Krise der klassischen Moderne (1918-1945)

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aventinus nova Nr. 20 [29.05.2010] 

Andrea Stahl 

Why, in a democracy, did the behaviour of Edward VIII seem to constitute a national crisis?  

The unique events of 1936, when for the first and so far for the last time a King abdicated voluntarily, without being unable to rule or driven out forcefully, are today known as 'Abdication Crisis'. The question is not, if it really was a crisis of national extent, but rather, why the simple fact that a monarch resigned from his office caused such an uproar. It seems not that remote an idea that a monarch, who could not cope with the expectations he had to meet to fulfil his or duties ( in Edward VIII's case the fact that he had to make the choice: either the crown or his mistress, Wallis Simpson), should resign in favour of a more suitable person, but this exactly caused a political and constitutional crisis. 

Thus, if on the outside, this does not, to be more than a change of the head of state – a rather frequent and not necessarily uncommon event, especially in countries, where they are elected – how and why did it create such political problems? The reason could obviously not be purely political, as the British monarchy had long lost its significance and influence on matters of politics and was in that respect replaced by Parliament and Cabinet. Thus the abdication could not be expected to create instability in the work of the government. Still, the symbolic role of the king and his indirect influence proved enough of a reason of the grave problems arising. 

The discussion about the king marrying a divorcee went on for nearly a year, before an abdication was suggested as a solution. The major problem in this proposed marriage lay in the constitutional position and the highly symbolic value the monarchy in general and the person of the King had for Britain as well as for the Commonwealth. The constitutional problem was this severe, since Britain had a long tradition that bound the monarchy to the Constitution and brought it under the control of Parliament, and because of the damage done to the symbol of the monarch, who was supposed to be a stable and reconciling element rather than a critical factor. 

In addition, the King is automatically the Head of the Church of England, a church which was not in favour of divorce or divorcees, so the King's desire to marry a twice divorced woman clashed as much with his political and symbolic position as with his spiritual duties. One reason why the political and constitutional unrest caused by the abdication were not only an inconvenience, but a danger to the nation, was the general situation in 1930s Europe. After the end of the Great War, the monarchies of Germany, Austria-Hungary and several smaller countries had been driven out and left a political vacuum, for they were insufficiently replaced by the new republics. Their weakness favoured the rise of autocratic regimes – the best-known and most horrifying example is Nazi-Germany. In the same period, the Spanish civil war started, while Mussolini's Italy during the Abyssinia crisis proved to be a threat to the fragile peace of Europe. The discussion about the marriage and finally the abdication showed a liability and frailty in Britain's political system and absorbed its powers, when – due to the continental developements – it would have been essential to rely on its stability.  

With foreign policy questions pushed to the periphery of attention, the abdication crisis effected not only Britain's politics but also other countries of the Commonwealth, which built up a considerable factor of strength and power backing the United Kingdom. After the King officially asked for the advice of his government concerning the question, if a morganatic marriage – Mrs. Simpson would be his wife, but she would not automatically become Queen Consort – was possible, he basically laid the decision into the hands of the British and the governments of the Dominions, for the „consent not only of the British government, but of the governments of the other Dominions“ [1] would have been necessary to make the suggestion a success. The responses throughout the Dominions were negative. The statement of the Australian Prime Minister was fairly blunt: „There would be outspoken hostility to His Majesty's proposed wife becoming Queen, while any proposal that she should become Consort and not Queen [...] would not be approved by my government.“ [2] The other Dominions may not have been as outspoken, but they certainly did also not give their approval to whatever kind of marriage between the King and Mrs. Simpson. The Crown as „the only formal link between Britain and the self-governing Dominons“ [3] now threatened this link in itself. The common political interest interest throughout the Dominions – except for Ireland, which aimed to exploit the crisis to loosen the link to Britain – stated that „Mrs. Simpson would be as unacceptable to them as she was to the British Government“ [4]. Though the strongly Anglican-based reasons did not weigh as much as in Britain, in the dominions with numerous Roman-Catholics, e.g. Australia or Canada, existed a strong religious aspect intensifying the notion, that Mrs. Simpson wou ld make a most unsuitable Queen. Causing any situation which endangered the ties between Britain and her former colonies was hardly advantageous, as British trade rested to a great deal on her connections to the Commonwealth and the Dominions contributed to a considerable extent to the status of British power. Being able to call upon these formerly 'imperial' auxiliary means in case of war or defence was a significant asset Britain could not lose without weakening her own safety,  especially if one takes the developments on the Continent into account.

