Edward VIII – The Once But Not Future King

Edward's affair with American divorcee Wallis Simpson led to such concern in the government that they were followed by members of the Metropolitan Police Special Branch.

Madonna’s film “W.E.”, slated to be released the first week of February, will once again resurrect the myth of the fairytale romance between Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. From the previews, Edward VIII is depicted as falling deeply in love and realizing that he can only find happiness with the married American. During their two years of dating, Edward attempted to introduce Wallis into his inner circle, but he often met with disapproval because of her status as a married woman. With the death of King George V in 1936, Edward became King and Wallis filed for divorce so she and Edward would be free to marry. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin opposed the planned marriage on the grounds that it would jeopardize the King’s position as head of the Church of England. In addition, Baldwin felt that the British public would not tolerate the scandal of the King marrying a woman who was twice divorced. Faced with unflinching resistance from his government and his own family to the relationship, Edward decided he could not continue his reign. Edward abdicated in December 1936, acknowledging his decision in a broadcast to the nation, “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 help and support of the woman I love”. The couple married in 1937 and lived in exile the rest of their lives, stylized as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

Romantics view Edward’s actions as those of a man who made the ultimate sacrifice for love. Skeptics feel that Wallis was a gold-digging American, seeking only power, fame, wealth, and a title. These same skeptics criticize Edward as a man who put his personal feelings ahead of his duty. Since the supposed fairytale of Edward’s life is so ingrained in the public consciousness with opinions varying widely on both sides, it is interesting to speculate about what kind of King Edward VIII would have made had he remained on the throne.  What kind of King would Edward VIII been if he had not abdicated?

While serving in World War I, Edward was exposed to the horrors of trench warfare and visited the troops at the front as often as possible.

If he had remained King, Edward would have felt a strong loyalty to the military and its personnel due to his experiences in World War I. With the outbreak of World War I, Edward was eager to join his contemporaries at the front.  When told that he would not be sent to the front because the life of the heir to the throne could not be risked, Edward replied, “What does it matter if I am killed? I have four brothers.” Not one to give up easily, Edward eventually managed to get himself posted to the staff of the commander of the British Expeditionary Force in France. He learned to live frugally and, despite having a car at his disposal, Edward preferred his green army bicycle as his main mode of transport. Edward’s main duties were to spend time with the troops and to try to keep their morale as high as possible. He often felt ashamed and embarrassed due to his lack of combat experience, but this humility only endeared him more to the average soldier. Feelings of wartime camaraderie remained as he became a lifelong advocate for the military, especially during the post-World War I depression, when he became a strong advocate for jobs for veterans.

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor met with Hitler in 1937 against the advice of the British government.

With the outbreak of World War II, Edward’s strong military feelings were stirred again and he asked to be of service to the new King, his brother George VI. Edward hoped for an important role to support the Allied effort, but due to lingering bad feelings from the abdication and a 1937 visit to Germany where Edward and Wallis met Hitler, the British government had other thoughts. After giving an interview that Churchill deemed as defeatist, the couple was removed from Europe to minimize damage to the British war effort. Edward was assigned the post of Governor of the Bahamas, a position that was a disappointment to the former King.  Despite his poor judgment in meeting Hitler and giving a questionable wartime interview, Edward had the best interests of the military forces at heart and they would have enjoyed his steadfast support.

Edward also broke tradition with his royal coinage, facing to the left instead of to the right.

If he had not abdicated, Edward’s modern thinking and outlook would have benefited the Empire. Edward was a young child when his grandmother, Queen Victoria, passed away. As such, he was less influenced by her than the previous two kings, Edward VII and George V. Edward rebelled against his Victorian upbringing, disliking pomp and circumstance, feeling it was a “waste of time, money and energy”.  Edward’s wartime experience also reinforced his modern outlook. Having met troops from all class backgrounds, he developed an appreciation for the candor and informality of the common man. His contact with American Allied troops led to an admiration of their “can do” spirit, enthusiasm and optimism. From the start of his reign, the new King broke royal protocol by watching the proclamation of his own ascension from a window. The next day, he became the first King to fly in an aircraft when he flew from Sandringham to London for his Ascension Council meeting. After he visited coal miners suffering high levels of unemployment, Edward made the statement, “something must be done”. The statement was received poorly by the government and Edward was subsequently criticized for becoming involved in a political issue. It is likely these are just the start of modernizations that Edward would have initiated during his reign.

Edward in full uniform during a 1922 visit to India.

