Introduction

Introduction

 

Edward VIII succeeded to the throne in January 1936 and quickly consolidated the popularity he had built up as Prince of Wales, largely as a result of his war record and his concern for the poor and long-term unemployed.

The documents cover the constitutional crisis towards the end of 1936, relating to the King's wish to marry Mrs Wallis Simpson, an American. The government took the view that she could not be Queen, as she was divorced with two husbands living. The King was informed by the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, that popular opinion would be opposed to such a marriage and he was also warned that the resignation of the government was a possibility. On 16 November 1936, Edward announced that he would renounce the throne.

The King then changed his mind, hoping to marry Mrs Simpson and to stay on the throne. On 22 November 1936 he proposed the idea of a morganatic marriage, (meaning any children of the marriage would not inherit Edward's title) whereby Wallis would not be crowned Queen and their offspring would not succeed to the throne. He accepted Baldwin's offer of formal advice on this matter from Cabinet and from the governments of the Dominions (Australia, Canada, the Irish Free State, New Zealand, and South Africa). Having accepted this offer, he was bound to follow his Ministers' advice.

The Cabinet met on 27 November 1936 and rejected the King's proposal. A telegram was dispatched to the Dominions on 28 November listing the three options that were available to the King: marriage whereby Mrs Simpson would become Queen; morganatic marriage; and abdication. Although not unanimously opposed at first to the idea that marriage was impossible, eventually all five Dominions backed the British government.

During the summer months of 1936, the King's wish to marry Mrs Simpson was given full attention by the American press and in Europe. However, few people in Britain and the Empire - apart from the small circle of the elite - had ever heard of Mrs Simpson, as their relationship had been kept out of the newspapers and the newsreels.

The story finally broke in the first week of December 1936. On 1 December the Bishop of Bradford remarked in connection with preparations for the coronation that the King was in need of God's grace. The provincial newspapers used this as an excuse to refer to Mrs Simpson and they were quickly followed by the London newspapers. By 3 December, Britain was gripped by the story.

Aware of King Edward's popularity with the general public, Baldwin's government sought to use the press to influence public opinion. King Edward himself hoped to broadcast to the nation, appealing for their understanding of his love for Mrs Simpson. The draft of this broadcast is contained in these records, as well as the background to the government's decision on 4 December not to allow the broadcast.

On 3 December 1936, Mrs Simpson fled London for the South of France. From there she issued a statement to the press, to the effect that she was willing to withdraw from the situation and did not wish the King to abdicate.

Winston Churchill was a longstanding friend of Edward and sought to defend his position against pressure from the government. He repeatedly asked for delay and on three occasions in the House of Commons (3, 4 and 7 December) asked Baldwin for an assurance that 'no irrevocable step will be taken before a formal statement has been made to Parliament.' It was feared by the government that Churchill might exploit popular support for the King to form a "King's Party" in opposition to the government.

King Edward told Baldwin that he would abdicate on 5 December and confirmed this on 8 December. On 10 December he signed the Instrument of Abdication. The following day, after a farewell broadcast to the nation, he left Britain for Austria as the Duke of Windsor. He was succeeded by his brother Albert, Duke of York, who became King George VI; the Duchess of York became Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother).

Mrs Simpson had sued her husband for divorce and was granted a decree nisi on 27 October; in normal circumstances, the decree would be made absolute within six months. However, there were allegations that the Simpsons had colluded in the divorce proceedings. These allegations were investigated by the King's Proctor, which meant that even after his Abdication, the Duke was not certain that he would be able to marry Mrs Simpson. Despite these fears, the decree was made absolute on 3 May 1937 and the Duke of Windsor married Wallis Simpson in France on 3 June 1937. Records of the investigation can be found in TS 22/1.

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth initiated steps to deprive the Duchess of Windsor of the title 'HRH'; they also ensured that the Windsors did not return to live in Britain. The background to these efforts and the role of government ministers and officials is contained in several of the files, including the already open Law Officers files.

The visit of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor to Nazi Germany in 1937 is represented in these records. During the Second World War the Duke was Governor of the Bahamas, but there is little about this in these papers.

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor spent the rest of their lives in France and it was considered inappropriate for the Duke to attend the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953. After the Duke's death in Paris in 1972, he was buried; these records reveal the Queen's concern to arrange affairs in such a ways as to avoid any slight to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (HO 290/104). The Duchess died in 1986 and was buried next to her husband.