This month witnesses the 85th anniversary of one of the most dramatic upsets in the history of the British monarchy: the abdication crisis of December 1936.

In January of that year, King George V had died. Although rather a stiff figure, George, a grandson of Queen Victoria, had been a popular king who had celebrated his Silver Jubilee a few months before. His son, the new King Edward VIII, then aged 41, was popular too. As Prince of Wales, he had always come across as an attractive, glamorous type.

In private circles, however, there had long been concerns about Edward’s suitability for the role of king. Not only had Edward reached middle-age without marrying and fathering any children who might one day succeed him, but he had been involved in a number of unsuitable and scandalous relationships. Indeed, at the time he became king he was seriously involved with an American socialite, Wallis Simpson. Simpson had been married twice before and was in the process of divorcing for a second time. Edward intended to marry her afterwards. This was to prove a massive problem.

The simple fact that Wallis was divorced was at the time seen as a major obstacle to Edward remaining king who was now the head of the Church of England. It was unlikely the church, establishment or general public would ever accept it. The fact that she was American didn’t help. The issue created a major split within the Royal Family.

For most of the year, however, most people remained in a state of blissful ignorance as to the storm brewing. It was not the policy of the British media at that time to report or speculate on such matters. However, by December, the crisis had reached such a critical juncture that it had become impossible to keep the news out of the public eye any longer. To widespread horror and astonishment, Edward relinquished the throne, explaining his reasons to the public in an emotional radio address: “You must believe me when I tell you,” he said. “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.”

After a reign lasting less than a year, during which he had never had a coronation or was formally crowned, he abdicated. “After I am dead, the boy will ruin himself in twelve months,” George V had once written of his oldest son. Perhaps he had been proven right.

The immediate effect of all this was that Edward’s younger brother now became King George VI. Although physically similar to Edward, George, known to his family as “shy Bertie”, was a very different person to his older brother and was afflicted by a terrible stammer. He had no desire to be king and both he and his wife, who was now Queen Elizabeth (and later the Queen Mother), never forgave Edward for forcing the burden of kingship upon him. The couple had two young daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret. Elizabeth is of course now the present Queen.

Edward married Wallis the following year in Paris. The couple spent the rest of their lives living in a somewhat awkward state of exile as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. The issue remains hugely divisive. On the one hand there seems to be plenty of evidence the two were genuinely in love. They remained together until the Duke’s death in 1972 (Wallis herself died in 1986). On the other hand, with a fair amount of evidence suggesting the Windsors were personally unpleasant (both
were keen admirers of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich, for example), many may feel we were lucky to escape Edward VIII enjoying a long reign as king.

Attitudes have changed. Today the heir to the throne is not only married to a divorced woman but is a divorcee himself. But despite this, 85 years on and the enormous impact of the abdication crisis of 1936 has not yet quite been forgotten.