New Zealand's role in the downfall of King Edward VIII

by Redmer Yska / 21 December, 2016

Protests against the abdication of King Edward VIII. Photo/Getty Images

As the royal family struggle to find their place in the modern world, it’s been eight decades since New Zealand tried to keep a besotted King on the throne during the love affair that cost a monarch his crown.

Eighty years ago this month, a King was pushed from the throne as the price of his love for a divorced woman.

Today as we see divorcee Camilla Parker Bowles’ inexorable march towards becoming our Queen, it’s hard to imagine the tumult that once surrounded the relationship between King Edward VIII and violet-eyed Wallis Simpson. The media called it “the biggest story since the Resurrection”.

But what remained hidden from the New Zealand public in December 1936 was the crucial role our Government played in the unfolding constitutional crisis, as one ­monarch sensationally bowed out and another was sworn in.

Then-Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage was one of few Commonwealth leaders who tried to clear a path for Edward to have both his throne and true love. But ­Savage’s cunning British counterpart, ­Stanley Baldwin, keen to rid the country of the besotted King, stymied our PM’s efforts.

Savage was distracted, busy laying the foundations of the welfare state. When first approached by Baldwin for his views, he had to ask who Mrs Simpson was. His whole Cabinet sat drinking tea through the night of December 10, awaiting the abdication telegram from London. Days later, ministers swore an oath to a new king.

ArticleGalleryModule - In pictures: The downfall of King Edward VIII

End of old order

Looking back, the 30s – and 1936, in particular – stands out as the end of the old order, the start of a more individualistic, less-formal modern era. New Zealand faced its own political earthquake in 1935 when our first Labour Government was elected as the economic depression eased. In January 1936, Kiwis mourned the death of George V. It would become known as the year of three Kings.

As in other parts of the Empire, New Zealanders welcomed incoming King Edward VIII; many remembered the dashing young “playboy prince” who’d spent a month here in 1920 as part of an Empire tour that included Canada and Australia. His train stopped at dozens of places between Auckland and Invercargill, where he attended parades, made speeches and opened buildings as adoring crowds encircled him.

He had hated it. At 26, the Prince of Wales was already distancing himself from his noble father’s values, privately revealing the “modern” attitudes that would one day make his job untenable.

Letters written to his mistress, Winifred “Freda” Dudley Ward, revealed how much he loathed the role and the duties it imposed.

On April 28, 1920, he scribbled from Rotorua: “… every day I long more and more to chuck this job & be out of it & free for you sweetie; the more I think of it all the more ­certain I am that really (tho not on the surface just yet awhile for Britishers) the day for Kings and Princes is past. Monarchies are out of date …”

“I loathe my bloody family”

In Lyttelton, he railed against his father, George V: “Christ! how I loathe and despise my bloody family … But if HM thinks he is going to alter me by insulting you, he’s making just about the biggest mistake of his silly, useless life; all he has done is infuriate me and make me despise him …”

Ward, the married socialite (who even popped up in the fourth season of Downton Abbey), continued to be Edward’s mistress until mid-1934, when he met and fell in love with Wallis Simpson. At that time, with good George V still solidly on the throne and his sons Edward and George Jr part of a “fast set” that slept around and even used cocaine, none of that mattered.

So, who was this Mrs Simpson? Digital newspaper archive Papers Past pinpoints the first local mention of “the prince’s partner” to the Auckland Star of April 1935: “a ­charming, dark-haired American woman who, in a multi-coloured dinner coat of woven spun glass, a single diamond in her hair, danced with the Prince of Wales”.

In January 1936, Edward acceded the throne as King of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions beyond the Seas (Canada, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and Ireland), and Emperor of India. His infatuation for a divorced American ­suddenly became an affair of state.

Within British political circles, Mrs ­Simpson quietly gained notoriety that year as the seducer who stole the King’s heart, the dominatrix, according to the most ­salacious gossip, who learned her wiles in the brothels of Shanghai. Here, New ­Zealand Truth simply and cautiously called her the “piquant American”. Her American heritage was questioned as shallow, casual, with no respect for the past. When Edward was ­proclaimed King, she wrote to her aunt, “The ceremonies have been marvellous and impressive as only this country can produce … such costumes from the Middle Ages, the heralds looking like a pack of cards.”

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, c1940. Photo/Getty Images

Other side of the tracks

In many ways, Bessie Wallis Warfield did come from the other side of the tracks, having grown up in relative poverty in Baltimore, marrying a violent drunkard at 20, a man she’d divorce before remarrying shipbroker Ernest Simpson and moving to London. She’d divorce for the second time in October 1936, generating a media firestorm that helped precipitate the crisis.

It is difficult today to grasp the stigma then attached to divorce. In New Zealand, the Governor-General, Lord Galway, like his upright counterparts in the other Dominions, was prohibited from official contact with any divorced person. Here, as elsewhere, “nobody against whom a decree of divorce has been pronounced may be received at any Government House”.

