Why you should care
Because where would we be without Queen Elizabeth II?
At a dinner party in 1936, Winston Churchill provocatively asked why King Edward shouldn’t be allowed to have his “cutie.” His reference to the infamous Wallis Simpson prompted a quick reply from playwright and actor Noël Coward. “Because England doesn’t wish for a Queen Cutie,” the polymath said, summing up the establishment’s view.
Posh British circles were clued in, along with much of America, but many of Edward VIII’s countrypeople — thanks to a gentleman’s agreement with the press — were still in the dark. Their new king was in love with a sharp-witted American divorcée, and Britain was in the midst of a royally painful year. King George V had died in January, succeeded by his popular eldest son, and many assumed all was well. But a third king would ascend to the throne before the year was out, and what could’ve proved an annus horribilis for the monarchy ended on a surprisingly positive note.
Being common, adulterous and having two failed marriages was simply too much.
Just months before George V’s death, unaware that his days were numbered, the nation was awash in Silver Jubilee commemorations honoring a monarch who had guided the nation through World War I and the Easter Rising. When Edward inherited his father’s throne, newspapers heralded him as a king well-suited for the modern era. Good-looking and charismatic, he was as confident as his younger brother Albert was awkward. But aristocratic circles knew Edward was prone to philandering, breaking tradition and being flippant — all of which had angered his father, who eerily predicted that the “boy will ruin himself in 12 months.” “He had many affairs, and his brother’s wife, [eventually] the Queen Mother, frowned on his erratic behavior,” says Arianne Chernock, an associate professor of history at Boston University, noting that Simpson was still married when Edward began courting her and would soon be twice divorced. An adulterous commoner with two failed marriages was simply too much — leaving the royal family, Chernock says, to wrestle with the fact that the eldest son was perhaps not the most fit to be sovereign.
“You get what you get and you don’t get upset,” Chernock jokes about the predicament. But folks did get upset. What many have forgotten, says UCLA history professor Margaret Jacob, is that “the movement to get rid of [Edward] started in the Anglican church.” Alfred Blunt, Bishop of Bradford and former Derby vicar, broke the English media’s silence by publicly encouraging Edward to understand how much he needed the grace of God to reign. George V had expressed his doubts about his son to both Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and Archbishop of Canterbury Cosmo Lang, but it wasn’t until headlines hit the British press, alongside news that Edward intended to marry Simpson, that a constitutional crisis erupted.
“We don’t think of the Church of England as powerful, but in the ’30s, [it was] still a force to be reckoned with,” Jacob says. Divorce was “contrary to the teaching of the Church of England,” writes Princeton University’s David Cannadine in History in Our Time, noting how it was that very faith the king had to uphold. Lang and Baldwin, according to Robert Beaken in Cosmo Lang: Archbishop in War and Crisis, “shared a hope that Edward VIII would abdicate,” and both “worked to ease him from the throne.” Others were also concerned, not only by Edward’s character but also by his friendly approach toward Germany. Without Simpson, says Jacob, “it would’ve been hard to get [Edward VIII] to do anything other than reign,” and if he had acted on any Nazi sympathies, then “all bets would’ve been off.” Meetings with Baldwin and the Cabinet, and a letter of warning from his private secretary, Sir Alexander Hardinge, ultimately persuaded Edward to abdicate, which he did on Dec. 10, 1936, ushering in the reign of George VI, father to Queen Elizabeth II.
Noël Coward would later joke that statues of Simpson should be erected throughout the land in gratitude for saving the country. And indeed there has been plenty of speculation about what Edward VIII’s continued reign would’ve done to the sanctity of the monarchy, not to mention the possible fallout from his rapport with Hitler, whom he visited in 1937. But perhaps Coward summed it up best in a letter to a friend a few days after the abdication, in which he applauded the Yorks for taking the reins. “They will be steady and gracious and dignified, which, after all, is all that is required.”