King Abdicates for Love of Wallis Simpson

Caught off-guard: the Windsors hear a sad dog tale. Photographer: Richard Avedon. National Portrait Gallery, London
Caught off-guard: the Windsors hear a sad dog tale. Photographer: Richard Avedon. National Portrait Gallery, London

by Ray Setterfield


December 10, 1936 — She was American. She was divorced. She was on the verge of a second divorce. In the UK of the 1930s these factors were enough to drive the Establishment into a frenzy as Wallis Simpson prepared to forge a permanent link with King Edward VIII.

But the couple were determined to be together, come what may, and on this day stunned British listeners huddled round their radios to hear their king of 326 days declare:

“A few hours ago I discharged my last duty as King and Emperor, and now that I have been succeeded by my brother, the Duke of York, my first words must be to declare my allegiance to him. This I do with all my heart.


“. . . You must believe me when I tell you that I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.


“. . . I now quit altogether public affairs and I lay down my burden. It may be some time before I return to my native land.

“. . . We all have a new King. I wish him and you, his people, happiness and prosperity with all my heart. God bless you all! God save the King!”

Edward is one of the shortest-reigning monarchs in British history. He ascended to the throne when his father, King George V, died on January 20, 1936. His coronation was planned for May, 1937.

Edward was baptised in 1894 as Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David but was always known to his family and close friends by his last given name, David.

Charismatic and popular, he enjoyed life to the full as Prince of Wales and was known to have a number of mistresses. Among them was Lady Thelma Furness who, in 1931, introduced him to American socialite Wallis Simpson.

Wallis was born Bessie Wallis Warfield on June 19, 1896, in Pennsylvania. In 1916, she met and married Earl Winfield Spencer, a US Navy pilot. He was an alcoholic, the marriage broke down and they were divorced in 1927.

By then, Wallis had met Ernest Simpson, an Anglo-American shipping executive. They were married in London in 1928. 

By 1934, Wallis had become Prince Edward’s mistress. She was presented at court in 1935 and the couple spent many holidays together.

On January 20, 1936, George V died, and Edward, much to his despair, immediately became King. He hated the formalities that royal life imposed on him, much preferring parties, fun, dancing and generally having a good time.

In October that same year, Simpson, who had filed for divorce against her second husband on the grounds of his adultery, was granted a decree nisi. Edward declared that he loved her and intended to marry her as soon as the second divorce was finalised.

This caused consternation in Government, Church, royal and diplomatic circles.

Apart from other considerations, as King he was Supreme Governor of the Church of England whose teaching then was that divorcees could not remarry if a former spouse was still alive. Edward simply could not marry a divorced woman who still had two living ex-husbands. There was considerable opposition among privately consulted Commonwealth prime ministers.

Traditionally, the monarch would spend much of the summer at Balmoral in Scotland, but in 1936 Edward decided instead to to take Wallis on an extended Mediterranean holiday.

Widely reported in the American and European press, it blew away any doubt about the relationship although British newspapers maintained a head-in-the-sand self-imposed silence. The British media remained deferential to the monarchy, and no stories of the affair were reported in the domestic press.

In December, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin made it clear to Edward that he would have to choose between Simpson and the Crown. He could not have both. Edward chose abdication, leading to his famous broadcast on December 10.

His younger brother, Bertie – who had been created Duke of York – instantly became the new king and reigned as George VI. He was to become the father of the future Queen Elizabeth II.

Shy, stuttering Bertie found his new role to be a tremendous ordeal and he turned to Australian speech and language therapist Lionel Logue for help. Their story is well documented in the 2010 movie, The King’s Speech, which earned Colin Firth a Best Actor Oscar for his performance as the tormented monarch.

The day after his abdication Edward, who became the Duke of Windsor, left the UK and married Simpson in France on June 3, 1937. As the Duchess of Windsor she was denied the style of Her Royal Highness by the new king, much to his brother’s fury. She remained an outcast from the Royal Family for the rest of her life.

That year, the Windsors made a high-profile tour of Germany and met Adolf Hitler. He said of her: “She would have made a good queen.”

The couple continued to live in Europe until 1940 when Edward was installed well out of the way as governor of the Bahamas. They would remain there for five years.

After the war the couple returned to their home in Paris. There, the duke died aged 77 in 1972, while Wallis Simpson died in 1986, aged 89.

** There are many glamorous photos of the couple: Wallis Simpson was always elegant and stylish. But renowned photographer Richard Avedon wanted something different when he met them in 1957. Knowing the Windsors’ love of dogs he told a long story about one that had been run over by a taxi. When he got to the climax of the distressing tale he quickly snapped the reaction of Edward and Wallis.

The result, featured on this page, is considered to be one of Avedon’s most striking works. It hangs in London’s National Portrait Gallery.

Published: November 25, 2019

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