This issue vastly increased pressure on the love-struck Edward to stand aside by year’s end, as British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin attempted to smooth a path for the incoming King George VI, the stuttering, tentative hero of 2010 film The King’s Speech.

The other hallmark of the time was a ­deferential, even acquiescent press, meaning the couple’s “delicate” relationship was largely kept out of the British papers. That changed in October 1936 as Mrs Simpson openly petitioned for divorce, paving the way for marriage to Edward, prompting a New Zealand Herald headline, “King Edward’s Guest/American’s Divorce Suit”.

Divorce represented the final straw for the tough-minded Baldwin, a key player in this story. He called on Edward on November 16, telling him that any thought of marriage to a twice-divorced woman would be too much for his subjects. The King came straight back, stating, famously, “I mean to abdicate and marry Mrs Simpson.”

Swords were drawn, and the crisis deepened as Baldwin’s arch political rival, MP and future wartime hero Winston Churchill, campaigned for the King’s right to wed for love. Churchill felt Edward had found qualities in Mrs Simpson “as necessary to his happiness as the air he breathed. Those who knew him well and watched him closely noticed that many little tricks and fidgetings of nervousness fell away from him. He was a completed being instead of a sick and harassed soul.”

Was compromise possible? Churchill helped hatch a scenario that would allow Edward to marry Wallis and remain on the throne – what was termed a morganatic marriage. Under this plan, she would become, like Camilla Parker Bowles has to date, the King’s consort, not his Queen, with the ­proposed title of Duchess of Cornwall.

Parallel ambitions

Churchill had parallel ambitions to unseat Baldwin. As historian Denys Blakeway noted, “To back the King in a popular cause presented an opening. It would add to Baldwin’s discomfort and, if successful, might lead to his defeat and the formation of a new government with Churchill at its heart.”

A crunch point came on November 25, as the King dug in his heels on marriage. Baldwin offered to quietly solicit the views of both his Cabinet and the prime ministers of the Dominions. The King agreed. It was a crafty move: Edward was now constitutionally obliged to follow the advice.

How would New Zealand respond? It is here that twinkle-eyed Prime Minister “Mickey” Savage re-enters the story. On November 28, he received Baldwin’s cable via Governor-General Galway, seeking his view on three options:

  • Would they support the King marrying Mrs Simpson and becoming Queen?
  • Would they support marriage but on terms that would not make her Queen?
  • Would they favour voluntary abdication in favour of the Duke of York?

Savage, busy introducing compulsory unionism and a minimum wage, looked to Galway, full name George Vere Arundell Monckton-Arundell Galway, to explain the crisis. Savage famously had to ask him who Mrs Simpson was. Galway was in Milford Sound when Baldwin’s first cable arrived and the Navy was called out to urgently escort him back to Wellington.

The Prime Minister, a former Australian miner, went all gooey. Savage sympathised with Edward, and his initial response was to support a morganatic marriage, but as he consulted his fellow prime ministers, he realised some, like his Australian counterpart, were strongly opposed. Galway, meanwhile, insisted abdication was the only possible outcome, even taking the matter out of ­Savage’s hands by drafting his response.

But Savage got in the last word: the final version of the cable back to Baldwin appeared to support a morganatic marriage, after all: “The great affection felt in New Zealand for His Majesty and the desire of the people in this country for his happiness inspire the thought that some such arrangement might be possible.”

Despite obstacles, “if some solution along these lines were found to be practicable, it would no doubt be acceptable to the majority of the people of New ­Zealand”. The prime ministers of Canada and Ireland, too, broadly supported some sort of kinder, gentler accommodation.

Edward at a parade during his tour of New Zealand in 1920. Photo/Getty Images

Fibbing left little choice

Baldwin would have none of it. On December 2, he informed the crestfallen King, fibbing through his teeth, that the ­Dominions unanimously opposed a morganatic marriage. Edward had little choice but to leave the throne. As Blakeway noted: “Baldwin’s economy with the truth was a sign of his determination to prevent the morganatic marriage and to ensure the abdication went ahead.”

As news of the ultimatum leaked out, British newspapers finally waded in on the marriage, with opinion fairly divided. Aware of the King’s popularity at home and around the Commonwealth, ­Baldwin’s press backers ensured headlines such as “Empire Refuses to Tolerate Mrs Simpson as Its Queen”. On December 4, Aucklanders woke up to the crisis, thanks to the Star headline: “Desire to Marry/King Informs Ministers/Requested Enactment Impossible”.

Behind the scenes, relations between ­Baldwin and Edward deteriorated. Supported by Churchill, Edward readied to put “his side of the story” before the Empire in a BBC radio broadcast. A section of the proposed text said: “Neither Mrs Simpson nor I have ever sought to insist that she should be queen. All we desired was that our married happiness should carry with it a proper title and dignity for her, befitting my wife.” Baldwin refused to allow the broadcast. By December 5, abdication looked inevitable.

New Zealand readied itself for Edward’s renunciation of the throne – and a new King. His love was suddenly common knowledge: Truth’s edition of December 9 was headlined, “Sidelights on the King’s Romance with Mrs Simpson/Unity of Empire Against Their Marriage”. The Savage Cabinet met for two hours on the Thursday for a “momentous meeting”, and awaited confirmation from London.

