Eighty years ago today Edward, the former Prince of Wales, should have been crowned King Edward VIII. But events did not work out as the nation, or the world, expected. Instead, his younger brother, Albert, Duke of York, became King George VI. BOB HIND looks back at an event which shook the country to its core and remembers the part Portsmouth played in Edward’s demise
It was always called ‘Sandringham time’ as the King wanted guests up and out early for the best shooting conditions.
One of the first acts by his son Edward, Prince of Wales, the 40-year-old heir to the throne, was to summon the Sandringham clockmaker to set all the clocks back to Greenwich Mean Time.
Prime minister Stanley Baldwin doubted the new king would stay the course. Edward’s relationship with a twice-divorced American socialite, Mrs Wallis Simpson caused great consternation in parliament and within the royal family.
As King he could marry anyone he wanted except a Roman Catholic under the Royal Marriages Act of 1772.
It was assumed public opinion would not approve of a divorcee becoming queen and it was suggested there should be a morganatic marriage. By this, Wallis could become the king’s wife but not queen. Winston Churchill suggested she become the Duchess of Cornwall.
In a statement made by the Countess of Airlie, George V had said a few moments before his death: ‘I pray to God my eldest son will never marry and have children and that nothing will come between Bertie, Lilibet and the throne.’
The coronation of Edward VIII was set for May 12, 1937 but when news broke of his relationship with Mrs Simpson it was cast in huge doubt.
Their relationship was well known in social circles and appears to have been accepted by courtiers, but for the general public it was a different matter. Divorce at that time was deemed a sin because marriage was for life.
Another reason for the establishment’s dislike of Wallis was the fact that she was American.
But Edward was head over heels in love with Wallis and he was determined to make her his wife whatever the constitutional ramifications.
He had become involved with the government of the day and took a keen interest in British foreign policy in Europe. When Hitler’s Germany invaded the Rhineland in March 1936 he made it known to the Germans he was opposed to British intervention in any way. He did not see any danger from Hitler or Mussolini.
He had access to some of the most confidential documents and this worried the government. Sensitive papers usually sent to the king were withheld on Baldwin’s orders in association with Alexander Harding, Edward’s private secretary. In October 1936 Wallis Simpson petitioned for divorce from her husband Ernest on the grounds of his adultery. He had not had a mistress but it was the custom of the time that it was honourable for the man to provide evidence needed in a divorce agreed between husband and wife.
Matters came to head with the king not expecting widespread opposition to his marrying ‘the love of his life’. But he misjudged the public mood.
Although the Daily Express and Daily Mail came out for him, the Daily Herald, Times, Daily Telegraph, Morning Post, Manchester Guardian and virtually all the nation’s provincial newspapers called for his abdication.
Rather than divide the nation, even the empire, Edward decided to leave and at a meeting with Baldwin on December 5, 1936 his decision was delivered. Strangely, he did not inform his brother of this until two days later.
In his diary, Winston Churchill wrote that he dined with the king on December 4 and 5 and the king seemed under great strain and near to breaking point. ‘He had two prolonged blackouts in which he completely lost the thread of his conversation.’ Mrs Simpson had escaped to Cannes in France and the king was distracted by long hours of phone calls to her.
For whatever reason Edward VIII evaded his brother. No other member of the government or close members of the royal household made conversation with Edward’s legally-designated successor about what was going on.
This may be best explained by the fact that those in the know had reservations about the Duke of York. They thought he was incapable of taking the responsibility of being king. The job was arduous and with the many speeches that were part of being sovereign and with his speech impediment, he would have had trouble speaking in public.
A little known fact about the abdication is that there was a proposal by the Independent Labour Party MP James Maxton to replace the Crown with a ‘government of a republican kind’. It was defeated in the Commons by 403 votes to five. Nevertheless there was a suggestion that there were leanings towards a republican state.
Our present queen became heir to the throne on December 11, 1936 when her father, the Duke of York became king.
Ex-king Edward had signed the instrument of abdication the previous day and he made his farewell speech in a radio broadcast that evening. Winston Churchill helped him with the text. The most memorable sentence from that historic speech was: ‘You must believe me when I tell you that I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility without the help and support of the woman I love.’
That evening he left London in a four-car convoy and travelled to Portsmouth. He arrived in the early hours entering the dockyard through Unicorn Gate.
He boarded HMS Fury and, accompanied by HMS Wolfhound, the two destroyers departed about 2am heading for Boulogne where Edward began a life in exile as the Duke of Windsor. He had reigned for just 326 days.
The date for the coronation of Edward VIII, May 12, 1937, was kept, but it was George VI who was crowned.
On the day, London was packed and little was mentioned in the press of the abdication. It was as if the nation wanted to forget the unsavoury episode and start over again with a king who became much-loved.
But he reigned for just 15 years dying on February 6, 1952, aged just 56.