The historical significance of the Abdication files by Dr Susan Williams, Historical Adviser to The National Archives

The historical significance of the Abdication files

By Dr Susan Williams (Research Fellow in History at the Institute of Education, University of London), historical adviser to The National Archives

This is the largest, richest and most comprehensive set of papers on the subject of the Abdication. It contains a wealth of detail that will fill many gaps in knowledge, as well as shedding new light on material available elsewhere. The files provide essential source material for the understanding of relationships between the Crown and Government during the interwar period, in relation to constitutional and political issues. Although some of the material appears in Ziegler's life of King Edward VIII, the fact that he was writing a biography, rather than a study of the Abdication, limited his scope.

The minutes and verbatim reports of Cabinet meetings (CAB 23/86 Vol LIII) flesh out the background to the Abdication and reveal the Government's determination not to let the King marry Mrs Simpson, morganatically or otherwise. They confirm that although Cabinet trusted the King to behave with propriety, they feared that Winston Churchill would exploit Edward's popular support to form a King's Party that would challenge the government (PREM 1/457, CAB 23/86 Vol LIII).

The files contain detailed evidence of the Government's concern to manage public opinion through the media (PREM 1/446, PREM 1/457, PREM 1/459, PREM 1/463, PREM 1/466, CAB 127/157) and to prevent the King from broadcasting to the public to appeal for their support for a morganatic marriage (PREM 1/451, PREM 1/457, CAB 21/4100/2). They also provide information about the attitudes and behaviour of the press in relation to their dealings with Government.

The many telegrams exchanged between Britain and the Dominions(1) (files in the DO series, PREM 1/448, PREM 1/462, CAB 21/4100/2, CAB 127/156, HO 144/21070/1) show that the role of the Dominions in the constitutional crisis was far less straightforward than was suggested by the Government at the time. Moreover, these documents reveal that the crisis had constitutional implications for the political and constitutional future of the Dominions themselves, apart from any implications for the position of King Edward.

The King's Proctor's file (TS 22/1) is rich in new information bearing on the divorce of Mrs Simpson, containing the report of an interview with Ernest Simpson and accounts of interviews with servants about the behaviour of Mrs Simpson and King Edward (see also PREM 1/450, PREM 1/460).

The files of the Metropolitan Police are evidence that Special Branch was watching Mrs Simpson and Edward (MEPO 10/35) and that detectives assigned to guard them were also filing reports on their behaviour to the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.

Government's dealings with the Royal Household are represented in some detail, especially for the period after the Second World War, and there are several handwritten letters by King George VI and the Duke of Windsor. The correspondence reveals that some Ministers and officials were unhappy about the legal basis of depriving the Duchess of Windsor of the style 'HRH' (PREM 1/461, PREM 8/150) and about the wish of the King and Queen to prevent the Duke and Duchess from returning to live in Britain (PREM 1/465, PREM 1/467, PREM 8/1580).

These files are of value not only to constitutional and political historians, but also to social historians. The transcripts of interviews with servants contain information about domestic service and social attitudes, and a set of letters to the King's Proctor from members of the public reveal opinions on the laws relating to divorce (TS 22/1).

These records are also significant in terms of what they do not say. They do not provide any evidence to substantiate allegations that the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were at any time Nazi traitors. Nor do they link the Duchess of York (later Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother) to the events that led to the abdication, although they do show that some members of the Royal Household, cooperating with Ministers, high ranking civil servants, and some members of the press, had an influence on the course of these events.

Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the Irish Free State

Some quotations from the files, identified by Dr Williams


MEPO 10/35
Report by Special Branch on the Simpsons, no date
Visitors include 'Lady Emerald Cunard who is a great friend of Mrs Alice Preston and reputed to be a drug addict. Sir Oswald Mosley is said to have met POW [the Prince of Wales] at the residence of Lady Cunard, 7 Grosvenor Square, W, early this year when Captain H D Margesson, Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury, was also said to be present . . . She is the mother of the notorious Nancy Cunard who is very partial to coloured men and who created a sensation some few years ago by taking up residence in the Negro quarter of New York. Ernest Aldrich Simpson is described as of the "bounder" type . . . Mrs Wallis Warfield Simpson lived at 29 St James' Street, and at 7 Park Place, as Mrs Earl Spencer, she was regarded as a person very fond of the company of men and to have had many "affairs". She was with different men at these addresses.

'Although she now spends a great deal of time with POW it is said that she has another secret lover who is kept by her . . .

'Within the last few weeks Mrs Wallis Warfield Simpson visited an antique shop in Pelham Street, South Kensington, in company with POW. The conversation showed that they were on very affectionate terms and addressed each other as "Darling". A number of purchases were made and orders given for the goods to be sent to York House and marked "Fort Belvedere". The opinion of the dealer expressed after his distinguished client had left was that the lady seemed to have POW completely under her thumb.'

