New Year’s Eve, 1935 – From Sandringham to Bryanston Court:
As his father lay on his deathbed at Sandringham at Christmas 1935, David (as he was known to the family) was preoccupied with his adoration for Wallis Simpson, a slender, dark-haired 39-year-old American who was married to a London businessman. She had been married before, in 1916, to an American Naval Officer Lieut. Earl W Spencer, but had divorced him eleven years later and married Ernest Simpson in 1928. Soon after their wedding, the Simpsons moved to London, taking a flat in Bryanston Square.
George V had rescued the monarchy from its darkest days of unpopularity due to its German descent and name at the beginning of the Great War. He had just celebrated his Silver Jubilee in 1935 as the Emperor of nearly half a billion subjects. He was clearly loved by his people but not by all his sons, and he barely spoke with the Prince of Wales. Before his death, the King had prophesied to Baldwin, his Prime Minister, that Edward would pull the whole throne and the Empire down about his ears before the year was out. The Prince, for his part, wrote to Wallis that it was ‘terrible here…so much the worst Xmas I’ve ever had to spend with the family.’ David (Edward) left Sandringham as soon as he could get away to spend New Year’s Eve with Wallis, whose husband was, conveniently, away on business in Canada. They attended the Craven Lodge ball together (see above).
The Promise of the Prince:
The Prince of Wales detested the moral codes of the late Victorian/Edwardian generation he had grown up with and the hypocrisy with which the upper classes sought to uphold them while still having their fun. Everyone knew that the ‘High Society’ sisters, Diana and Unity Mitford, were having theirs with Oswald Mosley, the British Fascist leader, and Adolf Hitler, but to speak openly in public about these dangerous liaisons would have been considered a serious breach of etiquette at that time. At a supper party at the Savoy Grill on 13th January, Harold Nicolson, the career diplomat who had first met the Prince in 1921, found ‘HRH’ talkative and charming as before but commented that he was not his usual ‘sort of pal’ since he was ‘in a mess’. Harold was so alarmed by his ‘really very right-wing’ views that he preferred to avoid all ‘social intimacy’ with him, an option he would find difficult to achieve over the coming months due to his standing in London society and his presence at the most fashionable dinner-tables. In 1926, A. G. Gardiner had written an insightful piece on the Prince:
“We do not ask for a brilliant King, and we should not tolerate an ambitious King, but we need a King whose character we can respect, whose loyalty to his office is above suspicion, and whose capacity is adequate. We have such a King today, and it is because we hope the country will have such a King in the future that we scrutinise a little closely the promise of the Prince.
“He has now passed through that phase in which it was sufficient to regard him as the Prince Charming of romance, a sort of visitor out of a fairy tale, whose engaging ways won all hearts, and from whom nothing was asked except that he should appear and acclaimed. … He is now a man of thirty-two. He has served his apprenticeship, and has reached an age when the character is formed and when responsibilities must be assumed. He has undergone an education as free and liberal as that of his grandfather was harsh and despotic. He has moved freely among all classes, and has been given the run of the estate. He is probably the most widely travelled man of his time, and has certainly seen more of the kingdoms of the earth than any previous heir to the throne.
“Nature has equipped him… almost too abundantly with many of the qualities of democratic kingship. His presence and his address are both attractive. … His spirits are high, his smile instant and responsive, and his manner boyish and impulsive and entirely free from any calculated restraints. He is hail-fellow-well-met to anyone who has crossed his path and is indifferent to the niceties of formal etiquette. His courage amounts to bravado… which only ended when the matter had become a subject of such serious political concern that the Government were asked to intervene.”A. G. Gardiner (1926), Certain People of Importance, pp. 61-62.
However, a decade later, he still seemed, especially to those of an older generation, to be playing the role of Peter Pan in J. M. Barrie’s famous fairy tale. At Christmas 1935, the King did not speak openly of his son’s passion for Wallis Simpson, though his anxiety about this, obsessed as he was by attention to public duty, was undoubtedly contributing to his depression and deteriorating physical condition, diagnosed as a narrowing of the arteries. His friend and exact contemporary, Rudyard Kipling, the bard of the Empire, was also known to be close to death. Since the Great War, when Kipling had lost his son, for which he blamed himself, he had become a reclusive reactionary at Bateman’s, his home in Sussex. His wife Carrie decided that he needed they needed to escape the English winter for the south of France. En route, in London, his stomach ulcer decided otherwise. It burst, and a week later, he died in the Middlesex Hospital on the same day that the King’s illness was announced. ‘Chips’ Channon, the rich American-born socialite and Conservative MP, wrote in his diary for that day: ‘The Year has, indeed, begun in gloom. The King ill – and Kipling dead.’
When the Prince arrived in London that afternoon to brief the PM on his father’s condition, having first called at his lover’s flat, Baldwin was wearing a black armband out of respect for Kipling (right), his cousin. The Prince made no remark on this, so Baldwin had felt obliged to ask if he knew ‘that another great Englishman, a contemporary of your father’s, died yesterday.’ Baldwin excused the Prince’s obvious ignorance of current affairs and informed him of the Nobel Prize winner’s death, ‘But, of course, sir, you have a great deal on your mind. I should not have expected you to know.’
The passing of these two great establishment figures within two days of each other seemed to herald a new era. Stanley Baldwin, on the Sunday before the King’s death, had told ‘Tom’ Jones, his Welsh friend and former Cabinet Secretary, that he was ‘distinctively nervous’ about the Prince of Wales becoming King, not least because he had seen at first hand his drinking and womanising on a tour of Canada nine years earlier. He also commented that he had never thought, as a boy in Worcestershire reading history books, that he would have to put the knowledge gained to practice in interfering “between a King and his mistress.” Nevertheless, Baldwin felt that his previous friendship with Edward gave him a unique role in resolving the impending crisis that everyone in the court and cabinet, though not yet in the country, was fearing. However, Baldwin was tired of being in office and was not up to the twin challenges of a constitutional crisis and a resurgent, aggressive Germany. As the year progressed, the Chancellor, Neville Chamberlain, probably the hardest-working minister of the last century, took on much of the PM’s paperwork.
The Abdication Narratives – Preludes:
The story of the abdication – often told and found in my sources as listed below – is always compelling reading. The elements of love, jealousy, family betrayal, and, above all, the human fallibility behind the mask of royalty have overtones of a Shakespearean tragedy. But it is also no exaggeration to say that the abdication of Edward VIII played its part in the hastening of the onset of war. With the recent release of documents and the publication of previously unseen diaries and letters, such as those of Lionel Logue, it is possible to take a broader view of a crisis that reflected the strains of a changing society, from the very top to the bottom. King Edward’s attempts to modernise the monarchy reflected that changing country but were unacceptable to traditionalists in its establishment. In rejecting Edward, the old guard might have succeeded in arresting his attempts at modernisation, but a change was coming whether they liked it or not.
With the development of the radio and the birth of television, all British subjects could follow the news from the Empire and the rise of the dictators in Europe, but the way others lived at home was often a great unknown. People from different backgrounds lived in parallel worlds. This mutual ignorance was heightened by the isolation of areas of extreme poverty, such as south Wales, the north of England and parts of Scotland. The year saw a number of initiatives, some led by the King himself, to end the country’s lack of awareness of much that was taking place in its own backyard and, in particular, to publicise the life of the working classes and the plight of the unemployed. George Orwell, a former imperial policeman from Suffolk, went to Wigan to report on the poverty of the northern industrial areas. Edward VIII, on the eve of his abdication, returned to south Wales to see for himself the coalfield areas he had visited on two previous occasions as Prince of Wales. All these issues were to form part of the abdication story.
Following his father’s death, Edward immediately broke with royal tradition by having the clocks at Sandringham reset. His father and grandfather had always kept them half an hour slow in order to allow more daylight time for shooting. King Edward seemed determined to break with these traditions from the very beginning of his reign, a determination which set him against many in the British establishment, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Cosmo Gordon Lang (pictured right).
Lang had become ‘Primate of All England’ in December 1928 after his predecessor, Dr Randall Thomas Davidson, who had been Archbishop of Canterbury for twenty-five years, retired from office, the first Primate to do so. The previous year, Davidson had received a severe blow when his moves to revise the Prayer Book were defeated. Scotsman, bachelor, seventh son of a seventh son, he was described by one bishop as a ‘first-class orator’ but a ‘second-class preacher.’ He was also an arch-traditionalist in both religious and social matters.
