Edward VIII, Mrs Simpson and Ireland

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 5 (Sep/Oct 2008), Volume 16

Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. Edward was seen as a popular moderniser. (Irish Independent)

Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. Edward was seen as a popular moderniser. (Irish Independent)

For Éamon de Valera the death of King George V in January 1936 was another opportunity to enlarge Ireland’s independence and to affirm her sovereignty. Soon into the reign of King Edward VIII—on 29 May 1936—de Valera cleared the final hurdles to abolish the oath of allegiance, ‘his favourite piece of legislation’, according to Tim Pat Coogan. Dev had been planning a new constitution since 1935, and throughout the summer of 1936 he worked on drafts. Meanwhile, British officials were increasingly anxious about the conduct of the new king.

Edward seen as a popular moderniser
David, prince of Wales, had automatically acceded—as Edward VIII—on the death of his father, but was not yet crowned. Edward was a popular moderniser. He was photographed in shorts and bathing costumes; he was seen drinking from a bottle of lemonade; he was ‘Americanised’ in a go-ahead style. He seemed good at reaching out across the classes. Towards the Irish, he displayed not only a courteous approach but also a human touch.
In the second month of his reign, in February 1936, King Edward made a dutiful tour of a trade show in which goods from the Irish Free State were on display, and seemed to be particularly interested in the Irish system of egg-testing. He then detached himself from the accompanying official and spoke privately to the Irish high commissioner, John Dulanty, saying ‘how glad he was to have received the messages from the Seanad and the Dáil [on the death of his father]’. He was also grateful, he said, for the telegram that de Valera had sent to Queen Mary, George V’s widow. The king then made mention of the tragedy of Brian de Valera, Dev’s son, who had been killed in a riding accident. He asked whether Mr de Valera’s son had been an experienced rider. Dulanty said that he was. Was it, asked the king, that the horse had run away with him? Dulanty went on to explain the circumstances of the accident. King Edward said that ‘he could feel more deeply than most people the tragedy of a death in such circumstances since he himself had two escapes from a similar ending’. Once again, he repeated to John Dulanty his deepest sympathy for de Valera’s loss.
The British prime minister was then the Conservative Stanley Baldwin, whose morals were as middle-class as his background. He looked upon Edward’s flighty circle of friends with deep suspicion. Baldwin was also worried that the king might confide state matters to Wallis Simpson: he seemed so totally dependent on her.
In the summer of 1936 the king took a Mediterranean cruise on which he was much photographed with Wallis Simpson. On returning to London in September Mrs Simpson proceeded with a divorce from her second husband, Ernest. Alarm grew in political circles that the king would insist on marrying Wallis once she was free. The leader of the opposition, Clement Attlee, made it clear to Baldwin that the Labour Party would have ‘little sympathy with the king’s favour towards Mrs Simpson’.
In the autumn the British cabinet met to discuss the suggestion that Edward would insist on marrying Mrs Simpson. They were so concerned to preserve secrecy that press statements were issued to the effect that His Majesty’s government was discussing Spain (although Britain had decided to stay well out of the Spanish Civil War).

For Éamon de Valera, the death of King George V (below) in January 1936 was another opportunity to enlarge Ireland’s independence and to affirm her sovereignty. (UCD Archives and National Portrait Gallery, London)

For Éamon de Valera, the death of King George V (below) in January 1936 was another opportunity to enlarge Ireland’s independence and to affirm her sovereignty. (UCD Archives and National Portrait Gallery, London)

Dev briefed by Irish high commissioner John Dulanty
By the late autumn of 1936, the Irish government was fully briefed by John Dulanty. Dulanty went out and about in London society, listening and making contacts—and reporting everything back to Dublin. He was given the low-down on the king’s romance from Dr J. J. Mallon, Toynbee Hall Warden and a close friend of Queen Mary. Dulanty suggested that while de Valera might not be concerned with personal tittle-tattle, a constitutional crisis was nonetheless looming.
Queen Mary, the archbishop of Canterbury and the prime minister, said Dulanty, had all pleaded with the king over Mrs Simpson, ‘but each has suffered a severe rebuke’. Yet if the king decided to cast off the conventions of established tradition, he might have the sympathy and support of the younger generation. ‘But [Dr Mallon] felt that the country as a whole would be against such a marriage, and that his former popularity would begin to wane.’
This helpful memo probably did not come as a surprise to de Valera. He was indeed too high-minded for low gossip, yet he seldom missed an opportunity, especially in dealing with the British, to take advantage of a crisis. And, a shrewd judge of character, he would have sussed Edward as a reluctant monarch. Yet his personal attitude was surprising. De Valera was an orthodox—and devout—Roman Catholic. But on the question of Wallis Simpson, and her two previous divorces, Dev was remarkably liberal—if Machiavellian. He told Sir Harry Batterbee of the Dominions Office that the Irish Free State had no ‘personal’ interest in the king. If, however, Commonwealth opinions were sought, he, Dev, was inclined to favour the king’s choice of bride, if that was what Edward desired. King Edward was popular, said Dev, ‘including in Ireland’, and surely every avenue should be explored in solving this problem? Divorce, added Dev, was not recognised in Catholic countries: but King Edward was a Protestant, and couldn’t Protestants do as they liked? Dev even romantically added that he thought that many young people would be attracted by the idea of a king ready to give up his throne, if necessary, for the woman he loved.

