Earlier this month, Queen Elizabeth II entered the 70th year of her reign, her father, King George VI, having died on 6th February 1952. Had his elder brother, King Edward VIII, remained on the throne and fathered an heir, she might never have become queen. Had he remained on the throne without producing an heir, she would have become queen 20 years later than she did, for her uncle outlived her father by two decades.
Edward VIII succeeded his father, King George V, in January 1936, the beginning of the year of three kings. In December of that same year he abdicated, to be succeeded by George VI, whose daughter Elizabeth was then only 10 years of age.
Edward VIII, known in the royal family as “David” – the last of his seven Christian names - chose to abdicate after his prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, made it clear to him that he could not remain on the throne if he persisted with his plans to marry Wallis Warfield Simpson, who had been divorced from her first husband and was in the process of divorcing her second in order to marry him.
The political crisis over Edward VIII’s marriage plans lasted for less than two months. Baldwin first discussed the impending divorce with the king on 20th October 1936. On 10th December of that same year the king abdicated and went into exile, marrying Mrs Simpson in June 1937 as soon as her divorce was finalised. The couple, now Duke and Duchess of Windsor, lived afterwards mainly in Paris, among whose main attractions were that the French government gave them virtually rent-free accommodation, provided bodyguards, and did not make them pay income tax.
Baldwin’s deft management of the king and the abdication was one of his most important achievements as prime minister, which office he held on and off three times between 1923 and 1937.
This was of course a constitutional matter. The essence of the Westminster system is that British prime ministers hold that office only for as long as they can command a majority in the House of Commons. Also important is that British monarchs are also ultimately subordinate to Parliament. Edward VIII quit the throne, without fuss, because he understood that rule. Many of his predecessors resisted it, but by the time he came to the throne it was no longer open to challenge.