An unpublished memo by Internal Affairs under-secretary Joseph Heenan at Archives NZ ­provides a rare behind-the-scenes peek at the tumultuous, draining events as parliamentarians, dignitaries and officials grappled with the various legal and constitutional implications of a change of monarch.

Heenan writes how the Savage Cabinet held an all-night vigil for news from London, forced grumpily to wait until 5am for the word from Government House after some fool in London forgot to mark the telegram “urgent”. At dawn on the Friday, Savage told journalists: “This is one of the saddest days in British history.

“The abdication … will cause profound sorrow to his millions of subjects throughout the empire …”

Documents proclaiming an incoming King had to be drafted. Heenan, who doesn’t appear to have slept for several days, details the logistical nightmare in getting the Gazette Extraordinary drafted, printed and, especially, spelt correctly over a weekend. He reveals the contentious organisation behind the ­official “Proclamation of Accession” ceremony on the Monday, as Savage refused Galway’s request for a big military display.

A further, bizarre complicating factor was a solar eclipse blocking the sun over New Zealand through much of that morning.

Governor-general left early

At 2.30pm on December 14, on a dais in the grounds of Parliament, Galway formally proclaimed the accession of George VI, our third monarch in under a year. According to Heenan, a huffy Governor-General threw away the script and left early. Like others caught up in the middle of these protracted events, Galway was utterly exhausted.

“The ceremony duly took place. At the finish, His Excellency departed from the outlined procedure in calling for three cheers immediately at the conclusion of the national anthem after the reading of the Proclamation, not waiting until the guns had ceased firing. His Excellency departed from the dais actually before the last gun had fired.”

Cheers were probably not in order. Wellington’s Evening Post reported, “the ­reassurance that all was right with the Empire and the World reflected in the sober satisfaction evident in all who made for the ceremony, assuring the King of their allegiance better than any exuberance.”

Joseph Heenan. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library/1/4-020963-F

History’s discreet eyewitness

Joseph Heenan was the tireless, sunny mandarin at the helm during the abdication of one king – and the proclamation of another. Over four sleepless days in December 1936, Heenan, as under-secretary of Internal Affairs, coaxed his political masters, a Governor-General, departmental heads and fellow officials through various legal and constitutional hoops. Like the good public servant he was, Heenan wrote down and filed everything that happened. Discreetly, of course.

Thursday, December 10

“At 3.30 was informed that I would be required to stay in town because it seemed certain that news of the abdication of the King would be through tonight.

“At 4.30, I was called to a meeting of Cabinet and the PM read to me relevant cables received today foreshadowing the abdication and detailing the steps immediately to be taken.

“I was sitting in the PM’s office from 8.30pm onwards, Cabinet sitting continuously from 10pm onwards awaiting the message.”

Friday, December 11

“At about 5.30am, I prepared and had signed a short covering notice by the PM and proceeded to the Printer with a Gazette Extraordinary.

“Had breakfast and came on to the office and immediately saw Public Works giving instructions for the erection of the dais and installation of a loud speaker for the ­ceremony in connection with the ­Proclamation of Accession of the new King.

“Saw Colonel Mead [from Government House]. He said His Excellency wants a big military display. The Government definitely against a big military display. The upshot of it all being that there was simply to be a Guard of Honour.

“Arranged for new oaths ready for taking by Governor General, chief justice and members of the executive council [Cabinet] on Saturday. Saw the Solicitor General at night and he agreed to let me have a revised proclamation tomorrow morning.”

Saturday, December 12

“9.15 went over the draft of the Demise Proclamation with the Solicitor General.

“11.30 In reading it I ­discovered a mistake by way of an omission from the cable as forwarded to us. In the recital after the word ‘Imperial Crown’, the words ‘of Great Britain’ had been omitted. The Order of ­Council had already been typed.

“The executive council meeting was duly held at noon. The ­proclamation of Demise of the Crown was signed by His ­Excellency and the Order of Council prescribing the Accession Proclamation was passed.

“Reading it through in executive, another omission was discovered. Before the words ‘tongue and heart’, the preposition ‘of’ was omitted.

“8pm Government House has discovered another error in the Proclamation. In the phrase ‘the said Instrument of Abdication has now taken place’ the word ‘place’ as cabled, should have been ‘effect’.

“I informed PM’s private secretary that an amending Order in Council would be ­necessary and that correcting telegrams would have to be sent out to all concerned. The Printing Office would have to come back tomorrow.”

Sunday, December 13

“10.15am Discovered another mistake in the Proclamation on checking it with that of January last. The words ‘with all heart and humble affection’ should be ‘with all hearty and humble affection’.

“After having listened in to the ­broadcast from England, it was clearly ‘hearty’. ­Government Printer read out draft of Amending Order in Council over the ­telephone and I revised it.”

Monday, December 14

“The proclamation ceremony duly took place.”

This article was first published in the December 10, 2016 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter


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