collision course with the government, his brother and the wider British public... This article first appeared in the January 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Wallis and Edward wave for the cameras during a voyage in c1970. By then, Edward was unwell, having undergone cardiac surgery. He was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1971. (Getty)

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“After I am dead, the boy will ruin himself within 12 months.” So gruff old King George reputedly remarked to prime minister Stanley Baldwin about his son and successor, the future Edward VIII.

He was scarcely a boy – Edward was 41 when he came to the throne in January 1936 – but his father was otherwise not far out: Edward’s reign lasted just 324 days before he abdicated to marry the woman he loved. It was the biggest constitutional crisis for the crown in the 20th century – no other monarch has voluntarily vacated the throne – and one that has shaped royal attitudes ever since. In the eyes of the family, David – the name by which they knew him – had shirked his duty, and cut and run. Evidence suggests that the majority of his countrymen and women thought so, too.

When he succeeded his father, Edward VIII was a popular figure who had been in the public eye for many years. He was regarded as unstuffy, charming and unpretentious – at least, that was the image that the newspapers of the day chose to portray. No man, said The Times at his accession, ever came to the throne in more propitious circumstances: “In countless ways he has securely established his hold on the affections of his people.”

But senior politicians and many who served him as officials already had concerns. “I doubt he’ll stay the course,” Baldwin told the Labour leader, Clement Attlee. They thought him lazy and erratic, with a negligent attitude towards his duties – opinions that were only reinforced when he became king. State papers went unread and, it was suspected, were shown to Edward’s friends. He turned up late to events or cried off at the last minute, and he was rude and offhand.

Then there was the king’s womanising. Over the previous two decades he had taken a series of mistresses, notably Freda Dudley Ward and Thelma Furness, both married women with complaisant husbands. But now a new partner had seen off the others: Bessiewallis (a combination of two family names, commonly shortened to Wallis) Simpson, who herself was already on her second marriage – and was an American to boot. None of this was known to the British public.

In many ways, Wallis was a surprising choice. She was regarded as neither beautiful nor particularly charming, but she was witty, ambitious, single-minded and determined to add the king to her conquests, though friends claimed she was soon bored by him.

Edward, however, was infatuated. As early as 1934 his equerry, John Aird, wrote: “The prince… follows W around like a dog.”

While Wallis was merely his mistress, ministers saw no reason to interfere – even when Edward told friends that he could not live without her and intended to marry her, come what may.

Sometimes Wallis’s dull Anglo-American businessman husband, Ernest Simpson, accompanied the couple but increasingly he did not. In the summer of 1936, Edward set sail with Wallis (but without her husband) in a hired yacht, the Nahlin – which was, it was said, “furnished like a Calais whoreshop” – down the coast of Croatia and on to Greece and Turkey. They made quite a spectacle of themselves, the king often stripped to the waist (not the done thing for monarchs in the 1930s) and always accompanied by Wallis. A Romanian diplomat in Belgrade remarked that when his king travelled abroad he left his mistress at home. The continental and American papers had a field day.

The phoney affair

Thanks to newspaper proprietors Beaverbrook of the Express and Rothermere of the Mail, both friendly with the king, the British public was kept in ignorance. Baldwin, though, returned home from a restful two-month summer holiday to find a sheaf of complaints about the king’s behaviour from expatriates abroad. By October, the prime minister was seriously alarmed: it had become obvious that Edward VIII was still determined to marry Wallis, and she was making plans to divorce her husband. The compliant Ernest went along with the scheme, and gallantly undertook to pose as the adulterer. He took a family friend, Mary Raffray, to the Hotel de Paris at Bray, near Maidenhead, where they were duly spotted in bed together by hotel staff on two successive mornings.

The hotel was used to such ruses, and to supplying staff as witnesses in divorce cases, but the Simpsons had to be careful: if there was any suggestion of artificial collusion, the divorce could be denied – and it nearly happened. When the divorce hearing came up at Ipswich assizes (the first court with a slot for an early hearing), the judge – who had not been warned of the case’s significance – clearly smelled a rat and seemed poised to deny the petition. However, Norman Birkett, Mrs Simpson’s barrister, smoothly steered him to approve “what you might call the ordinary hotel evidence”. The decree nisi was granted but the couple would have to wait six months before it was made absolute and Edward and Wallis could marry. “King Will Wed Wally,” the New York Journal confidently predicted.

Baldwin had first discussed the case with the king a few days earlier. They met at Fort Belvedere, the miniature castle in the grounds of Windsor Great Park where Edward chose to live, rather than more publicly at Windsor Castle or Buckingham Palace. It was a stilted meeting: they inspected the herbaceous borders before the prime minister asked for a whisky and soda, then steeled himself to say: “I don’t believe you can go on like this and get away with it.” He asked for the divorce to be delayed and for Wallis to go abroad, but the king declined to answer. At this stage Baldwin had not consulted his full cabinet – some of whom were still ignorant of the affair – but he was starting to sound out prime ministers from the empire, notably Canada’s Mackenzie King. He did not see the king again for a further month.

Various solutions were discussed. The king could not be persuaded to give up Mrs Simpson and find someone more suitable. She in turn made only a half-hearted attempt to let him go. Edward made it clear that he was determined to marry her as soon as possible, and would rather abdicate otherwise. The possibility of a morganatic marriage – whereby Edward could marry Wallis but she would not be queen, and any children would not succeed to the throne – was briefly considered but the idea was quickly abandoned. Only one member of the cabinet, Duff Cooper – a friend of the king – was in favour, and the ‘white dominions’ prime ministers (of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada) were resolutely opposed. “The Australian outlook on life is distinctly middle class and on morals distinctly Victorian,” the US consul in Canberra reported to Washington. Éamon de Valera, head of government of the Irish Free State – still then within the ‘white commonwealth’ – offered to back Edward if he would support the Irish takeover of Ulster. But ultimately even he came down on the side of abdication, though he used the crisis to remove all mention of the British monarch from the Irish constitution.

