It’s January 16th, 1936. In the Great Park at Windsor Castle in England, a hunt is underway…
There’s a burst of feathers just above the tree line and Edward, heir to the British throne, lowers his smoking shotgun. The 41-year-old Prince watches with a grin as a plump pheasant tumbles out of the gray sky and lands with a thud on the snow-scattered ground.
Applause ripples out from the Prince’s companions. As they congratulate him on his shot, Edward’s eyes narrow. Because beyond his friends, across the fields, a car has pulled up on the road running through the park. A dark-suited servant steps out of the vehicle and makes his way through the mud and snow toward the shooting party.
Edward hands off his gun to one of his friends and strides toward the car…
Mud splatters on his tweeds as the Prince hacks his way across the field to intercept the servant. The man bows and presents Edward with a letter on a silver tray.
The Prince of Wales picks it up and tears it open. The note is from his mother. Edward turns pale as he reads it. His elderly father King George V is sick. His mother thinks Edward should come to his bedside at once in case his condition worsens.
Edward hands back the letter, then hurries past the servant toward the waiting car. The shoot is over. He needs to get to his father the king as quickly as possible.
Four days later, George V dies. He was King for more than 25 years. But now his eldest son Edward inherits the throne.
Edward VIII seems like the perfect monarch. He’s handsome, charming, and possesses a natural rapport with people from all walks of life. But Edward also has a secret that most of his new subjects know nothing about. The unmarried King is in a relationship with a woman by the name of Wallis Simpson. She has no title nor money. She’s been married twice and, even worse, she’s an American. All of this makes her totally unacceptable to the conservative British establishment.
Edward’s love for Wallis will provoke a constitutional crisis in the United Kingdom, one which will only end more than a year after the death of George V, with the coronation of a new King – not Edward, but his younger brother George on May 12th, 1937.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is May 12th, 1937: The Coronation of King George VI
Act One: Mrs. Simpson
It’s late summer 1936, less than a year before George VI will be crowned King.
In the Eastern Mediterranean, a sleek luxury yacht lies at anchor in a quiet island cove. On deck, the British King, Edward VIII, stretches out on a towel, drying off after his morning swim. His eyes closed, he savors the warm sun on his bare skin and listens as waves ripple softly against the ship’s hull.
There’s a pad of soft footsteps across the deck. Edward opens his eyes and smiles. Gliding toward him with a cocktail in each hand is Wallis Simpson.
For all his adult life, Edward has been a notorious womanizer. A string of affairs in the 1920s scandalized the British upper classes and enraged Edward’s more conventional-minded father, King George V. But his relationship with Wallis is something far more serious.
The couple first met at a party in early 1931, but it took three years before they began their affair. Edward was soon besotted with Wallis. The stylish American was more than a breath of fresh air for the Prince - she was a whirlwind. Wallis didn’t care about the uptight traditions of British society or the fussy ceremonies of the Royal Family. And Edward adored her for that.
The new king and his married mistress have been touring the Mediterranean all summer. The luxury yacht they’ve chartered offers some privacy. But the couple is still trailed by photographers whenever they step ashore. The pictures are kept out of the British press and most ordinary people are unaware of their king’s relationship with the American woman. But foreign newspapers have less respect for the British establishment and gossip about Edward and Wallis is spreading around the world.
Over cocktails on deck, the couple makes plans for the day ahead. Perhaps they will stay in this idyllic cove, swimming, and sunbathing. Or perhaps they will raise anchor and steam onto another bay on another island to find another slice of paradise.
But as they make their plans, a dark thought gnaws at the back of Edward’s mind. The king knows that this vacation cannot last forever. Soon he will have to return to England, to face a choice he does not wish to make, one between his duties and his feelings.
A few months after Edward’s holiday with Wallis, the King is back at London’s Buckingham Palace, sitting inside one of its private receiving rooms. A fire burns in the hearth. But it does little to dispel the chill in the room. Edward picks nervously at the cuff of his thick jacket as he waits for a special guest.
There’s a knock at the door and Edward rises to his feet as Stanley Baldwin, the 69-year-old British Prime Minister, is shown into the room. The tall and slightly stooped politician bows stiffly to the king. Edward indicates the chair opposite his own and the two men sit down.
Edward has summoned the Prime Minister to the royal palace because he has something important to tell him. The king intends to marry his mistress, Wallis Simpson.
After months of speculation in the international press, Wallis began the process of divorcing her second husband last month. But in the eyes of the Church of England, even a divorce wouldn’t free her to marry the king. The church only allows divorced men and women to remarry if their former husband or wife is dead. And Wallis’ second husband is very much alive.
As King, Edward is Supreme Head of the Church of England with the title “Defender of the Faith.” In the eyes of senior clergy and many politicians, Edward can not hold that position and be married to the twice-divorced Wallis Simpson. He simply has to choose between the crown and the woman he loves.
So in the reception room at Buckingham Palace, Edward informs the Prime Minister that he and Wallis intend to marry as soon as possible. In response, Baldwin warns Edward that the people of Britain and its overseas Dominions will not accept Wallis as their Queen and that if Edward tries to push on with the marriage and remain as king, then Baldwin and his government will resign and trigger a political crisis.
Edward is silent as he digests the politician’s words. It’s clear to the new King that he will have to renounce Wallis or abdicate the crown. No monarch in British history has ever done that voluntarily. But what once seemed impossible to imagine is quickly becoming impossible to avoid. If he wants to marry Wallis Simpson, Edward will have to give up the throne.
Act Two: Something Must Be Done
It’s late November 1936 in a mining village in south Wales, six months before the coronation of George VI.
