On December 11, 1936, Edward VIII (1894-1972), King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and Emperor of India (January 20-December 11, 1936) abdicated the throne for a woman he loved –an American, Wallis Warfield Simpson (1896-1986), who was then married to her second husband, Ernest Aldrich Simpson (1897–1958), a London shipping broker. However, the process was a long, arduous one which nearly sparked a constitutional crisis in Britain and of course, changed the course of the British monarchy.
So, why would a King of the British Empire, one of the greatest empires in modern history abandon his crown for a woman? Well, you’ll have to read to the end to get the full story.
Early Life and Education
Although he was educated at the naval preparatory college at Osborne; the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth; and Magdalen College, University of Oxford, Edward wasn’t considered much of an intellectual, nor, at 5’7″, did he cut a powerful figure, but he was said to be quick-witted and free-spirited.
On May 6, 1910, when his father ascended the throne as George V on the death of his grandfather, Edward VII, Prince Edward automatically became the Duke of Cornwall and Duke of Rothesay. He was created the Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester a month later on June 23, 1910, on what would be his 16th birthday.
So, how did a prince with blue blood entangle himself romantically with a commoner? Not just a commoner, an American. Not just an American, a divorcée, who would divorce twice.
How was Wallis able to make a King of England not just to give up his throne but the entire British Empire and its dominion which included Nigeria?
Wallis Warfield Simpson
Born Bessie Wallis Warfield on June 19, 1896, at the border of Maryland and Pennsylvania, Warfield was an American socialite named after her father Teackle Wallis Warfield and her mother’s elder sister Bessie. Her father who was the son of a successful flour merchant died of tuberculosis on November 15, 1896, just a few months after Wallis’ birth.
However, her late father’s wealthy brother, Solomon Davies Warfield catered for her welfare and education where she attended the most expensive girls’ school in Maryland. Wallis’ fine violet-blue eyes and petite figure ensured that she had many admirers.
On November 8, 1916, Wallis married Earl Winfield Spencer Jr. (1888-1960), an American Navy aviator in Baltimore. Wallis had a phobia for flying after seeing two planes crash within the span of two weeks, and she was not fond of her husband’s profession. In addition, her husband was also a heavy drinker, which affected his flying and even caused him to crash on one occasion.
Spencer’s appetite for the bottle (along with the fact that he was often far away for months on duty) meant the couple had an unstable marriage, separating and getting back together several times. While still married to Spencer, Wallis had an affair with Argentine diplomat Felipe de Espil. As a result, the couple divorced on December 10, 1927.
In a short period, Wallis became involved with Ernest Aldrich Simpson, a shipping executive who divorced his wife Dorothea to be with Wallis. They got married on July 21, 1928.
American-born Simpson had become a British citizen during the First World War (1914-1918), and he and Wallis were married in London where they lived an expensive lifestyle. Wallis’ second marriage didn’t get on well and the couple had a difficult start, especially as the stock market crash of 1929 hit them hard. They were forced to lay off a large portion of their staff and Wallis’ mother died shortly after on November 2, 1929.
Romance with Edward VIII
Prince Edward, who would later become King Edward VIII, was a very good-looking man. He had blonde hair and blue eyes and a boyish look on his face that lasted his entire life. Yet, for some reason, he preferred married women.
In 1918, Edward met Winifred “Freda” Dudley Ward. Despite the fact that they were agemates, both nearly 23, Freda had been married for five years when they met. For 16 years, Freda was Edward’s mistress.
Edward also had a long-term relationship with Viscountess Thelma Furness. On January 10, 1931, Lady Furness hosted a party at her country house, Burrough Court, where, in addition to Prince Edward, Wallis and her husband Simpson were invited. It was at this party Wallis and Edward first met. She was 34 while he was 36.
Furness was said to be the prince’s mistress but was quickly replaced by Wallis when the former travelled to New York in January 1934. Upon Furness’ return, she found that she was no longer welcome in Edward’s life; even her phone calls were refused.
