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Abdication crisis
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Edward and Wallis Simpson
Edward gave up the throne for Wallis Simpson

Elizabeth and Albert
Elizabeth and Albert were thrust into the public eye

Abdication crisis

The American journalist HL Mencken famously described the 1936 abdication crisis as "the greatest story since the crucifixion". For the 36 year-old Duchess of York it was an earth-shattering event which propelled her from relative obscurity to become Queen Empress, reigning, with her husband, over 600 million subjects.

When King George V died in January 1936, the romance between his eldest son, Edward, Prince of Wales, later to become Edward VIII, and the American divorcee Wallis Simpson, whom he had first met in June 1931, was well known in Royal circles.

When he succeeded to the throne, the young and popular King had to choose between his lover and the crown. The major political parties and the Church of England made it clear that marrying a divorcee was out of the question.

The cabinet presented the young King with an ultimatum: give up Mrs Simpson or renounce the crown. He would choose the latter.

Growing crisis

The foreign press was full of the story, but a “gentlemen’s agreement” by Fleet Street, which prevented any news of the affair from being published in the UK, meant that the vast majority of the British public were ignorant of the growing crisis.

The impact of the abdication upon the then Duchess of York would remain with her for the rest of her life. At the time, she lived a private family life with her husband Bertie, the younger son of George V and a shy, stammering, man who never thought he would become King.

Together with their daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, the couple enjoyed a close, loving relationship. Their lives were split between their two residences, the stylish 145 Piccadilly and Royal Lodge, Windsor.

The Duke was overwhelmed when the full gravity of his situation finally became apparent. His wife at his side, he wept.

Renouncing the throne

Though outwardly sanguine about the prospect of becoming Queen, the Duchess told one of her household, “We must take what is coming and make the best of it.” Behind the scenes, she was livid. Indeed, she berated the King, to his face, for what she considered to be his “shameful dereliction of duty.”

Her strong religious faith was repulsed by the thought of her brother-in-law marrying a twice-divorced woman.

On 11 December the Speaker of the House of Commons announced the King’s decision to a hushed chamber.

"I, Edward, do hereby declare my irrevocable determination to renounce the throne for myself and my descendants."

The following evening Edward, now the Duke of Windsor, announced to a stunned nation and empire that he had decided to give up the throne to marry "the woman I love". In a moving passage he praised his brother: "He has one matchless blessing not bestowed on me - a happy home and his wife and children."


The new King, George VI and his Queen were crowned at Westminster Abbey on 12 May 1937. Queen Elizabeth, who had personally tutored her husband in public speaking, engineered a wholesale clear-out of the Duchess of Windsor’s friends from Court and ensured that the Duchess was denied the title Her Royal Highness.

Although her close friends insist that the Queen Mother was not bitter about Mrs Simpson, clear evidence exists of her animosity. In a 1940 letter to the then Colonial Secretary, Lord Lloyd, she described the Duchess of Windsor as a bad example for England and "the lowest of the low".

Mystery surrounds another of the Queen Mother’s letters, this time to the former King’s close confidante Walter Monckton, written only weeks later. This letter, kept in the Monckton archive in Oxford and believed to contain even more vitriol, was withheld when the rest of the archive was opened to the public in March 2000.

Barring any change of heart by the government or the Royal Family, this potentially fascinating letter will now remain out of sight until 2037.

The Queen Mother is also said to have blamed the Windsors for her husband’s early death in 1952. She finally met the ex-King and the Duchess in 1966.

Beyond this, the trauma of the abdication showed the steel beneath the surface of the Queen Mother. Her support for her husband was crucial, both for the monarchy and the country. It would become even more important during the war years which were to follow.

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