The abdication of Edward VIII

I recently saw on DVD parts 1, 6, and 7 of the seven-part 1978 British television series “Edward and Mrs. Simpson,” about Edward VIII and the abdication. It is excellent. I always thought that Edward was a lightweight who more or less said the heck with it, and abdicated. It was far more complicated than that. An increasingly tense, almost tragic confrontation develops between him and the prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, with Edward trying every possible tactic to make it possible for him to marry Mrs. Simpson and to remain king. The cabinet starts off by appealing to the idea that the “people” won’t accept it. But what it really comes down to in the end is that the cabinet, and both parties in Commons, won’t accept it. In fact, there was no law stopping the marriage. The King could marry whom he chose (that is, so long as she was not a Catholic), and whoever he married would automatically be Queen. The reason the government was so adamant against it was traditional morality. It was not that Wallis Simpson was an American or a commoner. It was that she had been divorced twice. They could not countenance a divorced woman as Queen.

At one point Baldwin lays it on the line and tells Edward, “If you marry her, my government will resign. The opposition Labor party has told me that they will refuse to form a government. [So Labor in those days was just as adamant against a divorced Queen as the Tories were.] An election will have to be called. An election will be held on the sole issue of your marriage.” Letting this situation lead to the end of the government and a national election centered on the King’s personal life was out of the question and was not considered further. So Baldwin’s and the parliament’s absolute refusal to accept the marriage meant that Edward’s choice came down to abdicating and marrying Mrs. Simpson, or giving up any thought of marriage. But Edward also has an absolute stand. He is set on marrying her no matter what. He is portrayed as a very popular, capable King, with a lot going for him. And, while it’s done subtly, the movie suggests that he makes the wrong choice. He is a King, this is his job, his responsibility, his destiny, for which he seems especially suited, and he gives it up, traumatizing his kingdom, just to be with a woman, and not a very worthy woman at that, a woman who in fact may be something of a gold-digger, and in the process he diminishes himself into insignificance.

My take on him is: he had many talents, and was a good king, but he didn’t properly value his talents or his kingship, and threw it all away. While he seems intelligent, he lacks introspection, his thought process is almost childishly simple, it all comes down to: “I intend to marry Wallis, no matter what.” Once that determination is formed, nothing moves him from it, and he fails to take cognizance of the immensity of the thing he is doing and what he is sacrificing. Remembering the image of the Duke of Windsor during all those decades after the abdication, we realize that he was a King who turned himself into a sad and forlorn shadow, for the sake of a woman. It doesn’t seem like a good deal.

A striking thing about this program, compared to almost every historical drama since circa 1990, is that it does not deconstruct or belittle the characters from the left-wing point of view, making them seem nasty and ugly. Edward, Baldwin, Churchill, the Labor leader Clement Atlee, the king’s attorney Walter Monkton, and others, are shown as intelligent, honorable men trying to handle a very difficult and sensitive situation.

The acting is excellent, with Edward Fox playing the King. However, I thought that Cynthia Harris was not up to the job of playing Wallis Simpson. While the actress strikingly resembles Mrs. Simpson, she has (at least in the three parts of the series I saw) none of the charm that the real Wallis must have had to win the King’s absolute devotion and make him give up the throne of Great Britain.

Also, you get to see the way the British upper class dressed in the 1930s, the best fashion decade in the history of the West.


I’ve now seen episodes 2 and 3 (I watched the last two—which were also the most intense and serious—episodes first), and in light of the earlier episodes the portrait of Edward becomes more negative. He seems like a superficial fellow from the start, exclusively interested in fun and parties and cruises, and only occasionally attending to his duties. As his relationship with Mrs. Simpson develops he becomes even less interested in his job if that is possible. If he was really just a playboy, was his loss as King of Great Britain really so terrible? Wasn’t it fortunate that his more responsible and serious, if less charming and confident, brother Berty (George VI) replaced him?