On the morning after his father’s death, Edward flew to Hendon in his own aeroplane to attend his Accession Council and prepare for the lying-in-state funeral. He arrived hatless at the aerodrome, yet another departure from his father’s ‘standards’. Popular poet John Betjeman saw this moment as marking the final putting to sleep of the Victorian age, evoking the mood of the people:
‘Old men who have never cheated, never doubted,
Communicated monthly, sit and stare
At the new suburb stretched beyond the run-way
Where a young man lands hatless from the air.’
The Accession Ceremonies & Funeral Procession – Two Omens:
Whereas King George had represented a sense of continuity with Victorian and Edwardian Britain, from his accession onwards, King Edward seemed intent on representing change and modernity. He seemed casual and a little common to traditionalists like ‘Chips’ Channon. However, while the upper classes in London and the Home Counties were fully aware of the King’s great affair, very few outside these social and political circles knew anything of it. To the general public, Edward was very popular, perhaps even the first royal global celebrity, admired both for his looks and style and his concern for the unemployed and ex-servicemen. He had charisma, sex appeal, and an outward charm enhanced by a sense of inner melancholy and looked far younger than his forty-one years. At the Accession Council, more than a hundred privy councillors were assembled to swear an oath of allegiance to the new King. He made a brief speech in which he said:
“When my father stood here twenty-six years ago he declared that one of the objects of his life would be to uphold constitutional government. In this I am determined to follow in my father’s footsteps.”
He also promised to work, as he did, …for the happiness and welfare of all classes of my subjects. Both Neville and Austen Chamberlain, half-brothers and ministers, powerful members of a powerful political dynasty, watched the new monarch carefully. Neville remarked,
‘His speech was not remarkable in any way, and I thought he looked as uncomfortable as ever, though Austen says he did not fidget as much as usual. I do hope he ‘pulls up his socks’ and behaves himself now he has such heavy responsibilities for unless he does he will soon pull down the throne.’
The heralds proclaimed the accession to the throne of King Edward VIII. The Norroy King of Arms, Major A. H. Howard, read the Proclamation at the Temple Bar on 22nd January. The new king was caught on newsreel camera, sitting with a shadowy Mrs Simpson and her friends in a room overlooking the courtyard below. The monarch was not usually seen at the proclamation ceremony, and some viewed this latest breach of tradition as a bad omen for his reign. What was worse was that the group could be seen laughing while the solemn event was taking place. However, the newsreel footage was censured and never shown in the cinemas. Writing to her friends about the event, Wallis Simpson made fun of it, enjoying the situation like a huge game. However, she was soon to realise just how serious Edward was about making her his wife.
Worse was to follow for the traditionalists. After being taken in procession from Sandringham to Wolverton station on 23rd and transferred by royal train to King’s Cross, another gun carriage was used to take the coffin to the Abbey. The Royal Standard was draped over it, and the Imperial Crown, brought from the Tower, was perched on top. During the slow but jolting march, the Maltese cross, encrusted with diamonds and sapphires, fell from the top of the crown, rolling towards the gutter, where it was rescued and pocketed in one movement by a Grenadier Guard Major. Edward was heard to mutter, ‘Christ, what will happen next?!’ One MP remarked that ‘it was a fitting motto for the coming reign!’ As news of the disastrous incident spread, Harold Nicolson, far from superstitious himself, wrote in his diary that it was indeed seen as a most terrible omen, the second in as many days.
The Courts of Edward & Mrs Simpson:
Towards the end of March, Edward bought his beloved Wallis a ruby and diamond bracelet from Paris for sixteen thousand pounds, worth six hundred thousand pounds at today’s prices, engraved ‘Hold tight, 27. iii. 36’. He showered her with jewellery and also gave her cash, spending millions in today’s money. At the same time, he cut back on spending on the royal household, which, he claimed, his father had allowed to run out of control. This was, he said, out of step with the austerity that many of his subjects were still facing in the depressed areas of the country following the slump of the early thirties. However, his household staff had to face reduced salaries, discontinued allowances and penny-pinching economies. Under these conditions, they became alienated and disaffected by his opulent treatment of his mistress.
In his eyes, Wallis could do no wrong. Those who urged caution were banished from court; those who flattered her were advanced. It was obvious to many that the King’s great love was purely, or impurely, sexual. There was gossip about the sexual practices she had learned while living in a brothel in Shanghai, which had made the King her slave, and that he was willing to become so because a childhood deprived of affection had made him crave female domination. Her masculine look made her attractive to lesbians, and her power over Edward was sometimes acted out in public displays of humiliation.
Harold Nicolson’s invitations to various social gatherings later in the Spring gave him the opportunity to observe the unfolding drama of the King and Mrs Simpson at close quarters. It was already an open secret in these circles that the new king held the strongest hopes of marrying his beloved Wallis and making her his Queen. Her estranged second husband, Ernest Simpson, had filed for divorce, the hearing for which was to be held in Ipswich in October. This set a timetable like a ticking bomb for the late autumn. Harold was invited to meet the King at Mrs Simpson’s apartment at Bryanston Court, and over a port, the bisexual diplomat again found Edward charming. However, he was also saddened by the King’s infatuation. Although a perfectly harmless type of American, he found the whole setting…slightly second-rate. Although from very ‘humble’ beginnings, Ramsay MacDonald, now Lord President of the Council, also enjoyed the attention of society hostesses and told Harold that ‘the people do not mind fornication, but they loathe adultery.’ Harold became exasperated by the conduct of the King, becoming convinced that ‘this silly little man’ would ‘destroy a great monarchy by giggling into a flirtation with a third-rate American.’
It was already apparent to many in court circles that not only was this liaison dangerous for the monarchy but that the new King had little patience for more tedious duties, was shallow in his thinking, erratic in his judgement and casual in his attitude to state papers. Traditionalists, including Nicolson, found this conduct, or lack of it, scandalous. Conversely, he developed considerable sympathy for the now ‘miserable’ Wallis, believing her when she told Lady Sibyl Colefax that neither she nor the King had ever suggested marriage to each other. Years later, she admitted lying about this.
Meanwhile, news of the deeds of the dictators dominated the radio and the newsreels. On 3rd April, The Times reported that the Red Cross had confirmed that it had treated numerous victims of Italian gas attacks in Abyssinia. The newspaper quoted the Emperor, Haile Selassie, who said that…
“… he could not sleep at night for misery at the screaming and groaning of his fighting men and country people who have been burned inside and out by gas.”
They were victims of the indiscriminate bombing of the Italian airforce, attacking hospitals and Red Cross centres. The three types of gas used had been banned under the 1925 Geneva Protocol, of which Italy was a signatory. Water holes and villages were also targeted so that many peasants died in agony from their burns. At the end of seven months of fighting, with nearly half a million soldiers in Abyssinia, Italy annexed the country after troops marched into Addis Ababa on 5th May. Abyssinians had rioted and looted the town before the Italians could march in. On 9th May, Mussolini announced the fall of Addis Ababa to cheering crowds in Rome. Emperor Haile Selassie arrived in Britain, via Palestine, as a refugee less than a month later and was reluctantly granted asylum. He said:
“I do not intend to settle in England … I still dream and hope of returning to Abyssinia. At present, I have not the means.”
It had cost Mussolini more than thirty-three million pounds to prepare for the war and another 126 million to fight it. However, it was worth it, Il Duce said, since “Italy has at last her Empire – a Fascist Empire.” King Edward, for his part, refused to meet ‘The Negus’ (who claimed his descent from Solomon and the Queen of Sheba) himself, sending the Duke of Gloucester instead. When Edward was advised that meeting with the deposed Emperor would be a popular move, he countered, ‘popular with whom? Certainly not the Italians.’ Nothing should be done, he suggested, to drive Mussolini into Hitler’s arms.
This followed the infamous secret bilateral plan between Samuel Hoare, British Foreign Secretary and his French counterpart Pierre Laval to cede most of Abyssinia to the Italians. Hoare had been forced to resign when the plan was leaked to the Press and was succeeded by Anthony Eden, who had been trying to persuade the League of Nations to impose economic sanctions when the Abyssinian Army was soundly defeated. Haile Selassie was, therefore, prevented from returning to his country, setting up his house in Bath instead. By contrast with the King’s attitude, Canon Dick Sheppard, founder of the Peace Pledge Union, appealed on the radio for aid to the Abyssinian refugees, criticising fellow Christians for lacking a sense of mission and questioning whether they really believed in their religion. The BBC insisted that he should not preach pacifism over the airwaves.
