journeys and places

journeys and places, big and small

Edward VIII, A Soap Opera of a Reign 17/11/2009

Portrait of King Edward VIII

Portrait of King Edward VIII, 1936

Edward VIII was on the throne for less than a year. It was all he needed to undermine the prestige of the Victorian monarchy. He abdicated right before World War II in favour of a sadomasochist relationship. His father, George V, had already predicted it: ‘After I am dead, the boy will ruin himself within 12 months’[1]. He happened to be wrong, for Edward managed to do so in only eleven months. Nevertheless, nobody could imagine, back on the 28th of January 1936, that George V ‘s burial would be the last splendorous occasion of the British Empire.

Back then, England was indisputably the world’s first nation, her immense empire spawning half of the planet. Its monarchy was universally respected and admired. But as the cortège in the procession to George’s Lying in State in Westminster Hall turned into New Palace Yard, the diamond cross on the Imperial State Crown fell from on top of the coffin, landing in the gutter.

Although the English are not particularly superstitious, it was impossible not to see it as a bad omen. If we think about it, World War II was just a few years away, which saw England losing both its spot as a top nation and its Empire. As far as the prestige of the British monarchy, it wouldn’t last as long. As George V had foreseen, Edward would destroy it in less than a year.

His funeral proceedings were surrounded by the majesty that the Royal family projected. The widow, Queen Mary, dignity flowing from her rigorous black figure; the monarch’s four dashing sons escorting the casket, impeccable in their military uniforms… They were, despite everything, like sinister characters of a Shakespearean drama: their presence can only end up in tragedy. Queen Mary, first of all, so imposing… too imposing. They say that she had never kissed her children, perhaps resenting the fact that her marriage had been a ‘hand-me-down’ affair. She had been engaged to George’s eldest brother, but when her fiancée died from syphilis, he was substituted by George.

The affection deficit in which the Royal children grew up goes far to explain their sickly character. The first born suffered from a clear sexual sadomasochist deviation, which turned him into a slave of the first woman who abused him. Bertie, who would succeed Edward as George VI, was pathologically shy, so much so that he couldn’t help stuttering every time he faced an audience. He chain-smoked and would die from lung cancer aged 56. With regards to the youngest one, Prince George, Duke of Kent, he was simply fascinated by brown shirts and swastikas; he would perish in 1942 during a mysterious flight. Rumour has it that he was headed for Sweden in order to break a deal with Hitler.

There is a last macabre detail surrounding the funeral of the virtuous, dutiful King. His death after a long-lasting illness, on the 20th of January, had been caused by a lethal injection, an overdose of cocaine and morphine administered -supposedly, on Queen Mary’s authorisation- by the Royal doctor, Lord Dawson of Penn. It was not a case of euthanasia in order to ease a dying man’s suffering so much as the need of controlling the time of his demise: in order to be able to be announced by The Times, the respectable newspaper, it had to take place before midnight. Otherwise it would only make it on the evening newspapers, of a more yellow journalism. Reasons of state went above everything, right up to the end.

We can nowadays interpret all those circumstances as bad omens, but 30 years ago public opinion received the new reign with optimism. Edward was the image of the ‘modern’ monarch, somebody who would bring in fresh air. Aside from the small circle of people who knew him well –back then the royals’ private lives were not under the press’ scrutiny–, it made sense the British public thought that way. Edward, who was really known as David, had been a perfect Prince of Wales. Handsome, kind, lacking the stiffness of the Victorian Royalty but always dressed extremely elegantly, showing off like nobody else his military uniform or the suits which were designed for him –the Prince of Wales check– he had benefited from the development of the press: he was one of those people the camera falls in love with.

He was the most photographed person in the world, and he always came out well in pictures. Despite the fact that television did not exist yet, he appeared constantly in cinematographic news clips attending official events, competing in several sports, enjoying  himself in happy parties… He always conveyed friendliness, charisma and savoir faire. Chroniclers referred to as the man every man wanted to be and whom every woman wanted to marry, the pre-war David Beckham. One of his charms was his boyish face: he looked younger than he was. Perhaps that was the reason why the nation was unaware of the new King’s serious flaw.

