Should Edward VIII Have Abdicated?

It was the royal scandal which rocked the world in 1936 – but was the monarch right to choose love over duty?

Edward VIII


If someone asked you to give up your relationship for the sake of your career, would you do it? It would be a terrible thing to ask of anyone. And yet why should Edward VIII have been expected to do exactly that? Yes, being king is no ordinary job, but let's treat this as objectively as possible. Let's consider the basic fact of the matter, which is that a human being in love with another human being was expected to sacrifice that love - a real and deep love - for his job.

Think of the words which Edward VIII used on that fateful day. "I have found it impossible," he said, "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."

The woman was Wallis Simpson, who was deemed utterly unsuitable not simply because she was twice divorced, but because both her ex-husbands were still alive. Doesn't sound so shocking to us today, but in the 1930s it was enough to have people gasping and reaching for the smelling salts. It also violated the principles of the Church of England - of which he was supposed to be the head.

Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, in Cannes, 1939.

Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, in Cannes, 1939.

The king felt the intense pressure of government officials, his advisors and his own family, not to mention the British public who adored him. He knew that he had to give up Wallis Simpson, or give up the throne, or risk triggering a constitutional crisis. There was even dark talk of an uprising by his supporters against the government. Edward did the honourable thing and averted potential disaster by relinquishing the crown.

There's another, more embarrassing thing to bear in mind: Edward was utterly ill-suited to being king. He was a natural born rebel, a decadent playboy and a notorious womaniser with a penchant for married women. Among his conquests were a vampish French courtesan who later shot a man dead in the Savoy hotel - this was the kind of sordid and scandal-prone world he was embroiled in. And he once confided to his own brother, "it was never in my scheme of things to be King of England."

Even his father, George V, had serious doubts about his future, and prophetically said, "after I am dead, the boy will ruin himself in 12 months."

So Edward deserves credit, not only for staying devoted to Wallis Simpson, but for voluntarily stepping down from a position of power he knew he didn't deserve. Abdication was a painful sacrifice which he made for his heart and for the good of the nation, and he was right to do it.


And now the opposite argument: Edward VIII was a misguided coward who allowed himself to be led astray by his emotions rather than prove his worth as king. It's no excuse to say that he wasn't "happy" with being a royal. That's no excuse. We all have responsibilities - his was to be king and to maintain certain moral obligations.

Yes, he despised what he called "princing" and the rituals and regulations of royalty. Yes, he was a lazy, hedonistic pleasure-seeker in his younger years. But he should have grown out of that, the way a teenager eventually shapes up and assumes the mantle of adulthood. He should have tried, at least, to become a good king. But he frankly couldn't be bothered. As one MP put it, "he never really tried to make kingship work. Apart from public appearances, he really was astonishingly idle."

And as for the idea that he and Wallis Simpson were some grand and irresistible romance... Well, consider the fact that Edward had a track record for falling madly in love with his conquests. Back in 1927, Winston Churchill shared a train carriage with Edward and one of his mistresses, and wrote that, "it is quite pathetic to see the Prince and Freda. His love is so obvious and undisguisable."

An entirely unscrupulous woman who is not in love with the King but is exploiting him for her own purposes. She has already ruined him in money and jewels.

Obsessing with women was what Edward did, and we're supposed to accept that his latest obsession, Wallis Simpson, was worth his abdication? Especially as "Mrs Simpson" was known to be a manipulative bully. Future Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain wrote that she was "an entirely unscrupulous woman who is not in love with the King but is exploiting him for her own purposes. She has already ruined him in money and jewels."

Edward's biographer called their romance a "sadomasochistic relationship" and that he "relished the contempt she bestowed on him". It was also later revealed that she had been two-timing Edward with a car salesman in Mayfair in the early part of their relationship.

So it was far from the innocent fairy tale love story which some have made it out to be. The fact is that Edward fled from all his responsibilities, cast aside his heritage, and betrayed the public for the sake of his own pleasures. As an officer in the Royal Fusiliers perfectly put it: "We loved him. We would have drawn swords for him. And then, by God, didn't he let us down!'