Southern unionists concerned

On Edward’s problem, the pros and antis frequently aligned themselves according to their political views on monarchy. Those who felt that the institution of the monarchy should be protected usually disapproved of the Mrs Simpson connection. Irish Protestants and Southern unionists were concerned because they worried that the affair would imperil the crown. Those who cared little for monarchy tended to say that the man should do as he pleased. British communists and fascists both supported the king’s ‘personal choice’. The communist leader Harry Pollitt made a speech denouncing political meddling: ‘The spectacle of the national government laying down a code of morals and behaviour for the king is indeed a sight . . . Let the king marry whom he likes.’
By the end of the year the political classes knew that the king would abdicate, and the great drama of the king’s love-life was to become fully public on 3 December 1936. It had to be explained to Dev that a king’s abdication was not a simple matter of resigning his post: there was a complex constitutional procedure in which the king would sign ‘the Instrument of Abdication’ in favour of his brother Bertie, duke of York. All of the Dominion governments would have to recognise and endorse this procedure, including the Irish Free State.

Other Dominions favoured abdication
The Dominion governments were consulted over the king’s dilemma, with the suggestion that he might contract a morganatic marriage (in which he would be legally married to Wallis Simpson but she would not be queen). While de Valera was privately indulgent of the king, the governments of Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand ruled out a morganatic marriage because it would damage the good name of the crown. The Canadians wanted the king to abdicate voluntarily; the Australians said that there was ‘no possibility of compromise’—the king must either drop the idea of marrying Wallis Simpson or abdicate.
The Dominion, New Zealand’s leading newspaper, was coruscating in its condemnation of Edward: ‘It is a tragedy that he appears to have failed to realise what this may mean to the idea of kingship throughout the British Commonwealth and the colonial empire’.
Catholic voices were also disapproving on moral grounds: Dr Daniel Mannix, the Irish-born archbishop of Melbourne, said that the king’s marriage to a divorcee was unacceptable to His Majesty’s Catholic subjects. The Irish Catholic newspaper was at one with the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury and almost all of the Christian churches in taking this opportunity to disparage divorce (which they regarded as an American fashion picked up from Hollywood movies).

Dev with members of the Irish diplomatic service, including John W. Dulanty (front left), his high commissioner in London, who kept him fully briefed of the developing scandal. (UCD Archives/G. P. Beegan)

Dev with members of the Irish diplomatic service, including John W. Dulanty (front left), his high commissioner in London, who kept him fully briefed of the developing scandal. (UCD Archives/G. P. Beegan)

And so the Dominion parliaments passed through their respective chambers the Instrument of Abdication. But the legislation went through Dáil Éireann a day later than elsewhere. Dev only summoned Dáil deputies by telegram at the last moment. His opponents bitterly claimed that this was a ploy to rush through the Irish External Relations Act with a parliamentary guillotine. The External Relations Act was passed on 12 December 1936, reducing the king’s role to one function only—to act on ‘the appointments of diplomatic and consular representatives and the conclusion of international agreements’ on the advice of the Irish government. On the previous day, 11 December, the Constitution Amendment Bill Number 27 had removed the king from the constitution and finally abolished the office of governor-general, which had anyway been reduced to a nullity.
Edward VIII had abdicated on 10 December. The Abdication Act that had been passed at Westminster recited the assent of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa as required by the Statute of Westminster; De Valera had ensured that Ireland was not included because of his own plans for dropping the monarchy, and all mention of the Commonwealth, from his forthcoming constitution. Pedants of historical anomalies claim that to this day the defunct King Edward VIII (who died, as duke of Windsor, in 1972) remains the titular king of Ireland because the Irish External Relations Act recognised George VI of Great Britain without having legally assented to the abdication of Edward VIII.
The man who had been the glamorous prince of Wales made a radio broadcast in which he explained that ‘I could not undertake the heavy duties of kingship without the support of the woman I loved’. All over the world people listened raptly, sometimes in tears.
In Sandymount, Dublin, my brother Carlos, then aged eight, heard a children’s street chant about the abdication:

‘See her coming down the street,
Mrs Simpson, ain’t she sweet?
She’s been married twice before,
Now she’s knocking on Eddie’s door!
Tra-la-la-la-la-la . . .’

Sweet or not, Mrs Simpson had been a timely agent of dramatic change in the history of Irish sovereignty.

Mary Kenny’s Crown and Shamrock: Ireland and the British monarchy since Victoria will be published later this year by New Island Books.

Further reading:

C. Crowe, R. Fanning, M. Kennedy, D. Keogh & E. O’Halpin (eds), Documents on Irish foreign policy: Volume IV: 1932–1936 (Dublin, 2004).

S. Hood, Royal roots, republican inheritance: the survival of the Office of Arms (Dublin, 2002).

D. McMahon, Republicans and imperialists: Anglo-Irish relations in the 1930s (Yale and London, 1984).

R. Sencourt, The reign of Edward VIII (London, 1962).

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