By Arnaldo Teodorani
On the 11th of December 1936, a man spoke on the BBC. Millions of listeners held their breath as he announced his resolve to go forward with a decision which was, and remains, unique in British history: his abdication to the throne. That man was Edward VIII. The reason behind his abdication was his love for a woman that the British Court and the establishment would have never accepted as a Queen: the American, twice divorced, Wallis Simpson.
In today’s Biographics we are going to present their story. One of frustration, unhappy marriages and fraught relationships. The story of how a man and a woman renounced to the British Crown, apparently for love, and of how they were tempted to reclaim the throne by the machinations of their supposed enemy, the Third Reich.
Edward was born on the 23rd of June 1894 in Richmond, Surrey. He was the eldest child of the future King George V, the grandchild to King Edward VII, and a great-grandchild to Queen Victoria, who was still alive at the time of his birth. He was always known in his family as David, the last of his many middle names.
From this youth, Edward was set on a naval career. However, the quick ascension to the throne of his father George V in 1910 meant that Edward was immediately appointed Prince of Wales on his 16th birthday.
Edward had to quit his naval studies and enrolled at Oxford. It’s generally agreed that Edward was intellectually underwhelming, or maybe just not that interested in studying. Besides a good performance with his polo team at Oxford, he had little academic achievement and left university after eight terms with no degree.
At the outbreak of WWI Edward joined the Grenadier Guards. The young Prince was keen to see action on the Western front, like his rival, counterpart and relative, the German Crown Prince Wilhelm. However, the British Government forbade this, for the risk of losing the heir to the throne.
After the war, in January 1919, Edward’s youngest brother, the Prince John, died aged 13. After a long struggle with epilepsy, the young prince had succumbed to a seizure. On this occasion Edward referred to John’s death as
“little more than a regrettable nuisance.”
His contacts with John were so limited due to his illness, that he remembered him as
“more of an animal than anything else”
Edward had to write a letter to his mother, apologising for being such a
“cold-hearted and unsympathetic swine”
Throughout the 1920s, Edward undertook extensive foreign tours particularly in the British Empire, representing his father. Edward also took to visiting areas of high unemployment and deprivation in Britain, during the economic depression of the early 1930s. These occasions made his figure familiar and popular with the press and the public.
His image at this stage was that of a dashing dandy: good-looking, well dressed, skilled at playing polo and flying airplanes. He had earned a pilot’s licence in 1918 and was the first British monarch to ever fly an aircraft.
In the 1920s Edward also dedicated time to another passion. He had a string of affairs with several married women, which cemented his status as the World’s most desirable bachelor. At the same time, his affairs seemed to keep him from fulfilling one of his duties as Prince of Wales: finding a suitable match.
In late 1930, Edward had started a relationship with Thelma, Viscountess Furness, also married at the time. It was Thelma who, probably in January 1931 introduced her to a beautiful, intelligent and witty American friend, Wallis Simpson.
Wallis Simpson was born Bessie-Wallis Warfield on the 19th of June, 1896, in Blue Ridge Summit, Pennsylvania. This was a SPA town where her father Teackle Wallis was seeking treatment for tuberculosis, which unfortunately claimed his life when Bessie was only a few months old.
Alice, Bessie’s mother, was an impoverished widow, but fortunately she was taken in by Solomon, her late husband’s rich brother, living in Baltimore. Solomon also paid for Bessie-Wallis’ education in an exclusive all-girl private school.
As a teenager in Baltimore, Wallis dropped the ‘Bessie’ and was subject to many girlhood passions. She fell madly in love with two teachers and several girlfriends and sent them letters describing them as “beautiful little partridges”. There is no proof that she may have had homosexual relationships, though.
After graduating, Wallis dated many handsome men, despite not being well-off nor especially good looking by the standards of that time.
In 1916, Wallis married an airman called Win Spencer. The marriage was not a happy one. When Win tried to kiss her on their wedding night, Wallis recoiled. Later she asserted that the marriage was never consummated.
The marriage was doomed to failure. Win was transferred to China, where their relationship eventually broke down, because of Win’s alcoholism and sadism. Wallis left the household and went to live with her friend Katherine and her husband, Herman Rogers. Herman was not just a friend, Wallis considered him to be the true love of her life. Although according to her biographer Andrew Morton, also this relationship never evolved into a sexual one.
