Part of a new series on revisionist history, speculating on tiny changes in British history that could cause a ‘butterfly effect’.
It’s seen as either one of the biggest love stories of all time, or an emotional car crash. In 1936, the man who had been Edward VIII for less than a full year, abdicated – famously stating 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”. The woman he loved was, of course, the wholly unsuitable twice-divorced American, Wallis Warfield Simpson.
But what if the British Empire hadn’t taken against Wallis? What if Edward had never had to give up the crown? Would this have had any real impact on British history?
The reign of Edward VIII, if uninterrupted, would have run from 1936 until his death in 1972. Edward and Wallis as Duke and Duchess of Windsor never had children. Wallis was in fact in her early forties at the time of their marriage, so it was likely she was already naturally rather infertile, due to her age. To be honest, Wallis was likely barren her whole life (speculation raged that this was down to an abortion she undertook in the 1920s that was botched). Considering the lack of reliable birth control she had at her disposal, it is rather odd that Wallis never conceived during any of her three marriages. There was rumour that Edward too was infertile, so I guess it is pretty safe to say that whether King and Queen or Duke and Duchess, the pair were never going to have issue.
So, King Edward dies childless in 1972. His heir is the eldest daughter of his shy, stammering brother, Prince Albert of York – so it seems we would have gotten Her Madge Queen Elizabeth II regardless of whether or not Edward had abdicated, the only difference being she would have ascended the throne a middle-aged mother of four, as opposed to the sprightly young thing she actually was. Her father would never have ruled as George VI but remained as Duke of York his whole life (and he and the Queen Mother may have been a lot happier and The King’s Speech wouldn’t be on the TV so bloody much).
So far, not so much different. But how would King Edward and Queen Wallis have fared steering the Empire through the hardships and adversities of World War II?
Sensationalist historians claimed Edward and Wallis were Nazis. They weren’t, but it is definitely undeniable that they were – certainly in the early years of the Nazi regime – sympathisers. Nazi Albert Speer quoted Hitler directly on the subject of Edward: “I am certain through him permanent friendly relations could have been achieved. If he had stayed [as King], everything would have been different. His abdication was a severe loss for us.” To be completely fair, a certain level of fascism, racism and anti-Semitism was prevalent in the European upper-classes, which the war did well to spotlight and alleviate going forward.
In October 1937, Edward and Wallis visited Germany, much to the fury of and against the direct advice of the British government. They met with Hitler and had a jolly old time and – much to the delight of the German media/propaganda machine – Edward even gave a full Nazi salute. Hitler is said to have told Wallis: “You would make a good Queen.” Of course, it could be argued that if Edward were King, he may have been kept on a tighter leash – by himself, and by Parliament – and would never have gone to meet with Hitler…
When war finally broke out, Edward was an instant and obvious focus of Nazi attention. They tried to persuade him to publically support the German cause and when he demurred, wrote up plans to kidnap him from his home in France. Winston Churchill was warned that: “[the Duke] is well-known to be pro-Nazi and he may become a centre of intrigue.” Wallis was blamed for instigating Edward’s German leanings (as she was usually blamed for everything); according to the FBI, Wallis had enjoyed an affair with one Joachim von Ribbentrop, the man who was then the Nazi’s Foreign Minister, whilst he was the German ambassador to Britain in 1936. Edward was accused of leaking Allied secrets to the Nazis via von Ribbentrop.
The final straw was a disgracefully ‘defeatist’ interview, where Edward called for peace by way of surrendering to the Germans. Churchill went mad, threatening Edward with a court-martial if he didn’t get back on British soil and shut his mouth. A begrudging Edward conceded partway, and was shipped off – Wallis in tow – to the Bahamas, where he was installed as Governor, the first member of the Royal Family to ever hold civilian office. That the government felt it necessary to remove Edward and place him as far away as it was physically possible shows the very real concern that Edward was causing.
As unpalatable as the idea of having Nazi sympathisers as our King and Queen during World War Two is, it most likely would not have impacted on the course of the conflict. “The monarch reigns but does not rule,” of course, and Edward should not have been able to pressurise his ministers into a policy of appeasement and friendship with the Germans regardless of whether or not he was King. The main ripple he could have caused would have been, in his refusing to give up Wallis or abdicate, Parliament would have dissolved, causing an election, meaning we may well have had different political leaders with different skills and motivations at the advent of World War Two.
Of course Edward’s ‘Nazism’ may never have been as much as people have made of it. After the war, the Duke stated in his memoirs that he had always admired the Germans, but he denied being pro-Nazi. Of Hitler he wrote: “[the] Führer struck me as a somewhat ridiculous figure, with his theatrical posturings and his bombastic pretensions.”However, during the 1960s he apparently said privately to a friend: “I never thought Hitler was such a bad chap.”
One last interesting thought! The wording of the Declaration of Abdication Act reads: “His Majesty, His issue, if any, and the descendants of that issue, shall not after His Majesty’s abdication have any right, title or interest in or to the succession to the Throne.” If Edward and Wallis as Duke and Duchess of York had had children and their great-granddaughter (say) happened to marry Prince William and eventually come to the throne as Queen consort, it would require an act of Parliament to make any children from that marriage heir to the throne, as their maternal descent from Edward would bar them under the Abdication Act.
So, ‘what if’ Edward VIII had never abdicated? Things wouldn’t be so very different. We’d still be honouring our current Queen, but it would be her Ruby Jubilee as opposed to her Diamond. It might have been a little rocky, having a weak-natured and pro-fascist King on the throne during the war, but the same strong politicians that steered us through would surely have done the same regardless. And after the experience of ‘Queen Wallis’, I’m sure there wouldn’t have been nearly so much fuss about Prince Charles marrying Camilla Parker Bowles…