Today in 1936: Edward VIII relinquishes the throne

Instrument of Abdication, from The National Archives

From Politics in Review, Oct.-Dec. 1936 (PUB 220/81):

In the Commons, December 10, 1936, the Prime Minister brought a message from His Majesty King Edward VIII, which the Speaker read, as follows: –

‘After long and anxious consideration, I have determined to renounce the Throne to which I succeeded on the death of my father, and I am now communicating this, my final and irrevocable decision.

Realising as I do the gravity of this step, I can only hope that I shall have the understanding of my peoples in the decision that I have taken and the reasons which have led me to take it.’

The decision, however, cannot have been an easy one, and it had thrown the nation into confusion and turmoil. Edward’s abdication – primarily to allow him to marry American divorcée Wallis Simpson – created political, constitutional and religious uproar.

A young Edward (1925) (The National Archives)

Edward’s relationship with Wallis Simpson, though conspicuously withheld in the British press, generated what Conservative Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin called ‘perturbation and uneasiness’ across the Atlantic and in Europe. After the abdication, Baldwin spoke to Parliament of the strength of the monarchy and the respect upon which this strength depended; he had told the King:

‘It might not take so long, in the face of the kind of criticisms to which it [the monarchy] was being exposed, to lose that power far more rapidly than it was build up.’

Marriage to Mrs. Simpson would require the British public to accept her as their Queen, and neither the King’s advisors nor the Government itself were at all sure that the public was willing to do so. Nor, perhaps, were the Church of England or the English courts, whose views on divorce may have blocked any marriage between the King and a twice-divorced woman with living ex-husbands.

The situation broke in the British press in early December 1936. Initially stubborn, Edward eventually responded to criticism by telling Baldwin, ‘I am going to marry Mrs. Simpson, and I am prepared to go.’ Other options were considered, including a morganatic marriage (in which the King would have been free to marry Mrs. Simpson but she would not have been Queen) but it soon became clear these would not have been ideal, and the King had to make a decision between remaining King and giving up his relationship and leaving the kingdom to his brother.

The King chose the latter, and by 11 December all the nations of the Commonwealth (with the exception of Ireland, which took another day) had approved the Abdication Bill. The former King addressed his people on 11 December:

‘A few hours ago I discharged my last duty as King and Emperor, and now that I have been succeeded by my brother, the Duke of York, my first words must be to declare my allegiance to him. This I do with all my heart.

…I want you to understand that in making up my mind I did not forget the country or the Empire which as Prince of Wales, and lately as King, I have for 25 years tried to serve. But 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.’ (PUB 220/81)

Stanley Baldwin, Prime Minister during the abdication crisis (PUB 210/1)

The press reacted fairly positively to the solution, although they were shocked and frustrated at the crisis that it had caused. Stanley Baldwin was heralded for his negotiations – ‘his courage and firmness’. The former king’s younger brother became King George VI on 11 December and ruled until his death in 1952.

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