Explainer: The Abdication of King Edward VIII

Explainer: The Abdication of King Edward VIII

Prince Edward effectively became King Edward VIII of the United Kingdom and the Dominions of the British Empire, and the Emperor of India when his father, King George V, died on 20 January 1936. However, his reign lasted only 11 months when he abdicated the throne on 11 December 1936, thus leading to the ascension of his younger brother, King George VI.

Reason Why King Edward VIII Abdicated the Throne

The abdication of King Edward VIII created a constitutional crisis. To be more specific, the reason why he formally relinquished his kingship centered on his intent to marry Wallis Simpson. Note than when the King expressed his desire to marry Simpson on 16 November 1936, it was opposed not only by members of the royal family but also by the governments of the U.K. and the Dominions of the British Commonwealth.

Below are the specific facts prior to the abdication of King Edward VIII:

• While still Prince Edward, he met Wallis Simpson on 10 January 1931. The socialite was an American citizen and wife of an American-born British shipping executive Ernest Aldrich Simpson.

• Note that Ernest Simpson was the second husband of Wallis. They married in London on 21 July 1928 and divorced on 3 May 1937. Win Spencer, a U.S. Navy pilot, was her first husband, but their marriage ended in divorce in 1927.

• The generally accepted fact is that Prince Edward and Wallis were already lovers in 1934 while also having Lady Thelma Furness has his mistress.

• Edward became King Edward VIII after the death of King George V on 20 January 1936. By October, there was a rumor in high society and abroad that the new monarch had the intention to marry Wallis.

• The brewing crisis went full-blown when Wallis filed for divorce by the end of October. The American press reported that the marriage between her and the King was inevitable.

The following were the oppositions and arguments against the intention of the King to marry Wallis:

• Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin advised the King that the marriage would not be acceptable to the people, explaining further that the voice of the people must be heard when it comes to choosing the Queen of the country.

• Note that the reigning monarch was also the nominal head or Supreme Governor of the Church of England. The Church disapproved of divorced people remarrying under its blessing while their former spouses were still alive.

• The Church of England also reaffirmed that “in no circumstances can Christian men or women remarry during the lifetime of a wife or a husband.” Cosmo Lang, the Archbishop of Canterbury, held that the King, as the head of the Church of England, could not marry a divorcee.

• Marrying Wallis via a civil ceremony would directly conflict with the teachings of the Church and the role of the King as its ex officio head. The clergy expected the reigning monarch to support the teachings and follow the values of the Church.

• The first divorce of Wallis in the U.S. based on the grounds of emotional incompatibility was not recognized by the Church of England. Legal experts noted that if challenged in the English courts, the English Law might not recognize it. Note that both the Church and the English law considered adultery as the only grounds for divorce.

• Because the first marriage of Wallis could still be considered by English law as valid, her second marriage to Ernest Simpson and her plan to marry King Edward VIII could be considered both bigamous and invalid.

• Members of the royal family, British aristocracy and political circle, and some public groups believed that Wallis was politically and socially unsuitable to become Queen because of her questionable civil status. Furthermore, others maintained that she was motivated merely by money and position rather than love for the King.

Available Options and Eventual Abdication

Prime Minister Baldwin was under pressure from King Edward VIII when the monarch sought his advice. He was also startled at the suggestion of abdication. Nonetheless, he discussed with the King the three options below:

• Marry Wallis and make her Queen via a royal marriage: This option was already considered unacceptable because of the legal, political, and religious contentions against the marriage. The reigning monarch cannot marry a divorcee whose former spouse was still living, nor can he marry someone whose previous marriage was still considered valid under local customs and laws.

• Left-hand or morganatic marriage: Edward VIII proposed morganatic marriage in which she would remain King, but Wallis would not become Queen, and their children would be denied the right to inherit the throne. She would still be given some courtesy title. However, the British cabinet and other Dominion governments rejected this option pursuant to the Statute of Westminster 1931.

• Abdication as the King and for any potential heirs he might father: It was clear that the King was unwilling to give up Wallis. He told Prime Minder Baldwin he would simply abdicate if he could not marry her. The King also know that if he married against the advice of his ministers, he would prompt a constitutional crisis.

King Edward VIII signed the instruments of abdication on 10 December 1936 at Ford Belvedere. His brothers were the witnesses: Prince Albert, Duke of York, next in line for the throne; Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester; and Prince George, Duke of Kent.

The document included the following excerpt: “declare my irrevocable determination to renounce the throne for myself and for my descendants and my desire that effect should be given to this instrument of abdication immediately.”

He made a worldwide radio broadcast on 11 December 1936. Reverting to the title and style of a prince, he said, “I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as king as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.” He added that the “decision was mine and mine alone … The other person most nearly concerned has tried up to the last to persuade me to take a different course.”

Prince Albert, Duke of York, ascended to the throne on 11 December 1936, thus becoming King George VI. Despite his reluctance to become the new reigning monarch, his reign marked the resurgence of public favor and confidence to the monarch and the British royal family, especially when he became a symbol of determination during the Second World War.