King Edward VIII is notorious for two reasons. The first, the reason for his abdication in 1936, was his love for an American divorcee, Wallis Simpson. The second, and for the most part unproved, was his pro-Nazi views during WW2. The first is fact but is there any substance to the second allegation?
In terms of the primogeniture rules of succession then applicable, young Edward, or David as he was known to his siblings, would become the next king of England. By the throw of the dice, Edward who was ideally suited to this role for he possessed the common touch was the heir presumptive. Unlike his parents, he was unafraid of being seen by the commoner.
What was not known by these commoners was the fact that Edward, as he was known to them, was a playboy. He had had a succession of affairs some not discrete and some with married women. In contrast his brother, Albert – Bertie to the family – the future King George VI was an introvert but with an affliction that was much more serious. He stuttered. The dice had been kind to George who had no pretensions of ever being king and in fact, strongly desired never to become one.
The social mores of the era were much more conservative. In addition the king was the titular head of the Anglican Church which precedent was established by King Henry VIII when the Roman Catholic Church refused to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.
Edward’s womanising and reckless behaviour during the 1920s and 1930s worried Prime Minister Baldwin, King George V, and all those close to the Prince of Wales. It is reported that George V was disappointed by Edward’s failure to settle down in life, disgusted by his affairs with married women, and was reluctant to see him inherit the Crown. “After I am dead,” George retorted, issuing a sharp rebuke, “the boy will ruin himself in 12 months.”
King George V gave Edward a home in Windsor Great Park. There, Edward had relationships with a series of married women including textile heiress Freda Ward and Lady Furness, the American wife of a British peer, who introduced the prince to her friend and fellow American Wallis Simpson.
It was in 1934 that the dissolute Edward met Wallis who was once been married to an American naval officer but was now married to Ernest Simpson. They immediately embarked on an affair and Wallis became his mistress.
Although King George V and Queen Mary met Simpson at Buckingham Palace in 1935, they later refused to receive her. The prospect of having an American divorcee with a questionable past having such sway over the heir apparent led to anxiety among government and establishment figures.
Upon his father’s death in January 1936, Edward ascended the throne as King Edward VIII. The strict rules of primogeniture did not permit the most suitable of the siblings, Elizabeth, Lillibet to the family, to ascend to the throne. Instead an unsuitable indolent womanising playboy received the honours. But this time it was different. Edward had fallen head-over-heels in love with Wallis.
Far from the prying eyes of the subservient pre-war press, Wallis and Edward continued their affair. In August and September, Edward and Simpson cruised the Eastern Mediterranean on a yacht. By October it was becoming clear that the new king planned to marry Simpson, especially when divorce proceedings between the Simpsons commenced. Preparations for all contingencies were made, including the prospect of the coronation of King Edward and Queen Wallis. This was fraught with many implications including the religious. Edward was oblivious to century’s old tradition as he was intent on pursuing his own course. If the marriage was to proceed, a secular coronation would have to be held. Furthermore it would have to be at a non-traditional religious location which automatically excluded Westminster Abbey.
Finally in November 1936, the dyke burst. Edward invited the British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin to Buckingham Palace for tea. At this meeting, Edward dropped the bombshell: he intimated that he wished to marry Wallis Simpson once she was divorced and hence free to re-marry.
There was not a meeting of minds. In fact Baldwin brusquely rebuffed the suggestion as his subjects would deem the marriage morally unacceptable, largely because remarriage after divorce was opposed by the Church of England. “Furthermore,” Baldwin continued, “The people would not tolerate Wallis as queen as his was American, twice divorced and both husbands were still alive.” Baldwin reminded Edward that as the titular head of the Anglican Church, the clergy expected him to set an example and support the Church’s teachings.
Clearly Edward had expected a rebuff but not as stern as he was receiving. Edward then proposed what he considered an ideal alternative solution – morganatic marriage whereby he would remain king but Wallis would not become queen. She would enjoy some lesser title instead, and any children they might have, would not inherit the throne. This too was rejected by the British Cabinet as well as other Dominion governments.