British politics itself were especially concerned with the role King Edward played in his mistress's divorce case and the constitutional problems – first, the symbol of the constitution and its stability was unstable itself; second, the monarchy as the framework of politics came to be questioned; third, depending on the King's attitude, the monarch's position in the constitutional system might have changed.  

A decree nisi was granted Mrs. Simpson on October 27, but this was thought to have gone far too easy and too fast. It was obviously believed that Mrs. Simpson achieved the decree nisi by „a stretch of law and justice“ [5] , which of course brought suspicion not only to her but to the King, as the person, who would have profited from the divorce, as his mistress then would be free to marry him. The evidence for Mr. Simpson committing adultery was „regarded with suspicion by the Courts“ [6], for it happened in a hotel. Another suspicion was that the divorce was planned by the different parties, i.e. They were guilty of collusion, for „allegations suggesting that money had changed hands between those concerned or at least that the parties had agreed between themselves about the way in which the case was to be presented were apparently current.“ [7] This reproach, of course, did not only accuse the Simpson couple, but also the King, who enjoyed immunity, at least as long as he was King. [8] There the actual problem became apparent: if the King' proctor was to intervene in the Simpson divorce case, the decree might have been have annuled, which would have made the abdication vain. Besides, an abdication before the Simpson divorce became official would have increased the risk for either a prosecution of a former King, if the collusion was proved (for then he would be only a normal citizen) or a delay or denial for Wallis to remarry. Evidently, the combination of a divorce/ abdication case caused a dilemma for politicians as well as lawyers. One point is not to enforce the crisis in preventing a marriage after the abdication, in prosecuting a former king etc. Though another point is the question, if the king can influence the law, respectively if relations to the monarch made it possible to achieve ends a normal citizen could not accomplish.

The close connection of monarchy and constitution, dating back from 1215 over 1689, bound the monarch more and more to the principles of the constitution and the rights of Parliament. Bogdanor calls it a „limited monarchy: the constitution does not allow the sovereign actually to govern.“ [9] The constitution ensured that the monarch had „to rule according to the law“ and that „the sovereign was as much under the rule of the law as his or her subjects.“ [10] The change of succession through a Parliamentary intervention in 1689 proved that Parliament's power limited the power of the sovereign, in order to prevent „abuses of power“ as well as „to bring the monarchy once again under the rule of law.“ [11] The constitution requested two things of the monarch, which were significant for Edward's case: first, he had to be in communion with the Church of England; secondly, he was obliged to to accept his ministers' advice, after asking for it or he risked a dissolution of the government. Though officially the monarch was not bound to have the consent of the governmenton his marriage (the Royal Marriage Act did not apply to the sovereign) his choice was still „limited [...] by convention“. [12] The king's wife became queen automatically and therefore was a representative of the people. Thus apparently a suitable person was necessary to fit this role. „Therefore, in his choice of a wife, the view of the nation, through its elected ministers, must be heard.“ [13] Even though Bogdanor states that Edward never sought for formal advice concerning the marriage, while Cretney argues that „the King made tactically a serious mistake by asking Baldwin's Cabinet for formal advice“ [14] concerning the morganatic marriage legislation. The crucial aspect does not seem to be whether he asked for fromal advice or not, but rather that it did not matter, what he did. Baldwin refused to offer formal advice to abdicate, for he thought the decision was just up to the king and should not be forced upon him by his ministers. Still, the cabinets' opinion about the king's marriage was made informally known to Edward, a fact making obvious to him that a marriage to Mrs. Simpson with full approval of nation and government would be impossible. Knowing his Cabinets' objections and not considering or accepting them would have created the situation of a King rejecting the advice of his government – despite his obligation to follow it. Cabinet would have dissolved, changing the politically inactive role of the king into an active one by an unconstitutional action. This contradiction to all the achieved constitutional principles would inevitably result in a constitutional crisis. Edward's final decision not to marry against the wishes and advice of his ministers prevented this gravest consequence.

