Seventy-six years ago Britain witnessed an astonishing event that forever changed perceptions of the royal family and altered history in ways that still have not been fully determined.
King Edward VIII abdicated -- the only British monarch ever to do so voluntarily -- after less than one year on the throne in 1936 in order to marry the twice-divorced American socialite Wallis Warfield Simpson, "the woman I love.”
Edward, the eldest son of King George V, outraged not only the British public, but also the government and the church -- not to mention his own disapproving family. As the nominal head (Supreme Governor) of the Church of England, Edward was forbidden to wed a divorcee.
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On Dec. 11, 1936, the last day of his brief reign, Edward delivered a radio speech (partially written by Winston Churchill) from Windsor Castle to inform his global empire he was stepping down from the throne.
In that immortal, historic speech, he said: "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."
Upon Edward’s abdication, his younger brother, Albert, ascended the throne as King George VI, the father of the current Queen Elizabeth II.
Edward and Simpson, who married in 1937, became the Duke and Duchess of Windsor -- but they left the country and remained estranged from the royal family for the rest of their lives.
Perhaps more than any other segment of British society, the aristocracy were most aggrieved by Edward’s behavior -- even before the abdication, the blue-bloods were horrified by the young monarch’s desire to modernize the system, to involve himself in political affairs and to do away with archaic policies and practices.
Indeed, long before he became king, Edward worried his parents, who were disgusted by his penchant for entering into illicit affairs with married women, among other infractions.
In contrast, Britain’s working class and poor generally tolerated and approved of Edward’s “transgressions.”
While Britain’s attitude toward Edward ranged from compassion to contempt, Simpson was detested across the board.
Among other things, she was suspected of sexual promiscuity and of seeking to marry Edward purely to gain wealth and prestige. Simpson was also believed by British government officials of either sympathizing with the Nazis or actually working as an agent for Germany.
As the unofficial consort to the king, Simpson had extraordinary access to sensitive documents, marking her as a grave security risk to Britain. (She reportedly also engaged in a sexual affair with Nazi Joachim von Ribbentrop, the German ambassador to the UK and later foreign minister.)
Edward reportedly also held pro-Nazi views – an inveterate anti-Semite (like most of the British aristocracy), the king viewed Adolf Hitler as a respectable bulwark against communism. Soon after their wedding in 1937, Edward and his American bride toured Nazi Germany, where they were welcomed by Hitler.
After his abdication, the former king (now the Duke of Windsor) and his wife lived a peripatetic existence and eventually settled in Paris, where he died in 1972 -- outliving his younger brother by 20 years. He had survived on a small allowance from George VI and revenue from the Duchy of Cornwall estate, the proceeds from some books he wrote and other petty financial enterprises -- but largely shut out from the royal family. Simpson died in 1986. They had no children.
The story of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor remains one of the 20th century's greatest love stories and mysteries.
“While many people weren't alive during the abdication crisis, the story has gone beyond the lifetime of its protagonists,” said Victoria Honeyman, a lecturer in British politics at the University of Leeds in the UK. “It still seems to be of interest to a proportion of the general public, particularly those interested in the royal family.”
Honeyman suggests that after almost eight decades, Edward's image may have been somewhat rehabilitated.
“He is often now seen as a romantic, a man ruled by his heart,” she stated. “This rather sympathetic take on Edward is somewhat at odds with his political views and his widely reported sympathies with fascism and Nazism particularly.”
Edward apparently never regretted his famous decision to abdicate.
“He seems to have remained devoted to her,” Honeyman stated.
“There is evidence that he was disappointed that he no longer got to be a recognized member of the royal family and that he was disappointed that his wife was not recognized and respected by the wider royal family, but they seem to have had a fairly contented marriage, although recently historians have begun to query this.”
Edward's decision also had a dramatic impact upon the life of the current queen, Elizabeth II, whose father suddenly found himself thrust to the very highest seat of power. King George VI died in 1952, at the age of only 56.
“[Queen Elizabeth II's] mother ... was reported to be extremely angry over the abdication crisis, and there have been reports that Queen Elizabeth and her mother believed that the pressure of becoming king contributed to her father's ill health and early death,” Honeyman noted.
Could such an abdication crisis be repeated today in the 21st century? That is, if a member of the royal family who was an heir to the throne chose to marry an American (or any foreigner) or a divorcee – would he or she have to renounce his heritage?
Honeyman noted that Peter Phillips, son of Princess Anne and first cousin of Princes William and Harry, is married to a Canadian, “so it is possible [that ]marrying a non-British woman might be acceptable.”
However, William and Harry are more senior royals than Peter Phillips – much closer to the succession -- meaning that the rules might still be stricter for them. William, of course, married a never-before wed Englishwoman named Kate Middleton, while Harry remains single.
“A divorcee might cause more issues,” Honeyman added.
“Princess Margaret, the younger sister of Queen Elizabeth, stopped dating a divorcee named Peter Townsend, when the romance became public. Both William and Harry are undoubtedly aware of the expectations on them in terms of their wives.”