When I was in middle school way back in the 1980’s, I saw a TV movie called The Woman He Loved starring Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour (Amazon) and absolutely fell in love with the true-life story of Edward VIII of England, who abdicated his crown for the love of a twice-divorced American woman named Wallis Simpson. After watching the movie, I was hooked. I had to know more about them. And the more I read, the more I realized that the decision to abdicate for love was not all it appeared to be. The Crown in Crisis: Countdown to the Abdication (Amazon) details the main players, and uses documents not previously released to the public to tell the tale. I received an Advanced Reader’s Copy from NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press in exchange for my honest review.
From the publisher: “On December 10, 1936, King Edward VIII brought a great international drama to a close when he abdicated, renouncing the throne of the United Kingdom for himself and his heirs. The reason he gave when addressing his subjects was that he could not fulfill his duties without the woman he loved—the notorious American divorcee Wallis Simpson—by his side. His actions scandalized the establishment, who were desperate to avoid an international embarrassment at a time when war seemed imminent. That the King was rumored to have Nazi sympathies only strengthened their determination that he should be forced off the throne, by any means necessary.”
“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.” — Edward VIII
It all sounds so romantic, but the true story of Edward VIII’s departure from the British monarchy is hardly that simple. It was, however, the story much of the world remembered for decades. As time has passed, new letters and official documents relating to the abdication have been released, and they tell a different story. The Crown in Crisis: Countdown to the Abdication uses many of those documents to weave a tale that reads like a novel.
Edward (called David by his intimates) was a lot of things. He was utterly charming as Prince of Wales, doing his royal duties his father picked out for him. But he was a vain (rumored to be anorexic, too, he was so obsessed with staying fit and trim), self-centered, Godless (important to note if one is to be the head of the Church of England), xenophobic, nationalistic, mercenary of a man who, even as a little boy, declared he never wanted to be king. He adored all the trappings that royal life brought to him, but none of the duties, even though he was, as mentioned, quite good at it.
While he was Prince of Wales, Edward had a series of long-term affairs, mostly with high society woman, almost always married. It was considered acceptable at the time that married people of a certain stature could commit adultery. Edward’s own grandfather, Edward VII, had a long-term affair with a woman named Alice Keppel (who just so happens to be the great-grandmother of Camilla Parker Bowles, now the Duchess of Cornwall, Prince Charles’ wife).
King George V, Edward’s father, did not get along with Edward at all and had no faith in his abilities. He was famously to have said, not long after meeting Wallis Simpson, “after I am dead, the boy will ruin himself in twelve months,” and even went so far as to tell an intimate, “I pray to God that my eldest son will never marry and have children, and that nothing will come between Bertie and Lilibet and the throne.” He was proved right, as Edward reigned only 326 days.
Edward’s met Wallis Simpson in 1932, introduced by his then-current lady friend, the married Lady Thelma Furness, also an American. (For more reading on Lady Furness, you could try the historical novel The Woman Before Wallis (review here). Thelma was the twin to Gloria Vanderbilt, who was in the middle of a custody dispute for her daughter, Little Gloria (the famed designer and mother of TV Anchor Anderson Cooper). You can read more about the custody case in Little Gloria… Happy at Last (review here). Thelma had to go to America to lend support to her sister and asked Wallis to look over “the little man.” Wallis did such a good job of taking care of the Prince of Wales that Thelma was written out of his life when she returned.
At the time, all the major and minor newspapers in Great Britain had a gentleman’s agreement with the palace that private affairs of the royals would remain private. So the common man and woman had no idea about the prince and his affairs, but it was reported in other countries and their newspapers, most especially the United States. So when King George died and Edward became King, the newspapers knew they could not hold back the information much longer. The good news for the king was that the heads of the major newspapers were on his side and stroked his ego, insisting he could get away with marrying a twice-divorced American and make her Queen. The British government had other ideas.
Wallis Simpson is often portrayed as the villain in this story, power-hungry and someone who was sort of a sexual dominatrix to the king, but as letters and documents have shown, she tried to break away from the king several times, although not too forcefully. She wrote to the king “The possession of beautiful things is thrilling to me and much appreciated but weighed against a calm, congenial life I choose the latter.” Wallis said more than once she wished to return to her husband, Ernest, “I have the deepest affection and respect for him. I feel I am better with him than with you–so you must understand… I am sure you and I would only create disaster together.” But Edward was a man obsessed with his love for Wallis, and threatened suicide if she did not return to him. So she did. This scenario played out several times during the crisis, with Edward telling her that if she left him, he would track her down. Wallis seemed to genuinely care for Edward, but most agree she wasn’t in love with him. She was more attracted to the lifestyle than the man.
The bulk of the book is the machinations of Edward, Lord Beaverbrook, Walter Monckton (Edward’s solicitor and advisor), Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, and Winston Churchill, who was the one who suggested a morganatic marriage, whereby two partners of unequal social ranks are married, with the provision that any children from such a marriage could not inherit the throne.
I had no idea there had been an assassination attempt made on King Edward’s life during his short reign, nor did I know that MI-5 (sort of like the FBI in America) bugged the phones of the major players, including the King, Wallis Simpson, and Prince Albert (later George VI). I did know that once the newspaper gag was lifted, public support seemed to be on the king’s side. The Parliament, however, worried about fractures, with a so-called “King’s Party” being formed. The Prime Minister, did not want the government to divide into those for the king, and those against. That sort of thinking was fine for other countries, but not in Great Britain. Even though they were part of the Liberal or Conservative party, they were all “for the king.” Baldwin did not want to be responsible for a civil war, one fought “in words and not in blood.” There were also concerns with Edward’s coziness with German diplomats and how he supported some of Hitler’s socialist programs. The king was supposed to stay above politics, not dive in and offer opinions on them.
Edward knew deep down that he would abdicate because he really didn’t want the job anyway, meeting with his brother Bertie in mid-November, just to let him know what was going on with the crisis. Then he didn’t talk to his brother for almost a month! Bertie found out for sure that he was to become king about five days before it actually happened. Winston Churchill helped Edward write his farewell speech, and Bertie became King George VI. His daughter, Elizabeth, has reigned as Queen since 1952.
The Crown in Crisis doesn’t go into detail into the afterward of the crisis and how the division with his family widened for years, then relaxed a little closer to Edward’s death, although the author did note that he stayed close to his sister, Mary, who is rarely mentioned in royal histories.
The once romantic tale of giving up power to be with the one you love doesn’t ring true anymore. It’s a nice fairy tale. And The Crown in Crisis reveals the many details that went into the decision that changed the course of the British Monarchy.
The Crown in Crisis is being released January 19, 2021.
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