The Abdication Crisis of 1936

Despite their strong leadership and excellent example of public service, Elizabeth II and her father, George VI, were never supposed to reign.

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King George V with his sons, Edward VIII (left) and George VI (right).

When King George V died on January 20, 1936 some years after leading Britain through World War I, his son Edward inherited the throne. The times were crucial for strong leadership. Adolf Hitler was on the rise. Tensions in Europe were rising. And the new King Edward VIII was in love with a twice-divorced American socialite.

By the middle of that year, it was rumored that the King intended to marry Wallis Simpson, whom had accompanied him on many events before his accession. However, the fact that she was still married to someone else was conveniently left out of the Court Circular. Instead of spending a summer getaway at the royal Balmoral residence that summer, the couple opted to a Mediterranean cruise, which was widely covered by foreign press. British subjects in Canada and expatriate Britons who gained access to this press were outraged, considering their relationship a major scandal.

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Wallis Simpson and King Edward VIII

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Wallis Simpson and King Edward VIII.

On November 13th, the King’s private secretary wrote to him, “The silence in the British Press on the subject of Your Majesty’s friendship with Mrs Simpson is not going to be maintained…Judging by the letters from British subjects living in foreign countries where the Press has been outspoken, the effect will be calamitous.” Regardless, the King informed Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin that he intended to marry Simpson, who in return warned: “… the Queen becomes the Queen of the country. Therefore in the choice of a Queen the voice of the people must be heard.” This was an opinion shared by most government officials.

The problem with Simpson was not that she was American. It was rooted in the fact that the monarch of Britain (since Henry VIII’s split with Rome) is also the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, which at the time forbade divorced people to remarry in church while a former spouse was still living. Also, Wallis Simpson’s first divorce (in the United States on grounds of “emotional incompatibility”) was not recognized by the Church of England, and therefore if challenged by a court, by English law. Morality saw Simpson’s behavior unfit for a queen. She was perceived negatively by the government and by many subjects, and the future Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain described her in his diary as “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 …”

While the controversy over his marriage to Simpson dragged on, King Edward VIII continued to ignore the advice of his advisers. According to historian and biographer Philip Ziegler, he opposed the imposition of sanctions on Italy after its invasion of Ethiopia, refused to receive the deposed Emperor of Ethiopia, and refused to support the League of Nations. He quickly became unpopular in Scotland after ditching a ceremony to open a new wing of Aberdeen Royal Infirmary to “mourn his father,” when he appeared in newspapers the next day enjoying a holiday with Simpson.

Edward insisted that if the government did not cooperate with his plans to marry, he would abdicate. Startled by the very word, Baldwin suggested three options:

  1. They marry, and Wallis becomes Queen.
  2. They marry, but Wallis does not become Queen.
  3. Abdication.

After consulting with prime ministers of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the Irish Free State, it was agreed that abdication was the only option.

At Ford Belvedere on December 10th, 1936, Edward VIII signed his abdication notices, His brother, Albert, succeeded him as George VI. His name was changed to George in order to avoid having a leader with a German name. It also had people reflect on the life of their father, George V, offering them a sense of stability and continuity with their government in the height of the crisis that made the nation appear weak.

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The Instrument of Abdication, signed by Edward VIII and his brother and successor, George VI (then Prince Albert).

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The new royal family. King George VI (brother of Edward VIII), his daughters Princess Elizabeth (now Queen Elizabeth II) and Princess Margaret, and his wife Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon.

On December 11th, Edward made a BBC radio broadcast from Windsor Castle, no longer king, introduced as “His Royal Highness Prince Edward.”

His reign of 327 days is the shortest reign of any British monarch since the disputed reign of Lady Jane Grey, who is believed to have succeeded Edward VI in 1553.

If you haven’t seen it, the abdication is a primary subject of The King’s Speech.

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