It’s the fall of 1936 and the U.K. is in the grip of an acute constitutional crisis reaching right to the top of society. But apart from a select few, Britons are blissfully unaware of what’s going in the highest echelons of royalty. A self-censoring British press has seen to that. But it’s only a matter of time before the story breaks wide open – and it involves the king himself, Edward VIII.
During that fall of 1936, when crisis was looming large, Edward had only been on the throne since January. But even before he had been crowned, there were those that foresaw the possibility of disaster overtaking Edward during his reign. Notable among those who had predicted a calamitous future was his own father, George V.
Keith Middlemas and John Barnes quoted George’s opinion of his son in their 1969 Baldwin: A Biography. Stanley Baldwin was prime minister when Edward succeeded to the throne. Speaking about Edward, George apparently declared, “After I am dead the boy will ruin himself in 12 months.” And this prophecy proved to be uncannily accurate.
George’s beef with his own son and successor was mainly triggered by Edward’s disreputable behavior. Remember, Edward was the great-grandson of Queen Victoria and had indeed been born while she still reigned over the British Empire. Of course, even today, Victoria is remembered for her high moral standards and it seems those were shared by George. But Edward was apparently oblivious to this.
Indeed, the Prince had a reputation as a hopeless philanderer and had a string of mistresses. It was true that the British press could be counted on in those days to keep a lid on Edward’s shenanigans. However, his father George V, Prime Minister Baldwin and Edward’s private secretary, Alan Lascelles, were all deeply concerned by his behavior.
Indeed Lascelles, who was Edward’s private secretary for eight years, had his own withering views about Edward before he became king. Lascelles diaries were published in 2006 and one entry described his thoughts about Edward’s psyche. “For some hereditary or physiological reason his normal mental development stopped dead when he reached adolescence,” Lascelles asserted.
But before we come to the details of that 1936 crisis into which Edward and Britain were plunged, let’s find out a bit more about the man. Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David Windsor – the British royals do not stint on names – was born in June 1894. His birthplace was White Lodge in Richmond Park on the western edge of London.
As we’ve seen, Victoria was still on the throne when Edward was born. His parents were the Duke and Duchess of York. They were to become King George V and Queen Mary after the death of Edward VII in 1910, Victoria’s son and George’s father. As George and Mary’s eldest son, Edward was third in line for the throne after his father and grandfather at the time of his birth.
Aristocratic children in the era were largely raised by paid help with little contact with their parents. One of the nannies who looked after the young Edward was fired for physically assaulting him by way of painful pinches. We can only speculate as to the effect of that early childhood trauma on the adult Edward. But his childhood was not entirely without joy.
Edward’s mother Mary was said to have had a playful side to her nature. Her children – Edward had four younger brothers and a sister – made her laugh when they cooked a meal of tadpoles on toast for one of their tutors. Their father Edward, although notably stern, could also be warmhearted towards his offspring.
Various home teachers conducted Edward’s early education until he was almost a teenager, when he entered the Royal Naval College on the Isle of Wight off the south coast of England. After a couple of years there, and two more at Dartmouth’s Royal Naval College, Edward was expected to join the navy. However, his fate lay along a different path.
In 1910, Edward’s grandfather King George V died and his father became Edward VII. Young Edward, now 15, became heir to the throne and took the title Prince of Wales. He now left his naval course without completing it and went on to Magdalen College, Oxford. No great scholar, he shone only on horseback playing polo and left without a degree.
After his time at Oxford, despite his naval training Edward joined an army regiment, the Grenadier Guards in June 1914. Just weeks later at the end of July, the First World War erupted. To his credit, Edward was keen to fight on the front line in Europe but Lord Kitchener, the war minster, forbade it. It was just too much of a risk to put the heir to the throne in harm’s way.
Although he never fought, Edward was awarded the Military Cross for his many visits to the front and was by all accounts popular with the troops. But military matters were not the only focus of the young man’s interest. He was also a determined philanderer with an apparent taste for married women.