Voyages of the Queen Mary:
More positively, the maiden voyage of the Queen Mary began on 27th May from Southampton, under the command of Sir Edgar Britten. “We are not out to beat the record, but we may do it,” he said. Though they failed, a grand welcome awaited when the liner reached New York (below). Thousands of New Yorkers paid four shillings a time to look around her. In August, the ship made two record-breaking trips and won back from France’s Normandie, the Blue Riband of the Atlantic. The Queen Mary crossed from New York in three minutes under four days. On 28th October, however, tragedy struck when, just before she was set to sail, Sir Edgar had a seizure and died soon after.
The Court, the Presentation of the Colours & the King’s Peace:
The official six months of court mourning for King George ended in July, and the King and Mrs Simpson began to be seen together at society parties. On 16th July, she attended the Presentation of the Colours to three regiments of the Brigade of Guards. Two viewing stands had been erected, one for the Royal family and another for the King’s friends. One of those whom Edward invited was ‘Chips’ Channon, one of his most loyal supporters. On arrival, he sat with what he called ‘the new Court’, typified by Emerald Cunard, the pro-Nazi American hostess, who was sitting beside Wallis Simpson. In the next stand, he could see the Royal party, including Elizabeth, Duchess of York, sitting with formidable poise, the epitome of Royal decorum. As usual, the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret were dressed identically in hats, short coats and skirts, with sensible shoes. The Yorks were the ideal, modern nuclear family, as Marguerite Patten remembered:
‘They were a picture book family, with the two enchanting little girls, they were the lovely sort of family that everyone would like.’
The two girls were taking a keen interest in events under the watchful eye of their nanny, Marion Crawford, unaware of the tension among the adults around them. The Duchess had recently written a pointed letter to the court doctor, Lord Dawson, thanking him and bemoaning the change in atmosphere at court:
‘Though outwardly one’s life goes on the same, yet everything is different – especially spiritually and mentally. I don’t know if it’s the result of being ill, but I mind things that I don’t like more than before.’
As the battalions of Guards marched into the park, Channon’s eyes turned to the ceremonial, a more unifying spectacle for all:
‘It was London at its very best, London well-dressed, London in high summer, the grey sky, the green of the trees, and then the sun coming out at the right royal moment, the bayonets glistening, and the horses…the Waterloo-ness of it all.’
The royal brothers, the King and the Duke of York, took the salute on horseback before dismounting to present the new Colours and make short speeches. As usual, the Duke’s speech was agony for all concerned. Silently, everyone prayed that he would get through it without too much stammering. Edward’s speech, written by Winston Churchill, acknowledged the horror of war. “Humanity cries out for peace!” he declared. However, the King’s ‘peace’ was soon interrupted when he was returning along Constitution Hill to Buckingham Palace at the head of the six battalions of the Guards to which he had just presented new colours in Hyde Park. George McMahon, a deranged Irish journalist, broke through the police cordon and pointed a loaded revolver at the King, throwing it on the road as a special constable grabbed his arm. It fell under the King’s horse as he passed. Edward remained outwardly calm and rode straight on with only a glance at the scene, though he later admitted to feeling a split-second of terror when he had seen the pointed pistol;
“… for one moment, I braced myself for the blast that never came. … I don’t know what that thing was, but if it had gone off, it would have made a nasty mess of us.”
McMahon was set upon by the crowd and had to be rescued by police, who seized him and manhandled him above their shoulders to the park railings on the other side of the road, where he continued to struggle with them. A police officer dismounted and picked up the revolver. The incident only served to further enhance the King’s popularity, as even his sternest critics at court had to admit that he had shown a strength of character such that they could no longer suggest that he might be a coward. McMahon appeared in court before Justice Greaves-Lord at the Old Bailey in September. After retiring for ten minutes, the jury returned a verdict that McMahon was guilty of a charge of producing a revolver with intent to alarm the King. He was sentenced to twelve months of hard labour.
Whatever good the incident had done for Edward’s standing at court was undone five days later, when six hundred débutantes were due to be presented to him at two garden receptions at the Palace. The large number involved was due to the backlog created by the period of mourning for King George. This was, again, a departure from the splendid evening court balls during which these presentations normally took place. As the endless line of young women went through the seemingly endless ritual of carefully practised curtseys in front of the royal dais, Edward appeared increasingly fidgety with boredom. Halfway through the proceedings, it began to rain, and Edward called a halt to the ceremony, returning hastily to the shelter of the palace, leaving his guests to run for cover under the trees. The contingency plan of continuing the ceremony in the State Ball Room was also abandoned.
Though it was a court tradition which Edward could clearly do without, the way in which it was cancelled, as with so many of his changes, made him more enemies just at a time when he needed as many friends as he could muster among the established classes. Towards the end of July, Channon wrote in his diary:
‘The Simpson scandal is growing and she, poor Wallis, looks unhappy. The world is closing in around her, the flatterers, the sycophants, and the malicious. It is a curious social juxtaposition that casts me in the role of Defender of the King. But I do, and very strongly in society.’
The Nahlin Cruise & the Duke of Lancaster:
The yacht was specially fitted out for the King, with the library converted into a stateroom so that he and Wallis would have a place in which to attend to official business and relax in private. A dance floor had been laid in the lounge, where a powerful wireless set doubled as a communications hub for the King’s daily despatches and, in the evening, a means of tuning into the BBC’s dance orchestra broadcasts. On the 10th, Edward boarded the Nahlin at the small Yugoslav village of Sibenik. The yacht was escorted by two Royal Navy destroyers from the Mediterranean fleet. Apart from the obvious security matters, the ships were responsible for collecting and delivering the red dispatch boxes containing the business to which he was meant to attend in his private stateroom. They needn’t have bothered since the King had little interest in interrupting his merry-making with friends to spend time on the affairs of state. He had more contact with the ships during his exercise hours, which he spent rowing skiffs around them, joking with the sailors that he was ‘reviewing the fleet!’
The presence of the two ships meant that there was little prospect of ‘the Duke of Lancaster’ remaining anonymous. Whenever the royal party disembarked, crowds gathered. At Dubrovnik, the mayor issued a proclamation forbidding the townsfolk to stare. It only encouraged them more, but Edward was used to crowds. However, among them were numerous American journalists and photographers, providing lurid stories of his relationship with Wallis for the US press, while the British press was keeping to its self-denying agreement, or just about. In its August editions, Cavalcade carried numerous photographs of the Duke of Lancaster with his friend, ‘Mrs Ernest Simpson’. On the cover of the magazine, she could be seen placing a steadying hand on the King’s forearm as he climbed out of a motorboat. The caption read, The motorboat arrived at Paradise Island. As the yacht moored in Corfu, the British Ambassador to Greece wondered, in his dispatch to London, …
‘… whether this union, however queer and generally unsuitable to the State, may not, in the long run, turn out to be more in harmony with the spirit of the new age than anything that wisdom could have contrived’.
The luxurious Nahlin, which would be worth eleven million pounds in today’s money, docked in Istanbul at the end of the cruise. The King and Mrs Simpson travelled back overland together, staying at the Hotel Bristol in Vienna, which had a large steam room. Here, the King stripped down and walked around naked with his fully clothed chauffeur and six detectives in attendance. In doing so, he was only following local customs, but even this action was the subject of further criticism back at his court. Amazingly, the royal love story had remained largely unnoticed by the general British public. Though during the next few months, pictures of the cruise were published in the American press, causing public comment, they were not published in the popular press in Britain. However, on his return from holiday, Edward saw to it that Wallis Simpson’s name was twice printed on the Court Circular, once at a dinner party attended by the Baldwins and the other on her arrival with other guests at Balmoral, during the royal family’s annual retreat.
Birkhall & ‘Balmorality’:
At the beginning of October, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Lang (above), received an invitation to Birkhall, the holiday home of the Duke and Duchess of York on the Balmoral Estate, about six miles from the Castle itself, where the King, Edward VIII, and Mrs Simpson were entertaining their society guests. The Yorks told their guest, who had been a regular visitor to the castle in the days of the old King, that they were keen that ‘the links with Balmoral may not wholly be broken’. Lang described in his diary how the Yorks’ children, Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, came down from the nursery after tea:
“They sang some action-songs most charmingly. It was strange to think of the destiny which may be awaiting little Elizabeth, at present Second from the Throne! She and her lively little sister are certainly most entrancing children.”
Within weeks, Elizabeth would become first in line to the throne, and there was already growing recognition of this at court and in Parliament. The King was annoyed by his brother’s entertaining ex-courtiers under his snubbed nose. He sent Prince Albert to open the newly completed Royal Infirmary in Aberdeen so that he could drive to the station to meet Wallis. When he was spotted, badly disguised in driving goggles, he caused great offence among ‘the Scotch and British bourgeoisie’, as Harold Nicolson noted in his diary, adding that ‘there is seething criticism which may develop into actual discontent’.
