Meghan Markle and Prince Harry shocked the world as they announced their bid to step down from royal duties earlier this year. It marked the end of a dreadful 12 months for the Queen – who also had to deal with the fallout of Prince Andrew’s “car crash” BBC Newsnight interview over his links to disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein. However, nothing quite comes close to the abdication crisis of 1936, when King Edward VIII abandoned the throne to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson.
Edward reigned for under a year but his tenure was marred by altercations with politicians and the wider establishment.
He was considered out-of-control and his political leanings raised deep suspicion but the real sticking point came when he proposed to Mrs Simpson – as the act of marrying a divorcee would conflict Edward’s status as head of the Church of England.
Already wary of the young monarch, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin was said to be apoplectic with rage as news of the proposal reached him.
He reportedly told him: “This simply isn’t on. Parliament won’t wear it!”
King Edward VIII was closely monitored by Stanley Baldwin
Edward VIII abdicated to marry the woman he loved, Wallis Simpson
Edward, though, insisted he would marry Mrs Simpson with or without Parliament’s approval – and would abdicate if necessary.
This appeared to be the final straw for the Mr Baldwin’s Tory government as they set about monitoring his every move.
Mr Hardman, speaking on ITV documentary ‘Inside the Crown: Secrets of the Royals’ last month, shed light on astonishing documents – kept hidden for 80 years by the Public Record Office – exposing the true extent of the Government’s surveillance programme.
He said: “This is an extraordinary document from senior Home Office officials to the head of the Post Office saying: ‘We’re going to tap the King’s phone.’”
The historian then read an excerpt, highlighting: “We will arrange for the interception of telephone communications in certain addresses in London and continental Europe.”
Stanley Baldwin was deeply suspicious of Edward VIII
Mr Hardman continued: “This is effectively saying ‘yes he is our head of state to whom we all swore oaths of allegiance but, nonetheless, we’re going to spy on him because we feel it’s in the national interest.
“Mrs Simpson had all sorts of dubious contacts and friendships – not least with German diplomats – and the King was known to have met leading members of the British Fascist movement.
“They wanted to know it all.”
The Government’s suspicions were arguably justified as Edward went on to become a thorn in the side of the establishment for the rest of his life.
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Robert Hardman made the astonishing finds at the National Archives
Mr Hardman is a renowned royal historian
After the abdication, Edward and Mrs Simpson sparked a diplomatic nightmare in 1937 when they visited Adolf Hitler at his infamous Berghof retreat before the outbreak of World War 2.
During the visit, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor – as they were known after their marriage – gave full fascist salutes in what became a propaganda coup for the Nazis.
Hitler considered Edward an ally and believed Anglo-German relations could have been improved were it not for the abdication.
Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect, even quoted him as saying: “if he had stayed, everything would have been different. The abdication was a huge loss for us.”
Unsurprisingly this relationship caused great distress in Whitehall and, in June 1940, Winston Churchill famously appointed Edward Governor of the Bahamas in a move widely seen as a move to “keep him out of the way”.
Royal Family line of succession
Edward himself was reluctant to condemn Hitler, even after the true horrors of the Nazi regime came to light following the war’s conclusion.
In the Sixties, he told friends he “never thought Hitler was such a bad chap”.
It was not just politicians who Edward frustrated, though.
His brother Albert, who ascended the throne as King George VI after the abdication, saw his life turned upside down.
King George VI and the Queen with daughters Elizabeth and Margaret
Winston Churchill was not a fan of Edward VIII
His wife Queen Elizabeth, later known as the Queen Mother, never forgave Edward and Mrs Simpson.
She believed their rejection of the Royal Family was a “selfish” act and one that contributed to her husband’s early death, due to the pressures associated with his unexpected royal role.
The current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, would not be on the throne were it not for the abdication.
During the early days of her reign, she constantly had to monitor the actions of her uncle – as his presence inadvertently presented a rival to her rule – until his death in 1972.