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Last Updated: Monday, 11 December 2006, 12:46 GMT
A shameful failure, or just an addict?
By Brian Walden

Newspaper vendor
The abdication of King Edward VIII 70 years ago brought shame on the Royal Family and sent violent shockwaves through the British establishment. But look again, and this is not a shameful episode - rather a touching one.

Not many things that happened 70 years ago are remembered these days. But one event certainly hasn't been forgotten. On December 10th 1936 King Edward VIII abdicated. At his house, Fort Belvedere, bordering on Windsor Great Park, he signed an Instrument of Abdication to which his three brothers, the Dukes of York, Gloucester and Kent were witnesses. That afternoon the Speaker of the House of Commons read the King's Message to a packed House. In his Message the King pointed out that his lawful successor was his brother, the Duke of York, who ascended the throne as George VI.

This extraordinary event surpassed any other royal happening of the last two centuries both in drama and controversy. The King abdicated because, despite many efforts, he could find no way acceptable to his government of both being crowned King and marrying Mrs Wallis Simpson, an American from Baltimore who'd been divorced twice. It had to be the crown or Mrs Simpson and King Edward chose the latter. He went off into exile as the Duke of Windsor and married Mrs Simpson in France the following June.

The whole episode has always been treated as a scandal and numerous attempts have been made to establish who was most to blame for what happened. Naturally, in such a climate of recrimination, none of the principal figures involved, the King, Mrs Simpson and the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, comes out of the conventional account smelling of roses.

I want to suggest a different way of looking at the abdication, which I believe is closer to the truth. One of the better things about the 21st century is that we try to be more compassionate towards each other, because we have a greater psychological awareness of the lengths to which decent people can be driven by the pressure of events. Without ignoring the faults of those caught up in the crisis, I think we can examine the abdication with more charity.

"Why bother?" some people ask. Though given little publicity, there is quite a sizeable minority which is irritated by any mention of royalty. They associate constitutional monarchy with bowing and scraping - a sort of social comedy of curtseys and cummerbunds. One sympathises with the contempt for exaggerated deference, but their attitude is quite wrong. Monarchs matter and Edward VIII's problems went far beyond his immediate circle.

For instance, Winston Churchill supported the King with his usual passion and became so unpopular for doing it that he suffered, for him, the unique humiliation of being literally howled down in the House of Commons. In a few minutes his hopes of a return to power and influence were shattered. But for the war, he would never have held office again.

Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson
The Duke and Duchess of Windsor sailing from New York in 1937
Churchill wasn't the only world leader who took a great interest in the fate of King Edward. So did Adolf Hitler, who was securely in power in Germany and about to create mayhem in Europe. Hitler had been impressed by the King's view that Britain must never again go to war with Germany. He was extremely disappointed when Edward relinquished the throne and never gave up the idea that Germany might find a way to put him back on it. He received the Duke of Windsor warmly at Berchtesgaden in October 1937. Hitler approved as well of the elegant Mrs Simpson, now Duchess of Windsor, telling his cronies after the Windsor's had left, "she'd have made a good Queen."

The central issue of the abdication will always be why the King could forsake his duty for a woman? An officer in the Royal Fusiliers put it very well. "We loved him. We would have drawn our swords for him. And then, by God, didn't he let us down.

In 1936 the atmosphere didn't exist that would have allowed a frank answer to the question of why the King needed Wallis Simpson so much? But those who have written about the relationship usually supply the answer, even when they are too coy to say it straight out. The King was passionately, abjectly in love with her. And the emphasis must be on the word "abjectly." The King needed to be dependent on a woman. He needed her to be the dominant partner in the relationship. He wanted to do nothing but submit to her slightest whim

The King's family could offer no suggestions. There was no plot, just confusion all round
I'm not suggesting that history finds the King faultless in other respects. He was selfish, astonishingly ignorant about how British government worked and politically inept, as his trip to Germany after his abdication proves. But what wasn't widely recognised about his private life in 1936 was that his behaviour was close to that of an addict.

Stanley Baldwin said he seemed bewitched. He'd an overwhelming need for Wallis Simpson, which had little to do with sexual passion and everything to do with the most fundamental longing of his nature. He tried to explain, saying in his abdication broadcast to the nation that he found it impossible "to discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love."

The response to that was a newspaper cartoon showing a workman throwing down his tools and saying to his mate "How can I do my work without the help and support of the woman I love?"

The King's behaviour was "close to that of an addict"
Seventy years ago views about relationships were much less candid than they are today. The relationship between the Windsors worked well for them. To the end of his life he could hardly bear to have her out of his sight and he showered her with expensive gifts. But if the nature of the attachment had been generally understood in 1936 he would have been regarded by many people as unmanly. That some of history's better known heroes shared his inclinations wouldn't have been admitted. Nor in 1936 was there sufficient evidence to point to what we now know to have been a rather loveless childhood.

As for the dominant partner in the marriage, very few people have been unearthed who have much sympathy for Wallis Simpson. Indeed some accounts of her life in China are of a kind I can't repeat on air. We all know the stereotype: cool, bossy, heartless and on the make. Perhaps so, but let me offer the case for the defence. The almost universal belief that she chased the King is unfair. He did most of the chasing though she frankly admitted that he'd opened for her a new world that she greatly enjoyed. And I don't believe she realised just how hopeless was his quest to make her the Queen. I think she was sincere when she offered to end the affair so that he could remain King. In her undemonstrative way she loved him.