Later, she met a South American man, Felipe Espil, who also undoubtedly became the true love of Wallis’s life, though she definitely never had sex with him either.
Wallis then moved to England where she married Anglo-American businessman Ernest Simpson. Ernest may not have shared Win’ alcoholism nor sadism, but also this second marriage was a platonic relationship. Again, this is Wallis’ own version as reported by Morton. In London, Wallis became friends with Thelma Viscountess Furness, who introduced her to Edward.
From then on Wallis became a regular presence of the royal social scene and she started to receive letters signed simply ‘PW’ – Prince of Wales.
Wallis and Edward
When the affair between Thelma and the Prince of Wales came to an end, Wallis took her friend’s place. Very early in the relationship, Wallis became indispensable to his household. She organised his dinner parties and went on exotic foreign holidays with him.
Royal courtiers were not openly hostile at this stage, yet they were wary of Wallis’ hold on the Prince. Again, evidence suggests that their relationship was not of a physical nature, and there are questions about the true nature of their attraction. Wallis may have been attracted only by the proximity to power, while Edward may have seen in Wallis, a twice divorcee, a way out from his future duties as a King.
But Edward soon had to face reality: on the 29th of January 1936 George VI died after a prolonged illness. It was time for his Accession to the throne.
The new King did not have any intention to interrupt his love story with Wallis and the two continued to be seen together in official occasions, such as the Proclamation of his own Accession.
At this stage their affair was not widely known to the public, as British establishment did their best to hush up the whole story. But members of the high society had started spreading stories which made their way to the US and other countries. Readers abroad started to collect news clippings from gossip columns and post them to relatives in the UK.
In other cases, foreign magazines carrying the news were sold in London. An article from the Milwaukee Journal, dated 30th of October 1936 tells how American newspapers were mysteriously removed from newsstands in central London. Sometimes, just a selection of pages was ripped out.
After a while, the whole world seemed to be in on the story – except for the British press who feigned ignorance or just chose to ignore the affair. When Wallis finally divorced her husband, a modern-day journalist would have made a field day out of it: this meant that Wallis and Edward were one step closer to marrying. And yet it was covered by a single article, at the bottom of page 10 in The Guardian.
The story of the affair between the King and a twice-divorcée American finally exploded in December 1936 when Bishop Blunt of Bradford denounced the couple from his pulpit.
With the cat out of the bag, and with Wallis’ divorce out of the way, a word started to make the rounds amongst the British Cabinet of Ministers: abdication. As King of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Edward was also head of the Church of England. At that time the Church did not allow for divorcees to re-marry, unless their former spouse was already dead. So, could the head of the Anglican faith violate one of the tenets of his own Church? For this reason, the Cabinet feared that the British people would never accept Wallis as Queen.
Edward had to choose: either Wallis, or the Crown. But actually, at the beginning he tried to negotiate with the Cabinet. He had already proposed the idea of a morganatic marriage to Prime Minister Baldwin, in November 1936.
A morganatic marriage would leave Edward on the throne, assign to Wallis a lesser title instead of queen, and would have revoked rights of succession to any offspring. When Baldwin rejected the proposal, Edward had only one option left.
On the 10th of December 1936, King Edward VIII submitted his abdication to the Government, which was endorsed by the Parliament on the next day. He had become the only British monarch ever to resign voluntarily. His brother Albert, Duke of York, would rise to the throne as King George VI.
On the 11th of December, the now former Edward VIII announced his decision to the nation on the radio:
“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 all know the reasons which have impelled me to renounce the throne. But I want you to understand that in making up my mind I did not forget the country or the empire, which, as Prince of Wales and lately as King, I have for twenty-five years tried to serve.
But 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.
And I want you to know that the decision I have made has been mine and mine alone. This was a thing I had to judge entirely for myself. The other person most nearly concerned has tried up to the last to persuade me to take a different course.”
Wallis was horrified at the idea that Edward would abdicate for her, and tried to talk him out of it. Theirs had only been an affair, not real love. Wallis was still in love with Felipe and with Herman.