Report by Special Branch, 3 July 1935
'The identity of Mrs Simpson's secret love has been definitely ascertained. He is Guy Marcus Trundle. . . Trundle is described as a very charming adventurer, very good looking, well bred and an excellent dancer . . . He meets Mrs Simpson quite openly at informal social gatherings as a personal friend, but secret meetings are made by appointment when intimate relations take place. Trundle receives money from Mrs Simpson as well as expensive presents. He has admitted this.

'Mrs Simpson has said that her husband is now suspicious of her association with other men as he thinks this will eventually cause trouble with POW. Mrs Simpson has also alleged that her husband is having her watched for this reason, and in consequence she is very careful for the double purpose of keeping both POW and her husband in ignorance of her surreptitious love affairs.

'Trundle is a married man. He was born in York …He was married in 1932…Trundle is a motor engineer and salesman and is said to be employed by the Ford Motor Company. It is not known what salary he gets.'


PREM 1/446
Letter from H A Gwynne, editor of the Morning Post to the Prime Minister, 12 November, 1936
'Being the senior in my profession, I have lately been approached by several of my confreres, who have done me the honour of asking my advice in the difficult position in which the Press of this country finds itself. The newspapers of the whole world are busily engaged in recording every incident of the King's friendship for Mrs Simpson. Some have urged me, as the editor of a newspaper which is the staunchest supporter of monarchical institutions, to break what they term "The Great Silence"… the fact of the subject being ventilated would inevitably open the floodgates which now hold back the sensational newspapers. The result would be a deadly blow to the Monarchy … in such a delicate matter as this, the Press should follow the Government and not dictate to it. Only when the Cabinet have taken action would it be wise and proper for newspapers to comment or advise … my enquiries and conversations with other members of my profession convince me that it will be impossible to expect that this self-imposed silence will last very much longer. The Press in this country is undoubtedly getting very restive. The arguments I have used in the course of my conversations with my journalistic friends are accepted as being weighty and reasonable but each one has asked me the question - "For how long?"'

'Constitutional Crisis, Attitude of the British Press', no date
'For a few days [after the story broke] it undoubtedly led to an attempt on the part of one section to produce a form of mass hysteria in favour of the King's right to a free and unfettered choice. This attempt which in the minds of many [this referring to Winston Churchill and Beaverbrook] sprung from rather sinister political motives and personal ambitions of a very small group, was however very valuable . . . The supporters of a morganatic marriage, as the human solution fully realised this and indeed banked on it in risking their gamble. The knowledge that opinion in the mass was completely uninformed and that they had full liberty of expression proved too great a temptation to an ill-assorted group of men, who, although politically opposed, suddenly found a rallying point whence they could launch an attack on the Government … 'One paper had already decided for itself that the crisis was ended when Mrs Simpson had offered to free the King [in her statement from Cannes]. The Chancellor therefore felt it desirable to warn the press that it would perhaps be unfair to the public and to all concerned if they did not at the same time point out the other possibility, i.e. abdication.'


PREM 1/448
John Buchan to Stanley Baldwin, 9 November 1936
'Canada's pride has been wounded by the tattle in the American press, which she feels an intolerable impertinence. She is very friendly to America, but she has always at the back of her head an honest chauvinism. In this most delicate matter I believe that Canadian opinion is an important card to play, for the King loves the country and the people ...'

Stanley Bruce to Stanley Baldwin, 16 November 1936
'In any action you decide to take I am confident that I can assure you of any measure of support my PM [Lyons] can render you.'


CAB 23/86
Hankey, report of Cabinet meeting of 27 November 1936
That the PM had seen the King on 25 November and told him that 'the Daily Mail was the worst judge in England of what the people were thinking. Whatever view was expressed by the Daily Mail would only mean the opposition of Labour. . . . [PM] had agreed that if the K abdicated there might be a wave of reaction in his favour, but also there might be a wave of fury against Mrs Simpson. All the women would put the blame on to her ...'


CAB 127/156
Meeting of ministers, 2 December 1936
'every effort should be made to synchronise the publication of the [PM's] Message in Parliament and its publication in the Dominions. It would also be desirable, if possible, to avoid a time of publication which would enable the evening newspapers in London to criticise the event in a hostile fashion; and in this connection it would probably be desirable to request the BBC to confine any announcement on the subject to the verbatim text of the King's message and of the PM's statement in the House of Commons, and to refrain from any comment upon them . . . In order that the morning newspapers might be in a position to guide public opinion, it would be necessary for the Press to be informed in advance, and this would, of course, be done in the usual manner and through the usual channels.