The major flaw in the production is that we never see what it is that draws Edward to Wallis Simpson, what it is that she fulfills in him. As played by Cynthia Harris, she is a rather flat and unappealing character, and a schemer. Since his love and need for her is the driving force of the story, the failure of the movie to portray that love, and her qualities that make him love her, leaves the story empty at its core. A friend says that this superficiality is the point, they’re both superficial people. That answer doesn’t work for me. I once read that Edward had been rather lonely and emotionally unfulfilled throughout his life, and that Mrs. Simpson was the first woman who made him feel complete and happy. But we don’t see this in the movie. In fact, he seems to be enjoying life a great deal, in addition to having pretty and compatible women devotedly attending on him, before he meets Wallis. The lonely Edward, the Edward made permanently insecure by an overly stern and demanding father, and so rushing to marry the first woman who fills up that empty space inside, is not seen in this movie.

However, as far as understanding the historical Edward is concerned, perhaps we can reduce his story to very simple terms. He was, deep down, a superficial fellow who lacked a proper valuation of things (as I suggested above). Mrs. Simpson was the first woman he met with whom he was really compatible. And that was that.

The Wikipedia article on Edward is worth reading. It includes this:

King George V was disappointed in Edward’s failure to settle down in life and disgusted by his many affairs with married women. The King was reluctant to see Edward inherit the Crown, and was quoted as saying of Edward: “After I am dead, the boy will ruin himself in 12 months.” [Prophetic words, since Edward abdicated less than 11 months after he became King.] He later said of his second son, Albert (“Bertie”), and granddaughter, Elizabeth, (“Lilibet”): “I pray to God that my eldest son Edward will never marry and have children, and that nothing will come between Bertie and Lilibet and the throne.” Edward’s relationship with Mrs. Simpson further weakened his poor relationship with his father. Although the King and Queen met Mrs. Simpson at Buckingham Palace in 1935, they later refused to receive her.[25] But Edward had now fallen in love with Wallis and the couple grew ever closer.

Also, whether or not Edward was pro-Nazi (his 1937 visit to Nazi Germany was probably driven more by the need to be wanted somewhere than by a positive support for Nazism and Hitler), he was definitely non-liberal,.and was known to say shockingly non-egalitarian things about black people, some of which are quoted in the Wikipedia article.

The movie still makes good viewing, for all the reasons I mentioned before.

- end of initial entry -

Adela G. writes:

I had a similar experience last year. I watched “The Lost Prince”, about Edward’s younger brother kept hidden away because of his epilepsy. That got me interested in the royals so I did some reading online.

I was surprised to find that Edward was quite different from the present-day image of him as a passive dolt. He was out-going and charming and, though essentially traditional in outlook, wanted to revitalize the monarchy a bit. He would never have made any sweeping changes but I think he would have brought freshness and vigor to it. (Naturally he made a favorable impression on me because he always dressed as though he were ready to start blogging at any moment.)

I saw the series you mention when it came out. More recently, I saw a miniseries on his abdication with Jane Seymour as Wallis. At one point, under official duress, Wallis signed a letter giving Edward up but he was adamant about keeping her. Edward was not strong and he never felt his parents were supportive of him. Abrasive and domineering though she was, Wallis was a forceful presence he could cling to and evidently, even her nastiness was preferable to their seeming indifference; at least she was sufficiently engaged with him to disparage him. But you don’t have to be a stuffy royal to see how utterly unsuitable she was to marry into that family (or any other respectable one, for that matter).

Whatever Edward might have done for the monarchy, his sense of duty was in no way equal to his emotional neediness. Ultimately, though it shook up Britain up, I think his abdication was for the best. He may have understood that to be King, or Queen, is to stand for something quite outside oneself, but he was psychologically incapable of the sustained self-sufficiency and self-sacrifice that required.