The abdication crisis may not have in a strict sense raised a change in the constitution, but the possibility was apparent during 1936, leading to another aspect, why there was a national crisis. As mentioned before, the sovereign had to be in communion with the religious principles of the Church of England, for with his or her accession to the throne, the monarch became head of the church. In his Coronation Oath, the sovereign had to swear to maintain the protestant religion and the settlement of the Church of England. Those religios duties and offices collided now with the private interests of the King: the attitude of the Anglican church towards divorce was quite similar to the views of the Roman-Catholic church. Only one reason could justify divorce: adultery. The Church wanted to maintain marriage as a „sacred, lifelong commitment“ [15]. Of course, the curch was strongly opposed to the marriage of its Head to a then twice-diveorced woman, as the Church's principle was, not to remarry a person, whose former spouse(s) were still alive. Difficulties arose from hte fact that the king had to be crowned and hte Archbishop of Canterbury, who led the coronation „was not sure, he could perform the ceremony in these conditions.“ [16] The sacred procedure of the coronation and the sacrament of the holy communion would be spoiled by a person, who did not respect the sacrament of marriage. On the other hand, the coronation was essential for the monarchy as well as the nation, as it symbolised the specific position of the monarch to represent and rule. The King, who still claimed the title 'Defender of the Faith' „betray[ed] the most sacred principles of the Church [...] Solemnly to crown him as the Elect of God would be to desecrate Westminster Abbey and to turn this noble ceremony into a blasphemous farce“. [17] The population, who still perceived a special relation between King and God – therefore maybe also a special relation between God and the British nation – would lose faith in the monarchy, if it did not maintain the established Church. This would desecrate the Coronation Oath and deep damage to the spiritual value of the monarchy. A likely consequence would be a loss of reputation and respect for the monarch, throughout the country and all social milieus.

The symbolic quality of the monarchy cannot be estimateed highly enough. It was not only a symbol of stability in a shaken world, changing since the end of the Great War. The British Monarchy survived despite a tendency to abolish monarchies and embodied the extrtaordinary political and constitutional system, shaped successfully over centuries. The monarchy itself was considered a symbol and reinforcement of national unity [18] and legitimated as a linking element between ruled and rulers the authority of the government. The monarch embodied a continuous line of sovereigns, of history, from the early days of the British nation up to the days of the Empire, probably considered the most glorious time in British history.

In addition to the historical and political image, the monarchy under George V came „to symbolize all that was best of the people's monarchy, rooted in national tradition, charitble works and dedication and self-sacrifice on behalf of the nation.“ [19] Now there was suddenly a monarch, who, for purely egocentric reasons renounced his duty to the nation and the people, denying the fact that the people served the country during the Great War (and soon should have to serve in World War II). This refusal of the monarch to sacrifice his private life to fulfil his duties could have raised a feeling of neglect and rebuff among the peoble, supporting the notion of the monarchy being not more reliable than any other form of government.

