Was he a hopeless romantic? Or a selfish, indulgent bon vivant? Controversial in the highest degree, Edward VIII is the only King of England to have ever willingly abdicated the throne. He also holds the record for being the shortest reigning British monarch (less than one year). Born Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David, the future king grew up with the nickname “David.” During his early lifetime, he was a popular man. He was raised by a cohort of nannies and occasionally by his priggish yet distant parents. Prince Edward served in the Navy and also in the army during World War I (however he was forbidden from actually engaging in combat). Intellectually, he was an underwhelming specimen –he attended Oxford for a spell but left without any academic qualifications.
During the reign of his father (George V), Prince Edward traveled the world where he quickly developed a reputation as a dashing dandy, a good-looking and well-dressed celebrity boasting a thoroughly liberal and optimistic temperament (though this disposition would soon change). He was often a thorn in the side of Conservatives, especially when he supported the plight of miners and aid for the downtrodden. He delighted in treading on established conventions, and he was himself a notorious hard-partying playboy. For years, significant taxpayer dollars were spent covering up Edward’s numerous affairs, particularly with wealthy married women. His life had become one large extravagant pageant of hedonistic delights. Needless to say, the decadence of the Prince concerned his solemn and austere parents. As his father aged, Edward dreaded his impending kingship. Prince Edward preferred the life of privilege to the burden of duty.
One day in 1931 Edward’s mistress du jour, Lady Furness, introduced him to Wallis Simpson, a once-divorced and newly remarried American socialite who, by all accounts, was a known woman on the make. Her first husband was an unimpressive alcoholic, and her second marriage crystalized out of a need for more financial resources. Supposedly she once remarked: “You can never be too rich or too thin.” She was a dominant and uncouth woman who had a tendency to treat Edward with disrespect. Edward quickly fell in love with Ms. Simpson causing much quiet consternation throughout the private halls of Buckingham and Westminster. Administrators and royals alike simply held out their hopes that Ms. Simpson would simply fade away, and that the romance would be forgotten not unlike the Prince’s well-known revolving door of mistresses. However, when George V gave up the ghost in 1936 and Edward announced his intention to wed Ms. Simpson (who quickly orchestrated a divorce with her then-second husband), the debacle very nearly caused a constitutional crisis. As the nominal head of the Church of England, Edward was forbidden from marrying a divorced woman. It became a choice between a King and his mistress. Many advised Edward against throwing away his kingship –not least of which included Winston Churchill and Prime Minister Stephen Baldwin. Was Edward really going to throw it all away to marry this divorced American woman? Or would he instead accept a morganatic marriage in which Ms. Simpson would serve as his wife but not as queen? Ever the rebel, Edward permitted no compromises. His fateful decision was made. After technically reigning for a mere handful of months (he never actually had a coronation ceremony), in December 1936 Edward signed his Act of Abdication handing over the House of Windsor to his younger brother, the soon-to-be-crowned King George VI (and George VI’s beloved daughter, the future Elizabeth II). As his final act, Edward VIII read aloud a speech for broadcast largely written by Winston Churchill: “You must believe me when I tell you that I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as king as I would wish to without the help and support of the woman I love.” The whole debacle remains controversial to this day nearly one hundred years later. In his history of the Crown, David Starkey labeled Ms. Simpson as “…the most disruptive force in the twentieth-century British monarchy before the advent of Princess Diana.”
“Hark the herald sing, Mrs. Simpson pinched our king”
In his post-kingship life, Edward assumed a new title: Duke of Windsor. He retired to Paris where he enjoyed a luxurious life entertaining an endless string of well-wishers and parties. Just prior to the outbreak of World War II, the Duke and Duchess infamously visited Nazi Germany against the staunch advice of the British government. They were warmly met by Adolph Hitler and offered full “Sieg Heil” salutes to rows of S.S. guards. At the time, it caused a minor crisis for the royal family, but in hindsight it may be regarded as a gross lapse in moral judgment. In fact, the pair became a nuisance for the British government throughout World War II. When Germany invaded France, the Duke fled south taking shelter in Fascist Francoist Spain before relocating to Lisbon, Portugal. Nazi agents plotted for the Duke to return to Spain, even under threat of kidnapping, which would have kept him under the thumb of the Fascists. Apparently there was even a Nazi plot to reinstate Edward as King of England in order to maintain a German-friendly leader in Britain. Edward was forced to choose between patriotic loyalty and appeasement with Germany. Amidst the Duke’s questionable Nazi sympathies he was whisked away to serve in a titular role as Governor of the Bahamas where he remained for the rest of the war. It was a job which he despised as much as he despised all the non-white peoples he soon found himself surrounded with.
After the war, Edward returned to Paris, embittered and resentful. He continued to question the Allies and their perceived role as aggressors in World War II –he was known to have claimed Hitler wasn’t such a bad chap after all. Edward’s disgraces were many and we should be thankful he was in no position of leadership during World War II. While he declined to attend the coronation ceremony of his niece Elizabeth II, in years to come the future queen managed to patch up the familial relationship with her uncle, or at least as much was possible. However, the House of Windsor never fully accepted the Duchess as one of their own.
After years of smoking, the Duke of Windsor was diagnosed with throat cancer and he died in 1972 at the age of 77. Following his death, the Duchess lived in complete exile, bedridden and suffering from dementia for many years until she passed in 1986. The Duke and Duchess never had any children. Thanks to a 1965 agreement with Elizabeth II, the Duke and Duchess were granted burial rights at the Royal Mausoleum of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at Frogmore –where they rest to this day.
For this reading I used David Starkey’s Crown and Country, and Ian Crofton’s referential writings on the Kings and Queens of England. Peter Ackroyd’s Dominion: The History of England From The Battle of Waterloo concluded with the death of Queen Victoria and I have not yet read his next installment entitled Innovation: The History of England Volume VI (published in September 2021). It also should be noted that Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples ended its chronology with the death of Victoria.