A constitutional crisis erupted in Britain when the reigning monarch, King Edward VIII, decided to marry Wallis Simpson. Not only was Simpson an American divorcée, but she had also been married twice beforehand. And, not only that, but both her former husbands were still alive. These incomprehensible circumstances had no place within the established Anglican Church and especially, according to critics, within the royal family. Indeed, the crisis that emerged from Edward’s potential betrothment to the American socialite caused great political distress and uncertainty. The complexity of this relationship came to represent the (in)stability of the entire British Empire, such that any perceived deficiencies within the monarchy verily questioned the nature of English institutional ideals as a whole.
Prior to becoming the first English monarch to abdicate voluntarily, Edward VIII confronted great challenges with the potential marital arrangement with Simpson. He attempted to do the unprecedented—that is, to say, marry a divorced woman. First, such a proposition was prohibited by the Church of England, for which Edward was the Supreme Governor. Second, Simpson was unpopular among many MPs within the House of Commons, who found this situation alarming. Those in “‘polite’ society” did not want to see a royal marriage affiliated with a divorcée. They sought to stop any such marriage from taking place. Neville Chamberlain, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, even remarked that Simpson was “an entirely unscrupulous woman who is not in love with the King.” Both religious and political grounds were enough to convince Winston Churchill to intervene.
Afraid that an abdication would have led to a political chaos, Churchill urged the House to refrain from pressuring the King not to marry Simpson: “these issues [concerning the marriage] are not merely personal to the present occupant of the Throne, but that they affect the entire Constitution.” He felt that the abdication of a British monarch could have drastically weakened the nation, especially with the rising threat of a conflict with Germany. (New documents released by the National Archives revealed that Nazi officials secretly pondered the idea of offering Edward the crown if the British lost the war.) Yet, at the same time, he was one of the few MPs to defend Edward in the House. Thus, the marriage to Simpson not only threatened Edward’s position as the monarch, but also led to unanswered questions of how the empire, with its historic ties to the monarchy, would have been able to survive.
Three days later, Edward abdicated the throne and Churchill gave a speech to the House.
Speech: “Abdication of King Edward VIII”
Date: December 10, 1936
Context: Churchill’s response to the abdication of the British monarch
Audience: House of Commons
Nothing is more certain or more obvious than that recrimination or controversy at this time would be not only useless but harmful and wrong. 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. I will, therefore, make two observations only.
Churchill opens his speech to the House with the repetition of the word “done.” Tautological emphasis used here (“What is done is done”) signifies a completeness to the situation: that the abdication of Edward VIII has been confirmed, and that the individuals of both Parliament and of the country should continue to live their lives. He also alluded to two scenes in Macbeth, during which Lady Macbeth becomes the Queen of Scotland. In Act III, Scene 2, she states “what’s done is done” in response to the regicide of the former King. And, in Act V, Scene 1, Lady Macbeth returns again: “what’s done cannot be undone.” Perhaps, in this sense, Churchill urged the House not to act like Macbeth and Lady Macbeth over the death (or abdication) of the monarch, but rather to accept the circumstances as they now “[belonged] to history.”
The first is this: It is clear, from what we have been told this afternoon, that there was at no time any constitutional issue between the King and his Ministers or between the King and Parliament. The supremacy of Parliament over the Crown; the duty of the Sovereign to act in accordance with the advice of his Ministers; neither of those was ever at any moment in question. Supporting my right honourable Friend the Leader of the Liberal Party, I venture to say that no sovereign has ever conformed more strictly or more faithfully to the letter and spirit of the constitution than his present Majesty. In fact, he has voluntarily made a sacrifice for the peace and strength of his realm which goes far beyond the bounds required by the law and the constitution. That is my first observation.
Parliamentary supremacy was achieved through the Glorious Revolution of 1688. William III and Mary II’s successful invasion of England, assisted by the parliamentarians, laid the foundation for the absolute sovereignty of the legislative branch. In his speech, Churchill harked back to these ideas from the seventeenth century: “The supremacy of Parliament over the Crown… was [not] ever at any moment in question.” Affirmation of these principles remained, above all, essential for assuring that the abdication would not have adversely hindered the stability of the British government. Churchill suggested that the decision of the monarch to “voluntarily” abdicate stressed even further the noble deed of the King to act in accordance with what he saw fit for the country. Overall, his first observation maintained that, aside from the changing of monarchs, nothing was to change for the country.