The traditionally conservative values of family, marriage, high morals religious conscience were values the moanrchy was expected to embody, what is proven by the extreme scrutiny the public displayed when it came to matters of the family of the Duke of York, later to become George VI. Edward, with his long-term fear of marriage and his intention to marry an American divorcee contradicted this image of the monarchy, could even be seen as its antipode. „King George“, in contrast to his successor, „had become a universal father figure. [...] He stood for absolute standards of decency and stability in a world of self-questioning and shifting values; with his death the average citizen felt that much less secure about the future.“ [20]

Themoarchy not only a „grand and remote figure[s], whom [people] can admire, prhaps even worship,“ but „stability and securitx to the realm“. [21] It maintained and symbolized the traditional social system as well as the constitutional principles. The monarchy was above everything, remote from political intrigues and factionism, which is probably why it is so significant within the political system. Quarrels between party leaders or opportunism, aiming to gain votes in the next election, were nothing the monarchy was involved in or needed to be concerned with. Thus it was, in the world of politics, becoming more and more corrupt, comparable to the 'one solid rock'. The monarchy stood for the superior order of the Curch as well as traditional values like family and common decency menaced by modern times' attitudes. Symbolism and tradition created a special aura as a base for the monarchy, but also a frame of expectations it had to meet. Reinforced and emphasized by symbolic actions and ceremonies, which have been celebated for centuries, the monarchy still possessed a mystic element. Edward's conduct destroyed not only the reliability of the constitutional position of the monarchy, but also it profaned its spiritual and exalted meaning, not only in a religious sense. The image of the monarchy as something extraordinary – maybe even sacred – suffered alongside the trust in the constitutional and spiritual traditions. Destabilising the monarchy caused a 'national crisis', because it made the one institution untrustworthy, which united politics and religion, which connected tradition and continuity to the future, creating a unique symbol for the nation as a whole.


Vernon Bogdanor: The Monarchy and the Constitution. Oxford 1995. 

S.M. Cretney: They king and the king's proctor. The Abdication Crisis and the Divorce Laws 1936/37. In: Law Quarterly Review 116 2000.

G.I.T. Machin: Marriage and the churches in the 1930s. In: Journal of Ecclesiastical History Vol 42 1991. 

Anthony Taylor: Down with the Crown. London 1999. 

Philip Ziegler: King Edward VIII. New York 1991. 

Philip Ziegler: Crown and People. New York 1978. 


  • [1]

    Vernon Bogdanor: The monarchy and the Constitution. Clarendon Press 1995. p. 141.

  • [2]

    Philip Ziegler: King Edward VIII. Alfred A. Knopf 1991. p. 265. 

  • [3]

    Bogdanor: The monarchy. p. 248. 

  • [4]


  • [5]

    S.M.: Cretney: They king and the king's proctor. The Abdication Crisis and the Divorce Laws 1936/37. In: Law Quarterly Review 116, 2000, p. 585.  

  • [6]

    Ibid. p. 596.  

  • [7]

    Ibid. p. 597. 

  • [8]

    cf. Cretney: The King. p. 598f. 

  • [9]

    Bogdanor: Monarchy. p. 1. 

  • [10]

    Ibid. p.  8.

  • [11]

    Ibid. p.  5.

  • [12]

    Ibid. p. 136. 

  • [13]

    Ibid. p. 137. 

  • [14]

    Cretney: The King. p. 589. 

  • [15]

    G.I.T. Machin: Marriage and the churches in the 1930s. In: Journal of Ecclesiastical History. Vol 42 1991. p. 70. 

  • [16]


  • [17]

    Philip Ziegler: Crown and People. 1978. p. 36. 

  • [18]

    Bogdanor: Monarchy. p. 306f. 

  • [19]

    Anthony Taylor: Down with the Crown. 1999. p. 212. 

  • [20]

    Ziegler: Crown. p. 33f. 

  • [21]

    Ibid. p. 18. 

Empfohlene Zitierweise

Stahl, Andrea: Why, in a democracy, did the behaviour of Edward VIII seem to constitute a national crisis?. aventinus nova Nr. 20 [29.05.2010], in: aventinus, URL:

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Erstellt: 27.05.2010

Zuletzt geändert: 29.05.2010

ISSN 2194-1963