King George V didn’t have high hopes for his eldest son. “After I am dead, the boy will ruin himself within 12 months,” the British monarch ominously predicted of his womanizing heir apparent. As it turned out, King Edward VIII only required 11 months after his ascension to fulfill his father’s prophecy.
With a scrawl of “Edward R.I.” at the bottom of a two-paragraph document, the 42-year-old bachelor king shocked the world on December 10, 1936, by signing away the crown and becoming the first English monarch to voluntary renounce the throne. The next evening, millions of Britons huddled around their radios to listen to an address by their former king. “I have found it impossible,” he confessed over the crackling airwaves, “to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties of king, as I would wish to do, without the help and support of the woman I love.”
The object of the royal’s affection was a married American socialite working on her second divorce, Wallis Warfield Simpson. The two had met in 1931 at a party thrown by Edward’s then-mistress, Lady Thelma Furness, and their romance continued after Edward ascended to the throne in January 1936. The relationship was known to Scotland Yard detectives, who secretly followed the couple, and to British journalists, but not to their readers, who were kept in the dark for much of the king’s reign.
Once Mrs. Simpson obtained a preliminary decree of divorce and the king informed Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin in November of his intentions to marry her, however, a constitutional crisis erupted. Given the king’s role as titular head of the Church of England, which deemed remarriage after divorce morally wrong, the prime minister protested that a twice-divorced American would be unacceptable as a British queen and would result in the cabinet’s resignation. Baldwin rejected the monarch’s proposal for a morganatic marriage in which his wife would be granted no rights, rank or property. On December 3, the crisis finally became front-page news in Britain and debated openly in Parliament. A week later, the king signed away his throne.
Edward VIII had not even ruled long enough to make it to his planned coronation, but the ceremony continued as scheduled on May 12, 1937, with the crown being placed on the head of his younger brother, Bertie. Painfully shy and plagued by a stammer since childhood, the reluctant King George VI proved to be a popular sovereign. During the London Blitz, the royal family endeared itself to its subjects by remaining at Buckingham Palace, even after it took nine direct hits, and visiting heavily damaged sections of the East End. The fortitude demonstrated by King George VI against the Nazis strengthened the bond between the monarchy and the British public.
Many wonder, however, if the opposite would have occurred had Edward VIII remained on the throne. “Every drop of blood in my veins is German,” he once bragged to the wife of British Fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley. Indeed, German bloodlines ran deep in the British royal family, and the king spoke fluent German and traveled to Germany regularly in his student days. When the Nazis came to power, Edward welcomed it as a counterweight to the Soviet Communists, whom he had never forgiven for killing his godfather, Czar Nicholas II, in 1918.
“I am convinced his friendly disposition towards Germany will have some influence on the formation of British foreign policy,” the German ambassador to Great Britain reported in 1936. Indeed, according to Andrew Morton’s book 17 Carnations: The Royals, The Nazis and the Biggest Cover-Up in History, the king urged Baldwin to take no action against the Nazis after they occupied the Rhineland in March 1936.
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Some scholars have speculated that the king’s Nazi sympathies—rather than his romantic ties—were the true motivation behind the political push for his abdication. Joachim von Ribbentrop, close friend to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, thought so as well. “The whole marriage question was a false front that Baldwin has utilized to get rid of the king because of the latter’s pro-German views,” he reported to the Führer.
The ties between the former king, granted the title of Duke of Windsor by his brother, and the Nazis only deepened after his abdication. On June 3, 1937, the duke married Wallis Warfield in exile at a French chateau owned by millionaire Charles Bedaux, who arranged for the couple to spend part of their extended honeymoon in Nazi Germany. There the duke dined with propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, had tea with Gestapo founder Hermann Goering and met with Hitler at his mountain retreat in the Bavarian Alps. “It’s a shame he is no longer king,” Goebbels wrote after meeting the duke, “with him, we could have entered into an alliance.”
Early in World War II, the Nazis were so confident of their ability to defeat Great Britain that it concocted a scheme, codenamed Operation Willi, to kidnap the duke and return him to the British throne as a puppet king. So concerned was the British government about the duke’s Nazi leanings that Prime Minister Winston Churchill arranged in July 1940 for the former king to assume the governorship of the Bahamas for the duration of the war, which thwarted the Nazi operation.
Strange as it may have seemed at the time, the abdication of King Edward VIII might have prevented an even greater crisis that could have proven fatal to the British monarchy. Dickie Arbiter, a former Buckingham Palace Press secretary, told the Yorkshire Post that it was a blessing in disguise given the king’s flirtation with Germany and the subsequent need for strong wartime leadership. “He was a weak king who was incapable of making decisions, and there was a feeling that Wallis pulled the strings,” Arbiter said. “But with George VI we got a good king, and his wife was a very strong woman who was British and had a vested interest in the country.”
Richard Toye, a history professor at England’s Exeter University, agreed that King George VI was better suited to reign over the long term than his brother, who would have been “completely useless.” “He had been frankly not very interested in doing the job,” Toye told Britain’s Press Association. “You have to ask yourself whether this whole episode was really about his most incredible, profound love for Mrs. Simpson or whether he was perhaps subconsciously looking for a get-out.”
The abdication also set events into motion that led to eventual ascension of Queen Elizabeth II to the throne in 1952. Had Edward VIII, who died in 1972, remained a childless king, it would have shortened the reign of Britain’s longest-ruling monarch by two decades—had there been a kingdom for her to rule over at all.