But once the abdication was announced, she felt obliged to go through with the charade and marry Edward, now styled the Duke of Windsor. Biographer Andrew Morton reveals that on the day before the wedding, she begged Herman, her one true love, to get her pregnant.
This would not have been possible, as a previous surgical operation had left Wallis incapable of conceiving. In any case, Herman refused her proposal.
Edward and Wallis married on the 3rd of June 1937 at the Château de Cande, near Tours, in France. A Guardian article from the time reports that Herman Rogers was present and very active at the ceremony. He played host to the groom, walked Wallis to the altar and even delivered an address to the press on behalf of Edward, asking for the couples’ privacy to be respected. Based on what we know today about Wallis and Herman, the whole wedding must have felt incredibly awkward for the two souls.
In any case, the marriage was sealed, and the newlyweds left for a three month honeymoon in Austria. Yet again, based on Morton’s accounts, also Wallis’ third marriage remained unconsummated.
For the following two years, Wallis and Edward, or the Windsors, lived mainly in France. The relationships between them and the Royal Family were severely strained. Edward was furious at George VI for refusing to style Wallis as ‘Her Royal Highness’. On the other hand, George forbade his brother to return to Britain, lest he rescind his generous allowance.
The relationship with the Court, and with the Cabinet, worsened when the Windsors visited Germany in October 1937. The official reason for the visit was for Edward to learn more about the regime’s employment and housing policies. In truth, Edward was craving for a princely treatment – especially for Wallis – and knew that the German leadership were all too keen to roll out the red carpet. In addition to that, he saw himself as a mediator between Britain and Germany
During their visit the Windsors met with Goering, Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop, Goebbels, Himmler, Rudolph Hess. They even spent two hours with the Fuhrer and the Duke was photographed delivering a Nazi salute. The British Government saw this as an embarrassment.
Two years later, after the declaration of war on Germany, Edward was appointed liaison officer to the French Army. When the Germans finally invaded in May 1940, the Windsors escaped to southern France, then on to neutral Spain and finally in Portugal in July.
New Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was keen to get the Windsors back to Britain as soon as possible. But the Duke delayed proceedings as he wanted to negotiate a post befitting to his rank and “simple courtesies” for Wallis. In other words: recognition of their royal status.
Meanwhile, the Germans were conspiring to get hold of the Windsors. In their plan, should the invasion of Britain succeeded, Edward would have made a good collaborationist King.
Their theory was confirmed by the intelligence reports flying in from Madrid and Lisbon, according to which
“Windsor spoke strongly against Churchill and against this war,”
and that the Duke was
“convinced that had he remained on the throne, war would have been avoided and describes himself as a firm supporter of peaceful compromise with Germany”
The telegram from Lisbon continued with a sinister note:
“The Duke believes with certainty that continued heavy bombing will make England ready for peace.”
A certain show about the British Royal Family builds on this idea, that Edward may have inspired the carpet bombing of civilian targets in Britain. This is not verified and surely the Luftwaffe did not need this passing comment to inspire their strategic plans.
What we can say with more certainty though is that Edward was potentially pro-Nazi, still believed in the 1930s politics of appeasement and was a defeatist, to say the least.
Churchill was aware of the danger of the Duke’s declarations and so issued orders to keep an eye on him, lest he speak against the Allied war effort to the press. He even sent him a direct warning, ordering him not to mention
“any view about the war, or about the Germans, or about Hitlerism, which is different from that adopted by the British nation and Parliament.”
But the Duke’s delaying tactics continued.
Churchill’s ultimate solution was to get the Duke as far away from Europe as possible by appointing him Governor of The Bahamas. But Edward refused, claiming the Bahamas to be a “third-class British colony” and considered returning to Spain as Franco’s guest instead.
Von Ribbentrop took advantage of the stalling situation and sent an explicit offer to the Windsors:
“Germany is determined to force England to peace by every means of power and upon this happening would be prepared to accommodate any desire expressed by the Duke, especially with a view to the assumption of the English throne by the Duke and Duchess.”
The offer did not solicit an immediate agreement, but neither a flat-out rejection. A German agent reported that the Duchess appeared to be considering this proposal very thoughtfully.
But this was not enough for Berlin. The Germans needed to take the Windsors back to Madrid, to better control them, and so they launched a secret operation, codenamed ‘Willi’ to ensure that the Duke bent to their will.