During the Balmoral holiday, the King invited the Yorks to dinner. In a clear breach of protocol, Wallis met them at the porch instead of the King himself. Striding past her, nose in the air, the Duchess announced, ‘I have come to dine with the King’. This was a defining moment in the conflict between the ‘Balmorality’ of Elizabeth and the modernity of the King’s mistress. When they returned to London in mid-October, the Yorks were reliably informed that PM Stanley Baldwin and the Cabinet would not accept Mrs Simpson as Queen. Edward would face a stark choice: give up his planned marriage or abdicate. There was little doubt that he would choose the latter. Prince Albert was appalled but did not step back from the prospect of becoming King. The messenger, the King’s private secretary, Alec Hardinge, then went to Baldwin to inform him that he had taken the first steps in removing the King, should this prove necessary.
Rumours, Reactions & Relationships – October-November:
On his own initiative, Stanley Baldwin went to see King Edward at Fort Belvedere on 20th October to tell him of his growing alarm at rumours, which would, he thought, damage the Crown. The King’s relationship with Mrs Simpson was causing great embarrassment abroad, where it was the subject of scandalous reports in the popular press. The King was not only a monarch in Britain but also of the overseas Dominions. There the monarchy was already in danger. Although much of the ‘mother’ country had not yet heard of the King’s affair since the British press had kept silent in order to spare the King’s blushes. His behaviour offended people of all backgrounds and classes when it became known. During the Jarrow Crusade that October, Ellen Wilkinson had gossiped about the King and Mrs Simpson in front of the men with Ritchie Calder. Calder later recalled that when they stopped for lunch:
‘We saw mutiny in the ranks and finally a deputation. “What’s all this about the King and that woman?” We tried to pass it off lightly but they were furious with us for repeating the story, and then furious with him… the people of Jarrow had nothing other than the family, and this symbolically came as a threat to the family.’
Regarding the divorce case, Baldwin asked Edward, at their meeting, if the proceedings, which named him as a co-respondent, had to go ahead. The King replied that he could not, as a monarch, interfere in the lives of private individuals. After an hour, the Prime Minister begged the King to ‘think the matter over.’ Neither man discussed the possibility of the King’s marriage to Wallis Simpson following the divorce. Hardinge, Chamberlain, Lang and Dawson, editor of The Times, formed a cabal to force Baldwin to confront the approaching issue more pro-actively.
During the next two months, only a few photographs of the King and Mrs Simpson on the Nahlin Cruise were published in Britain, but in other countries, particularly America, the pictures caused public comment. Twice after his return from the cruise, King Edward saw to it that Mrs Simpson’s name was printed in the Court Circular; once at a dinner party that Mr and Mrs Baldwin attended, the other on the arrival of Mrs Simpson with some guests at Balmoral. On 20th October, Baldwin had gone to see the King on his own initiative to tell him of the growing alarm at rumours which would, he thought, damage the Crown. It was not just a matter of the King’s affection for a woman who already had one divorced husband living and was in the process of divorcing her second. There were also constitutional issues, not least about the King’s role as Supreme Governor of the Church of England. These rumours had spread to the general British public, despite the fact that the British press had still not published either text or photographs.
‘Miss Buttercup’ & The Simpsons’ Divorce:
On 27th October, a decree nisi was granted to the Simpsons at Ipswich Assizes, but only small photographs appeared in the British Press reporting the event. The Times gave the story twelve lines, and the Morning Post and Daily Telegraph followed suit. Although Wallis Simpson had been granted her decree nisi following a twenty-minute appearance in court on the 27 October, she and the King were not yet free to marry. Under the divorce law of the time, the decree could not be made absolute for six months, which meant that Wallis would be under the ‘surveillance’ of an official known as the King’s Proctor until 27 April 1937. If during that period, she was found in compromising circumstances with any man, she could be hauled back into court, and if the decision went against her, she would be forever unable to divorce her husband in an English court.
Although there had seemed little doubt that it was Wallis’ adultery with Edward that precipitated the breakup of her second marriage, her husband Ernest had agreed to save her ‘blushes’ by being caught in flagrante by staff at the Hotel de Paris near Maidenhead in July, with a Miss ‘Buttercup’ Kennedy. In reality, obtaining the decree absolute was a mere formality, and the couple showed no reserve in the conduct of their relationship over the next six months.
Wallis would be free to marry Edward as soon as the decree was made absolute the following April. That same evening, Alec Hardinge dined with the Duke of York, no doubt advising him that his cabal was ready to pass the crown to him should his brother announce his engagement to Mrs Simpson. Perhaps almost simultaneously, the King was presenting Mrs Simpson with a magnificent engagement ring from Cartier, a Mogul emerald set in platinum, engraved on the back, ‘WE (Wallis joined with Edward) are ours now.’ Harold Nicolson heard rumours about their engagement, together with the suggestion that Wallis would be made Duchess of Edinburgh. The American press was already announcing the engagement, but Edward still controlled the British press, and it remained silent on the matter. The couple also kept the engagement secret, with Wallis telling lies about their intentions as late as 18th November. It was this deliberate deception which turned moderates like Nicolson against them. He also judged that public opinion would soon do the same.
Edward was alerted to the extent of constitutional opposition to his marriage by a letter from Hardinge, urging him to send Wallis abroad. This had been written by the cabal, as Susan Williams has recently shown. Chamberlain viewed the letter as a means, not just of forcing Edward VIII’s abdication but also of Baldwin’s retirement in his favour. Baldwin had suggested that he continue until after the Coronation, planned for the following May. Together with the letter, Chamberlain had drafted a Memorandum of Censure, which he wanted to send after Hardinge’s letter. This was an ultimatum requiring the King to end his relationship with Mrs Simpson or abdicate. It also threatened that, if he did neither, the press silence would cease: Dawson had already drafted his leading article.
Meanwhile, Chamberlain had induced the PM to call a few colleagues together to discuss the situation, having prepared everything in advance. However, Baldwin was also well-briefed and rejected the plan, which he later told Tom Jones would have risked disaster at that stage, with the King refusing point-blank. Worse still, it would force the government’s resignation and a general election on the issue. If, as seemed likely, the product was a hung parliament, the King might decide to form his own government of those loyal to his rule, in effect, a dictatorship.
This argument forced Chamberlain’s allies back into line, and Baldwin regained control over the developing crisis. On Friday, 13th November, he gave instructions that Alec Hardinge’s letter should be sent to the King. The letter warned that the silence of the British press could not be maintained indefinitely and that, when the story broke, it might well force the government’s resignation over the issue, resulting in Your Majesty having to find someone capable of forming a government that would have the support of the House of Commons. Given the current feeling in the House, there was little chance of this. Hardinge told the King that the only alternative was for Mrs Simpson to go abroad without further delay.
The King returned to Fort Belvedere at Windsor from a successful two-day visit to the Home Fleet, anchored off Portland, which had made him more popular than ever in the armed forces. Hardinge’s letter was waiting for him, and he was not pleased with what he read. He immediately ceased to use Hardinge as a trusted channel with the PM. Having discussed the situation with Wallis over the weekend, Edward summoned Baldwin to the Fort for a second meeting. So, on 16th November, Edward saw Baldwin again and told the PM: “I am going to marry Mrs Simpson and I am prepared to go.” Baldwin replied that he needed time to consult with his Cabinet colleagues. But the King did have some prominent supporters in taking this stance, among them Winston Churchill, who was shouted down by the House of Commons when he spoke out in favour of Edward. Churchill later demanded:
What crime has the King committed? Have we not sworn allegiance to him? Are we not bound by that oath?
At the time of the King’s meeting with Baldwin, however, Churchill may have thought, with some justification, that Edward’s relationship with Mrs Simpson would fizzle out, just as his earlier liaisons had done, and before either the Coronation or the wedding could take place in the spring. Back at the Commons that night, a relieved PM told Ramsay MacDonald the news before breaking it to the King’s one ally in the Cabinet, Duff Cooper. He added that Prince Albert was better suited to the job and would do it just like his father. The King joined his mother, Queen Mary, for dinner, after which he told her of his intention to marry Wallis and, if necessary, to abdicate.
“Something will be done”:
Following his meeting with the Prime Minister, the next day, the King boarded a train for Paddington, from where he travelled by Royal Train to South Wales for a tour of the distressed areas, including the Rhondda, Merthyr Tydfil and the Monmouthshire valleys. There was a detectable change of tone in Commissioner Malcolm Stewart’s third report of November 1936, which contained an acknowledgement of the negative effects of transference upon the Special Areas and promised inducements to attract new industries. Nevertheless, the establishment of new industries and recovery in the coal mines would still leave a residual unemployment problem among older men. The proportion of older men among the unemployed was greater in communities like Dowlais, in Merthyr Tydfil, where nearly 67% were over thirty-four in 1936 and 46% over forty-five. Against this backdrop, Edward VIII’s visit to South Wales was announced in October 1936.
