1936 Fifty Years Ago

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Mrs. Wallis Warfield Simpson was regarded as an entirely inappropriate consort for Edward VIII. She was a commoner, an American, and a once-divorced woman still married to her second husband.

Any sort of liaison with such a person was opposed by the royal family, the prime minister, the archbishop of Canterbury, and all the governments of the Dominions. But the king was determined to marry Mrs. Simpson, even if it meant the loss of his throne. To the astonishment of the world, it came to that. On December 10, Edward VIII signed an instrument of abdication, and the next day he gave a farewell address that was broadcast around the globe. “You must believe me,” he told his listeners, “when I tell you that I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as King … without the help and support of the woman I love.” The former king then followed Mrs. Simpson to the Continent, where they would live in exile for most of the remainder of their lives.

“People were very mean in the beginning,” recalled the Duchess of Windsor, the title Mrs. Simpson acquired upon marrying Edward. “We felt the world was praying we wouldn’t be happy.” Officially, England seemed determined to make the couple suffer. The archbishop of Canterbury refused to authorize an Anglican wedding, and a decree was issued denying the duchess any right to the title “Royal Highness.” The royal family shunned them until 1965, when the duke was invited to a memorial service for his sister. Even that event, however, did not signal any relaxation of the official coolness directed toward the Windsors.

After the duke died, in 1972, the duchess’s health quickly failed, leaving her housebound for the last eight years of her life. When she died this past April, she was buried by the royal family in a plot beside her husband in the land she had said, in a bitter moment, “I shall hate to my grave.”