Wallis’ husband trusted her and would retire to bed early while his wife stayed up talking with the prince into the hours of the early morning. He would even allow his wife to dine once a week with the prince alone.
The prince in return showered Wallis with gifts, from money and jewelry to expensive vacations. Edward was completely smitten with this American woman who did perfectly well in keeping the secret love affair from her husband.
By the end of 1934, Edward was “crazily in love” with Wallis, attracted by her domineering manner and harsh impertinence toward his position as heir apparent to the throne. In fact, he became “slavishly dependent” on her that his staff became increasingly alarmed as the affair began to interfere with his official duties.
When the prince he introduced Wallis to his parents at an evening party in Buckingham Palace, his father, King George V was outraged, as divorced people were generally excluded from the royal court in 20th century Britain.
George’s relationship with his eldest son and heir, Edward, deteriorated in the later years of his reign. The King was disappointed in Edward’s failure to settle down in life and disgusted by his many affairs with married women.
In contrast, he was fond of his second eldest son, Prince Albert (later George VI, 1895-1952), and doted on his eldest granddaughter, Princess Elizabeth; whom he nicknamed her “Lilibet“.
In 1935, King George said his son Edward: “After I am dead, the boy will ruin himself within 12 months. I pray to God my eldest son will never marry and have children, and that nothing will come between Bertie and Lilibet, and the throne.”
Ascension and Reign
At 11:55 p.m. on January 20, 1936, King George V died and the former prince became Edward VIII. Edward VIII clearly wanted to marry his long-time mistress, Wallis, but their marriage was forbidden by English law.
As per the rule of the Church of England, the King was not allowed to marry a woman who had been previously wed if her husband was still alive—and both of Wallis’ ex-husbands were living. Their potential union was seen as morally, socially, and politically inappropriate.
However, on November 16, 1936, the King invited Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin (1867-1947) to Buckingham Palace and informed him that he intended to marry Wallis but the Prime Minister was opposed to the idea and warned that such a marriage would not be acceptable to the people.
Wallis, acting on the advice of Edward’s staff, left Britain in December 1936 and travelled to France in an attempt to escape heavy press attention. King Edward VIII, as well as Wallis, was devastated by the separation that, with tears in his eyes, he told her, “I shall never give you up.”
Interestingly, opposition to the King’s love life began to mount. The royal family found Wallis’ background and behaviour unacceptable for a potential queen. Rumours and innuendo about her circulated in society that she was perceived to be pursuing the King for his money.
Meanwhile, diplomatic relations between the United Kingdom and the United States strained during the inter-war years and most Britons were reluctant to accept an American as queen consort.
Members of the British upper class looked down on Americans with disdain and considered them socially inferior. In contrast, the American press and public were clearly in favour of the marriage.
Religious and Legal Sentiments
In the ensuing impasse, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Lang (1864-1945), held that King Edward VIII, as the head of the Church of England, could not marry a divorcée as the Church disapproved of divorced people remarrying in church while a former spouse was still living (this would last till 2002).
Lang maintained that if the King married Wallis, a divorcée who would soon have two living ex-husbands, it would directly conflict with Church teaching and Edward VIII’s role as the Church’s titular head.
On the legal angle, Wallis’ first divorce (in the United States on the grounds of “emotional incompatibility”) was not recognised by the Church of England and, if challenged in the English courts, might not have been recognised under English law.
In King Edward VIII’s time, the Church and English law considered adultery to be the only grounds for divorce. Consequently, under this argument, her second marriage, as well as her marriage to Edward VIII, would be considered bigamous and invalid.
The absence of Wallis made the King’s “heart grew fonder” for her and he would not budge in his decision. On December 3, 1936, Edward VIII had a tense meeting with Prime Minister Baldwin who explicitly warned that the government would resign en masse if the King went ahead on the marriage, even if it was a morganatic one.