The growing nervousness in government circles prompted by the Jarrow Crusade (above) and the impending constitutional crisis, in turn, led Captain Ellis of the National Council of Social Service to warn against the visit, planned for mid-November. This was when the revised code of regulations for men on transitional benefits, who had exhausted their right to unemployment benefits, was to come into effect. Ellis penned the following letter to Godfrey Thomas at Buckingham Palace on 12th October:
I feel bound to say first that I think the date is ill-chosen. The new UAB (Unemployment Assistance Board) regulations come into force on (November) 16th. On the whole they tend to affect South Wales more than most places, and it is extremely likely that between the 16th and 19th, which is the first day, there will be a great deal of demonstration against them. It seems to me that if that time is chosen for a visit of the King, the agitators will say that his visit is intended to distract attention from the regulations, and to mark by Royal approval what is being done by the Ministry of Labour and other bodies. His visit will then be given for the first time a political significance…When Tom Jones saw the announcement of the date in the paper, he asked me to tell you that he felt very strongly that the King should not be taken to South Wales during that week.
Tom Jones was not only Baldwin’s former Cabinet Secretary and close advisor but also now the Secretary of the Pilgrim Trust, the American philanthropic foundation that was funding much of the relief work among the unemployed, together with the National Council of Social Service (NCSS), the voluntary organisation that King Edward had been the patron of since 1928, as Prince of Wales. These ‘establishment’ Welshmen were key figures who tried to keep control over events in the distressed area by loosening the purse strings and providing charitable funds for ameliorative projects for the unemployed. There was some basis in evidence for their apprehensions. In August, the Merthyr Unemployed Lodge of the South Wales Miners’ Federation (SWMF) had demanded a one-day strike, a march on London and a ‘monster’ petition of the whole of South Wales in the campaign against the new regulations. Later the same month, the Dowlais Unemployed Lodge decided to join the boycott of the Coronation celebrations.
Refusing to heed the warnings of Tom Jones, Edward had chosen to go ahead with his visit. Its purpose was to show the King’s continuing commitment to the plight of the unemployed, first expressed during his visit in 1928 when he was still Prince of Wales. The Palace and senior civil servants had expressed similar concerns on that occasion. On this occasion, in addition, the King commanded that Malcolm Stewart be present on the first evening of his visit to the valleys in his dining car so that he could get a more comprehensive picture of the problem. Stewart had just resigned due to the government’s failure to give him the resources to do his job of attracting new industries to the area; his third report contained greater criticism of current measures to tackle unemployment, including transference than his first two had done. Edward was entering an area of his kingdom that was generating acute political sensitivity, both within the coalfield and among the metropolitan establishment, and at a time that was also acutely sensitive for the monarchy.
Travelling overnight, the King’s train pulled into Llantwit Major before dawn on 18th November. After breakfast, the King set off by car on his tour of the Vale of Glamorgan and the valleys. On the first day, he visited training centres in the Vale where young men and women from the valleys were being trained before being transferred into domestic service and other trades in England. Then he toured some of the valleys and pit villages where the collieries stood idle, as did their miners. Almost every conversation ended with a polite request for him to tell Whitehall to do something to bring jobs back to the valleys. His black bowler hat made him look like a mines’ inspector, a point picked up by The South Wales Echo in one of its cartoons lampooning the inaction of Baldwin, Chamberlain and Brown, the Minister for Labour, hated for his role in the introduction of the Means Test and Transitional Benefits.
It was in Dowlais, during a tour of the derelict steelworks, shut down six years earlier, that he made his remark, terrible, terrible, something will be done about this! This was also how the newsreels reported it at the time, showing the marvellous reception of his long-suffering subjects in the depressed area. The King had brought hope to replace despair. Nine thousand men had worked making steel; now, there was nothing but the wreckage of the old works and no other industry to take them on. In 1936, three-quarters of the working-age men in Dowlais were unemployed. The demonstration that met him was largely spontaneous and supportive, and as he looked over the derelict site, some of the men began singing Crugybar, the Welsh Hymn. Then, he made his impromptu speech, often misquoted, as ‘something must be done.’ As in the Jarrow Crusade and in Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier, these four words were frequently on the lips of advocates of the distressed areas and had been used elsewhere on this visit by the King, responding to pleas from the people. However, this time what he said was different markedly different in tense and tone, context and subtext.
It may well have been that this was an attempt by the King to head off the kind of criticism that Ellis had suggested might accompany his visit rather than an attempt to embarrass the government. His use of “will” rather than must, the manner in which he directed the remarks to the politicians alongside him, and his insistence that the steelworkers must stay here, working. In 1980, John Gorman wrote that Edward added the words ‘…to find them work’ to his statement, reflecting his determination to see to it that his government would change its policy from one of sole reliance on transferring the unemployed to other areas to that of attracting new industries, as advocated by Malcolm Stewart and many others, including in the NCSS. This was seen as a direct challenge to both Brown, Minister of Labour, and through him, to Chamberlain and Baldwin. It was fighting talk, not the resigned remark of a monarch who was about to give up the throne. Whatever the case, the King’s visit did indeed acquire a political significance, though opposite in nature to that which Ellis was expecting. He had seemed more concerned about the criticism from the Left, like that from Aneurin Bevan, the young MP for Ebbw Vale. The King’s visit incensed Bevan, who refused to meet the King at Rhymney, railing that it was an outrage…
“…to organise an expedition to Wales as if it were an unknown, barbarous and distant land, much in the same way as you might go to the Congo… I cannot associate myself with a visit that would appear to support the notion that private charity has made, or can ever make, a contribution of any value to the problem of South Wales.”
But neither did his words and visit endear him to a Cabinet that was now beginning to discuss the constitutional crisis and the distinct possibility that he would be forced to abdicate. The coalfield communities turned the whole event into another mass demonstration. The publicity it received and Edward VIII’s remarks, in particular, undoubtedly had an important impact in quickening the process of industrial redevelopment. Something was eventually done, but not at the dictat of the King and only after his abdication when, eventually, rearmament brought work back to the industrial region. For the time being, though, his visit re-energised him, and he began to think that he might put up a fight for the throne, the woman he loved, and his people against the politicians who seemed to wish that all of them would simply go away, rather than trying to find unorthodox solutions for unusual circumstances. Even those who knew that he didn’t have the power to change the hard hearts of politicians were nonetheless grateful that he had taken the trouble to survey the depressed valleys with his own eyes.
Playing the Good King:
On his return from South Wales on November 20th, the King felt buoyed by his popularity and his ability to demonstrate empathy with the sufferings of his people. Ramsay MacDonald, Lord President, who knew South Wales well as Labour MP for Aberavon from 1922 to 1929, commented that:
… these escapades should be limited… They are an invasion into the field of politics and should be watched constitutionally.
Geoffrey Dawson called the King’s comments at Dowlais:
… monstrous…a constitutionally dangerous proceeding that would threaten, if continued, to entangle the Throne in politics.
The Beaverbrook press, by contrast, allying itself with Churchill, was keen to make political capital out of the visit, contrasting his care for the plight of the unemployed with the indifference of the government under the headline, ‘The King Edward Touch’. It continued to trumpet its praise:
‘Never has the magic of personal leadership been better shown than by the King’s visit to south Wales. As few ministers have done, the Sovereign examined their plight and drew from them the tale of their trouble.’
The King later called his words as being the minimum humanitarian response that he could have made to the suffering he had seen, though he also added that the monarch should be able to play the role of the Good King, free to move unhindered among his subjects, and speak what is in his mind. On the evening of his return from South Wales, Edward telephoned his brother, the Duke of Kent, and told him of his intention to marry Wallis and make her Queen, Empress of India, “the whole bag of tricks!” This renewed self-confidence also sprang from his finding a new ally behind the scenes in the ample shape of Winston Churchill. His motives for supporting the King were a mixture of personal ambition and political acumen, only slightly edged with romantic sentimentalism.