Stanley Baldwin
Stanley Baldwin suggested the King might keep Simpson as a mistress
There have always been people (and after years of brooding the Duke of Windsor joined them) who think that Stanley Baldwin led an establishment plot to get rid of the King. In fact, Baldwin, who kept in close touch with the Labour leader, Clem Attlee, merely reflected the overwhelming opinion of the House of Commons and that none too energetically. It's the King who was always summoning Baldwin, not the prime minister who was demanding an audience. The most telling episode of all is Queen Mary, clutching Baldwin's hand and crying "Well prime minister, here's a pretty kettle of fish."

The two old Victorians hadn't got the least idea what to do for the best. Baldwin actually stooped to suggesting to the King that he should keep Wallis Simpson as a mistress. The King's family, who called him "David" could offer no suggestions. There was no plot, just confusion all round.

The abdication is regarded as somehow a rather shameful chapter in our history. I don't think it is. Informal censorship kept the masses out of the business, so it's a story of the governing classes confronting unreasoning passion. On the whole everybody behaved well, even the King did nothing to impede his brother's accession to the throne. The occasion isn't shameful - it's very touching.

Send in your comments using the form below

I do not at all agree with Brian Walden. Edward VIII was apparently besotted with Wallis, but documents from the time show very clearly that he did not give up everything for love. He was content for his brother to be king, but thought that he would still have a major role in British policy. Some of his actions during the Second World War came very close to treason, but he considered himself above the law. He expected to have both the privileges of royalty and the option to do as he pleased, whether in the country's interest or not. That's not touching, it's shameful.
Kay, Huddersfield, UK

Until now I've remained ignorant regarding the details of the abdication, but I had never thought of it as 'shameful'. Quite the opposite - the thought of a King giving up his throne for the woman he loves has always struck me as being deeply romantic.
Craig, Falkirk

In my opinion, when all is said and done this man was just exactly that, a man. With the same flaws and weakness as everyone else. The fact that he was born into power and responsibility does not change the fact that he felt stronlgy enough about a person, to drop this power and responsibility because it would not accomodate it. My hat goes off to the man, I am by no stretch of the imagination a fan of the idea of the royal family or any of its members. This man showed humanity and passion, something very rare in todays royal line.
Jake, Oxford

This article is stupid to the extreme. The author says the King let the people down. Really, how? How could a titular head with no powers make any difference? "He needed her to be the dominant partner in the relationship. He wanted to do nothing but submit to her slightest whim" So if you love someone so much you are willing to give up everything for them, that makes you a masochist? In the rest of the World the king is seen as a great romantic.
Rambhai, Edinburgh

From what I've read he never gave a stuff about Britain. Was a Nazi sympathizer, Hoped that the Nazi's would set them up as king and Queen after Germany had defeated Britain. He Ignored Britain's wartime currency regulations, and was generally regarded as a useless play boy. Seventy years later that play boy role could aptly fit some present day Royals.
Allan, Cardiff

It was a tricky situation that the King found himself in, however, honour and duty should have come first I believe. It is very dificult for people to understand.
Rupert Hamilton-Jefferies, Bournmouth, Dorset

I've just read 'Gone with the Windsors' by Laurie Graham - a fantastic novel about 'Wally', David and the abdication. Well worth reading!
Lee, London

I have to say i don't entirely see the point of this article, entertaining as it is. Who on earth ever thought this was a 'shameful' affair, bar those who see something wrong (as was the problem) in marrying a twice-divorcee? It's always seemed to me very simple - man and woman fall in love, and man is forced by a bizarre set of archaic rules to give up his job in order to be with her. This doesn't smack of "addictive" passion to me, but frankly what one would expect of anyone in love. I'd give up my job in a flash for my husband, and i'd be extremely worried if he didn't do the same for me. The only shame should be on those who wouldn't let them marry in the first place.
maisy lytton, Bristol

I disagree completely. The whole affair was shameful on the part of Edward and Simpson. The monarch is supposed to be an example to the nation (and Commonwealth) and as head of the Church Of England, above all moral reproach. Carrying on with a married woman is certainly morally reproachful and the way they carried on in exile continued to shame this nation until the day she died. The only good thing to come out of this episode was that Her Majesty the Quuen and her loyal, dutiful father were set on the throne instead of that spineless man. The country was better off without him in the end.
Rachel Wright, Billingham, England.

In an age now where romance seems to be dead I think it's a wonderful story of love not even hollywood could have come up with!
Mike, Manchester

I feel that in the time as it was, he did the right thing. He chose the woman he loved over his job. He didn't apply for the job nor elected into it, he was expected to do the job whether he wanted to or not. I respect the man for what he did. Charles could learn a thing or two from him. Charles has lost the respect of the majority as an adulterer and for not having the guts to say in the beginning that he loved Camilla and not Diana. If he married Camilla we would have accepted she had a history, but also accepted that he loves her. Abdicate now Charles, before you take a Crown you don't deserve.
Bob Slater, Stockport

Wouldn't the Daily Mail be the best place for this sort of tosh? Apart from all the baseless speculation and cod psychology, I liked Mr Walden's phrase "politically inept" - a delightful euphemism for "Nazi sympathiser" which, I believe, is more common amongst proper historians of the period.
RS Matthews, France

The fact that Hitler never gave up hope that Edward would become King is why I'm very glad he abdicated. A friend of Adolph couldn't be a friend of Britain.
Peter, Nottingham

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