CAB 21/4100/2
Report by Sir Henry Batterbee of meeting with de Valera, 29 November 1936
'The conversation then turned to the various alternatives. Mr de Valera somewhat surprised me by saying that at first blush he would be inclined to favour the second [morganatic marriage]. King Edward was undoubtedly popular everywhere including Ireland, and he thought that every avenue ought to be explored before he was excluded from the Throne. It was true that divorce was not recognised in Catholic countries but King Edward was a Protestant and in Protestant countries the attitude to divorce was different. He thought that many - especially young people - throughout the Empire would, in these democratic days, be attracted by the idea of a young King ready to give up all for love.'

From High Commissioner, Canada, 1 December 1936
'I think it my duty to tell you that in my opinion [Mackenzie King] is unduly influenced by what he described as King's obligations to Mrs Simpson and that he is mistaken in suggesting that a voluntary abdication in order to marry her would secure for him in Canada increased popularity, affection and influence. I think also that he accepted too readily the view that King's intention is fixed and unalterable and consequently confined himself to considering which of the three alternatives in that event was least objectionable, without considering fully the disastrous consequences to the British Commonwealth and the humiliation of the British Empire in the eyes of the world and the exceedingly difficult position (corrupt group [of letters] in telegram) new Sovereign.'

From the Governor General, New Zealand, to Stanley Baldwin, 2 December 1936
'The attitude of my Prime Minister is based on great popularity achieved by the King among all classes in New Zealand in 1920. His personality was inspiring and greatly exceeding that of Duke of York's. I pointed out to Mr Savage the great and insuperable difficulties which may arise from adoption of proposal 2 [morganatic marriage].'

Stanley Baldwin to Prime Ministers of Dominions, bringing them up to date, 3 December 1936
Message from PM of Australia: 'the situation has now passed the possibility of compromise, ie, that even should His Majesty not drop the proposal of marriage, nevertheless abdication should take place since in Mr Lyons' view public confidence in Australia is now so shaken that no course is possible.'

The Prime Minister of New Zealand: 'the great affection felt in New Zealand for His Majesty and the desire of the people in that country for his happiness inspire the thought that some such arrangement [morganatic marriage] might be possible. It is understood of course that there may be insuperable obstacles. But if some solution along these lines were found to be practicable it would no doubt be acceptable to the majority of the people of New Zealand.'

Comment by Stanley Baldwin: 'We feel, and we hope that you will agree, that in the circs of the case the less legislating, and therefore the less opportunity for public discussion and debate, the better.'

Telegram from Stanley Baldwin to Prime Ministers of Dominions, 4 December 1936
'A section of the popular press is also canvassing this idea [morganatic marriage]. I feel certain that such a course is not acceptable to the overwhelming majority of people in this country; nevertheless a weekend campaign in favour of it is obviously from every point of view extremely undesirable.'


PREM 1/457
Cabinet meeting of 4 December, report by Hankey
Report of Baldwin's previous meeting with King Edward: 'His Majesty then said, "You want me to go, don't you?" The Prime Minister had agreed. He recalled that the King had told him that he wanted to go with dignity, in the best possible manner for Mrs Simpson and himself and his successor, and without dividing the country.'


DO 121/37
Telegram from de Valera to His Majesty, 6 December 1936
'I have been informed that Your Majesty has had under consideration the question of your voluntary abdication with the next few days. I should be glad to learn direct from Your Majesty for the information of my government what your Majesty's intentions are in this matter since this step could not be effected in so far as the Irish Free State is concerned without the authority of Parliament of the Irish Free State.'


PREM 1/462
Telegram from High Commissioner, Canada, to Baldwin, 8 December 1936
Report on meeting with PM of Canada, Mackenzie King: 'while anxious to be helpful Canada and he would be put in a wholly wrong light if impression was conveyed that apart from communications exchange in last ten days Canada or Canadian opinion had been a determining factor in the situation at any stage any more than another Dominion on or opinion of any other Dominion.'


HO 144/21070
Telegram from Baldwin to Prime Ministers of Dominions, 8 December 1936
'Have every reason for doubting bona fides of Mrs Simpson's statement. Believe it to be no more than attempt to swing public opinion in her favour and thereby give her less reason to be uneasy as to her personal safety.'


CAB 127/157
Notes by Sir Horace Wilson, at 10 Downing Street, no date
'In talking to the PM on the 12th December about any record that he might make of recent events or that we might make on more official lines, I mentioned that it seemed to me that one possible criticism which the historian of the future might be tempted to make, would be that we did not appear to have begun soon enough to bring influence to bear upon the King to induce him to change his mind and that by the time we did take action a position had arisen which gave less hope of success.'


PREM 1/459
Lady Rhondda to Baldwin, 31 December 1936
'. . . in common with most of Fleet Street I believed - and even now find some difficulty in stopping believing - that the public break of the news at the moment when it occurred had probably been arranged for. But I could not share [the] view that there was any harm in this. It seemed to me part of the business of those in authority to arrange for such publicity as seemed wise on such an occasion.'


