Wednesday, October 9, 2019

The Abdication Crisis - Part One

In the autumn  of 1936, and around the time of the
Jarrow March, King Edward VIII toured the Welsh Valleys, where poverty and unemployment were laying waste to the remnants of coal mining communities. While much of middle-class London and the Home Counties remained generally prosperous during the Great Depression, conditions were very different in the North and in Wales. The King was deeply affected by his visit to Wales, and publicly stated;  something should be done to find these people work.  This quote was also reported as something must be done, but either way, the King's contribution  wasn't appreciated by the Baldwin National Government, with whom a final showdown was looming over his desire to marry the twice-divorced American, Bessie Wallis Simpson, known as Wallis.  

By December he had abdicated, telling the Empire by means of a radio broadcast that he was unable to discharge his duties as King, on his own terms, without Wallis by his side.  His younger brother, the Duke of York, succeeded as George VI, and the following year the former King, now Duke of Windsor, married Mrs Simpson in what was a rather sparsely attended and sad affair in France.  The refusal  to grant the new Duchess royal rank, (HRH; Her Royal Highness) put something of a dampener on the celebrations, and was, perhaps, the last nail in the coffin of already strained relations within the Royal Family, whose female members the Duke of Windsor famously described as ice-veined bitches.  

How had it come to this?  As Prince of Wales, Edward, then known as David, was enormously popular and was described in the vernacular of the times as dedicated to fashion.  He was outgoing, charming, charismatic and good-looking; a 1930s equivalent of a rock star. He moved in a social circle of which his rigidly straight-laced father, George V, strongly  disapproved. As Prince of Wales, David enjoyed a close and loving relationship with his younger brother Bertie (then Duke of York), and his mischievous nature appealed to Bertie's wife Elizabeth, Duchess of York, (later Queen Mother), who had once written to the Prince of Wales, describing him as so naughty but delicious.

In 1934, David had begun a relationship with Wallis Simpson, who was at that time married to Ernest Simpson, a successful shipping agent. Rumours of this liaison eventually reached the Prince's parents, King George V and Queen Mary, however the Prince of Wales denied any impropriety.  With the prince spending so much time, at home and abroad,  with the still married Mrs Simpson, his royal duties were neglected, frustrating his father, who predicted that the boy will ruin himself in eighteen months after I've gone.  

The relationship continued, unreported by the press yet tolerated by the Establishment, and, it would seem, by Mr Simpson himself, and thoroughly enjoyed by elements of high society.  Upon the death of  George V in January of 1936, David ascended the throne as Edward VIII. 

But it soon became apparent that Mrs Simpson was far more than simply another in a line of married mistresses.  There was a degree of perceived safety provided by the fact that Wallis Simpson was married, but when the decree nisi (first stage of divorce proceedings) was granted in October 1936, and when the King finally told Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin of his desire to marry her, and make her Queen, both the government and the Church of England stood firm in their opposition.

Although it's hard to understand by current standards, the royals, in those days,  were supposed to set the moral example, and having a divorced woman as Queen Consort, Anglican bishops asserted, would undermine the family unit, the bedrock of British christian respectability. The King was also was Defender of the Faith, and at that time the church did not recognise the marriage of divorced persons. 

Sir Robert Rhodes James, author of A Spirit Undaunted -The Political Role of George VI, said;

"...The key moment was when (The King)  told Baldwin, the Prime Minister this, and then he, and not Baldwin, said, that if you don't agree, I will abdicate.  He was the person that first introduced the thought of abdication into their discussion, which was a threat.  And this revealed that the King had no idea whatever, of the Constitutional Monarchy.  The Monarchy is perfectly entitled to argue, to warn, to complain, to discuss.  What he has no right to do, is tell the Prime Minister of an elected government what to do..." 

The King's own behavior during the first months of his reign left himself open to feelings resentment and frustration.  There were raised eyebrows when Wallis assumed the duties of official hostess at a number of functions.  As the King's Godson, David Metcalfe, later recalled; 

"...(Wallis) was soon running the show, and the King did  as he was asked..."

Lord Deedes, a journalist for the Morning Post from 1931-37, described the King's attitude thus, in a 1999 BBC documentary;

"...He was impatient with what many people felt was an important surrounding of majesty...He was impatient with majesty...He was more a man of this age, than his own age.  He began to deformalise the court..."

In stark contrast to his father, the new King was not scrupulously attentive to his royal duties.  Official documents were returned unsigned and with circular stains from wine glasses, and he spent his time largely at Fort Belvedere with Mrs Simpson and her racy circle of friends.   Wallis' own attitude did not endear her; long serving royal attendants were treated poorly, she disparaged Balmoral (This Tartan has got to go) and was disrespectful to the Duchess of York, commenting unkindly about her weight and her clothes. 

The Duchess of York, for her part, was certainly no fan of Mrs Simpson, and her feelings toward her brother-in-law had also cooled dramatically.  She wrote  that the country was different, especially spiritually and mentally, since the death of George V, lamenting the pursuit of fashion rather than tradition.  The relationship  between the hitherto close brothers also became strained, and there emerged two rival royal courts, with very different values.

Although the romance had been reported in the United States, and was an open secret in London society, the vast majority of the British public remained oblivious. A gentlemen's agreement was in place between the proprietors of British newspapers and there was, as a result, no local reporting.  As the conflict with the government deepened, the King was taking advice from supporters including Conservative backbencher Winston Churchill, press baron Lord Beaverbrook,  and the King's  old friend and lawyer, Walter Monckton.  

