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Edward VIII

Windsor Castle - Edward VIII's abdication speech was broadcast from here in December 1936

Being in charge is a lonely business. People lower in the chain of command may feel frustrated, but at least they know there is some higher authority to refer to in times of doubt. Even if the higher authority does not inspire much confidence, at least they will make the difficult decisions and not you. But at a certain point there is no more authority. Pupils become students, who might become teachers, who might become professors; and professors then have no one left to guide them. MPs become ministers, who might become prime ministers, who are then alone with their responsibilities. Edward VIII's father, George V, was a symbolic, and sometimes practical, higher authority for a number of British prime ministers who had no one else to refer to. There were occasions when outgoing prime ministers came to him for decisions about who should run the country, in situations where political divisions made it impossible for politicians to make the choice. As a constitutional monarch, King George was always supposed to defer to his ministers' advice, but it was the king who endured as a symbol of authority as prime ministers came and went. In a sense king and prime ministers served as a final authority for each other. Inspite of modern views that monarchs are irrelevant, George V, an essentially shy man, bravely shouldered his unappreciated position. Even recent prime ministers such as John Major have talked of the pleasure of going to Buckingham Palace once a week, and discussing government matters with someone who seems above the political fray (see The Firm by Penny Junor). Fittingly a search for authority might be the key to the story of Edward VIII. Edward was no deep thinker or philosopher. He had no time for politicians. Religion has historically been a symbol of higher authority for English monarchs, but religion simply did not seem to mean anything to Edward. At the wedding of his brother George in April 1923 Edward caused a mild furore by absent-mindedly pulling out a cigarette and lighting it on a candle held by a priest. Edward had no deep seated sense that any authority lay beyond that of human institutions, and in his blase way was not interested in the authority of human institutions. But ironically the story of Edward VIII is one of desperately trying to find an authority of his own to defer to, and this authority was to be represented by his wife.


York House, Sandringham, Edward's first home

Edward was born during the reign of his grandfather Edward VII, on 6th July 1893 at White Lodge in Richmond Park. He was the first son of George, Prince of Wales, and his wife Mary of Teck. The child's full name was Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David. Four names represented England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales; Christian was the name of his godfather, and perhaps a nod to religious feeling. Albert was the name of his great grandfather, and Edward was an old English royal name. His name was an attempt to keep everyone happy. The name David was used as the boy was growing up, but for purposes of clarity, I'll be sticking with the name Edward, by which he was later known. Edward was a fairly bright boy, fearful of his father, who inspite of a well earned reputation for kindness in most circumstances, was brutal with his children. Trivial uniform infringements were harshly dealt with. As a young child Edward did not spend much time with his father. This might have been fortunate, if the nanny he was entrusted to had not been what Sarah Bradford calls a "sadist" (see George VI P20). Brought down to the drawing room for an hour a day to meet his parents, the nurse would pinch Edward before he went in, making him cry. This would worry and then annoy his parents who would be inclined to cut the visit short, sending the child upstairs, back into nanny's power. This nanny was to work for three years without a single day off, and eventually left royal service following a nervous breakdown.



Dartmouth Naval College

Early education took place at York Cottage, Sandringham, with a good natured but perhaps rather hopeless tutor, Henry Hansell. Edward was to describe Hansell as "melancholy and incompetent" (George VI by Sarah Bradford P27). In May 1907 Edward was sent to Osborne Naval College on the Isle of Wight, where he survived some early bullying, did well in English, history and languages, and struggled with maths. The young prince then moved on to Dartmouth Naval College in 1909. It was while Edward was at Dartmouth, on 6th May 1910, that his grandfather Edward VII died. Prince Edward's father succeeded to the throne as George V. Prince Edward was now heir to the throne, and the heir traditionally becomes Prince of Wales. Although there had been no formal ceremony for the investiture of Prince of Wales for over three hundred years, Welsh politician LLoyd George saw an opportunity to win some Welsh pride. Traditions were hurriedly invented, which involved poor Edward dressing up in a fairy prince outfit. This outfit was not well received by its wearer: "What would my Navy friends say if they saw me in this preposterous rig" was his reaction (quoted in King Edward VIII by Philip Zeigler P27). This was an early example of an impatience with dressing up and ceremony which was to become so marked in Edward.





