On December 10th 1936 the uncrowned King Edward Viii signed the Instrument of Abdicated. Some details of the events leading up to the announcement are still shrouded in mystery but following the recent discovery of correspondence between the main protagonists the broad sequence of events is now clear. Despite the complexity of the situation there were two main reasons why the abdication came about. I want to leave aside the well-known associations with Nazism and focus on a couple of aspects which are relevant today.
As Prince of Wales the future Edward VIII had made himself unpopular with politicians. He had publically called left-wing politicians ‘cranks’ and made speeches criticising the Government of the day (of all persuasions). On succeeding George V he continued on a confrontational path with politicians in what we would today call an Activist King role.
The second issue was his relationship with American multiple divorcee Wallis Simpson which caused a scandal amongst the establishment. One of the prime motivations was the attitude of the Church of England (of which he was Supreme Governor) in disallowing the marriage of divorcees while the ex-spouse was still alive (Simpson had two!). At that time the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Lang, had staked his office and reputation on a crusade to improve the morals of the Church and the country as a whole. It is clear that Lang, along with other establishment members such as The Times editor Geoffrey Dawson applied pressure to Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin which threated to collapse the Government and end Baldwin’s career. So the king was sacrificed. In effect it was a de facto coup d’etat.
The whole issue of removing a head of state by a cabal of establishment figures should be anathema to us in the 21st Century. It is true that even in republican systems with a non-political constitutional Head of State there is always the possibility of scheming to remove him/her from power. But the rules governing the relationships between state institutions must be clear along with the oversight of a Constitutional Court
Secondly both the succeeding George VI and his daughter Elizabeth II learned the lessons of being ‘Activist Monarchs’ and studiously avoided public engagement with politics. There is every indication that Prince Charles thinks otherwise. He should be under no illusion that the monarchy only exists for the purposes of Government and will be removed by politicians if they find him obstructive. Edward VIII was forced to abdicate despite commanding a wide measure of public support, a luxury which Charles may not enjoy.