As Monarch, Edward would have been the most traveled King of his era. Feelings of tension between father and son contributed to King George V’s desire to keep Edward busy with royal duties, resulting in Edward undertaking 16 royal tours from 1919 to 1935. With the rise of social unrest, worker riots and communism during this period, another goal of the tour was to draw upon Edward’s royal magnetism to continue to help hold the Empire together.  In each country, Edward often visited poverty stricken areas to raise awareness and money to alleviate suffering. Unfortunately, it seems that these travels did not enlighten Edward’s attitudes about the native peoples he met, especially when he compared Australia’s aborigines to monkeys, calling them the “lowest form of life I’ve ever seen”.  Had he not abdicated, his role, age and experience would have required Edward become more accepting of everyone in his realm.

In this rare color photograph, Edward strikes a dashing pose.

Edward would have remained a charismatic figure as King. He was handsome, charming and well-loved by the public. Possessing a thin, well-dressed figure, Edward was a fashion trendsetter and was the most often photographed celebrity of his time. He had boundless energy and was often shown in photographs undertaking some sort of physical activity, such as running, horse riding or boating. Edward was also a strong communicator, who easily engaged people in small talk and made witty impromptu speeches.  With the cult of celebrity just getting started during Edward’s reign, it is likely he would have retained his own brand of “star power” as King.

Edward at the opening of Constantine Technical College in 1930.

Edward would have been forced to work harder in the area of charity and fundraising as sovereign. Despite being essential royal duties, they held little interest for Edward. According to one historian, Edward rarely took the initiative in regard to his charity work. After one appointment, a charity secretary called Edward a “pathetic figure” who could not effectively oversee a meeting. Not a social crusader by temperament, part of this apathy may have stemmed from Edward feeling forced into charity work by his parents. Though Edward wrote in his biography that “his services were always most willingly given” when it came to charity work, this was not always the case, as he himself often contributed more time than money. In the 1920s, he contributed less than £1,000 to a total of about 125 charities each year, plus a few smaller donations.

Edward could also be an unpredictable patron who sometimes failed to appear at scheduled charity fundraisers. When he did appear, charities benefited greatly, as his charm and charisma spurred well-to-do guests to contribute vast sums. During one event in 1932, a golfing associate was so inspired by Edward’s appeal for funds that he pledged to eradicate the Hospital’s deficit of £26,000. Edward rose to the occasion during his father’s Jubilee year in 1935, when he earned the nickname “Wales King-of-Alms” for his fundraising efforts. Once he overcome his feelings of parental pressure and found charities whose work he found interesting, it is likely that Edward, as King, would have risen to the challenge of fundraising and charity patron.

Certainly, Edward would have been forced to rehabilitate his image of a celebrity playboy. While he was greatly admired, Edward earned his playboy reputation by avoiding his royal duties in favor of a life of leisure and acting on his attraction to married women.  Despite his affectionate nature, Edward could often demonstrate a mean, inconsiderate and selfish spirit. Edward would sometimes ask his brother to cover for him at a royal engagement. While his brother would discover later that he had been with friends instead of fulfilling his royal duties. As a bachelor, Edward’s private life was a target of much speculation and uncertainty in regard to the succession. Edward was dismissive about his duty to marry and produce an heir, as indicated by his earlier statements about having four brothers who could take his place.

Thelma, Lady Furness, and her sister, Gloria. Lady Furness introduced Edward to Wallis in 1931.

Edward’s relationships with married women, including Freda Dudley Ward and Lady Furness, did nothing to alleviate concern among the royal family and government about the succession.  In 1929, Time magazine reported that Edward had teased his sister-in-law, Elizabeth, calling her “Queen Elizabeth”. The magazine asked if “she did not sometimes wonder how much truth there is in the story that he once said he would renounce his rights on the death of George V – which would make her nickname come true”.  It is possible that Edward could have remained a bachelor King throughout his reign by formally establishing a line of succession through his brother, who would later become George VI, reducing anxiety about the succession among royal family members and the government. Regardless, Edward would have been forced to find a solution to his attraction to married women had he remained on the throne. Whether he liked it or not, the King is a moral role model for the country, and head of the Church, both of whom discourage affairs with married women.

Edward and Wallis remained together until his death in 1972. She followed him 14 years later.

With his short reign overshadowed by the events surrounding the abdication crisis, it is hard to fully predict what the full reign of Edward VIII might have held.  In his autobiography, Edward tried to summarize being Prince of Wales. “The job, as I tried to interpret it, was, first to carry on associations with worthy causes outside politics and clothe them with the prestige of the Prince’s high position; and, second, to bring the Monarchy, in response to new conditions, ever nearer to the people.” Skeptics postulate that this quote confirms Edward did possess a sense of duty, despite warning signs as early as the 1929 Time magazine article that he was uneasy with the prospect of becoming King. Skeptics may further argue that it is possible that Edward had already determined his fate and would have found another reason to abdicate if Wallis had not come along. For the latter day romantics, it is easier to believe that Edward sacrificed everything for love. It is likely that Madonna will not be the last to sell the romance of Edward and Wallis and their story will remain an irresistible draw to those who yearn for fairy tales.

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