TS 22/1
Statement by concierge of building in London where the Simpsons had a flat, 3 March 1937
'the Duke of Windsor as he is known now used to come and sit in my office and talk to me as any ordinary person would and I have a great admiration for him. . . . as regards Mrs Simpson there was nothing frivolous about her. She had a sort of command about her.'


PREM 1/463
Simon to King George VI, 7 April 1937
Advises no member of Royal Family to attend wedding: 'it seems clear that if any member of Your Majesty's family were to attend, this would be regarded, and represented, as accepting the future Duchess for all purposes into the Royal circle . . . If, for ex, it is desired to discourage return to this country, absence form the wedding could be indicative of a desire to maintain a certain aloofness.'

Wigram to Home Secretary, 12 April 1937
'the King's letter to his brother was despatched last night. His Majesty has firmly told him that no brother nor sister can attend the wedding, nor will His Majesty allow one of his chaplains to officiate.'


LO 3/1168
Note, Law Officers' Department, 9 April 1937
'. . . We think the wife of an abdicated King who had been allowed himself after abdication to use the title [of HRH] would normally be also entitled, although their issue, if any, we think normally would not.'


HO 144/22448
Notes of Conference held in the Home Secretary's room, 6 April 1937
'The Home Secretary said that he understood that Their Majesties felt strongly on the question whether, if the Duke of Windsor married Mrs Simpson, she would necessarily become HRH, and he had therefore prepared the memorandum . . . Lord Wigram said that so long as the Duke of Windsor remained out of the country he agreed that the matter was not one of practical importance but, if he came here, the fact that his wife was "HRH" would put the King in a difficult position. The Duke and Duchess would start a clique of their own with what would amount to a second Court and this would be bad for the Monarchy.'

Walter Monckton to Sir John Simon, 24 May 1937
'I have been thinking a good deal about our conversation on Friday evening. The more I think of it the less I like the idea of His Majesty taking any active step. I think there would be a real risk of a complete family rift and it might not be easy to damp it down or keep it hidden. And however few they are who already feel that Wallis has had too hard treatment, their number, their temper and their clamour would surely increase if the contemplated public step were taken by His Majesty. Some will feel the weight of the argument used against a morganatic marriage last winter, that a wife inevitably takes the rank and position of her husband. Does not a vital change take place when the lady becomes his wife so that thereafter a blow aimed at her is necessarily a blow at him?

Gerald W Wollaston, Garter, to Attorney-General, Donald Somervell, 25 May 1937
'Regarding efforts to deprive Duchess of Windsor of HRH: . . . I may be wrong, but I feel that up to the present all action taken has been without any firm foundation. . . There may be political objections to this which I am not competent to judge. . . his immediate counter to any adverse action will be to demand to take his seat in the House of Lords. The issue will then have to be raised and the result might be inconvenient.'


PREM 1/461
Memo to the Prime Minister from Sir John Simon, 28 April 1937
'I attach a draft of Letters Patent which, if issued by The King, would have the effect of securing that, upon the marriage of Mrs Simpson to the Duke of Windsor, the new Duchess would not become HRH. . . The King [George VI] in this document formally authorises the title as far as His Brother is concerned and, at the same time, expressly directs that it will not enjoyed by anyone claiming through him. You are aware how strongly the King and Queen desire this situation to be established; I believe Queen Mary also has strong views that it should, if possible, be done.'


PREM 1/467
George VI to PM, 2 December 1938, handwritten
'The more I think about his coming here on a visit, the less I like the idea, especially as some sections of the Press are behaving so stupidly about it.'

George VI to PM, 14 December 1938, handwritten
'I think you know that neither the Queen nor Queen Mary have any desire to meet the Duchess of Windsor, and therefore any visit made for the purpose of introducing her to members of the Royal Family obviously becomes impossible...'


HO 290/104
Report by Burke Trend of plans in case of Duke's death, 16 December 1964
'The Queen and her advisers are anxious so to arrange affairs that no impression is given that the Duke or Duchess are in any way being slighted. In keeping with this The Queen has decided that she would invite the Duchess to stay with her; there would be a period of Court mourning; and flags would be flown at half mast from the day of death until the funeral.'


PREM 15/1184
Edward Heath, Prime Minister, to Robert Armstrong, 7 November 1971
'Some of us have long been worried about various aspects of the Duke of Windsor's position, especially in the evening of his life. I know this is a delicate question. Maybe we could have a word about it.'

Mrs E Smith, 20 May 1972 in Barnet, Herts
'I have been made sad recently by the photographs of the Duke of Windsor looking so frail. I read some time ago that he had made a request to be buried in England. Please, please cannot something be done to bring him back here to live the rest of his life amongst his own people in the land he loves. Also, after all these years surely the duchess deserves to be given the full title of HRH, as the wife of a royal duke.'