Seldom has a royal address to the nation said so much and yet revealed so little. The text of the solemn speech is well known, but here it is again:
You must believe me when I tell you that I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.
Cue the sound of millions of radio listeners going ‘Aaah…!’ at the thought of the world’s best-known and best-loved royal head of state giving up his destiny for love. Small wonder that in a 2003 BBC Radio panel show the comedy writer John O’Farrell called it the first “Our Tune” letter – though thankfully it was not introduced by a mid-Atlantic-accented announcer saying ‘This is quite literally a tragic tale of a monarch – let’s call him Eddie…’
Nonetheless, it’s worth looking again at that statement. ‘[D]ischarge my duties as King as I would wish to do…’? Indeed, when you hear a recording of it, you can also hear the King himself stress the word “I” – almost as if he’s trying to tell us something…
Put simply, Edward VIII, monarch of the United Kingdom Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and head of state of several dominions around the Empire (the word was still used, even though officially it was supposed to be the “Commonwealth” from 1931 onwards), had wanted to discharge his duties as King in a way that his elected government most definitely did not wish him to do. His reign did not, after all, have the most auspicious of starts. His father, George V, was terminally ill with cancer, but in the evening of 20 January 1936 his doctor, Lord Dawson, sped him on his way somewhat with lethal injections of morphine and cocaine. This was because of, to quote Dawson himself, ‘the importance of the death receiving its first announcement in the morning papers rather than the less appropriate evening journal.’ In other words, the King’s doctor got away with committing euthanasia for spin-doctoring motives.
George’s successor aimed to be a radically different monarch not only to his father but also to most of his predecessors. During his brief reign he refused to show the Home Secretary a draft of his St David’s Day speech (no monarch can give any speech without clearing it first with the Home Secretary), he attempted to give another speech backing greater self-determination for India, and was even reported as wanting to call a conference to resolve the situation in Ireland (there had been serious riots in Belfast the previous July, only halted with the dispatching of British troops there). Such actions seem innocuous enough – for an elected and accountable politician, though, rather than a constitutional monarch.
Much more seriously, in March Edward had threatened to abdicate if Stanley Baldwin’s government tried to respond militarily to Hitler’s remilitarisation of the Rhineland. This was a huge gamble on the part of Nazi Germany: Hitler had ordered his generals to retreat at the first sign of a British/French response. As it turned out, the only British and French response to this blatant breach of one of the terms of the Versailles Treaty was a mere diplomatic condemnation, but nothing more. Hitler himself, on receiving the news from London, said to his architect Albert Speer:
At last! The King of England will not intervene. He is keeping his promise. That means it can all go well.
The King of England would not intervene? According to Fritz Hesse, a press attaché at the German embassy in London, the ambassador, Leopold von Hoesch, had met Edward and called on the King to use his influence to help the Germans retake the Rhineland. Hesse also witnessed a telephone conversation between Edward and Von Hoesch, in which the King had made his threat to abdicate to his prime minister. The story is further backed up by Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, who later in the year informed the Czech ambassador that the King had interfered over the Rhineland.
Baldwin, a man very much clued-in about British constitutional history, was understandably not likely to forget this behaviour from the King. According to the writers Lynn Picknett, Clive Prince, and Stephen Prior, in their book War of the Windsors:
The episode was a revelation – if it were still needed – to Baldwin of exactly what kind of King he was dealing with. It also reveals that Edward’s thoughts revolved around abdication as a threat. But if Baldwin decided that the King had to be forced into abdication, it could not be because of a constitutional crisis over Government policy. That was too dangerous: after all, the country might agree with the King.
Hence, the prime minister’s determination to force the issue over Edward’s passion for the twice-divorced American socialite Wallis Warfield Spencer Simpson. Forget the ins and outs of British foreign policy and the challenge of dictators in the 1930s, apparently the best way of getting rid of an inconvenient monarch was to play on good old-fashioned Great British hypocrisy over marital morals. For all the guff about whether it was appropriate for a British king, who was also Supreme Governor of the Church of England, to marry a woman with two living husbands, it is worth remembering that the Church of England was founded upon the desire of a predecessor of Edward, Henry VIII, for a divorce himself. Nor was it impossible for Edward and Wallis to have had a morganatic marriage, whereby he could remain King but Wallis would not be known as Queen, since New Zealand’s prime minister had indicated that this could be possible.
More to the point, Edward was very popular throughout the country, even before he made his trip to the closed Dowlais steelworks in South Wales and talked with many unemployed workers there, uttering his famous but essentially unimaginative remark ‘Something must be done to find them work.’ Who knows whether Baldwin and his government’s nerve would have held, if their King had dug in his heels and instructed them that he was going to have Mrs Simpson as his queen, whatever their objections? Given his closeness to Nazi Germany, how differently European and world history would have turned if Edward had remained King must surely be one of the great “what-if”s of history. The Nazis themselves regarded his abdication as a huge disappointment, and Germany’s then ambassador in London, Joachim von Ribbentrop, was ordered by Hitler to do everything in his power to prevent it. Ribbentrop’s own final summation of the situation is noteworthy for the fact that there is no mention of Mrs Simpson.
But Edward’s options were always likely to be limited so long as his prime minister held most of the cards and contacts, and successfully represented the issue to his counterparts across the Commonwealth as one in which the King had to choose between his kingdom and his American lover. So it proved, and so Edward decided, on Sunday 5 December, to throw in the towel in favour of his younger brother Bertie (who became George VI), later signing the instrument of abdication on the 10th, and leaving Britain for France the day after. As Picknett, Prince and Prior put it:
Perhaps some grim royal Fates connived to create a neat twist to the story: only two British kings have abdicated – Edward voluntarily and the Catholic James II when he was deposed – and they both left the country on 11 December, exactly 148 years apart.