In 1917, for example, in between visits to the front Edward found time to conduct an affair with a Frenchwoman, Marguerite Alibert. At least she wasn’t married, unlike Edward’s next lover, Freda Dudley Ward, who certainly was. Edward took up with Ward in 1918. The Prince’s affairs continued through the 1920s.
In 1930, George V gave his son a house, the splendid Fort Belvedere in Windsor Great Park, about 25 miles west of London. It seems that this stately pile, or Gothic monstrosity depending on your taste, was an ideally discreet place for Edward to continue his womanizing. The prince wasted no time in pursuit of his passions.
Once ensconced at Fort Belvedere, Prince Edward’s many female visitors included Freda Ward and another married woman, Lady Furness, an American who had been born Thelma Morgan. Thelma was married to the 1st Viscount Furness, Marmaduke. And it was Lady Furness that introduced Edward to another American woman who would dictate the future course of the Prince’s life.
It was in January 1931 when Lady Furness introduced Edward to a good friend of hers, Wallis Simpson. Three years later, Edward ditched Lady Furness while she was away in the U.S. in favor of Simpson. The friendship between the two women apparently wasn’t enough to stop Simpson from ousting Lady Furness from Edward’s affections.
Wallis Simpson, born Bessie Wallis Warfield, was 37 years old when she and Edward are believed to have started their affair in early 1934, just a couple of years younger than the Prince. Simpson was already twice wed when she became Edward’s lover, and was in fact still married to her second husband, Ernest Simpson, an American shipbroker.
It would be May 1937 before Wallis and Ernest divorced. So now the future king of England was intimately entangled to a married divorcee and an American to boot. Still the British press ignored this juicy royal scandal. Rumors were rife among the aristocratic classes and others gleaned information from foreign newspapers they happened across, but most British people were none the wiser.
In fact, this attempt by the U.K. authorities, with the connivance of an apparently supine British press, to hide the truth about Prince Edward’s love life caused a certain amount of puzzled bemusement across the Atlantic. In October 1936, The Milwaukee Journal ran a story headlined “American Newspapers Kept From Londoners.”
The Milwaukee Journal story went on to report that no American newspapers were available anywhere in London. As well as that, four pages had been ripped from Time magazine. And all of that effort was just to hide the fact that Wallis Simpson had launched her divorce suit. It seems the British government was prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to preserve the Prince of Wales’ privacy.
In fact earlier in 1936, before that newspaper story was published, Edward’s status had changed radically. No longer was he simply the philandering Prince of Wales. Now he was Edward VIII, King of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions beyond the Seas, Defender of the Faith, Emperor of India.
George V had died on January 20, 1936, his suffering cut short by a doctor who administered a lethal cocktail of cocaine and morphine. Edward duly succeeded to the throne. This changed everything. Although regrettable, the Prince of Wales pursuing an affair with a twice-divorced woman could just about be tolerated by the British establishment.
But such behavior was definitely not acceptable for the man whom was now King Edward VIII, and who was after all the titular head of the Church of England. It’s perhaps difficult for us to understand in these more liberal times just how much of a taboo divorce was in the Britain of the 1930s.
Edward’s parents had deigned to meet Mrs. Simpson on one occasion in 1935 at Buckingham Palace. They did not repeat the experience. And much of the British ruling class was outraged by the relationship. Special Branch, a secretive unit of the London police, shadowed the couple and poked about in their private lives. What precisely they thought they’d find is debatable.
However, it was later claimed that the Special Branch officers had indeed turned up some scurrilous information about Simpson. In 1935, agents are said to have reported that Simpson was engaged in an affair with one Guy Marcus Trundle, apparently a mechanic with the Ford Motor Company. Others have seriously doubted the truth of that allegation.
