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 was ailing. He had been ill for some time, and as the harsh winter of 1935 pressed on, it did not look like the king would long survive. 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.
The prince was, at best, irresponsible. At worst, he loathed the duties of monarchy. He had many mistresses which caused his parents concern. As Edward got older, King George V and Queen Mary expected him to settle down and produce an heir, but the prince wasn’t interested. Then he met the American divorcee, Wallis Simpson. He became infatuated with Wallis and 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 and Queen Mary despaired at their son’s prospects of kingship. 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 her husband Ernest that he should file for divorce from her so that he could make her his bride.
Thankfully, King George’s second son Albert, the Duke of York, was the responsible son. Bertie had a wonderful little family; he was married to Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, a respectable Scottish noblewoman, and they had two beautiful daughters. George V adored his granddaughters Elizabeth and Margaret, 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”. But he knew the rules: the eldest must take the role of Sovereign. The eldest was, painfully, Prince Edward.
In January of 1936, King George V died. Before George had even drawn his last breath, Edward had decided that everything associated with his father’s reign had to be changed or discarded altogether. Long time 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 was fond of the Fatherland and liked Hitler’s plans to rebuild Germany economically. Surely the Führer would listen to reason. With the king’s sympathies leaning towards the Nazis, as well as Wallis Simpson’s reputation as an American divorcee with German leanings, 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.
Now King George VI, he bestowed upon his brother the title Duke of Windsor, making him officially HRH The Prince Edward, Duke of Windsor. The Duke departed to Austria soon after where he awaited Wallis’s divorce from Ernest Simpson.
Bertie and his wife Elizabeth, now Queen consort, retained Edward’s coronation date as their own. Little Elizabeth was now heiress presumptive to the British throne.
Princess Margaret kidded Lilibet when she informed her of her new status. “Poor you,” said Margaret, who, even at the tender age of six, recognized what was in store for her elder sister.
When it came to her own position, Margaret complained that she wasn’t Princess Margaret Rose of York anymore; instead, she was “nothing”. She certainly did not want the daunting task of queen, however, but Princess Elizabeth was perfectly suited. She was serious for so young a child, and extremely dutiful. She also adored her father and wanted to be helpful in whatever way she could.
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.
The stress of that war, coupled with cigarettes and drink to steady his nerves, 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, signalling a blockage of arteries.
The King was able to walk his darling Lilibet down the aisle for her 1947 wedding to Philip Mountbatten. The loss of his daughter to marriage made the king feel lonely, but he was content that she was settled and would have a husband to accompany her on her trips abroad. Due to George’s ill health, Princess Elizabeth was standing in for the king at many events.
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 is 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.