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George VI, pictured shortly after taking the throne following his elder brother’s abdication. Theirs wasn’t a happy relationship. (Getty)

The story breaks

The storm broke in Britain only on 1 December, when the aptly named Bishop Blunt of Bradford told his diocesan synod that the king ought to live a more Christian life. Poor Blunt, who knew nothing of Mrs Simpson, merely meant that Edward VIII should show an example by attending church more regularly, but his words gave the British press the excuse they needed to break the story.

Pressure on the king was now steadily applied. He was cornered and forced to make a choice. Delay, said the censorious Neville Chamberlain, chancellor of the exchequer, would be bad for the Christmas trade. The uncertainty could not drag on. Baldwin murmured that the king “must wrestle with himself in a way he has never done before and, if he will let me, I will help him”. The prime minister offered to argue with him through the night if necessary, but it was obvious the government’s decision had been made: Edward could not marry Wallis and be king. “The only time I was frightened,” Baldwin said later. “Was when I thought he might change his mind.”

Within 10 days of the story breaking, the king had abdicated. A late attempt to rally a loyalist party failed. Winston Churchill, Edward’s chief political supporter, was howled down in the Commons on 7 December when he demanded a delay to sound out public opinion – the speaker told him to shut up.

It would have been unlikely to have been successful: letters in the National Archives from members of the public to the government show overwhelming hostility to Wallis, variously describing her as an octopus, fake, a legalised prostitute and “a woman climber from a boarding house in Baltimore”. The novelist Virginia Woolf recorded an overheard conversation involving a grocer’s assistant, also on 7 December: “We can’t have a woman Simpson for queen… She’s no more royal than you or me.”

Labour and the Liberals backed the government. Attlee told Baldwin: “Despite the sympathy felt for the king… the party – with the exception of the intelligentsia, who can be trusted to take the wrong view on any subject – were in agreement.” More succinctly, Ernest Bevin said: “Our people won’t ’ave it.” Only the communists and Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts came out in support of the couple, the former in the hope that it would bring down the monarchy altogether, the latter believing that the king would catapult them to power.

Most national and regional newspapers and periodicals also supported the government. Only the Mail and Express – whose proprietors had suppressed news of the affair and thus perhaps prevented a king’s party from forming – and the Daily Mirror rallied to the king.

An unsuitable queen

Just why was Wallis regarded as an unsuitable consort? The chief difficulty in a more religiously observant time was the fact that she had already divorced one husband, left another and was now hoping to marry a man who was supreme governor of the Church of England.

There were also doubts about her faithfulness. Papers in the National Archives show that the Metropolitan Police was spying on her: a report detailed clandestine visits to a Ford car salesman called Guy Trundle. There may also have been concerns that she was sympathetic to the Nazis. An FBI report released in 2002 claimed that she had been the lover of Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Nazi German ambassador to London, but no conclusive evidence has been found to support this suggestion.

Anti-American prejudice was a factor, too. The diarist Harold Nicolson wrote: “The upper class mind her being American more than they mind her being divorced. The lower class do not mind her being American but loathe the idea that she has had two husbands already.”

The newly created Duke of Windsor was left to wrangle with his younger brother and successor, George VI, over money and the life  tenancies of Balmoral and Sandringham.

It was a bitter fight, which left a legacy of distrust between the brothers. Pleading poverty, Edward hid his £1m assets and secured an annual pension of £11,000. He also threatened to sue George for trespass if the new king ventured to either house until the life tenancies were purchased from Edward for £300,000. Edward was made Duke of Windsor, but the royal family’s refusal to give Wallis the title ‘Royal Highness’ embittered him for the rest of his life.

Affair of the half-century: a timeline

January 1931

Edward and Wallis first meet at a weekend house party given by his then mistress, Lady Thelma Furness, at her country home, Burrough Court, near Melton Mowbray.

20 January 1936

King George V (below) dies and his eldest son, the Prince of Wales, is proclaimed King Edward VIII. Government and the court are aware of Edward’s liaison with a twice-married American.

August–September 1936

Edward and Wallis take a Mediterranean cruise aboard the Nahlin. Their relationship becomes public knowledge in Europe and the US.

27 October 1936

The Simpson v Simpson divorce petition is heard at Ipswich assizes. The decree nisi is granted on grounds of Ernest Simpson’s (phoney) adultery, based on a fake tryst staged at a hotel.

10 December 1936

Edward VIII abdicates, declaring in a BBC address (part written by Churchill) that he had found it impossible to discharge his duties “without the help and support of the woman I love”.

3 June 1937

Edward and Wallis marry at Château de Candé in France. In October they make a controversial visit to Germany, where they meet Hitler. Edward denies giving the Nazi salute, claiming that he was just waving.

June 1940

The couple flee to Portugal as German forces invade France. The duke is made governor of the Bahamas to keep him out of the way of the Nazis.

1946–86

Edward and Wallis live in Paris, where in May 1972 the duke dies of cancer. The duchess dies in 1986. They are buried together in the royal burial ground at Frogmore, near Windsor.

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Stephen Bates is a journalist, writer and former royal correspondent for The Guardian. He is the author of Royalty Inc: Britain’s Best-Known Brand (Aurum, 2015).