Who was Edward VIII and Why did he abdicate?
The intensely-hued love life of Edward VIII, the eldest son of King George V of the United Kingdom, would make a compelling storyline for most historical romance novelists and Hollywood directors. Edward achieved more fame or perhaps, infamy, for his abdication and subsequent marriage to Wallis Simpson than for his work as a royal. His decision set the tone for a crisis that changed the course of the British monarchy.
Who was Edward VIII and what why did he abdicate less than one year into his reign?
Below, World History Edu provides an in-depth look at the life and brief reign of Edward VIII, the first British monarch to voluntarily abdicate.
Born in White Lodge Richmond in Surrey, Edward was the eldest of the six children of the Duke and Duchess of York (who later became King George V and Queen Mary of the United Kingdom and the British Dominions.) As the great grandson of Queen Victoria, he was styled “His Highness Prince Edward of York,” shortly after his birth.
Edward was christened Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David Windsor. He was named after the four patron saints as a way of accentuating the representative character of the monarchy.
Homeschooled until his early teens, he later enrolled at Dartmouth’s Royal Naval College and Magdalen College, where he took a strong interest in polo with the university polo club. Upon graduation, he embarked on an extensive tour overseas.
Prince of Wales
The prince’s investiture as the Prince of Wales took place at the Carnarvon Castle in Wales in July, 1911. Three years later, around the time of the outbreak of the First World War, he was commissioned into the army’s Grenadier Guards but was denied from participating in active service as was the heir to the throne.
In spite of this, the relentless Edward was a first-hand witness of the trench warfare and a regular visitor to the front line. This expression of brave nobility earned him a Military Cross in 1916.
His position took him on many regional visits around Britain during which he made donations to communities hit by economic depression. He also made visits to underprivileged areas and toured different parts of the Empire. Together with his younger brother, Prince George (George VI), he embarked on a four-month tour of South America in 1931.
Edward’s intelligence and charisma made him a fine representative for his father at both domestic and foreign engagements in countries such as Canada, Australia, India and New Zealand.
In the early 1920s, he was internationally renowned as a men’s fashion icon and became the most photographed celebrity during this time. Though widely applauded for his philanthropy and charming charisma, Edward was also known for somewhat racist sentiments against foreigners.
As a wealthy, well-travelled handsome man, his bachelorhood became a subject of interest to the public. His eventual choice of spouse and the events that followed became an even bigger topical issue around the world.
Rather than finding a wife and starting a family, Edward began various affairs with women, including actress Lady Thelma Furness and socialite Freda Dudley Ward.
In early 1931, not long after he had been introduced to Wallis Simpson and her husband during a visit to Furness’ country house, the Prince fell head over heels for Mrs. Simpson. The two soon began a romantic affair.
In the beginning, the relationship was kept out of British newspapers as a result of a gentleman’s agreement between the government and the British press. By 1934, the Prince had broken up with Lady Furness and had started to make marriage plans with Simpson, whom he regarded as his life companion on both sexual and intellectual levels.
Succession & Scandalous Affair with Wallis Simpson
Edward was proclaimed king and Sovereign of the Order of the Bath upon the death of his father, George V, in January 1936.
By the latter part of the year, Mrs. Simpson had acquired a preliminary decree of divorce from her husband. The American had hopes of becoming queen to Edward VIII. It did not take too long for the news spread, and the couple’s affair caused a major scandal marked by aggressive reportage by American and European newspapers.
The Church of England and most politicians both in Britain and the Commonwealth considered it an anomaly for an American woman who was twice divorced to become the queen of Britain.
Conservative statesman Winston Churchill appeared to be one of the few known politicians who was in support of Edward’s choice of spouse. Churchill supported a proposal that Edward be allowed Simpson provided she was not crowned queen. Unfortunately, that proposal was quickly put down by some senior government officials and the Church of England.
Worse still, the government was privy to Simpson’s colorful past of sexual relationships, including one with a married mechanic, Guy Trundle, and with the Duke of Leinster, Edward Fitzgerald. Every attempt Edward VIII made to gain the British government’s approval of his relationship with Mrs. Simpson proved futile.
Reasons for his abdication
Finally, the young king realized his situation was untenable. He made peace with the fact that in order to marry his love interest, he had to forgo the Crown. Prior to this realization, he had arranged to have a morganatic marriage in which Simpson would be granted no rights of rank or property. However, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin had dismissed the proposal. The subject of the king’s dilemma became food for the media in the subsequent weeks.
