Edward VIII gave up his throne for the love of American divorcee Wallis Simpson 80 years ago exactly (Photo: Bettmann)
Eighty years ago Edward VIII broadcast to the nation, revealing his shock decision… he had given up the throne.
The King had created a constitutional crisis by proposing to Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee.
And on December 11, 1936, he announced he had made the astonishing sacrifice for love.
It was a decision which would change the monarchy forever. Edward was the first to give up the throne since the Roman Catholic James II fled the realm in 1688.
But as Edward, 42, stepped down, his younger brother Albert, 40, known as Bertie, took his place, becoming George VI .
To historians like me, who study the royals from the time of the bed-hopping, head-chopping Henry VIII to the dutiful Elizabeth II, the abdication leaves a big question to answer. What would have happened if Edward had not relinquished his title?
Would there have been a Second World War?
Less than three years later, on September 3, 1939, Britain was at war with Germany. It was the first major test for George VI, whose struggle with his stammer was immortalised in the film, The King’s Speech.
He was the monarch the nation relied upon during the war years – widely applauded for his refusal to leave London during the Blitz.
Photo of the Duke of Windsor meeting Adolf Hitler which features in a photo album detailing the his trip to Nazi Germany in 1937, and will be sold at auction
But how would Edward have coped? And would we even have been in the conflict?
Much has been made of claims about Edward’s relationship with the Nazis.
They stem from his visit to Berlin in 1937, when he gave a Nazi salute and was said to have told his host, Adolf Hitler: “The German and the British races are one. They should always be one. They are of Hun origin.”
It is true that in the 1930s Edward favoured appeasement, believing it would be better to meet German grievances for the greater good.
But that is hardly surprising because it was government policy at the time, especially when Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain claimed the Munich Pact of 1938 had achieved “Peace in our time”.
Edward was something of an irresponsible playboy who was not politically shrewd.
And when he and Wallis were welcomed to Germany in 1937 – while she was shunned in England for causing him to step down – he was flattered.
But that doesn’t mean he would be a traitor and become Hitler’s puppet.
Edward in 1935, a year before he became king (Photo: Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
When war broke out the Nazis looked to Edward to publicly support their cause but he refused. Yet he made clear in public utterances that catastrophic defeat for Britain was inevitable and spoke publicly of the need for peace.
By 1940 Edward, now Duke of Windsor, was increasingly regarded by the new Prime Minister Winston Churchill as pro-Nazi and a political liability. Churchill sent him to be Governor of The Bahamas.
We can never say for sure – but this perhaps suggests that Edward would have wanted Britain to remain neutral.
As for Hitler, he was reported to have said about Edward after his abdication: “I am certain through him permanent friendly relations could have been achieved. If he had stayed, everything would have been different. His abdication was a severe loss for us.”
So could Edward have changed the outcome of the war?
Even if he remained on the throne and wanted Britain to remain neutral, it does not mean we would have.
The UK is a constitutional monarchy. A king reigns but does not rule. The real power lies with Parliament and the prime minister. So it is very unlikely that Edward would have had decisive influence over foreign policy.
Edward might have been able to exert enough influence to delay Britain’s involvement in the war until after the fall of France. But this too is probably unlikely.
Princess Elizabeth Queen Elizabeth Winston Churchill King George VI Princess Margaret
When Hitler refused to withdraw German troops from Poland in September 1939, the British Government was resolved for war.
It is more likely that after the fall of France, Edward, if king, would have urged Britain to surrender to the Germans.
Even Edward himself was unsure if he could have changed the course of history. In a letter in 1970, he wrote: “Whether or not I could have prevented World War II, had I remained king, is an imponderable.”
Would Queen Elizabeth have become monarch?
The reign of Edward VIII would have run from 1936 until his death in 1972. If he had fathered children, it is unlikely would ever have become queen.
Duke and Duchess of York with Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret in the 1930s, before he became King George VI and was succeeded by Elizabeth
But Edward and Wallis never had children. She was 41 by the time they married in 1937.
Even if the country had accepted the two-time divorcee as queen consort, it still seems unlikely they would have had an heir. Elizabeth would still have inherited the throne – but as a middle-aged mum-of-four, rather than a 25-year-old.
Would George have lived longer had he not become king?
Had Edward not chosen love, Elizabeth’s father would have remained Duke of York his whole life.
The Queen Mother is said to have blamed the strain of being king on her husband’s death in 1952 from coronary thrombosis aged 56.
She wrote to her mother-in-law Queen Mary: “I don’t believe he ever thought of himself at all.”
Queen Mary wrote back, beseeching the Queen Mother to meet Edward and Wallis and “bury the hatchet after 15 whole years”.
But the the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were still not invited to Queen Elizabeth’s coronation.
Edward was sent to become Governor of the Bahamas during WWII amid concerns he was pro-Nazi (Photo: Bettmann)
In 1967, The Queen Mother raised eyebrows when she greeted Edward with a kiss on the cheek – only for the Duke of Gloucester’s Private Secretary to reportedly quip: “Consummate actress. She wouldn’t have him to lunch.”
She is said to have told a friend: “The two people who have caused me the most trouble are Wallis Simpson and Hitler.”
Could Princess Margaret have found happiness?
The coronation on June 2, 1953, outed the illicit romance between the Queen’s sister Margaret and wartime RAF hero Group Captain Peter Townsend.
Cameras captured them tenderly engaging with each other and Margaret removing a piece of fluff from his lapel.
Peter, a divorcee 15 years her senior, had proposed to Margaret. But as she was just 22, she needed the Queen’s permission under the Royal Marriages Act 1772.
There was no way her sister could agree. Margaret was third in line to the throne and the Queen was Supreme Governor of the Church Of England – which forbade marriage to divorced persons.
For both women, duty had to come first.
Margaret’s only other option – now immortalised in the Netflix drama The Crown – was to forfeit her royal rights and income and leave Britain for five years.
It was an impossible decision, and in 1955, she ended her relationship with the man many still believe was the love of her life.
What would have happened if Wallis was queen consort?
There’s no question socialite Wallis would have shaken up the stuffy royal establishment – if only as a modern-thinking American.
So maybe life would have been easier a few years later for that other breath of fresh air Princess Diana – who certainly ruffled a few royal feathers…
Fateful dates that rocked the royals
January 10, 1931: Edward meets Wallis Simpson at a house party. She’s married to her second husband Ernest, after divorcing Earl Winfield Spencer. The pair next meet again five months later.
August 1934: Edward arranges a cruise along the Spanish and Portuguese coasts. Wallis is present, but tellingly her husband Ernest is not.
November 1934: Edward introduces Wallis to his mother at a Buckingham Palace bash. King George V refuses to meet her.
January 20, 1936: Edward becomes king.
August 1936: The monarch is pictured on holiday with Wallis in the American and continental press.
November 16, 1936: Edward tells Prime minster Stanley Baldwin he wants to marry Wallis and if the British public won’t accept her, is prepared to abdicate.
December 10, 1936: Edward signs the Instrument of Abdication, but remains king until the following morning…
December 11, 1936: …when he gives Royal Assent to His Majesty’s Declaration of Abdication Act – and broadcasts his decision to the nation on the BBC radio.
December 12, 1936: Edward’s brother becomes King George VI, while the fallen monarch leaves for Austria.