By contrast, Elizabeth II is the very embodiment of duty, a concept that I don’t think the majority of her subjects understand. Prince Charles is just a buffoon and has been for years. I can’t respect a royal who, with all the training that must have been inculcated in him from the cradle on, nevertheless refuses to make the necessary compromises his position demands.

Edward Fox is also excellent in The Shooting Party, which takes place in England just prior to WWI and shows subtly but clearly the rot that had set in among the aristocracy. The rest of the cast is wonderful, too, with James Mason in his last role, Gordon Jackson playing a loyal retainer and John Geilgud as a dotty old campaigner for some cause (animal rights or vegetarianism?). I think an aristocracy decays when its members lose their purpose and function and so live only to wallow in their privilege. Privilege needs to be the reward granted to an elite for their proportionately greater duty and sacrifice, otherwise, it quickly devolves into mere excess and decadence.

Adela continues:

Our discussion touches on something I ponder a lot.

I know times were considerably harder a century ago for most of the West than they are today. Yet the traditional society in which duty, responsibility, piety and civility were not risible and contemptible traits but laudable virtues and in which the rule of law, defense of national borders and preservation of Western culture were understood to be the very foundation of Western civilization, had many advantages over our own.

I regard the European slide into WWI as the tragic event of the twentieth century, the seminal event from which all other Western misery flowed. It seems to me that part of the problem may have been the decadence and complacence of the governing and social elites. So, how to establish and maintain a traditional society (which would necessarily be hierarchical, though, one hopes, not rigidly so) without incurring a top-heavy aristocracy that loses sight of its duties while wallowing in its privilege and power is a serious concern for traditionalists hoping to live in civilly in a civil society.

How to make all citizens feel they have a worthwhile investment in their society and in the perpetuation of their Western culture while acknowledging that not all will benefit equally from it is another part of the puzzle.

Just stuff I think about while doing the dishes.

A reader writes (May 25):

I think I’ve figured it out. Wallis was the first married woman to offer the possibility of marriage. If the others had done so, he might have taken them up on it. But they were respectful and traditional with regard to the throne and knew that they were not suitable to marry the King. But Wallis had no such respect. She said to him, “Why can’t we marry? You can marry whom you like.” He didn’t want or have the energy to seek out a virgin—introducing her to married life, taking responsibility for her maturity and emotional life and all that. There might well have been children too. And at his age, there would probably have been quite a gap in ages. There was such a gap in the case of Charles and Diana and he wasn’t nearly as old as David [the personal name of Edward VIII], who was 41 when he became King. But with the married women, he enjoyed their emotional maturity and stability, their lack of expectation of any direction from him, their sexual experience, and all that. He was quite comfortable with them and satisfied, and when one came along and said we can marry, he went for it.

Also, she was gaga over the kind of life he could offer her, more so perhaps than the other ladies.

I don’t believe this stuff about how unhappy he was, sounds like stuff put out by the liberal romantics of later times who encouraged everyone to do whatever they liked.

LA replies:

The reader’s explanation is the best I’ve seen.

Adela G. writes:

You write: “The reader’s explanation is the best I’ve seen.”

I agree. Very insightful, as it satisfactorily explains both their mutual attraction and the underlying motivation that had dictated his choice of female companionship prior to his meeting Wallis.

Lydia McGrew writes (May 26):

I saw your thread on Edward’s abdication. On his alleged pro-Nazism, there is an odd passage in one of the books by Cleveland Amery (sp?), the animal rights guy. It is one of the books about his cat—The Cat Who Came for Christmas or a different one, I can’t recall which. Amery claims to have witnessed personally at a dinner Edward’s “explaining” to the woman sitting next to him that “the Jews had a stranglehold on Europe. All Hitler wanted to do was to loosen it”—words to that effect. I’m going by memory here. According to Amery, Edward illustrated this “stranglehold” by holding the woman’s hands with his. An unpleasant story, and I would say decisive on his pro-Nazi leanings if it is true.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at May 24, 2008 09:30 PM | Send

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