On January 20, 1936, Edward VIII became king of the United Kingdom. He ascended the throne following the death of his father, George V. Edward’s reign lasted for less than a year, making it one of the shortest in the history of British monarchs. Edward’s scant regard for established traditions, royal codes, and protocol made him unpopular with the Church, the ministers, and member of royalty in the United Kingdom. He abdicated the throne by end-1936 in order to marry the American socialite, Wallis Simpson. Thereafter, he spent most of his life in France as the Duke of Windsor.
Edward VIII was born on June 23, 1894 in Richmond Park near London. He was the eldest son of the Duke and Duchess of York who then went on to become King George V and Queen Mary. Edward was baptized Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David, the last four names being in honor of the four Patron Saints of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. Edward was a curious child and a quick learner as a child. In 1907, he entered the Osborne Naval College and later went on to join the Royal Naval College. In May 1910, his father George V ascended the throne. Soon after on his 16th birthday, Edward was created Prince of Wales. He also entered Magdalen College in Oxford but left without any qualifications.
Following the start of World War I, Edward enlisted in the army and was keen to serve on the front lines. When disallowed to serve in the line of action, Edward visited the front line often making him popular with the army and the veterans. Through the decade following the Great War, Edward traveled across the British Empire, through Europe, and the United States. He soon became a public figure and as the press started to call him “arbiter of men’s fashions, a fearless horseman, tireless dancer, idol of bachelors, dream of spinsters.”
Edward’s reputation soon started to sour with his contempt of indigenous people and other British subjects. His unbridled pursuit of women and a fanciful lifestyle worried many members of the royalty. George’s health started to fail and he was increasingly worried about the heir-apparent, Edward’s lack of interest in marriage and about his rebellious nature. Edward indulged in a series of love affairs, most of which were adulterous. “After I am dead the boy will ruin himself in 12 months,” the King said. By 1929, Edward’s unchecked pursuit of romance had managed to antagonize King George V, Sir Alan “Tommy” Lascelles, his private secretary of over 7 years, and Stanley Baldwin, the British Prime Minister. Many of the establishment preferred the prospect of Albert, Edward’s brother becoming king.
In June 1931, Edward was introduced to Wallis Simpson, a charming American woman. While Simpson had divorced her first husband in 1927, she had moved to London with her second husband, Ernest Simpson, a British-American businessman. Simpson and the prince soon embarked into a heady affair that caused much unease among the royals and leading government figures. On 20 January 1936, Edward ascended the throne as King Edward VIII following the death of King George V. His immediate disregard of royal protocols and traditions and what was perceived as criticism of the government’s workings ruffled many feathers. Apart from this, the king carried on with Simpson – an affair that would later come to be called the Abdication Crisis. For the moment gossip about the affair, though widespread in the United States and the rest of Europe, remained undisclosed to the British public as the British media kept silent. In the meanwhile, Simpson filed for divorce a second time. By September-October 1936, it became clear that the king intended to marry the American lady. Edward declared his intention to marry Wallis Simpson to the British Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin. This prompted a crisis since Edward as the titular head of the Church of England would not be allowed to marry a twice-divorced woman. Divorce and remarriage was opposed by the Church. Besides, the people of the British Empire would find the marriage unacceptable.
Edward proposed a morganatic marriage – one in which Wallis would not be Queen but would take a lesser title and children through the marriage would not inherit the throne. The British Cabinet rejected the idea and many of the Dominions were opposed as well. Edward was faced with three choices – to give up on Wallis, to marry against the ministers’ consent thereby causing a governmental crisis, or to abdicate. Edward was unwilling to give up on Wallis. Going against the ministers would cause the government to collapse as they would resign. Edward chose to abdicate – the only voluntary British royal abdication since the Anglo-Saxon times. On December 10, 1936, Edward abdicated the throne in the face of such overwhelming opposition to the marriage. He proclaimed, “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.”
Edward’s brother, Prince Albert, succeeded him to the throne. George’s daughter, Princess Elizabeth, thus became the heiress presumptive. Albert conferred on Edward the title of His Royal Highness the Duke of Windsor. In 1937, he married Wallis in France where he spent most of his remaining life. Edward and Wallis lived a jet-set life in Paris. In 1940, the Duke of Windsor was appointed Governor and Commander-in-Chief of the Bahamas Islands, what might have been an unimportant and disparaging appointment for a member of the royal family. The duke and duchess were, however, pleased. After five years, Edward and Simpson returned to Paris. Edward, Duke of Windsor, died there on May 28, 1972, bringing to an end one of the much-opposed and controversial love stories of the 20th century.
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