With no resolution in sight, Edward executed an instrument of abdication on December 10, 1936, which took effect the next day. His decision was also broadcast on radio in a never-would-be forgotten farewell message. His renunciation of the Crown also meant that any children he brought forth would be denied the right of succession to the throne.
It’s been stated that had Edward VIII not resigned the Crown, then-British Prime Minister Baldwin would have resigned his position at Number 10 Downing Street. Were that to happen, Edward VIII would be seen as a monarch interfering in the affairs of British government.
As British monarchs were expected to be neutral and apolitical, such a situation would only have caused a constitutional crisis and throw the monarchy into disarray. Taking all these into consideration, forgoing the Crown seemed to be the much safer choice.
After only 326 days in power, Edward became the first English king to willingly abdicate the throne after doing something most kings had no luxury of doing: falling in love.
Prince George, Edward’s younger brother, succeeded him as king and was crowned George VI.
Edward’s heated conflict with Archbishop Lang
Furthermore, the young King’s scandalous relationship with Simpson incurred the wrath of Cosmo Gordon Lang, the then-Archbishop of Canterbury. Lang found Edward’s drive for modernity and disregard for rituals and traditions very unhealthy. The archbishop and his network of influential people in both the Church of England and the government worked against Edward in order to force him to resign the crown.
Edward, who was about 30 years younger than Lang, found himself increasingly isolated from the Church and the British government since he blatantly flaunted American divorcee Simpsons at a beech resort in the Mediterranean.
To Lang, Edward’s continued relationship with the American divorcee was inconceivable and abhorrent in the first order. The Most Reverend took a strong moral stance and successfully convinced the British government, led by Prime Minister Baldwin, to step in and force Edward to either break things up with Simpson or abdicate. Edward chose the latter.
It’s been said that the abdication was made to appear as a free act by Edward; however, in reality, the king had been in effect forced to abdicate so that his younger brother Albert could take throne.
Lang and the old gang of courtiers (from the era of King George V, Edward’s father) and conservative church ministers found Prince Albert’s respect for family values, rituals and tradition more fitting for an English monarch.
Later Years & Death
A year after his abdication, Edward tied the knot with Simpson in a ceremony in France in 1937. Though the couple was designated as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the royal family felt both disappointed and humiliated by Edward’s actions and ostracized him.
In the early days of the Second World War, the Duke served as a liaison with the French but escaped to Spain during the Nazi occupation. During the war, he received a bit of sticks for his proposition of appeasement as Nazism and fascism rose in Germany and Italy, respectively. There some who alleged that the former monarch was tacitly supported those regimes.
At the end of the War, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor made their home in Paris for much of their lives.
Edward died in 1972 and was buried at Windsor Castle. 14 years later, his wife died and was buried by his side. The couple had no children
The title Duke of Windsor was banned by Edward’s niece Queen Elizabeth II, marking a pivotal moment in British royal history.
To some historians, Edward resigned the throne for love; however, to others, he was a someone who turned his back on serving his people.
Did you know?
- Edward VIII was never crowned as his abdication took place before the coronation could happen.
- It’s been said that Wallis Simpson never really wanted to marry Edward. Instead, she preferred being the mistress of the Prince of Wales. She admired the security that came with being the wife of Mr. Simpson. Therefore, the question of divorce did not really cross her mind until Edward allegedly threatened to kill himself if Wallis rejected his marriage proposal.
- In the book “Traitor King,” written by the bestselling historian Andrew Lownie, the author claimed to have used documents in the files and findings of the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) and the U.S. State Department to chronicle events following Edward’s abdication. Lownie alleged that American Intelligence Service believed that Simpson was in constant contact with Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Nazi foreign minister during the Second World War. He also detailed how Ribbentrop had planned to kidnap Edward and his wife after they refused to join him achieve a negotiated peace with England. Lownie went on to further state that he had found private diaries of the King’s private secretary which proved that the Duke and his wife had been traitors and Nazi sympathizers.
Facts about King Edward VIII
Birth Day and Place – June 23, 1894; Surrey, England
Died – May 28, 1972; Paris, France
Reign – January 20 – December 11, 1936
Title – King of the United Kingdom and the British Dominions and Emperor of India
Successor – George VI
Predecessor – George V
Mother – Mary of Teck
Father – George V of England
Spouse – Wallis Simpson
Siblings – Albert (later George VI), Mary, Henry, George, John