At this juncture, King Edward VIII accepted that there was no way forward. Forced to choose between love and the crown, he renounced his throne to be with Wallis, the woman he loved.
At 10:00 a.m. on December 10, 1936, in the presence of his three surviving younger brothers: Prince Albert, Duke of York (who succeeded Edward as George VI); Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester (1900-1974); and Prince George, Duke of Kent (1902-1942), King Edward VIII signed the six copies of the Instrument of Abdication:
“I, Edward the Eighth, of Great Britain, Ireland, and the British Dominions beyond the Seas, King, Emperor of India, do hereby declare My irrevocable determination to renounce the Throne for Myself and for My descendants, and My desire that effect should be given to this Instrument of Abdication immediately.”
In a BBC audio broadcast at Windsor Castle the next day, December 11, 1936, Edward VIII, who was now a Prince, said in his speech:
“You must believe me when I tell you that I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as King, as I would wish to do, without the help and support of the woman I love.”
With his abdication, Edward VIII became the first—and so far, the only—British monarch to abdicate the throne voluntarily, and the first to abdicate the throne for any reason since 1688 when King James II was deposed in the Glorious Revolution. As the resigned king had not been crowned, his planned coronation date, May 12, 1937, became that of George VI instead.
On December 12, 1936, the stammering King George VI bestowed upon Edward the family name of Windsor. Thus, Edward VIII became the Duke of Windsor and when he married, Wallis became the Duchess of Windsor.
In 1936, TIME magazine dubbed Wallis its “Woman of the Year“. It was the first time a female had received such an acknowledgment. For the previous nine years, the award had been known as “Man of the Year“, recognizing only men.
According to the magazine, Wallis was “the most-talked-about, written-about, headlined and interest-compelling person in the world.” TIME also noted that Wallis was part of a tide of people and events that were shaking up the calmer United Kingdom and introducing it to a “more or less hectic and ‘American’ future.”
Later Life and Deaths
Wallis’ divorce from Simpson was finalised in May 1937 and she and the former Edward VIII were married at the Château de Candé on June 3, 1937.
No member of the royal family was around for the wedding and they ultimately shunned the couple. The Duke and Duchess lived out most of their lives in France with the exception of a short-term stay in the Bahamas as governor.
King Edward VIII died on May 28, 1972, a month shy of his 78th birthday. His body was flown back to London and was buried without pomp and pageantry. It was a simple ceremony and there was no crown, but a wreath, on his coffin.
Wallis returned to France and lived for 14 more years, many of which were spent in bed where she suffered from dementia, secluded from the world. She passed away on Thursday, April 24, 1986, two months shy of 90 and was buried next to her husband in the Royal Burial Ground near Windsor Castle.
So the love drama which rocked Britain to its core ended 50 years after it started. Wallis and Edward’s love story still ranks as “the greatest romance” of the 20th century.
Even though Wallis never truly loved the King, she stayed on mainly for the perks of royalty. In fact, she seduced the man she truly loved; two days before her wedding to Edward VIII, imploring him to have sex with her. That any lovechild she certainly carried would be the former king’s.
As for King Edward VIII, most historians do not know what the fallen monarch really wanted, even 83 years after his abdication. But one thing remains clear; Edward really was the king who gave up his throne for the woman he loved until death parted them.
- Blakemore, Erin (2018, May 3). Why the Royal Family Used to Forbid Marriage After Divorce.
- Finn, Natalie (2017, December 14). Inside the Biggest Royal Scandal Ever: How King Edward VIII’s Explosive Affair With Wallis Simpson Changed the Course of History.
- Morton, Andrew (2018, February 2). How Wallis Simpson tried to bed the love of her life… two days before she married Edward.
- Pompilio, Natalie (2014). 10 Things to Know About the Duchess of Windsor.
- Rosenberg, Jennifer. (2018, December 6). King Edward VIII Abdicated for Love.
- The Full Text of The Abdication of Edward VIII, January 15, 1937.