Churchill’s Cause & Compromise:
Churchill felt that Baldwin was slow to rearm because he was putting the interests of his party before those of the country. This was also why the PM would rather have the King abdicate than risk losing his popular mandate, gained in 1935, in an early election. On the other hand, Churchill realised that he needed a more popular cause than rearmament to revive his flagging fortunes. Backing the King would add to Baldwin’s discomfort and might lead to a new Conservative administration with Churchill at the heart of it. He was also a romantic half-American who held the monarchy greatly revered. In addition, he respected the King for his twenty-five years of service as Prince of Wales before becoming monarch, almost as long as the time since Winston himself had first become a minister. Moreover, civil law allowed re-marriage in England and Wales. Why should the King, who had never married, not be able to marry the woman he loved, even if she had been married twice before? The answer to this, of course, lay in the attitude of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was not keen on anointing an adulterer in any case. He would far rather crown his far more virtuous brother. Churchill had little time for, as he saw it, such stuffiness.
While Edward was in South Wales, Churchill put the case for a morganatic marriage. This would deny Wallis the title of Queen Consort and preclude Edward’s heirs from taking the throne, the crown eventually passing to Princess Elizabeth. Rather than putting the proposal directly to the King, he used Lord Rothermere’s son, Esmond Harmsworth. Lord Harmsworth took Wallis to lunch at Claridge’s and told her that if she became the King’s consort but not his Queen, she might become ‘the Duchess of Cornwall’ on marriage. She liked the idea and telephoned the King on his special train in South Wales. On the following day, November 20th, Edward briefly discussed by telephone with Baldwin the possibility of Parliament passing a special Bill that would allow him to marry Mrs Simpson without her becoming Queen. He told the PM that this was Wallis’ own idea, following Winston Churchill’s advice not to credit him with it. He also told Baldwin to submit the proposal, as his Prime Minister, to the British Cabinet as well as to all the Cabinets in the Dominions.
The Politics of the Abdication:
Up until this point, the matter of the King’s relationship with Mrs Simpson had not been discussed even in the British Cabinet, though the politicians in the Dominions were already far more aware of the details of the ‘affair’ through their press, which was not fettered in its reporting. Baldwin had kept everything he could from most of his Cabinet colleagues but had already used the freedom of the North American press to his advantage in the Hardinge letter, which the King had received just a week beforehand, and which contained the confected reference to the negative reaction of Canadians. In fact, North American reaction was, by all accounts of the time, quite positive towards the marriage, with many people looking forward to an American becoming Queen. Wallis must have been aware of this, even if she accepted that there was also some adverse reaction among a minority of fellow (North) Americans. The Hardinge letter should at least have alerted the King to the danger of trusting Baldwin to consider the morganatic proposal fairly and honestly, but apparently, it did not. For his part, Edward had discussed the plan over the course of his weekend with Wallis at the Fort.
The following Monday, he sent Harmsworth to Downing Street to discuss the details of the plan with Baldwin. This was a major tactical error. Baldwin was ready for the proposal, having had the weekend to find a legitimate reason to oppose it and force the abdication. Baldwin had discussed it with Chamberlain over the weekend, and both men knew of (and were suspicious of) Churchill’s motives in proposing the scheme. Perhaps most significantly, both men were from strong, middle-class Victorian church and chapel traditions in a country where church attendance had declined dramatically since the Great War. Baldwin rejected the plan at once and told Harmsworth that MPs would never pass the required act of Parliament. The young Lord, the epitome of aristocratic decadence to Baldwin, impetuously retorted that he thought they would, apparently failing to challenge Baldwin’s basic assumption that a special Bill was necessary. In his brief discussion with Harmsworth, Baldwin also added what he believed to be the truth, for good measure, that the British people would never accept Wallis Simpson as the King’s wife, whatever her constitutional position.
The truth was, as Edward himself said in his final broadcast, there was never any constitutional difference between himself and Parliament. Perhaps referring to his exchange with Baldwin on the 13th, he added that he should never have allowed any such issue to arise by accepting that he might have to confront the Hobson’s choice, which Baldwin was offering him. Churchill himself never proposed that either Parliament or the Cabinet needed to be involved in agreeing to the morganatic marriage. On the contrary, he repeatedly argued that the King should be accorded the same basic human right to marry as any of his subjects. It was the prospect of Churchill forming a ‘King’s Party’ to push for ‘the Cornwall Plan’ which forced Baldwin’s arm. He himself would rather be forced to resign in favour of Chamberlain than allow Churchill to become PM with an entirely new cabinet. He, therefore, decided to confront ‘the big beast’ in person while securing broader support in Parliament with which to scotch the morganatic plan.
On 24th November, he summoned Churchill, together with Clement Attlee, the Labour leader, and Sinclair, the Liberal leader, telling them the government would resign if Edward pressed on with his plans to marry Mrs Simpson. He demanded a pledge that they would not try to form an alternative government. Both Attlee and Sinclair agreed, but Churchill reserved his position. In reality, Baldwin and Chamberlain had already decided upon the smooth transition from one monarch to another, which the King had reluctantly, and conditionally agreed upon in his audience with Baldwin on 16th November. Since then, the King’s ‘remarks’ in south Wales, coupled with Churchill’s intervention, had made Baldwin and Chamberlain even more determined that Edward should abdicate in favour of his brother, Prince Albert, Duke of York. There was, for them, no going back. ‘Chips’ Channon, however, wrote of the Conservative Party divided, the country divided and schism in the Royal Family. Although Churchill had been trumped by Baldwin, he still had cards to play.
On 25th November, Baldwin was commanded by the King to attend an audience at Buckingham Palace. Edward put the proposal of a morganatic marriage to him directly and in person. Baldwin told him that he didn’t think Parliament would support this but that he would consult the Cabinet and the Prime Ministers of the Dominions. The King’s only other options were to invite Churchill to form a new government or to rule alone by royal prerogative (in effect, as a dictator). Both were unrealistic: the only realistic option was to abdicate in favour of the Duke of York. Baldwin, at last, called a Cabinet meeting to discuss the ‘morganatic’ issue and dispatched telegrams to the Prime Ministers of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and Ireland. On 27th, the King’s proposed marriage was discussed in full, open Cabinet for the first time. There was no support for the morganatic proposal, with Duff Cooper the only minister suggesting a delay in a decision about the marriage until after the Coronation, a view that Churchill also put forward in Parliament.
When Lord Beaverbrook’s ship Bremen docked in Southampton the next day, the King’s biggest supporter drove straight to the Fort. On hearing first-hand the account of his second, fateful meeting with Baldwin, the newspaper magnate realised that the game was already up because the King had already placed his head on the block. All that remained was for the PM to swing the axe. He concluded that while Edward had friends among the Welsh miners, who, it was rumoured, were ready to march on London, he did not have them where it now mattered, i.e. in the Cabinet. The King was well out of his depth as far as politics were concerned and in danger of drowning.
After the Fire – The Symbolic Fall of the People’s Palace:
The destruction of the immense glass palace, built to Joseph Paxton’s design to house the Great Exhibition of 1851 on 30th November, seemed to symbolise a breach in continuity with the Victorian Age. John Logie Baird’s new television laboratory was also destroyed, but this did not affect the BBC’s new TV broadcasts. Some saw the fire as a divine judgement on the King’s rejection of traditional values. Queen Mary was deeply affected by the sudden fall of the People’s Palace she had re-opened with George V as the first home of the Imperial War Museum in 1924 before it moved to Lambeth. She watched the smoke rising in the distance from the windows of Marlborough House, visiting the burnt-out site three days later, still dressed in black, surveying the mass of bent and twisted metal. The sense of melancholy that the scene conveyed must have matched her mood at the end of an annus horribilis, with the monarchy on the verge of collapse, just as her late husband had predicted at its beginning. Like that of Queen Mary, the public mood was deeply pessimistic, symbolised by the tangle of steel and glass she stood before. It looked like a bomb site and reminded some journalists of the recent bombing of Madrid.
On 2nd December, Baldwin went again to the Palace and informed the King that he thought that the lady he married should automatically become the Queen and that, although inquiries in the Commonwealth were not yet complete, neither Britain nor its Dominions would tolerate a morganatic marriage. In fact, this was not true. We now know that only the Australian Prime Minister’s response was entirely against the morganatic marriage, but both the New Zealand and Canadian responses were far more sympathetic to the idea. But they were either changed or not put formally to the Cabinet and were withheld from the King. However unbelievable it may seem from the perspective of the multi-media society of the twenty-first century, most of the country had still not heard of Wallis Simpson until December 2nd, when the Yorkshire Post reported a fairly innocent comment made by the Bishop of Bradford, the aptly named Dr Blunt, who also had never heard of Mrs Simpson, at a Diocesan Conference the previous day:
The King’s personal views are his own but it is still an essential part of the idea of kingship… that the King needs the grace of God for his office.
