Just a year into his reign in 1936, Edward VIII abdicated in order to marry American divorcée Wallis Simpson. But while England disapproved of the couple, Adolf Hitler welcomed them to Germany with open arms.
The British crown has a long history of interfering in the love lives of its monarchs. And almost exactly 400 years after King Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church to marry his lover Anne Boleyn, King Edward VIII sparked a constitutional crisis when he proposed to his American girlfriend, a divorcée named Wallis Simpson.
At the time, Edward VIII had just ascended to the throne following the death of his father, King George V. And much as it opposed divorce in the Tudor era, the British crown of the 1930s disapproved of its king marrying a divorcée.
It didn’t help that said woman was rumored to have Nazi ties.
In the end, love won out for the king, and Edward VIII abdicated the British throne on Dec. 11, 1936, in order to marry Simpson in peace. But he left his nation in turmoil.
Edward VIII’s Early Life And Meeting Wallis Simpson
Prince Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David, Duke of Windsor, was born on June 23, 1894, in Surrey, England. The eldest to his father King George and mother Queen Mary, Edward VIII wanted to fight in World War I when he came of age in 1914, but his family refused.
He still traveled to the trenches and the front lines of the conflict, however, earning himself a Military Cross in 1916 and the respect of many veterans for this. Indeed, Edward VIII became popular among the British people in the 1920s and ’30s, during which time he traveled the British empire, particularly to areas of high unemployment during the country’s depression.
It was at a party in 1930 that Edward VIII fatefully met Wallis Simpson, who had recently divorced a U.S. Navy pilot and was now remarried to an English-American businessman who lived with her near London. Six years later, the lovers decided they wanted to marry.
By this time, Edward VIII had already ascended to the British throne after the death of his father on Jan. 20, 1936. But the crown strongly opposed its monarch to wed a divorcée.
The Scandal Hits British Papers
When British newspapers publicized Edward’s intention to marry Simpson, it launched a calamitous scandal. Various parts of British society were outraged by the prospect of Edward VIII marrying Wallis Simpson, including the Church of England, which thought it wrong for divorcées to remarry if their ex-spouses were still alive.
Consequently, it strongly opposed Edward VIII’s intention to marry a woman who would soon have two living ex-spouses.
Britons also opposed Edward’s intention to marry Simpson not only because it conflicted with the church’s teachings, but also because they believed that it conflicted with English law, which stated that adultery was the only grounds for divorce. However, Wallis Simpson’s first divorce had taken place in the United States on the grounds of emotional incompatibility.
Consequently, Britons argued that the marriage would be bigamous and illegal.
Another source of opposition to Edward’s prospective marriage to Simpson were the scandalous rumors about her that circulated in British society.
These rumors included her holding some kind of sexual control over Edward through practices that she had learned in Chinese brothels, being unfaithful to him, pursuing him purely for his money, and being a Nazi spy.
In fact, Edward’s ministers were so opposed to the prospect of Simpson becoming their queen that they threatened to resign if he insisted on marrying her.
Edward VIII Abdicates The British Throne
Despite the challenges he faced, Edward VIII tried to make his forthcoming marriage to Simpson more acceptable by proposing it be a morganatic marriage, in which she would not be given the title of queen.
However, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin rejected this idea as impractical.
King Edward VIII then proposed to broadcast a speech about his intention to marry Simpson in order to turn public opinion around on the issue, but Baldwin rejected this idea too, arguing that it involved Edward to unconstitutionally go over the heads of his ministers to address the British public.
Edward, unable to think of any other way to make his prospective marriage more acceptable, abdicated his throne on Dec. 11, 1936, less than a year after he began his reign.
Upon King Edward VIII’s abdication, his younger brother became the new king, George VI. The following year, Edward VIII married Wallis Simpson. The two were given the titles of Duke and Duchess of Windsor in 1937, though the couple rarely returned to Britain unless for important family affairs.
Instead, they spent the majority of their lives together abroad in France. But this was not the last that the British tabloids would see of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson.
They became the center of controversy again when, in 1937, the couple made a visit to Germany to meet with Adolf Hitler.
Investigating His Nazi Sympathies
Though England was distancing itself from Germany since World War I, Edward VIII maintained a close personal relationship with the country. He lauded the country’s economic rise following the conflict and openly supported far-right policies proposed by Hitler during his ascension to power in the 1920s and ’30s.
He also strongly supported Oswald Mosley, a British aristocrat who launched a fascist crusade in Britain that was 50,000-strong in the years leading up to World War II.
Like many other Britons who supported Hitler’s policies, Edward VIII was reportedly unbothered by the anti-Semitism that came hand and hand with this legislation.
In fact, Edward allegedly told a German relative in 1933 that it was “no business of ours to interfere in Germany’s internal affairs either re Jews or re anything else,” adding that “dictators are very popular these days. We might want one in England before long.”
Meanwhile, rumors swirled that Simpson herself was a political liability to England given her alleged romantic past with a Nazi official. Some claimed she even passed confidential information about the crown to the Germans.
So by the time King George V died and Edward was poised to take his place, many feared that his German ties would prove to be a liability to the crown.
Indeed, MI5, Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, began to track the couple. Their phones were tapped, and members of their Scotland Yard security team were interviewed.
Then the couple made their controversial trip to Germany in 1937, where they dined with high-ranking Nazi officials like Hermann Göring and Joseph Goebbels, and even visited a training school for SS officers.
The couple spent most of the war in the Bahamas, during which time they reportedly maintained correspondence with the Third Reich.
Indeed, 400 tons of documents were later found in 1945, many of which detailed a plot to reinstate Edward VIII to the throne and which Winston Churchill tried desperately to hide from the public until “10 or 20 years” after World War II ended, fearing it would paint the crown as a puppet of the Nazi regime.
The documents, known as the Marburg Papers, were released in 1957, and Edward VIII passionately denied their legitimacy. The couple ultimately lived out their remaining years in France, and they were together until his death in 1972.
There was one silver lining to Edward VIII’s scandals, however. Since the 1930s, attitudes regarding who should marry into the British royal family have changed.
As a result, when Prince Harry of Wales became engaged to American divorcée Meghan Markle, it did not cause quite the same stir, much less the kind of constitutional crisis that forced King Edward VIII to choose between love and power.