At a rundown coal pit, a crowd of locals cheers and waves flags wildly as a motorcade of Rolls-Royce cars sweeps through the gates. The volume grows even louder as King Edward gets out of the lead car, holds up his bowler hat in greeting, and steps down into the muck of the yard.
All around, factory furnaces and chimneys stand idle, victims of the Great Depression that has scarred the world’s economy and tumbled millions of people like those in South Wales into unemployment and poverty.
As the king moves through the crowd, he stops to speak with locals: workers who have lost their jobs; families that are struggling to get by. Edward is clearly moved by the hardship he sees and is even overheard saying that “something must be done” about it all.
The visit is a triumph for the king. Newsreels of his rapturous reception are shown all around the country. But among politicians in London, the king’s tour only deepens their worries about the future of the monarchy.
The British monarch is meant to be a figurehead who keeps out of politics. But to many in government, Edward’s comment that “something must be done” about poverty seems dangerously political. And it’s not the first time that the king’s opinions have caused concern. Edward is widely believed to have sympathies with the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler, sympathies which Wallis Simpson is rumored to be encouraging.
When the king returns to London, he cannot stop talking about what he saw in South Wales. Whispers begin to spread that the king has decided not to give up the throne. Instead, it’s claimed he intends to marry Wallis, and use his charm and popularity with the working people to win their support against the government.
The idea appalls politicians at Westminster. If the king refuses to step down and instead chooses to go ahead with the marriage with Wallis, the country could be divided in two, one camp for the king and one against him.
The last thing Britain needs now is a paralyzing political crisis. This is a time of growing international tension when war with Nazi Germany seems more and more likely. There’s only one solution. The king has to go.
A few weeks later, on the evening of December 11th, 1936, Edward stands in the corner of a small sitting room at Windsor Castle. The space has been transformed into a makeshift radio studio. Furniture is pushed back against the walls and wires curl across the ancient carpets. Young technicians hunch in quiet concentration over their machines as a producer counts down from ten on his fingers. Then Edward is introduced. He takes his seat at the desk in front of two boxy microphones and, hesitantly, begins to speak:
"EDWARD:At long last, I am able to say a few words of my own. I have never wanted to withhold anything but until now it has not been constitutionally possible for me to speak. A few hours ago, I discharged my last duty as King and Emperor and now that I have been succeeded by my brother, the Duke of York, my first words must be to declare my allegiance to him. This I do with all my heart…."
For a time, Edward hoped a deal could be reached that would allow him to remain King. He would marry Wallis, but she wouldn’t become Queen. Instead, Edward would make her a Duchess – giving her a title but keeping her outside the Royal Family. But that idea was rejected by the government. Some close to the King tried to persuade Edward to delay any decision for a year or two. They hoped, given time, either the king’s feelings for Wallis would weaken or those against the marriage might soften their opposition. But events were moving too fast for any compromise.
At the beginning of December, the British press finally broke the news about the king’s affair. In response, a mob attacked Wallis Simpson’s London home. With the storm of publicity growing, Wallis fled the country and Edward was left to deal with the fallout. If the king had expected a groundswell of popular support, it did not emerge. Instead, as the days passed, opinion in Britain hardened against him and Wallis. Exhausted with stress and distraught at the separation from his lover, Edward finally gave in. On the morning of December 10th, Edward signed the abdication papers and handed over the British throne to his dependable younger brother George.
Edward was given a new title: the Duke of Windsor. He planned to leave Britain and live abroad with Wallis. But before he went into exile, Edward was determined to address the nation. Finally, the people would hear his side of the story:
"EDWARD:But you must believe me when I tell you 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 making his broadcast, the former king slips away from England for France. There, he will reunite with his beloved Wallis and marry her at last. In their absence, a coronation will take place in London. A long-planned day of pomp and ceremony in which Edward was supposed to play the leading role. But instead, it will be his younger brother George who will be crowned, finally bringing an end to the Abdication Crisis that has threatened to tear the United Kingdom apart.
Act Three: Long Live the King
It’s May 12th, 1937 at Westminster Abbey in London.
Sunlight streams through the high windows of the medieval church. Jewels and coronets sparkle among the seated ranks of British nobility and foreign dignitaries who have come to pay homage to the new King.
Edward VIII’s younger brother George sits on an ancient wooden throne in the heart of the Abbey. Draped in Royal robes, the new king grips the sovereign’s scepters and stares ahead as the Archbishop of Canterbury looms over him, holding the Crown of St. Edward.
Slowly, the weighty crown is lowered onto George’s head. A shout of “God save the King” rings out all through the Abbey and, from outside, comes the distant sound of cannon fire, as guns in the Royal Parks salute the coronation of Britain’s new monarch.
It’s as if the brief and unhappy reign of George’s older brother has already been forgotten, wiped from the collective memory of the nation. But the new King remembers all too well how Edward’s actions endangered the monarchy and almost tore the country’s constitution. He is determined that nothing like that will ever happen again.
George had been reluctant to take on the responsibility of being King. But unlike his older brother, George chose his duty to the country over his personal feelings. The new king may be less dashing and charming than Edward, but over the course of his reign, George will provide steadfast leadership that restores the reputation and popularity of the Royal Family among the British people. And he will provide a model for the monarchy that will be diligently followed by his heir, his daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth II.
She will go on to become the longest-reigning monarch in British history. But Elizabeth would never have become Queen at all if not for a crisis in the heart of the British establishment that saw a King choose love over a crown, allowing his brother to take his place on the throne on May 12th, 1937.
Next on History Daily. May 15th, 1940. McDonald’s is founded when brothers Maurice and Richard McDonald open their first restaurant in San Bernardino, California, giving rise to what will become one of the world’s most prominent fast food chains.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Muhammed Shahzaib.
Sound design by Mollie Baack.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by William Simpson.
Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.