My second is this: I have, throughout, pleaded for time; anyone can see how grave would have been the evils of protracted controversy. On the other hand, it was, in my view, our duty to endure these evils even at serious inconvenience, if there was any hope that time would bring a solution. Whether there was any hope or not is a mystery which, at the present time, it is impossible to resolve. Time was also important from another point of view. It was essential that there should be no room for aspersions, after the event, that the King had been hurried in his decision. I believe that, if this decision had been taken last week, it could not have been declared that it was an unhurried decision, so far as the King himself was concerned, but now I accept wholeheartedly that the Prime Minister has proved, namely, that the decision taken this week has been taken by His Majesty freely, voluntarily and spontaneously, in his own time and in his own way. As I have been looking at this matter, as is well known, from an angle different from that of most honourable members, I thought it my duty to place this fact also upon record.
Throughout the final months before the marriage, Edward felt intense pressure from Parliament to make a decision. At times, he was compelled to act, not according to his own desires, but according to the needs of his country. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin was one of those vocal individuals who urged the King to reconsider his decision to marry Simpson: “I think I know our people… They will tolerate a lot in private life, but they will not stand for this sort of thing in a public personage.” Specifically, the question of a twice-divorced American woman becoming “Queen” became the central issue. He insisted that that the King not marry Simpson, as she would be rejected by Parliament and the citizens of the British Empire. In this respect, he proclaimed, “the voice of the people must be heard.” By early December, at the height of the crisis, it became clear that Simpson was unable to become the queen consort.
That is all I have to say upon the disputable part of this matter, but I hope the House will bear with me for a minute or two, because it was my duty as Home Secretary, more than a quarter of a century ago, to stand beside his present Majesty and proclaim his style and titles at his investiture as Prince of Wales amid the sunlit battlements of Carnarvon Castle, and ever since then he has honoured me here, and also in war-time, with his personal kindness and, I may even say, friendship. I should have been ashamed if, in my independent and unofficial position, I had not cast about for every lawful means, even the most forlorn, to keep him on the throne of his fathers, to which he only recently succeeded amid the hopes and prayers of all. In this Prince, there were discerned qualities of courage, of simplicity, of sympathy, and, above all, of sincerity, qualities rare and precious which might have made his reign glorious in the annals of this ancient monarchy. It is the acme of tragedy that these very virtues should, in the private sphere, have led only to this melancholy and bitter conclusion. But, although our hopes today are withered, still I will assert that his personality will not go down uncherished to future ages, that it will be particularly remembered in the homes of his poorer subjects, and that they will ever wish from the bottom of their hearts for his private peace and happiness and for the happiness of those who are dear to him.
Churchill felt that the preservation of the British monarch meant stability for the British Empire and, thus, he defended Edward in the House. But, in addition to these political urges, he had a strong amicable connection with Edward, believing him to be deeply charismatic. Indeed, they were reportedly friends and, as one biographer argued, “[Churchill] could not possibly have hoped to gain [anything] from [defending Edward]: indeed he had everything to lose.” Nonetheless, Churchill expounded upon the notion that Edward’s private affairs with Simpson were unjustly the reasoning behind his supposed forced abdication. Their close relationship ultimately was neither a testament to (nor a restriction on) Edward’s leadership capabilities.
I must say one more word, and I say it specially to those here and out of doors, and do not underrate their numbers, who are most poignantly afflicted by what has occurred. Danger gathers upon our path. We cannot afford—we have no right—to look back. We must look forward. We must obey the exhortation of the Prime Minister to look forward. The stronger the advocate of monarchical principle a man may be, the more zealously must he now endeavour to fortify the Throne and to give His Majesty’s successor the strength which can only come from the love of a united nation and Empire.
The final section of his speech pivoted away from the crisis that plagued the royal family, and instead turned toward the Empire as a whole. By 1936, the year of the abdication, Churchill recognized the threat of Adolf Hitler’s leadership in Nazi Germany. Hitler had been Chancellor since 1933 and Führer since 1934. The intentions of the German leader were all too clear to Churchill: in April, he remarked, “Herr Hitler has torn up treaties and has garrisoned the Rhineland. His troops are there, and there they are going to stay. All this means that the Nazi régime has gained a new prestige in Germany, and a most powerful and sustained impression of their strength has been spread abroad through all the neighbouring countries.” The threat of fascism extended beyond just the borders of Germany, but instead proved to be a growing threat to the whole of Europe. From these final sentences of the abdication speech, Churchill planned to emphasize more pressing areas for the Baldwin administration, underlining the ever-present need for a “united nation and Empire.” No longer could Parliament have occupied itself with the affairs of the royal family. They had to turn their attentions toward mainland Europe, where “[d]anger gathers upon our path.”
Image Credit: History: This Day in History