Seventy-seven years ago, in a move unprecedented since the Glorious Revolution of 1688, King-Emperor Edward VIII abdicated the throne. Today’s audiences will recognize the episode from The King’s Speech: less than a year after having ascended to the British kingship in January of 1936, Edward became romantically entangled with a yet-to-be-divorced American socialite named Wallis Simpson. As long as the King’s liaisons remained discreet, the couple was afforded a respectable amount of privacy by the royal family and the British media. Things grew more complicated, however, when Simpson divorced her second husband in October of 1936, and the pair decided to marry, come hell or high water.
A King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland being wedded to a twice-divorced American socialite would have caused a furor. As the head of the Church of England, Edward could not marry a divorced woman whose former husband (let alone husbands) remained alive. Simpson’s first divorce proved even more problematic—it was granted based on “emotional incompatibility,” and may not have been recognized under both Church and English law. The King’s marriage to Simpson also raised the possibility of an American Queen, a sacrilegious idea in the eyes of his subjects.
Faced with a choice between the crown and his love, Edward VIII chose to step down. On December 10, 1936, the King signed the following declaration of abdication:
In the audio clip at the top of the post, Edward VIII takes to the radio waves to declare his abdication on December 11. Brimming with hardly-contained emotion, Edward attempts to explain his reasons to the British people (read the full transcript here):
“You all know the reasons which have impelled me to renounce the Throne. But I want you to understand that in making up my mind I did not forget the country or the Empire which as Prince of Wales, and lately as King, I have for twenty-five years tried to serve. 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.”
For those who had doubts about Simpson’s true feelings for the King (some suspected her of caring only about the king's money), the next 35 years would provide sufficient proof. The pair remained married until Edward’s death in 1972.
Ilia Blinderman is a Montreal-based culture and science writer. Follow him at @iliablinderman.