The head of Nazi counterintelligence, Walter Schellenberg travelled to Lisbon to oversee the simple plan. It involved a threatening message relayed by Miguel Primo de Rivera, a Spanish nationalist very close to Franco. De Rivera informed the Windsors that they had uncovered a British plot to murder them and urged them to seek Spain’s protection.
Eventually, Plan Willi failed. Winston Churchill threatened the Duke with a Court Martial if he refused to accept the post in the Bahamas. Edward was after all a Major-General of the Army, and subject to military justice.
The Windsors eventually left for the Bahamas on August 1, 1940. The Duke may have still been wary of the warnings from De Rivera, as he demanded a Scotland Yard detective for personal protection.
Edward had been physically removed from the war in Europe, but he still managed to score more embarrassing situations. In late 1940, for example, when interviewed by an American magazine, he said:
“There will be no revolution in Germany and it would be a tragic thing for the world if Hitler were to be overthrown. Hitler is the right and logical leader of the German people… Hitler is a very great man.”
As a Governor of the Bahamas, Edward disliked the job, but he did some good work there. The Duke launched initiatives to raise wages for Bahamians and promoted plans to relieve poverty. But true to character, he could not help yet another faux pas. As he addressed these social problems, he blamed them on
“men of Central European Jewish descent, who had secured jobs as a pretext for obtaining a deferment of draft.”
Life after the War
Full reports on the whole relationship between the Windsors and Nazi Germany were collected after the War in the so-called Windsor File. Most of it, however, remains classified, and for the moment we will not know the full extent of the Duke’s sympathy or even collaboration with the regime.
What we have, are his public declarations and interviews. In the 1950s he blamed WWII on
“anti-appeasement politicians in Britain, Roosevelt and the Jews”
In 1966 he told an American newspaper the believed the UK should not have intervened.
“I thought the rest of us could be fence sitters while the Nazis and the Reds slogged it out,”
And privately, he expressed the view that
“I never thought Hitler was such a bad chap,”
After the war the Windsors lived between the US and France. On the outside, it appeared as if Wallis and the former king lived a happy life of leisure, thanks to the allowance still granted to them.
But the reality was not as it seemed, as Andrew Morton has uncovered by reviewing Wallis’ letters.
Edward was always besotted, completely infatuated with her. Wallis always treated him with deference and respect, at least in public. She always referred to him as ‘the Duke’ and called him ‘Sir’ in public. But in private, things were very different.
She spent her days being unpleasant to all those around her, and treated with harsh coldness especially her husband, to whom she denied any intimate contact. He would often say to her, ‘Am I going to go to bed in tears again tonight?’
According to Morton, all they shared in later life was
“a mutual interest in golf, fascism and casual racism”
Wallis never forgot her first true loves, for Felipe, but especially for Herman. Many of the letters uncovered by Morton, in fact are addressed to him. When Herman and Felipe died, Wallis was devastated, and she retreated from the world paying little to no attention to her husband.
Edward paid only short visits to Britain after the War, mainly to attend funerals of family members. His relationship with the Royal Family remained strained and distant. His health deteriorated and in the early 1970s Edward was diagnosed with throat cancer.
During his dying moments, on the 28th of May 1972, the former King was being comforted by a nurse. With his last breath he whispered
‘Wallis, Wallis and Wallis,’
But Wallis was not there. Edward died in the arms of a stranger, rather than the woman for whom he had abdicated.
After the Duke’s death, Wallis settled in Paris. Once a known socialite, described as one of the best dressed women in the world, Wallis retreated from the world and stopped entertaining. She died of coronary heart disease on the 24th of April 1986. Without any heirs nor relatives, she left her estate to the Pasteur research institute.
What if … ?
And so ends one of the saddest personal stories of the XXth Century. As Wallis and Edward’s lives have been told on film many times I will not ask you to suggest a cast for yet another biopic. But rather to consider this: considering what we know about Edward’s pro-appeasement and potentially pro-Nazi stance, what would have happened if he had not abdicated? Could an extended reign of Edward VIII have changed the course of history? How would have WWII played out in such a scenario? Please post your alternative histories in the comments …. And as usual, thank you for watching.