The year 2016 marked the 80th anniversary of the Abdication, otherwise known as “The Year of Three Kings”. Here is a brief history of what transpired that fateful year.
King George V had been ill for some time, and as the harsh winter of 1935 pressed on, it did not look like the king would survive much longer. He was fearful for the fate of his dynasty and the throne after he was gone, for all was in the hands of his eldest son Prince Edward, the Prince of Wales.
Behind the scenes, the prince was deemed irresponsible and a playboy. He had many mistresses but no marriage prospects. The prince was also disinterested in the duties of monarchy. Despite these irritating traits, Edward was loved by the people and cheered wherever he went.
Then the final blow: Edward met the now-infamous American divorcee, Wallis Simpson, with whom he became infatuated. Edward became so serious about her that he cut ties with just about anyone who didn’t accept her. Among those who flatly refused to receive her were his parents, along with his brother and sister-in-law, the Duke and Duchess of York.
With the emergence of Wallis, King George V and Queen Mary despaired over their son’s future. Edward was stubborn and had made it plain to all who would listen that Wallis was his everything, even at the expense of his family. The prince even told Wallis’s husband Ernest that he should file for divorce from her so that he could make her his bride.
Thankfully, the king’s second son Albert, the Duke of York, was a responsible family man. Bertie, as he was known, had a wonderful little family with Elizabeth, the Duchess of York. Their daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret, were adored by George V and Queen Mary took special care to teach little Elizabeth royal etiquette.
The old king longed for Bertie to succeed him, and wished that one day Princess Elizabeth would be queen. He hoped that “nothing would come between Bertie and Lilibet and the Throne”.
In January of 1936, King George V died. Before the king was cold, Edward had decided that everything associated with his father’s reign had to be changed or discarded altogether. Courtiers loyal to the king watched with shock as the new King Edward VIII ripped traditions and routines right out from under them.
Things did not get better as the year progressed. The threat of war with Germany was becoming more of a possibility. No one wanted a war, but the expansionist aggression of Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler needed to be kept in check. Hitler set his sights on Germany becoming – and surpassing – the Prussian empire and the more recent British empire. He was determined to have all of Europe and more.
The new King Edward VIII naively saw no reason why Hitler could not be appeased. Edward approved of Hitler’s plans to rebuild Germany economically. Surely the Führer would listen to reason. With the king’s sympathies appearing to lean towards Germany, compounded by Wallis Simpson’s reputation, the British Government could take no more. They pressured him to abdicate, and Edward was more than happy to renounce the throne.
On December 11th 1936, King Edward VIII signed the Instrument of Abdication and reverted back to his role as a prince. The role of king was now placed on the shoulders of the Duke of York. Bertie felt betrayed by his brother and ill-prepared for the job of monarch.
Bertie became known as King George VI. It was his way of patching up the monarchy that had been ripped asunder by abdication. Connecting himself to his father’s reign would build a bridge of continuity.
Edward, meanwhile, was given the Duke of Windsor title and promptly departed the UK for Austria as he awaited Wallis’s divorce from Ernest Simpson.
Edward left behind a family in shock. While it was what his father dreamed of, it was a nightmare for the new king, who was not as confident and had a speech impediment that left him frozen in fear. Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret were thrown into a big, drafty palace, a far cry from their cozy family home.
Princess Margaret kidded her elder sister when they became aware of their new status. “Poor you,” said Margaret, who, even at the tender age of six, recognized what was in store for Elizabeth as a future monarch. When it came to her own position, Margaret was far less lighthearted. She complained that she wasn’t Margaret Rose of York anymore; instead, she was “Margaret Rose of nothing”. She certainly did not want the daunting task of queen, but Margaret certainly felt a loss of identity.
Knowing how difficult it was to become king without any training or assistance, George VI set to work teaching his daughter the role of sovereign as he went along. With his wife by his side, the king was able to establish a family oriented, strong monarchy. The royals, along with the old political lion Winston Churchill, were feted as wartime icons as the world fought against the tide of Nazi oppression spreading across Europe.
The stress of that war, coupled with cigarettes, made the king weak and sick. He had a cancerous lung removed to help improve his health, but the effects did not last long. Besides cancer, George was constantly kicking his leg against his desk to keep his circulation going, signaling a blockage of arteries.
Thankfully, the king was able to walk his darling Lilibet down the aisle for her 1947 wedding to Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, and he lived long enough to see the birth of two grandchildren.
In 1952, the family’s worst fear came true. George died of a coronary thrombosis in his sleep on February 6th of that year. Princess Elizabeth was away on tour in Africa and had become queen without even knowing it. She and Philip dashed back to Britain when the news of the king’s death came through. With the grace and stoic dignity for which she was known, the new Queen Elizabeth II took her place in history following the three kings.
The dearest wish of King George V had come to pass.