The Bishop said that he wished that the King would show more positive evidence of the need for Divine Guidance. All he meant was that the King ought to go to Church more often, but a local journalist in the audience wrongly took the Bishop’s remark as a none-too-veiled reference to the King’s rumoured affair. When the journalist’s report was carried by the Press Association, the national news agency, the newspapers interpreted Blunt’s words as the signal they had all been waiting for: an official breaking of the silence by the Church and, therefore, the Establishment over the Simpson affair. The national press soon circulated the story, breaking their self-imposed silence about the monarch’s love life.
The whole story of the King’s affair was now filling the pages of the newspapers. Over the previous few months, only a relatively small number of establishment Britons knew what was happening. Now the newspapers quickly made up the time lost, filling their pages with stories of crisis meetings at the Palace, pictures of Mrs Simpson and interviews with men and women in the street, asking their opinions. Feature articles included biographies of Wallis Simpson, photographs of her previous husbands, reports of the Nahlin cruise, pictures of the couple together and columns of comment. While Dawson of The Times attacked the King, with Baldwin’s collusion, The Daily Mail, The Daily Express and The Daily Mirror backed him, reflecting their owners’ views. They have much in common, began a profile of the royal couple in the Daily Mirror on 4th December:
They both love the sea. They both love swimming. They both love golf and gardening. And soon, they discovered that each loved the other.
The Liberal-nonconformist Daily Chronicle also came out in favour of a morganatic marriage. While only eighty thousand read the broadsheets, the combined circulation of those supporting the marriage was nine million. The same day, 3rd December, Baldwin addressed the House, simply reporting that no constitutional crisis had yet arisen. Harold Nicolson MP went to Islington, where he gave a long-standing engagement public lecture. Out of an audience of four hundred, only ten joined in the singing of ‘God Save the King’ at the beginning of the meeting. He wrote that evening that he didn’t think that people were especially angry with Mrs Simpson but…
‘that there was a deep and enraged fury at the King himself. In eight months, Edward had destroyed the great structure of popularity that he himself had raised.’
Apparently, for Nicolson, not even the King’s popularity with the armed forces, the ex-servicemen and the unemployed miners, so recently demonstrated, would be enough to break this fall from grace.
Retreat to Fort Belvedere:
The King retreated to Fort Belvedere, his private apartments on the Windsor estate, clinging to his morganatic dream, which Baldwin demolished in a public statement:
There is no such thing as what is called a morganatic marriage known to our law…the lady whom he marries, by the fact of her marriage to the King, necessarily becomes Queen…The only way in which this result could be avoided would be by legislation dealing with a particular case. His Majesty’s Government are not prepared to introduce such legislation.
Wallis Simpson had not been not entirely as disinterested as she later made out, even if she was more capable than Edward of being dispassionate in public. She had encouraged him to take up Churchill’s morganatic marriage idea and now urged him to appeal to his people over the heads of the politicians by means of a radio broadcast. Her plan was for him to fly to Switzerland and wait to see what the impact of public opinion on the government would be. Edward went along with this and again summoned Baldwin to the Palace on the evening of 3rd December. The PM told the Cabinet that he had driven to the Palace and had been taken in by a back entrance to avoid the photographers camped out at the front. The King had read a proposed draft of his radio broadcast to Baldwin, who had responded by saying that, although he was willing to put the idea to the Cabinet, he thought they would regard it as thoroughly unconstitutional.
At this, the King had lost his temper with Baldwin, demanding to know what more the PM would have him do. Baldwin had replied, so he said, that what he wanted was what the King had told him he had wanted: to go with dignity, not dividing the country, and making things as smooth as possible for your successor. Trying to calm the situation and step back from the abyss that he must have sensed opening between them as they sat together on the sofa, Baldwin is said to have raised his whisky-and-soda and said: Well, Sir, whatever happens, my Mrs and I wish you happiness from the depths of our souls, at which the King burst into tears, and Baldwin followed suit. What a strange conversation piece, observed Harold Nicolson when he heard of this from Liberal MP Robert Bernays; those two blubbering together on a sofa!
As Baldwin predicted, the entire Cabinet was once more united behind him the next morning and against the whole idea of a royal broadcast. Chamberlain again urged the PM to bring the King sharply up to the point and get him to abdicate the same day. The politicians now began to panic because they feared that if he were to broadcast, public opinion would move irrevocably in his favour, especially as Chamberlain confirmed, from the whips, that Churchill and Beaverbrook were working on the King’s speech together. The terrible prospect of Churchill being asked to form a government and then demanding a General Election was too dreadful to contemplate. Baldwin calmed the situation, agreeing to make a statement in the House ruling out any possibility of the King making his broadcast.
But Wallis told Edward, ‘You must speak!’, perhaps confusing his powers with those of an American President. As she was now nearing a nervous breakdown herself, she had agreed to go to France to stay at the villa of friends in Cannes. When Churchill went to meet the King the next morning, 4th December, he found him ill and isolated. He persuaded Baldwin to delay the Cabinet’s ultimatum and the following day accused the King’s ministers of acting unconstitutionally in demanding his abdication and in reaching secret deals with His Majesty’s ‘Loyal Opposition’ to confront him with the ultimatum. In his press release, he also made an implicit appeal to the Dominions, perhaps sensing that Baldwin had not been entirely truthful in his representation of their views. Forty Conservative MPs were ready to back Churchill, who had already selected much of his Cabinet, and was planning his first actions on replacing Baldwin as PM. Crowds formed outside Buckingham Palace and Downing Street, cheering for the King, holding placards which read Cheer Your King at the Palace: After South Wales, You Can’t Let Him Down.
Liberal opinion was also behind the King: John Maynard Keynes wanted to know, on simple utilitarian grounds, why the King could not have his morganatic marriage. However, many liberals were nervous about joining forces with the reactionary Beaverbrook and Rothermere press to support the monarchy. There were demonstrations against Baldwin and the Archbishop of Canterbury, but as the MPs toured their constituencies that weekend, they also found a widespread sense of betrayal felt by many who, like the Jarrow marchers, had seen the royal family as a model of family life, symbolising the most important values of their subjects. Perhaps this helps to explain why there was no great spontaneous uprising in support of a previously immensely popular member of that family. Apart from the welcome support from Churchill and Duff Cooper in parliament and government, most of the vocal and visible support was unwelcome, coming from the pro-fascist Right and, more sinisterly, Mosley’s blackshirts who, not yet proscribed from wearing their uniforms, marched up and down Whitehall with a picture of the King, shouting: One, two, three, four, five, we want Baldwin dead or alive! But, in any case, it was largely uncoordinated, useless and simply too late.
By the end of the following weekend of 5th-6th December, if not at its beginning, Edward had decided to give up his fight and hand the Crown to his brother. Yet Albert had none of his brother’s charisma and was ill-prepared for the role he was being handed by him. He also had come close to a nervous breakdown during the four days since his return from Scotland, during which his brother had declined to see him. On Sunday 6th, the Duke again rang the Fort to be told that the King was in a conference and would call him back later. The call never came. Edward had summoned his lawyer, Sir Walter Monckton, to his room at Fort Belvedere and told him of his decision. The next day, Churchill, unaware that the decision had been made, was shouted down in the Commons when he tried to argue that no pistol should be held at the King’s head.
Meanwhile, events began to move more swiftly at Windsor. At a dinner at Fort Belvedere on Tuesday 8th, attended by several men, including the King’s brothers, Albert Duke of York and George Duke of Kent and the prime minister, Edward made it clear he had already made up his mind. Baldwin had arrived with a suitcase, ready for lengthy negotiations. For a moment, the King was horrified at the prospect of his PM staying the night. According to Baldwin’s account, before they sat down, the King merely walked up and down the room saying, “This is the most wonderful woman in the world.”
The Duke of York’s account reported his astonishment as his brother, the life and soul of the party, told Baldwin things he was sure he had never heard before about unemployment in south Wales. Edward may have felt that this was, at least, some small way in which he could honour his Dowlais declaration before departing. Apparently, the Duke turned to Walter Monckton and whispered, this is the man we are going to lose. Monckton later wrote that his lawyer’s acumen probably prevented him from retorting, ‘and this is exactly why we are going to lose him… because he makes the politicians feel uncomfortable.‘ The Duke was in a sombre mood and wrote that it was a dinner ‘that I am never likely to forget.’ On each of the following days, crowds gathered in Whitehall, waiting for news (see below).
