When George V died on January 20, 1936, Prince Edward became King Edward VIII. However, nobody was to foresee just how short-lived his reign would be. When Edward VIII proposed marriage to Wallis Simpson in 1936, a constitutional crisis emerged in the British Empire.
The crisis commenced in October 1936, when Wallis Simpson was granted a decree nisi—a divorce which would become final in six months—from shipping executive Ernest Simpson, her second husband. Edward VIII told the staid Conservative Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin that he wanted to marry Wallis Simpson and that if he could not marry her and maintain his position on the throne, he was ‘prepared to go’. The prime minister, receiving support from many areas including the cabinet, the hierarchy of the Church of England, Edward’s relatives within the royal family, and the bulk of public opinion at home and across the British Empire, told the king he could not, as King of England, marry a woman who was twice divorced.
On December 10, 1936, after days of wild newspaper speculation about the constitutional crisis, the king abdicated. He could not, as he said in his famous radio speech on December 11, 1936, continue to perform his duties without the support of the ‘woman I love’, and he left the throne to his brother, who became George VI.
Both the government and the media exerted great influence on Edward’s decision to abdicate. The government did not approve of Edward’s bride-to-be simply because she was not trusted. Members of the British government were greatly disheartened by the news of the marriage after being told that Wallis Simpson was an agent for Nazi Germany. It was rumoured that Simpson had access to confidential governmental papers sent to Edward, and the government used evidence such as this to gain support in rejecting the notion of marriage. Indeed, future Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain wrote in his diary that she 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.’
Simpson was perceived to be politically unsuitable as a consort due to her two failed marriages. It was widely assumed by the establishment that she was driven by love of money and status rather than love for the King. This opposition by the British government subsequently led to strained relations between the United Kingdom and the United States during the inter-war years. The majority of Britons were reluctant to accept an American as queen, greatly influenced and persuaded against the marriage by their government and the media coverage they were exposed to.
The media would also play a crucial role in the subsequent abdication of Edward. The British government manipulated the press in order to win the allegiance of the citizens of the dominions. It was Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin’s connections to the media, and Edward’s failure to sway the powers that were in Baldwin’s favour, that led to the Prime Minister’s triumph in the Abdication Crisis.
Religious implications can be seen as the last contributing factor in influencing Edward’s decision to abdicate. In Edward’s lifetime the Church of England did not allow divorced people to remarry in church while a former spouse was still living. The monarch was required to be in communion with the Church of England as its nominal head. If Edward married Wallis Simpson, a divorcee with two living ex-husbands, in a civil ceremony, it would conflict with his role as Supreme Governor of the Church of England.
Therefore, Edward’s reign as monarch of Britain was to be brief, though certainly not eventful. Edward’s refusal to give up Wallis Simpson for the throne led to his abdication in December 1936. He remains the only British monarch to have voluntarily renounced the throne since Anglo-Saxon times. While the government and media may have won the battle in not allowing Simpson to become Queen, this did not stop Edward. Edward was handed the title ‘His Royal Highness the Duke of Windsor’, following his abdication, before marrying Simpson in 1937. Edward and Wallis would remain a married couple until Edward’s death in May 1972.