Bizarre rumors and cruel gossip about the couple were common currency, especially among the British upper classes. Some claimed that Simpson had a sinister sexual hold over Edward. She was said to exercise this control using techniques she’d mastered in a Chinese brothel. But worse than that, it became apparent that Edward was hell-bent on marrying Simpson.
There were others who alleged that the sexual relationship between Simpson and Edward was far from orthodox. One of those was Edward’s official biographer, Philip Ziegler. Speaking to the BBC in 2003 Ziegler said, “There must have been some sort of sadomasochistic relationship…[Edward] relished the contempt and bullying she [Simpson] bestowed on him.”
And people close to George began to give him dire warnings. In his 1961 book The Abdication Lewis Broad quoted from a letter the King’s private secretary, Alec Hardinge, wrote to his master. “The silence in the British Press on the subject of Your Majesty’s friendship with Mrs Simpson is not going to be maintained.”
Hardinge’s letter continued ominously. “Judging by the letters from British subjects living in foreign countries where the Press has been outspoken, the effect will be calamitous,” he wrote. And Hardinge’s words were entirely prescient. The American press reported that Simpson had sued for divorce and that Edward would soon marry her.
On November 16, 1936 George, clearly recognizing how serious the situation had become, invited the prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, to Buckingham Palace. At their meeting the King told Baldwin that he had decided to marry Simpson. Baldwin told him that the British people would not accept this union. And, Baldwin declared, “the voice of the people must be heard.”
And finally, the patience of the British press was exhausted. They cast their caution to the winds after a speech by the Bishop of Bradford, Alfred Blunt. Somewhat obliquely he said that the King was in sore need of divine guidance. This was enough for the newspapers, and the Edward and Simpson story was on the next day’s front pages.
Wallis Simpson now fled England for France to escape further press scrutiny. And opprobrium was heaped on her head. Somewhat ungallantly the American Ambassador to Britain, President John F. Kennedy’s father, Joseph, called Simpson a tart. However, judging by the U.S. press, the American public was rather taken with the idea of Simpson as queen.
By contrast, hostility towards Simpson in Britain seemed to snowball. MP Harold Nicolson claimed that the establishment disliked her because she was American, while ordinary people were repelled by her status as a divorcee. According to Zeigler’s 1991 biography of Edward VIII, leading British politician Neville Chamberlain was one of those who had an extremely low opinion of Simpson’s character.
In his biography, Ziegler quoted from Chamberlain’s diary. Chamberlain wrote that Simpson was “an entirely unscrupulous woman who is not in love with the King but is exploiting him for her own purposes. She has already ruined him in money and jewels…” In fact, Chamberlain’s judgment was contradicted by the fact that the couple were to stay together for some 36 years until Edward’s death.
Edward’s abdication had become a certainty. After some wrangling with senior politicians, the King accepted the inevitable. And for all the terrible press that Simpson had attracted, the King was prepared to give up his crown in order to marry the love of his life. On December 10, 1936, Edward signed the papers that stripped him of his kingship.
His younger brother, father of the current queen, Elizabeth II, now became King George VI. Edward was now styled the Duke of Windsor and he married Wallis Simpson in June 1937 in France. And now the former monarch and his new wife embarked on an exceedingly ill-advised dalliance with Adolf Hitler, visiting the Nazi dictator in October 1937.
When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Edward’s apparent sympathy for fascism made him highly suspect in the eyes of the British government. His loyalties doubted, he was packed off to be Governor of the Bahamas on the orders of Winston Churchill. Some historians have asserted that Hitler planned to put Edward back on the British throne as a puppet monarch. Fortunately, those plans came to nothing.
Edward died in Paris in 1972, aged 77. Wallis Simpson lived on until 1986. Of course, we have a modern parallel when it comes to a member of the British royal family marrying an American divorcee. But it seems highly unlikely that the marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle will ever result in the sort of scandal and unpopularity that blighted the lives of Edward and Mrs Simpson.