Valentine’s Day Special: The Man Who Gave Up the World for Love

Valentines Day chocolates by John Hritz

What would you be willing to do for your significant other? What would you be wiling to sacrifice for the one you love? Would you give up the world for him or her?

I know that sounds a bit hyperbolic. “Give up the world for love” sounds like such a cliché that it’s hard to take it seriously. Yet I know a man who did exactly that.

Time for some strange politics.

While nobody in history has ever successfully conquered the entire world…

Though not for lack of trying

Though not for lack of trying

…the British Empire came far closer than anybody else. They managed to create the largest empire in all of human history; at the peak of their power, they ruled over a quarter of the Earth’s land mass. They used to say “the sun never set on the British Empire” because they had so many colonies around the world that whenever the sun was setting in one colony it was rising in another. They ruled India, Canada, much of Africa, the entire continent of Australia, and more! Just look at this map:

All the pink areas were places under British rule

All the pink areas were places under British rule

Yet even as they reached the peak of their power in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they were still the United Kingdom, a country with a centuries-deep heritage loaded with historical baggage that has produced a very strange political system filled with arcane rules and rituals.

For today’s story, we must begin with King Henry VIII, the infamous English monarch who had six wives when all was said and done. He famously split the Church of England away from the Roman Catholic Church when the pope wouldn’t let him divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. Except that story you’ve heard a million times isn’t exactly true. What King Henry VIII wanted from the pope wasn’t a divorce, but an annulment.

What’s the difference, you may ask? Well, a divorce is a dissolution of a perfectly valid marriage, while an annulment is a declaration that the marriage was never valid in the first place. It seems like a minor distinction, but it actually is a very important one. See, even though it split from the firmly anti-divorce Catholic faith, the Church of England continued to refuse to accept divorce just as firmly as its Catholic counterpart. It wasn’t until 2002 that the Church of England finally permitted a divorce and remarriage, and even then, it would only permit it under exceptional circumstances.

This detail will be very important to our story.

Wallis Simpson photo from 1936 by an unknown photographer

We begin, of all places, in Blue Ridge Summit, Pennsylvania. There, a girl was born, named Bessie Wallis Warfield. Her father, a fairly well-to-do Baltimore flour merchant, died when she was very young; as she was growing up, her mother was dependent on the charity of her late husband’s family. A the age of 19, the girl married a pilot from Kansas who flew planes for the U.S. Navy. He turned out to be an alcoholic, though, and the two divorced in 1927.

As their divorce was being finalized, she met Ernest Aldrich Simpson, the New York-born wealthy head of a shipping company. When she married him, she adopted the name history would remember her by: Wallis Simpson. Through her husband, Mrs. Simpson came to be a socialite who brushed elbows with the rich and famous. She eventually followed her husband to England, where she met the man who would change her life: Edward, Prince of Wales.

Edward VIII image by Freeland Studio

Edward was the son and heir of George V, King of the United Kingdom and Emperor of India (as the British monarch was known at the time). Born in a palatial “hunting lodge” on one of his father’s royal country estates, his childhood was typical of those in the elites of British royalty and nobility of the time, being mainly raised by hired nannies and privately tutored. He served in the Royal Navy for a time, but when World War I broke out he was barred from serving on active duty in the front lines for obvious reasons. Still, he visited the troops as often as he could manage, making him very popular with the British public. After the war, he toured the British Empire and even bought a private estate in Canada.

When he met Wallis Simpson, by all accounts, he was absolutely stricken with this bossy American who found the pomp and pageantry of British royal life to be something to point and laugh at. He bought her all manner of jewelry and took her on getaways to the Alps and the Mediterranean. Eyewitnesses reported that the Prince was completely dependent on her and that he would do basically anything she asked. Some of his staffers even complained that the affair was getting in the way of his official duties.

The romance between the Prince and the American was seen as scandalous by the rest of the royal family and the British political elite. His parents refused to let Simpson under their roof, and the British press tried to pretend their love affair didn’t exist. However, many took comfort that at least she was just the Prince’s mistress, though he adamantly denied such talk.

Then two things happened that changed everything. On January 20, 1936, George V died. Prince Edward was now King-Emperor Edward VIII, ruler of the largest empire in history. Then, in October, Wallis Simpson filed for divorce from her husband. It was around this time that the new king did the unthinkable: he declared he intended to marry Simpson and make her his queen.

This was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The reigning British monarch is also the head of the Church of England, a church that refused to allow divorce and remarriage. Simpson was about to be twice-divorced, and for her to marry Edward would be to violate one of the tenets of the Anglican faith. This was on top of the various other reasons many in the British elite opposed the match: Simpson was an American commoner, and royals traditionally had to marry a fellow royal or at least someone with noble blood; plus, Simpson was rumored to be a Nazi sympathizer and possibly even a spy for Germany.

Yet many in Britain actually supported their King. Among the working class and military veterans, Edward was extremely popular, and many felt it was wrong for the politicians to try to block a man from marrying the love of his life. Many Americans were also naturally in favor of the match; they relished the idea of an American becoming a queen.

Nevertheless, the divorces just couldn’t be hand-waved away, not even by the King himself. In November, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin forced the issue, announcing that if the King refused to give up his plans to marry Simpson, his entire government would all resign simultaneously. This threat shot straight to the core of the British constitution. The British monarch is supposed to be politically impartial and neutral, not favoring any political party over another. He or she is also supposed to never interfere in the business of elected government officials. The monarch’s role is as a ceremonial referee making sure the system functions properly, but while he or she can advise, encourage, or warn the British government, he or she may not directly intervene in political matters. Baldwin’s gambit was basically saying, “You can’t marry Mrs. Simpson without directly intervening in political matters.”

Now Edward faced a dilemma. He was being forced to choose which was more important to him: being King-Emperor of the largest empire in history, or Simpson.

He chose Simpson.

Edward VIII abdication image from the National Archives

On December 10, King Edward formally abdicated the throne. His younger brother was now King George VI, and the line of succession to the throne would thenceforth pass to George VI’s children (Which it did, in 1952, when his daughter was crowned Queen Elizabeth II). The next day, Edward left for Australia. His brother gave Edward a new title, “Duke of Windsor”, as a sort of compensation.

On June 3, 1937, Edward and Simpson finally married in a small, private wedding in France. No royals attended the wedding, as the new king forbade them from doing so. The new king did give the couple an allowance to live off of, on the condition that they could not return to the United Kingdom without an invitation. Relations between the couple and the rest of the royal family were strained for years, particularly after the Duke and Duchess of Windsor visited Adolf Hitler at his private retreat in October 1937.

Yeah, I can see why that might be a source of contention.

Yeah, I can see why that might be a source of contention.

During World War II, the Duke was appointed Governor of the Bahamas, spending the war functionally in exile in the tropical islands. After the war, they lived in retirement in France, where the Duke died of cancer in 1972. The ageing Duchess ended up with dementia, living as a recluse until her own death in 1986. They had no children.

The abdication crisis, as these events came to be known, had a significant effect on the history of the British Empire’s last days. For starters, it was the first time that British dominions like Canada, Australia, South Africa, and Ireland asserted their independence, insisting that they had to each separately approve of the abdication for it to have effect under their own laws, though each of them ultimately did so. Various statements by Edward before and after his abdication indicate that he saw the Nazis as a possible ally against the threat of communism, and as it is ultimately the British monarch who declares war for the United Kingdom, it is possible he may have tried to stop the British from joining World War II against them. Plus, independence movements were already growing in India, and these events almost certainly emboldened those across the Empire that wanted to throw off the British yoke.

So, yes, history proves that love really can change the world.

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