Three kings plus a spare – what could be more festive than that?
The first of today’s faces is outside my usual time period but it is a significant event so far as the British monarchy is concerned. On the 11 December 1936 King Edward VIII, uncrowned king of the United Kingdom, renounced the throne, not by proclamation but through the very modern medium of a radio broadcast. He then joined Wallis Simpson on a boat bound for France. He’d been king for less than a year. In his abdication speech Edward was eager to observe that as a constitutional monarch he’d never done anything in opposition to his parliament. Churchill made much the same comment in a speech given in the House of Commons on the subject. He also said, “ What is done is done. What has been done or left undone belongs to history, and to history, so far as I am concerned, it shall be left.”
Since then history, journalists, biographers and anyone with an interest have speculated as to the whys and wherefores of the case of the only king in English history to voluntarily renounce his throne.
Edward’s decision was the result of a constitutional crisis bought about by his love for Wallis Simpson, an almost twice divorced American. I say almost because her second divorce from Ernest Simpson was still pending at this time. If Edward had hoped that the political elite would be tolerant of his love for Wallis he was sadly mistaken even though there was probably a big clue in the fact that his own father, George V, had refused to meet her in 1934.
Edward even went so far to ask Stanley Baldwin, the then prime minister, if it would be possible for him to have a morganatic marriage. A morganatic marriage in this context is a marriage between a couple of unequal rank in society. Although the marriage is recognized any children resulting from the union would not be permitted to inherit the throne. Nor would Wallis have attained the rank and privileges of her husband. This was a reasonably common approach to marriage in European royal houses but would have been unique in British history – no one dared mention to Henry VIII, of instance, that his marriage to Anne Boleyn, even with her drip of Plantagenet blood, was not a marriage of equals.
Baldwin’s cabinet deemed that the British public would not take to a twice divorced American with a scandalous reputation so said no to a morganatic union. This left Edward with three choices: he could say goodbye to Wallis and marry a woman deemed appropriate; abdicate or ignore the prime minister and marry Wallis anyway. This would have led to a direct confrontation between king and his ministers as they would have resigned resulting in a constitutional crisis.
By the beginning of December the scandal was all over the papers. Edward made his decision and ‘lay down the burden’ of kingship – which rather suggests he felt there was a choice in the matter. The pair got married on June 3 1937. Edward’s younger brother Albert, now King George VI, created him duke of Windsor. Edward and Wallis spent the rest of their lives in exile.
Of course, other kings have abdicated in English history – just they didn’t do it voluntarily and they certainly weren’t sent off to be the governor of the Bahamas. The demise of deposed medieval kings reflects the way in which parliament gradually became more important as the centuries progressed and the kings themselves gradually found their power being eroded. Edward II was deposed in January 1327 when he was captured by his wife Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer. Parliament named his son Edward III as king. There wasn’t a great deal of debate about the matter but it is significant that parliament was called upon to recognise the transition. Edward II disappeared into Berkeley Castle where he was murdered – the medieval way of getting rid of a king who’d worn out his welcome.
Two generations later Richard II renounced the throne in 1399. In reality, he too was deposed but his cousin Henry of Bolingbroke, who became Henry IV, recognized the importance of popular acclaim and legal justification for his actions- no need to discuss the fact that Richard II was being held captive at the time nor the fact that he didn’t have a great deal of choice in the matter. Like his great grandfather Richard found himself being escorted to a large castle (Pontefract) and quietly removed from the scene (starved).
During the Wars of the Roses, Lancastrians and Yorkists alike were careful to have parliament identify their reign as beginning prior to the key battle that saw them taking hold of power. This ensured that the loosing side could all be attained for treason.
By the reign of Charles I the law and parliament had evolved even further, though now is not the time to explore the reasons for that. Charles found himself on trial for treason. The rationale for this came from the Roman idea that a military body could overthrow a tyrant and even then many people had doubts about the legitimacy of such an action. The Parliament of 1648 was notable for the way in which MPs were excluded from the House of Commons if they were not in support of Oliver Cromwell’s drastic actions. This parliament was known as the Rump Parliament.
The idea that there were fundamental laws and liberties which a monarch was required to uphold or to face penalties imposed by parliament and the law would have come as a surprise to Charles I’s predecessors. Having seen the power that they could wield parliament now invited Stuart monarchs to ascend to the throne, kicked them out if they didn’t like their religion and laid down statutes as to who could inherit the throne. This meant that with the advent of the protestant Hanoverian monarchs, the British monarchy was a constitutional monarchy. Kings and queens are heads of state but within defined parameters – their role became increasingly ceremonial whilst the business of laws and governing rest in the hands of Parliament.
Who would have thought that this centuries long evolution would resolve itself in the first half of the twentieth century with the abdication of a monarch for the love of a woman?