Magdalen College, Oxford

Finishing at Dartmouth it was decided that the new Prince of Wales should complete his education at Magdalen College, Oxford. George V insisted that his son be treated like any other undergraduate, but then made sure that this couldn't happen. He was set apart with his own rooms and entourage, lonely and isolated as he would now be for the rest of his life. Edward struggled bravely against his restrictions and thankfully went out drinking a few times, falling down on one occasion and getting a nose bleed. He was not the intellectual type and left Magdalen as soon as he reasonably could without taking a degree.

1914 saw Edward beginning to attend public functions, which he found tiresome and boring. This programme of functions, however, was soon to be cut short by the outbreak of World War One. Edward joined the Grenadier Guards, but was not allowed to accompany them to France. Instead he was appointed to the headquarters staff of Sir John French, where he hung about with little to do. Edward clearly understood the dangers and hardships of the front, but never stopped trying to be posted there. His constant complaint was that he was not allowed to lead a normal life, and almost seemed to beat himself up with punishing physical exercise routines, little sleep and limited food. In 1916 Edward was sent to meet troops in the Middle East, and here the strange effect of his personality began to show itself. In many ways he was a blank canvas at this time, simply taking the views of people around him as his own. On to this canvas people started to paint an idol. Meeting Anzac troops, Philip Zeigler says: "The Prince of Wales had been in crowds many times before, but this was the first time he had experienced the adulation that was so often to be his lot over the next twenty years" (Zeigler P71). The Prince's equerry Malcolm Murray said of the troops they met: "I'm not exaggerating when I say that some of them gazed at him with tears rolling down their cheeks" (quoted Zeigler P70). And yet who was this young man being treated like an idol? He was no great musician, sportsman or leader. Lord Edward Cecil who met him in Cairo said: "He cannot get into a room except sideways, and he has the nervous smile of one accustomed to float... His main terror is getting fat. He adores the Regiment (the Guards) and would talk all day about it. But beyond love of all military matters, an outspoken hatred of politicians, and a very fine English accent when he speaks French, he has no special characteristics" (Zeigler P72). Edward was an idol that millions of people were beginning to look up to, but Edward was just a man, with no spectacular ability. He needed someone to look up to as much as anyone else.

Edward tried to climb down from his pedestal but was not allowed to do so. After the war he travelled to Australia and New Zealand in HMS Renown, and was mobbed wherever he went. Day after day his body and hands were bruised with buffeting of crowds and hand shaking. On one occasion the roof of his car was torn off by enthusiastic admirers who wanted to touch him. Very few people seemed immune to this charm. Even the most republican and left wing of people were won over. The premier of Queensland had originally threatened to boycott the royal visit, but he was to become very fond of Edward, and even chartered a special aircraft to pursue him to the frontier to say goodbye. The prince continued touring until 1925, visiting forty five countries and covering 150,000 miles. In the midst of all the confusing adulation Edward had discovered women. Perhaps in a desperate attempt to overcome his isolation he became fanatically attached to one woman after another, preferring a strong mothering personality. Mrs Freda Dudley Ward, who he met at a dance in Belgrave Square in 1918 became a long term favourite, a relationship tolerated by Freda's husband, a Liberal MP sixteen years her senior. This relationship was to continue into the early 1930s. But then in January 1931 Edward met Wallis Simpson. Edward probably met Wallis Simpson at the house of girlfriend Thelma Furness. Wallis was an American, who following the early death of her father had lived her early life in poverty. Wallis grew up voraciously ambitious for money and prestige. She got out of Baltimore by marrying a naval officer, who she divorced when he turned out to have a drinking problem. She then married Ernest Simpson of the Coldstream Guards, and seemed settled with him, until her meeting with the Prince of Wales. Wallis then did everything she could to win her new prize. She quickly succeeded, and her husband, pleased at the royal link, did nothing to stand in her way. The crucial thing about Wallis was her personality. This is well described by Philip Zeigler: "Wallis respected neither office nor man, and made it abundantly clear that this was so... Wallis was harsh, dominating, often abominably rude. She treated the prince at best like a child who needed keeping in order, at worst with contempt. He invited it and begged for more" (Zeigler P237).



