The Australian Government also insisted Edward VIII abdicated rather than marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson.
Edward VIII became King of Great Britain on 20 January 1936 when his father George V died. He was determined to marry his mistress, Mrs Wallis Simpson, and told Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin on 16 November. Baldwin was horrified. Mrs Simpson was a commoner, an American and she was divorcing her second husband.
The Church of England also opposed the marriage on moral grounds.
Baldwin asked the King if he wished to have the matter examined formally: putting the matter before the whole Cabinet and the Dominion Prime Ministers– Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the Irish Free State. Edward agreed.
The British Cabinet was also against a morganatic marriage. (If Edward married Mrs Simpson she would become his consort but not granted the title, rights and privileges of a Queen.)
Any changes in the royal succession, including styles and titles, required consent from Dominion parliaments. (The Statute of Westminster 1931, following the 1926 Imperial Conference, formally recognised and defined Dominion status. Australia did not adopt it until 1942.)
Abdication vs Marriage?
The Australian High Commissioner Stanley Bruce already indicated to Baldwin that Prime Minister Joseph Lyons regarded any form of marriage to Wallis as unacceptable. Bruce claimed he was so distressed he and his wife would refuse to attend the Coronation. Abdication was the only solution.
Lyons followed up with a cable, “There would be outspoken hostility to His Majesty’s proposed wife becoming Queen while any proposal that she should become consort and not Queen … would not be approved by my Government.”
John Curtin, the Leader of the Opposition, questioned Lyons’ right to inform Baldwin of the Government’s support.
Curtin added the Opposition would leave the King unrestricted to choose his wife. The Australian Labor Party desired to remain loyal to Edward VIII and hoped he would remain upon the throne. The Government quickly stopped the debate when Curtin tried to move a resolution of loyalty and allegiance.
Harold Holt, a young United Australia Party member, summed up many Australians’ feelings at the time: “He understood us, and we looked to him to loop off from the tree of tradition the dead branches which threatened to interfere with its healthy growth within the British Empire.” Had the King chosen “to select any woman, to whom he was legally entitled to be married, as Queen,” he said, “I, for one, would not have hesitated in my loyalty to him.”
Many felt they were not consulted in the matter. They believed they had heard everyone else’s version of events except those of the King’s. The London editor of Smiths Newspapers was swamped with cables from Australians determined to discover the truth. He sent a telegram to the King’s assistant, Godfrey Thomas.
The King was popular among the Australians with his good looks, charisma, social conscience and informality, especially when he visited as Prince of Wales in 1919.
However, public opinion was divided.
One radio broadcast declared Mrs Simpson “will make the finest Queen England has known.” (The Government warned all radio stations to refrain from inflaming public opinion further on the issue.)
Australian members of a worldwide group known as the Social Credit Reformers sent telegrams supporting the King.
Lyons sent a telegram to the King personally on 5 December stating his Government preferred abdication to a marriage of any kind to Mrs Simpson.
The design and production of a new one-pound note was withdrawn, when Edward abdicated on 10 December.
New Zealand and Canada
However, across the Tasman, the New Zealanders supported a morganatic marriage between the King and Mrs Simpson. Labour Prime Minister Michael Savage rejected Wallis becoming Queen but he believed some arrangement was possible for the desire the King’s happiness.
The Governor-General of New Zealand sent Baldwin a telegraph. Michael Savage hoped some solution was found to allow the king to marry and remain on the throne but, regretfully he accepted the British government’s conclusion this was impossible.
The Canadians also preferred abdication to Mrs Simpson becoming Queen or Consort.
Edward married Wallis Simpson at Château Condé (near Tours) in France on 3 June 1937. They were married for 35 years until his death in 1972.
The royal family never forgave Edward for abdicating, especially his sister-in-law Elizabeth, for leaving the burden of kingship on her husband George VI.
Crofton, Ian, The Kings and Queens of England, Quercus, London, 2006
Freudenberg, Graham, Churchill and Australia, Pan MacMillan Australia, Sydney, 2008
Higham, Charles, Wallis: Secret Lives of the Duchess of Windsor, Sidgwick & Jackson, London, 1988
Williams, Susan, The People’s King: The True Story of the Abdication, Allen Lane [an imprint of Penguin Books], London, 2003
Ziegler, Philip, King Edward VIII: The Official Biography, William Collins Sons & Co Ltd, London, 1990
This article was originally published by Suite 101 on 27 June 2009.