One proposed compromise was a morganatic marriage, whereby the consort would not be Queen, and any children would fall outside of the line of succession.  The Statute of Westminster, however,  set out in law that dominions must be consulted if there was going to be any change to the accepted rules of succession. Following consultation in writing,  Baldwin claimed that almost all of the dominion governments opposed the marriage, even on morganatic terms. Only New Zealand demurred,  replying to Prime Minister Baldwin that they would respect the Kings wishes, and the government's decision.   In 2013, however, the Telegraph wrote that the opposition to the marriage might not have been as strong as Baldwin led the King to believe, citing (although not specifying) public support in new Zealand and Canada for the morganatic marriage.  Yet Baldwin and the government stood firm. The King remained equally adamant that he would not give up Mrs Simpson, to the dismay of Prime Minister Baldwin, Queen Mary, and other members of the Royal family.  The uncertainty took a particularly heavy emotional toll on the King's brother, the next in line, who, despite cracks in their relationship, remained loyal and supportive. 

Baldwin made it clear that if the King defied his government, the Prime Minister and Cabinet  would resign. The Opposition, led by future Labour  Prime Minister Clement Attlee, would likely refuse to form any kind of government so there would be a constitutional crisis, and deeply divisive general election with the King's personal life and royal scandal the central issue.  

At the beginning of December, following a vague reference to the King in a speech by the Bishop of Bradford, the press decided to break their silence, and events gathered pace. 

A newsreel of the day reported;

"...Ever since the newspapers, which had observed silence for months, first uncovered the soul-rending drama being fought out in the solitude of Fort Belvedere, the whole emotional life of the nation, indeed of the entire British race, has seemed to hang poised in suspense..."
Winston Churchill (1935 Photograph) 

The King had prepared a speech, apparently with some help from Winston Churchill,  to put his position to the British public through a radio broadcast. Baldwin subsequently described  the proposed speech as a grave breach of constitutional principle.

"...Such a broadcast can only be given on the advice of his ministers, who would be responsible for every sentence of it...For the King to broadcast in disregard of that advice, would be appealing over the heads of his constitutional advisers...The last time when this  happened in history was when Charles the First raised his standard at the beginning of the Civil War on August 22nd, 1642..."

And look what happened to him, Mr Baldwin might just as well have said.  The Prime Minister also suggested that the Royal Household's most loyal constituency, the womenfolk of Britain, would be shocked to hear directly from the King of his intention to marry a woman still, in the eyes of the church at least, married to another man. 

Keen to bring the matter to a conclusion, the Prime Minister was no doubt frustrated by the efforts of the King's supporters, including Churchill, to play for time.  Government was being disrupted, and there were grumblings that the Christmas trade was suffering. The day after Baldwin refused the King' permission to make his public statement, Churchill wrote to the Prime Minister;

"...The King having told me that he had your permission to see me as an old friend, I dined with His Majesty last night and had a long talk with him.  I strongly urged his staff to call a doctor.   His Majesty appeared to me to be under the greatest strain and near breaking point...He had two prolonged blackouts in which he completely lost the thread of the conversation..."

Churchill described how, during the dinner,  the King's gallant and debonair demeanor soon wore off and how His Majesty's mental exhaustion was painful to see.  He appealed to Baldwin not to fail in kindness and chivalry and that;

"...It would be a most cruel and wrong thing to extort a decision from him in his present state..."

On Friday, 4th December, the Prime Minister spoke in the House of Commons, and was subsequently reported in the Daily Mirror the following day, with the provocative headline; Tell us the Facts, Mr Baldwin.;

Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin
"...Suggestions have appeared that if the King decided to marry, his wife need not become Queen. These ideas are without any constitutional foundation...There is no such thing as what is called a morganatic marriage known to our law......The King himself requires no consent from any other authority to make his marriage legal, but, as I have said, the lady whom he marries, by the fact of her marriage to the King, necessarily becomes Queen...She herself therefore enjoys all the status, rights and privileges which, both by positive law and by custom, attaches to that position. And her children would be in direct line of succession to the throne...The only possible way in which this could be avoided would be by legislation dealing with a particular case.  His Majesty's government are not prepared to introduce such legislation... Such a change could not be effective without the consent of all the dominions.  I am satisfied from enquiries I have made, that this assent would not be forthcoming..."

Winston Churchill publicly pleaded for time and patience for the King, then on the following Monday, continued his advocacy on the floor of the House of Commons. His attempt at a question;  I ask that there should be an assurance that no irrevocable step...was aggressively shouted down by members across the House.  After words of caution from the Speaker to the effect that he should ask a direct question and not make a speech,  Churchill tried again;

"...I ask that there should be an assurance that no irrevocable decision will be taken until at least a statement has been made to Parliament of the constitutional issues involved..."

But by now, parliament, and public opinion, appeared to be united, and firmly on the side of Stanley Baldwin.  Churchill's question was ruled out of order, and the House moved onto other business of the day.

Link here to part two;


The Telegraph
The Guardian
The Daily Mirror
The Daily Express

Edward and Mrs Simpson (Thames Television 1978)  Additional research and verification  shows this to be a generally reliable account, including speeches quoted verbatim)
George VI-The Reluctant King (BBC Reputations Series, 1999)
Winston Churchill Blog by Bradley P Tolppanen
BBC World Service (Witness)

Photo Credits;

Public Domain unless specified
Edward and Wallis -By National Media Museum  
Edward in top hat ; Bundes Archive Link to Source

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