Wallis in Wonderland & Peter Pan:
The contemporary journalist and commentator René Cutforth wrote forty years later that his remark, “something must be done” (as it was wrongly reported) to an unemployed steel worker in Dowlais, had indeed been made to the umbrage of the politicians, who wanted none of that sort of talk. To that one sentence, he owed most of his reputation among them as ‘irresponsible’. But while the remark may have sealed his fate as far as Chamberlain and others in the cabinet were concerned, the King had left Baldwin in no doubt about his determination to marry Wallis Simpson. Cutforth made an interesting comment on this:
Millions of words have been written in explanation of this world-shaking affair, and American friends of mine cling to this day to the theory that only some shared sexual deviation could explain Edward’s insistence on a world well lost for love. In the Thirties we thought Freud could explain everything… It was, in fact, a simple case of delayed adolescent romantic love… Ernest Simpson… knew this well enough: he used to refer to the Prince of Wales as ‘Peter Pan’. Years later Wallis wrote of Edward:
“Over and above the charm of his personality and the warmth of his manner, he was the open sesame to a new and glittering world that excited me as nothing in my life had done before… All I can say that it was like being Wallis in Wonderland.”
Writing one of the earliest biographies of Edward VIII in 1937, Hector Bolitho also emphasised the adolescent ‘flaws’ in the Prince of Wales’ personality as the fundamental cause of the insoluble problems which led to his abdication. He wrote:
Frequent chastening made the Prince of Wales secretive, stubborn and more self-willed than ever. Still in tune with his generation, he came to look upon his father, the Archbishop and some of the older Ministers as a critical and unsympathetic company, designed to frustrate his natural eagerness. He therefore made his own life as he wished. It took him into three worlds. One was in the circle of friends which he gathered around him, often to the distress of his father, who suspected their influence. …
For some sad reason their eldest son was not equipped with this power to judge, and early in his life he was inclined to gather about him those people whose familiar manner made it easy to talk with them, rather than those whose loyalty and respect made their manner seem reserved. This incongruity first showed itself during his American and Dominion tours … when his official duties were ended he often sought his pleasure in society which was unsuited to the needs of the heir to the throne. It was as if the burden was so heavy for him that when he needed relaxation he needed relaxation he ran to the extreme of gay and casual people whose objects in life were different from his own.Hector Bolitho (1937), King Edward VIII, pp. 210, 225.
While the King was making and announcing his decision to his brothers and the prime minister, Wallis had remained in the relative safety of Cannes, from where she issued a statement that she would be willing, if such action would resolve the problem, to withdraw forthwith from a situation that has been rendered unhappy and untenable. However, Wallis knew that Edward would never give her up and was adamant in his intention to marry her. Everybody who knew the couple knew that Edward was so besotted with her that he would follow her, not just to Cannes, but to the ends of the earth, as he told her later. She may have tried to persuade him during the several hours each day they spent in telephone conversations while the King remained besieged at Fort Belvedere. Clearly, she did not succeed, despite the Daily Mail trumpeting her announcement as marking the End of the Crisis.
Although Baldwin sent Theodore Goddard to Cannes, and he returned with a signed statement confirming that she was indeed willing to renounce her hold on Edward, few believed her to be sincere. Baldwin sent a telegram to the governments of the Dominions dismissing it as no more than an attempt to swing public opinion in her favour and thereby give her less reason to be uneasy as to her personal safety. While the King had received many letters of support, she had received just as many hate messages, some containing threats, and a brick had been thrown through her window. In any event, when Wallis telephoned Edward on Wednesday, 9th December, to tell him of her decision herself, he replied:
“it’s too late…the Abdication documents are being drawn up – You can go where you want – to China, Labrador, or the South Seas. But wherever you go, I will follow you.”
The Last Rites of Edward’s Reign:
The King sat up late that night at Fort Belvedere, thinking over his decision. He could keep the throne – and give up Mrs Simpson; he could ignore Baldwin’s advice, ask for the Premier’s resignation, and rule with (or without) a new Cabinet, or he could abdicate.
At ten o’clock the following morning, 10th December, King Edward VIII signed the Instrument of Abdication, renouncing all claims to the throne forever for himself and his descendants. His three brothers were witnesses, the Dukes of York, Gloucester and Kent, the eldest of which, Albert, then succeeded him as George VI. The established fact, however, that he lied about his personal wealth to exact a huge pay-off, making him one of the richest men in Europe, led to a bitter family split which was never healed in his lifetime, as well as a damaging quarrel with his great ally, Winston Churchill.
Although sympathetic to her son’s emotional state, Queen Mary was horrified by his action. She told him later that she could not understand how, when more than a million men of the British Empire had done their duty and given their lives in the Great War, he could not have made a lesser sacrifice and given up a woman so unsuited to be the King’s wife. She felt even greater sympathy for ‘poor Bertie’, the nervous, shy, retiring brother who burst into tears when his fate was confirmed. The Queen told Baldwin that her eldest son had brought disgrace on the family by not carrying out the duties and responsibilities of the Sovereign of our great Empire.
That afternoon, Baldwin stood up in the Commons, nervously holding some papers, a message from His Majesty the King, signed by His Majesty’s own hand, he told the packed House. He then handed the papers to Capt Fitzroy, Speaker of the House, who read out the Instrument of Abdication in a quavering voice. When he had finished, Baldwin again rose, this time to be greeted by cheers, and now told his fellow MPs the whole story, speaking for a whole hour, referring only briefly to his notes. He ended with the following:
“… My last words on that subject are that I am convinced that where I have failed no one could have succeeded. His mind was made up, and those who know His Majesty best will know what that means. …”Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons (fifth series), vol 318 cols 2186-95 (1936).
He was heard in dead silence, the silence of Gettysburg as Harold Nicolson described it. Baldwin told the National Labour MP afterwards that Edward…
… “could see nothing but that woman… He lacks religion… I told his mother so… I love that man. But he must go.”
Nicolson then went to see Ramsay MacDonald, who talked to him ‘in deep sorrow’ about the King:
‘ “That man,” he says “has done more harm to this country than any man in history.” It seems that the Cabinet are determined that he shall abdicate. So are the Privy Council. But he imagines that the country, the great warm heart of the people, are with him. I do not think so. The upper classes mind her being an American more than they mind her being divorced. The lower classes do not mind her being an American, but loathe the idea that she has had two husbands already.’Harold Nicolson (1967), Diaries and Letters, 1930-39. p.280.
The ‘King’s Abdication Bill’ was passed the next morning because the King wishes it, and so, as Nicolson recorded in his diary, ‘thus ends the reign of King Edward VIII after just 327 days and without a coronation.’ His reign was the shortest in the history of England and Wales since the disputed reign of Lady Jane Grey four centuries earlier and the shortest in the history of the United Kingdom. After a goodbye lunch with Winston Churchill at the Fort and a farewell dinner with his family at the Royal Lodge, Edward went to the Castle. Here, on 11th December, introduced by Sir John Reith as “His Royal Highness the Prince Edward,” he finally got to deliver his broadcast to the nation in the voice of an angry man at the end of his tether, declaring:
“I have found it impossible to carry on the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge the duties of king as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love. … I want you to know that the decision I have made has been mine and mine alone … There has never been any constitutional difference between me … and Parliament … I should never have allowed any such issue to arise.”
His last words were, ‘God save the King!’ In Merthyr Tydfil, the effect of his abdication speech was shattering. The people had lost someone they thought would do something for them at last, so the mood was slightly different from the national response, as John Meredith commented. After the broadcast and a final, warm farewell to his family at the Royal Lodge, Edward left Windsor just after midnight and was driven to Portsmouth (above), from where he left Britain as the Duke of Windsor in the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Fury. From France, he was to make his way to Austria, where he would stay with Baron Eugene de Rothschild until Wallis’ divorce was made absolute at the end of April. After Fury slipped its moorings and headed out to sea in the early hours of 12 December, he spent the rest of the night drinking heavily, pacing up and down the officers’ mess in a state of high agitation as the enormity of what he had done began to dawn on him.
His brother, formerly Duke of York, had been proclaimed by Heralds at the Temple Bar, and later on the 12th, the new King, George VI, left his home at 145 Piccadilly (pictured below) to hold his Accession Council, where he declared his strict adherence to principles of constitutional government and announced that the former King would henceforth be known as the Duke of Windsor.
So, 1936 became known as the year when three kings reigned in Britain. In addition, although the Depression was well past its peak and the unemployment figures were improving, the political and diplomatic sky over Europe was growing darker. The Spanish Civil War had broken out in July, and it was obvious to the Foreign Office that, despite their attempts to appease Mussolini, he and Hitler were drawing closer together, and it rightly believed that Hitler, having goose-stepped back into the Rhineland virtually unopposed, now had his eye on Austria.
(to be continued…)