He was already 42 and hadn’t married yet. The first dynastic obligation of a monarch is to ensure legitimate descendants. At the time of accessing the throne Edward should have already been married for 20 years and fathered several children. But the Prince of Wales had expressed himself as opposed to the marriage institution as in favour of enjoying the company of married women. At 23 he had taken his first official lover, Freda Birkin[2], wife of the Right Honorable William Dudley Ward and later of the Spanish Pedro José Isidro Manuel Ricardo Mones, Marqués de Casa Maury. It was a long-lasting relationship, which started as lovers and evolved to confidantes.

In the letters the Prince used to write to Freda, which have been published, one can already detect disturbing character traits. Many of them are written in a grotesque style imitating the half-language of small children, but what their content is tremendous. The Prince of Wales wishes to die young, is afraid of going crazy and suffers from anorexia. His next adulterous relationship tied him to Lady Thelma Furness, an American socialite, amongst whose lovers was the Aga Khan. Through her he met the woman which would destroy his career, Wallis Simpson, an adventurer whose first husband had sexually educated her in a Chinese brothel. Wallis realised at first sight that the Prince was an eager masochist; she abused him and turned him into her puppet. The public was completely unaware of this. When a palace servant found Edward on his knees varnishing Wallis’ toes as if he was her lady-in-waiting, he didn’t sell the exclusive story to the tabloids, as he would nowadays. Instead he requested a leave of absence, because he couldn’t stand seeing his sovereign posing as a sexual slave. The King George V, though, was totally aware of what was going on, since he had ordered the secret service to keep an eye on Wallis.

Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson

Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson

‘I pray to God my eldest son will never marry and have children’[1], George V even went to say, foreseeing what was to come. He turned out to be right, as Edward’s project was to marry Wallis Simpson as soon as she could divorce her second husband. The political cataclysm caused by the intentions of the new King was enormous. What Edward VIII pretended was utterly inconceivable in the British reality of the time. According to dynastic law, the simple fact of not having royal blood invalidated Wallis to marry the King. On top of that she was divorced, which automatically meant Anglican Church veto, of which Edward himself was the head. To make matters worse, she had a terrible social record.

The country’s forces, headed by Stanley Baldwin, the Prime Minister, opposed to the royal whim. It was fine if the King wanted to keep her as a lover -after all almost all were so inclined. But in order to allow the wedding to take place the King would have to give up his crown. All of this took place under secret cover, since the British press at the time had a sense of national responsibility which did not allow to publish anything like that, such was the discredit for the Crown.

On the other hand, U.S. newspapers had zoned in on what an American journalist called ‘the best story since Jesus Christ’s resurrection’. But the world was not globalised yet: the U.S. belonged to suburbia, while the British nation was blissfully oblivious. Finally, on the 3rd of December 1936, when the abdication was clearly inevitable, the British press published the constitutional scandal. On the 11th of December, in a castle called Fort York King Edward VIII met with his three brothers in order to resign. They signed all the necessary documents for his abdication and transfer of the Crown to poor Bertie, from then onwards George VI. After that, His Royal Highness –he was no longer His Royal Majesty– read a message to the nation through the microphones of the BBC, explaining his reasons for such an embarrassing retirement. The discourse had been written for him by Churchill, who, just for the sake of going against the grain, had supported Edward VIII. It had been 10 months and 21 days of the time period forecasted by George VI for his son to ruin his life.

London Herald: Edward VIII Abdicates

'London Herald': Edward VIII Abdicates


[1] Ziegler, Philip (1990), King Edward VIII: The Official Biography, London: Collins, p. 199, ISBN 0-002-15741-1 (Translator’s note).

[2] Born Winifred May, she was universally known by her first married name as Freda Dudley Ward. (T.’s note).

Translated from “Eduardo VIII, un reinado de culebrón”, by Luis Reyes. Published by ‘Tiempo’ on 30.01.2006. Available in (last accessed 10.11.2009).