Abdication is the legal and formal act of giving up authority as the ruling monarch of a sovereign nation. Generally, kingdoms institute a process for managing the abdication of ruling monarch to foster a smooth transition. However, the controversy surrounding the 1936 abdication of Edward VIII of Great Britain led to a constitutional crisis within the country and its dominions. The ruling monarch’s eventual abdication literally changed the course of history in Britain—and the line of succession to the throne.
Abdication Throughout History
Most of the world’s monarchies and empires have experienced an abdication of the ruling king, queen or emperor at one time or another.
The Roman Empire, which controlled much of the Mediterranean region for centuries, from 753 B.C. to the 5th century A.D., experienced several notable abdications, including that of Lucius Cornelius Sulla in 79 B.C.
John II Casimir, King of Poland from 1648 to 1668, had a disastrous reign marked by expensive wars and the occupation of Poland by Swedish forces. After the death of his wife Marie Louise Gonzaga, he abdicated the throne and retired to a Jesuit abbey in France.
Born in 1894, Edward VIII became the ruling monarch of the United Kingdom upon the death of his father, King George V, in early 1936. But he wouldn’t hold the position for long.
The reason: His relationship with American socialite Wallis Simpson.
Edward reportedly first met Simpson in 1931, when she was still married to British shipping executive Ernest Simpson. The Prince of Wales (Edward’s title before assuming the throne) was also in a relationship at the time, with Thelma Furness, the wife of a British baron.
Wallis Simpson and Thelma Furness were, in fact, friends, and Edward and Simpson became re-acquainted on a trip he made with Furness to New York in 1934. Love letters from Edward to Simpson began at around that time, and it is believed the couple started seeing each other romantically later that year, even though Simpson was still legally married.
However, the heir to the throne denied that they were involved when questioned on the matter by his father, King George V.
By 1935, though, Edward was inviting the American to royal events, and his parents, the King and his wife, Queen Mary, weren’t happy about it. They reportedly refused to receive her formally at Buckingham Palace.
When Edward assumed the throne upon his father’s death in January, 1936, he made it clear that he intended to marry Simpson. However, objections to the marriage soon came in from a variety of quarters.
The Politics of Divorce
Simpson’s divorce from her husband Ernest didn’t become official until October of that year, and government officials in Britain and its dominions, for one, question whether Simpson was fit to hold the title of Queen and fulfill the official obligations that came with the role, as an American who was (soon to be) twice divorced.
British police investigating her following Edward’s ascension to the throne alleged that she was carrying on an affair—with a married tradesman—while also seeing the new monarch.
And, there was concern about how the marriage would ultimately reflect on the new king, as the monarch serves as the unofficial head of the Church of England. The Church at the time did not allow divorced people to remarry if their spouses were still alive, as both of Simpson’s ex-husbands were at the time.
King Edward VIII, though he was new to the throne, was also already making enemies among Britain’s political establishment, referring to some members of the liberal-leaning Labour Party as “cranks.”
Wallis and Edward: A Complicated Affair
Edward’s marriage, under British law at the time, required the approval of the ruling monarch (his mother, Queen Mary) as well as the Parliament of Britain and its dominions.
The new king attempted to negotiate with Britain’s prime minister at the time, Stanley Baldwin, who had in turn been working with his cabinet and Parliament to come up with an agreeable solution. However, neither the cabinet nor Parliament—nor the leaders of the commonwealths under British rule—could come to agreement on what role, if any, Simpson would play at Buckingham Palace.
Effectively, Edward VIII was given a choice: Remain king and find another wife, or marry Simpson and renounce the throne.
Ultimately, the new monarch made it clear that he planned to marry Simpson—and would rather give up his right to the throne than live without her.
Edward VIII’s Abdication
Once Edward had made the choice to marry Wallis Simpson and renounce the throne, a short “Instrument of Abdication” was drafted, in which he would renounce his right to serve as ruling monarch. In signing the document—which he did on December 10, 1936—he also renounced the rights of his heirs (any children he had with Simpson) to the crown.
The Instrument took immediate effect. However, his abdication wasn’t formally announced until the next day, when, during an emotional speech broadcast across Britain on radio, he said, “[Y]ou 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.”
As a result of the abdication, it is King George VI’s heirs, and thus the heirs of Queen Elizabeth II, who are in line for the British throne—and not the children of the former king.
Indeed, with his decision, Edward became the first—and so far, the only—British monarch to abdicate the throne voluntarily, and the first to abdicate the throne for any reason since 1399.
Edward and Wallis Simpson married in June of 1937 in small ceremony in Tours, France—notably not Westminster Abbey, the site of all official royal weddings. The former king held the title of Duke of Windsor.
The couple remained together until Edward’s death in 1972.
Lucius Cornelius Sulla: Guardian or Enemy of the Roman Republic. Ancienthistory.eu.
Edward’s Private Souvenir 1934-36; A loving slave who buckled Wallis’s shoes and painted her toenails. The Independent.
Secret Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson wedding photos released to public. The Independent.
Edward VIII: Abdication timeline. BBC News.
His Majesty’s Declaration of Abdication (1936). Heraldica.org.
The 1936 Abdication Crisis. Royal Forums.
The Abdication Speech of H.M. King Edward VIII, 1936. Royal Forums.