Edward then upped the ante. He laconically informed Baldwin that he would abdicate if he could not marry Simpson. Edward was presented with three choices by a fuming Baldwin: give up the idea of marriage; marry against his ministers’ wishes; or abdicate. It was clear that Edward was not prepared to give up Simpson and as he had so often done before placed duty second to his personal pleasure. He perceived that in the immediate aftermath of his marriage, a constitution crisis would precipitate causing the government to resign. Edward chose love.
The fateful decision had been made. The die had been caste.
Shockwaves reverberated across Britain, the Dominions and the Empire. To escape the aftershock, Edward went on holiday to Austria while Wallis stayed with friends in France. In many ways, this was not to Edward’s benefit for had he remained in England, he would have been aware of the deep hurt and sense of betrayal that his act had fomented.
With Edward’s words to the Nation “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” still ringing in their ears, his brother Albert, Bertie to the family, the heir presumptive, now became King George VI to the British and Empire subjects.
Albert with his stutter and introverted nature also did not possess the proclivities of a King but with the assiduous assistance of his wife, he overcame both disabilities.
Letters Patent dated May 1937 re-conferred the “title, style, or attribute of Royal Highness” upon the Duke of Windsor, the ex-King Edward VIII, but specifically stated that “his wife and descendants, if any, shall not hold said title or attribute“.
This was the commencement of bitter series of acrimonious fights with the British establishment as it later came to be known. What particularly irked Edward was the uncompromising stance based upon tradition – court and civil – and morality. Unlike his brother, Albert would uphold these traditions as a sacred duty much to Edward’s chagrin.
Edward had expected a lenient judgement, not anticipating the backlash that ensued after his decision. For this he unfairly blamed his brother, the King. This enmity would be life-long despite Albert laboriously elaborating his predicament as upholder of the faith and tradition in England.
Edward and Wallis were forced into exile. Most of the rest of their lives were spent in lonely exile in France combined with frequent sojourns in the United States.
How did Edward get tarnished with a pro-Nazi brush?
The evidence in support of this contention rests largely upon an ill-conceived action of Edward. Against the advice of the British government, Edward accepted an invitation by Adolf Hitler to a state visit of Germany. Just as imprudent was Edward’s ill-considered decision to meet Hitler at his mountain retreat in the Obersaltzberg. It was during this visit that the only piece of substantial evidence of Edward’s proclivities came to the fore. He was photographed giving what is claimed to be full Nazi salutes even though many of them appear to be more of a wave with an extended arm.
Whatever the truth of the assertion regarding the wave / Nazi salute, Edward favoured Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement. Moreover he favoured the right wing as a bulwark against Communism as did the German electorate.
The final piece of evidence of his Nazi sympathies relates to the fact that he stayed with a known Nazi sympathiser in Portugal when he fled France on the Nazi invasion of France. Personally I place little credence on this as evidence as the selection was made by the British Embassy.
Despite latent Nazi sympathies, I contend that Edward was every inch a British patriot and never was involved in any plot to place a Nazi government in power in Britain.
Edward died in 1972 and Wallis 14 years thereafter in 1986.
It is only in death that Wallis Simpson’s exile ended as she was interred alongside her husband at the Royal Burial Ground.
Edward had paid the ultimate sacrifice for his love of a woman. For his whole life he displayed a deep-seated longing to live in Britain and perhaps, more importantly, for his wife Wallis to be accepted by the British public.
It is only with the passage of time and the changing social mores that have permitted that acceptance.
During his lifetime, Edward had to endure these travails in exile outside his beloved green verdant fields of England.
For the most part, despite the glitz and glamour of his indolent lifestyle, Edward felt unfulfilled. A vacuum existed within his soul which he could not dispel. Wallis was a comfort and soul mate, but would never fill that void that his ultimate sacrifice entailed.
Much like unrequited love, his desire for his decision to abdicate and marry Wallis to be accepted was never reciprocated by the British. For that he was deeply anguished and distressed his whole life.