Virginia Woolf on the Abdication of King Edward VIII

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In December of 1936, King Edward VIII’s marriage proposal to Wallis Simpson, an American who was in the midst of her second divorce, sparked a constitutional crisis in the British Royal Family over whether Edward should be allowed to remain king if he married Simpson.

At the time, the Church of England, which the king was the nominal head of, did not allow divorced people to remarry if their spouses were still alive. The British public was also uneasy with the idea of the king marrying an American, although there were technically no rules against it.

Like many British citizens at the time, Virginia Woolf became absorbed in the crisis and recorded every development in her diary.

Edward VIII in June of 1932

Edward VIII in June of 1932

Although Virginia first noted a feeling of sympathy for the king among the British public, as he waited longer and longer to make a decision, she noticed the sympathy started to wane and even she herself criticized him for his lack of action on the matter:

“Monday December 7
Now, we are- without a King? With a Queen? What? The Simpson affair is on the surface. It was on Wednesday 2nd Dec that the Bishop commented on the Kings lack of religion. On Thursday all of the papers, The Times & D[aily] T[elegraph]. very discreetly, mentioned some, domestic difficulties; others Mrs Simpson. All London was gay & garrulous – not exactly gay, but excited. We cant have a woman Simpson for Queen, that was the sense of it. She’s no more royal than me or you, was what the grocer’s young woman said. But today, before the PM makes his announcement to the House, we have developed a strong sense of human sympathy; we are saying Hang it all – the age of Victoria is over. Let him marry whom he likes. In the Beefsteak Club however only Lord Onslow and Clive take the democratic view. Harold [Nicholson] is as glum as an undertaker, & so are all the other nobs. They say Royalty is in peril. The Empire is divided. In fact, never has there been such a crisis. That I think is true. Spain, Germany, Russia – all are elbowed out. The marriage stretches from one end of the paper to another. Pictures of the D. of York & the Princesses fill every cranny. Mrs. Simpson is snapped by lime light at midnight as she gets out of her car. Her luggage is also photographed. Parties are forming. The different interests are queuing up behind Baldwin, or Churchill. Mosley is taking advantage of the crisis for his ends. In fact we are all talking 19 to the dozen, & so it looks as if this one little insignificant man had moved a pebble wh. Dislodges an avalanche. Things, – empires, hierarchies – moralities – will never be the same again. Yet today there is a certain feeling that the button has been pressed too hard; emotion is no longer so liberally forthcoming. And the King may keep us all waiting, while he sits, like a naughty boy in the nursery, trying to make up his mind. Coming past the Palace last night there were crowds waiting in the cold – it is very cold – cant write – with eyes fixed on the windows. Two or three lights were burning in upper windows.”

Without any real developments in the story, gossip spread and rumors began to swirl, as Virginia notes in a long diary entry on Thursday, December 10.

In the entry, she reports the many accusations leveled at the king, specifically that he was a drunk, insane, obsessed with Simpson, sending Britain “down the sink,” planning a move to America and that his “little bourgeois demented mind sticks fast to the marriage service [to Simpson],” despite talk that Simpson was reportedly losing interest in the king.

Wallis Simpson in 1936

Wallis Simpson in 1936

At the end of the entry, Virginia writes:

“I am reluctant to end this page, because it is I think the last entry I shall make in this book on the subject of Edward the Eighth. If I write tomorrow, it will be in the reign, I supposed of Albert the First – & he’s not, so Mary says, a popular choice. Let it be.”

Virginia was correct, since King Edward VIII had already abdicated that morning and the announcement was made later that day at 4pm.

The following Sunday, Virginia recorded her last diary entry on the subject of Edward VIII when she described his radio broadcast announcing his decision to abdicate:

“Then we had the broadcast. ‘Prince Edward speaking from Windsor Castle’ – as the emotional butler announced. Upon which, with a slight stammer at first, in a steely strained voice, as if he were standing with his back against the wall, the King (but that is already vanishing & attaching itself to York) began: ‘At long last…I can speak to you…The woman I love…I who have none of those blessings…’ Well, one came in touch with human flesh, I suppose. Also with a set pigheaded steely mind…a very ordinary young man; but the thing had never been done on that scale. One man set up in the Augusta Tower at Windsor addressing the whole world on behalf of himself & Mrs Simpson. Out in the square there was complete emptiness. All the life had been withdrawn to listen, to judge. Miss Strachan [clerk] wdn’t listen, for fear of sympathising. And then Edward went on in his steely way to say the perfectly correct things, about the Constitution, the P. Minister, her majesty my mother. Finally he wound up, God Save the King with a shout; after which I heard his sigh go up, a kind of whistle. Then silence. Complete silence. The Mr Hibbard saying. And now we shut down. Good night everybody. Goodnight; & we were tucked up in our beds.”

Despite all the drama, the crisis ended just as quickly as it started with that one broadcast. The very next day, Virginia’s diary entries revert back to her usual topics of books, writing and friends and she never discussed the matter again.

Edward’s brother, Prince Albert, Duke of York, succeeded to the throne as George VI. When he passed away in 1952 his daughter, Princess Elizabeth, became Queen and has since become the second-longest ruling British monarch.

Edward VIII married Simpson in France on June 3 in 1937, after her second divorce became final. She was given the title “The Duchess of Windsor,” without the style “Her Royal Highness.”

They remained married for the rest of their lives, living in exile in France, although Edward served a brief stint on British soil as the Governor of the Bahamas during WWII.

Virginia’s diary entries about Edward VIII were not the first time she wrote about the Royal Family, since she also wrote about attending Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in her diary as a child and even recreated the experience in her novel Mrs. Dalloway.

“The Diary of Virginia Woolf: Volume Five”; Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf on the Abdication of King Edward VIII

About Rebecca Beatrice Brooks

Rebecca Beatrice Brooks is a freelance writer and history lover who got her start in journalism working for small-town newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Rebecca graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a B.A. in Journalism in 2001.