This day in History: 1936 - In France, the duke of Windsor–formerly King Edward VIII of Great Britain and Northern Ireland–marries Wallis Warfield, the American divorcee for whom he abdicated the British throne in December 1936.
Edward, born in 1896, was the eldest son of King George V, who became the British sovereign in 1910. He served as a staff officer during World War I and in the 1920s made extensive goodwill trips abroad as Prince of Wales, a title bestowed on male heirs to the British throne. During the Depression, he helped organize work programs for the nation’s unemployed and was highly regarded by the public in the years leading up to his father’s death.
Edward, still unmarried as he approached his 40th birthday, socialized with the fashionable London society of the day and frequently entertained at Fort Belvedere, his country home. By 1934, he had fallen deeply in love with American socialite Wallis Warfield Simpson, who was married to Ernest Simpson, an English-American businessman who lived with Mrs. Simpson near London. Wallis, who was born in Pennsylvania in 1896 and brought up in Maryland, had previously married and divorced a U.S. Navy pilot. The royal family disapproved of Edward’s married mistress, but by 1936 the prince was intent on marrying Mrs. Simpson. Before he could discuss this intention with his father, George V died on January 20, 1936, and Edward was proclaimed king.
The new king proved popular with his subjects, and his coronation was scheduled for May 1937. His affair with Mrs. Simpson was reported in American and continental European newspapers, but due to a gentlemen’s agreement between the British press and the government, the affair was kept out of British newspapers. On October 27, 1936, Mrs. Simpson obtained a preliminary decree of divorce, presumably with the intent of marrying the king, precipitating a major scandal. To the Church of England and most British politicians, an American woman twice divorced was unacceptable as a prospective British queen. Winston Churchill, then a Conservative backbencher, was the only notable politician to support Edward.
Despite the seemingly united front against him, Edward could not be dissuaded. He proposed a morganatic marriage, in which Wallis would be granted no rights of rank or property, but Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin rejected this as impractical on December 2. The next day, the scandal broke on the front pages of British newspapers and was discussed openly in Parliament. With no resolution possible, the king renounced the throne on December 10. The next day, Parliament approved the abdication instrument, and Edward VIII’s 325-day reign came to an end. That evening, the former king gave a radio broadcast in which he explained: “I have found it impossible to carry on the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge the duties of King, as I would wish to do, without the help and support of the woman I love.” On December 12, his younger brother, the duke of York, was proclaimed King George VI. That day, the new king made his older brother the duke of Windsor.
By that time, Edward had already left for Austria, where he lived with friends apart from Mrs. Simpson as her divorce proceedings progressed. Her divorce became final in May 1937, and she had her name legally changed back to Wallis Warfield. On June 3, 1937, the duke of Windsor and Wallis Warfield married at the Chateau de Cande in France’s Loire Valley. A Church of England clergyman conducted the service, which was witnessed by only about 16 guests. Wallis was now the duchess of Windsor, but King George, under pressure from his ministers, denied her the title of “royal highness” enjoyed by her husband.
For the next two years, the duke and duchess lived primarily in France but visited other European countries, including Germany, where the duke was honored by Nazi officials in October 1937 and met with Adolf Hitler. After the outbreak of World War II, the duke accepted a position as liaison officer with the French. In June 1940, France fell to the Nazis, and Edward and Wallis went to Spain. During this period, the Nazis concocted a scheme to kidnap Edward with the intention of returning him to the British throne as a puppet king. George VI, like his prime minister, Winston Churchill, was adamantly opposed to any peace with Nazi Germany. Unaware of the Nazi kidnapping plot but conscious of Edward’s pre-war Nazi sympathies, Churchill hastily offered Edward the governorship of the Bahamas in the West Indies. The duke and duchess set sail from Lisbon on August 1, 1940, narrowly escaping a Nazi SS team sent to seize them.
In 1945, the duke resigned his post, and the couple moved back to France. They lived mainly in Paris, and Edward made a few visits to England, such as to attend the funerals of King George VI in 1952 and his mother, Queen Mary, in 1953. It was not until 1967 that the duke and duchess were invited by the royal family to attend an official public ceremony, the unveiling of a plaque dedicated to Queen Mary. Edward died in Paris in 1972 but was buried at Frogmore, on the grounds of Windsor Castle. In 1986, Wallis died and was buried at his side.