Edward, Prince of Wales, was about to be king as his father's health weakened. After years of moaning about the restrictions upon him, Edward now faced the prospect of being at the top of the pyramid. George V, dour, unimaginative, emotionally resilient, had stepped up to the challenge of his position. He had faced situations such as the crisis of 1923, when Bonar Law had been too ill to continue as prime minister. In the confusion this caused, the king had been the last port of call, and had been required to decide on Bonar Law's successor. Now this role was about to be Edward's. His reaction was to fall into a relationship with a woman who treated him like a naughty child, like his nanny at Sandringham in fact. On 16th January 1936 a message reached Edward while he was out shooting in Windsor Great Park that his father was seriously ill at Sandringham. The king declined quickly, dying just before midnight only four days later, on 20th January. Edward was now King Edward VIII. Even as he took the throne he was throwing his energies into marrying Mrs Simpson.

In the decades following the events of 1936, there have often been romantic interpretations of Edward's relationship with Mrs Simpson. He was willing to put love before the throne, and refused to put up with a lot of stuffy old politicians who didn't like him marrying a divorcee. In addition to the romance of apparently putting love first, some commentators describe Edward as a radical with a social conscience which upset the establishment. A.N. Wilson in After The Victorians presents Edward as annoying Prime Minster Stanley Baldwin by touring poor mining communities in south Wales and saying "something must be done". Edward's biographer Philip Zeigler presents a very different view where Edward simply does not have the staying power to be a real irritation to government. "His periodic outbursts were taken as evidence of amiable eccentricity which could be safely ignored" (Zeigler P182). The idea that Edward VIII was sacked for being too radical seems to have little foundation, and does not fit with what we know was important to him. In reality Edward did not want the job of king, and consciously or not put himself into a position where he could not do it. He put all his effort into marrying a fiercely dominating woman who he knew would not be acceptable as the wife of a sovereign. He rejected all compromise plans. The reality was Edward did not want to be king, not wanting that lonely position beyond which there was no one else. Instead he wanted to marry a woman who would tell him what to do. The inevitable result was not long in coming.


St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle

Mobs began to surround Wallis Simpson's house near Regent's Park. Fearful for her safety Wallis fled to the south of France, taking £100,000 worth of jewelry with her. Left in his house at Fort Belvedere in Windsor Great Park, Edward struggled to finalise his position. Driven by Wallis's endless desire for money, expressed in hysterical telephone calls from France, he negotiated for a good settlement. Foolishly, and scandalously, he lied about his financial position in an attempt to get a bigger payoff. On 10th December 1936 Edward's abdication speech was broadcast from Windsor Castle on BBC radio: "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 duty as king as I would wish to do, without the help and support of the woman I love" (quoted Zeigler P331). Boarding HMS Fury at 2am the following day Edward was taken to France and into exile.

Edward and Wallis married in June 1937 and lived the rest of their lives as exiles, in France, in the Bahamas during the Second World War - where Edward was governor - and again in France following the war. In an age where divine authority had passed, Edward, quite understandably did not feel able or willing to step into the role of semi divine leader for the sake of public reassurance. He found his own divine authority in Wallis Simpson. Long term colleague Alan Lascelles was to say that Edward was completely without any spiritual or artistic sense of any kind. In many ways this was true. But it is also true that Edward took these instincts and focused them on Wallis Simpson. His obsession with Mrs Simpson was described as "insane" in its intensity. After a discussion between Stanley Baldwin and Edward on the evening of 16th November 1936, Baldwin said of the conversation: "The King's face wore at times such a look of beauty as might have lighted the face of a young knight who had caught a glimpse of the Holy Grail" (quoted by Sarah Bradford in George VI P178). The marriage endured, stormy as it was, because it fulfilled a need in both partners. Wallis had her money and social prestige, and Edward had his idol. Edward was finally to die of cancer in Paris on 27th May 1972, and was brought back to England to lie in state at St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle. He was then buried at the royal mausoleum at nearby Frogmore. Wallis was buried beside him fourteen years later.