Edward VIII: The Worst Monarch in British History?

Edward VIII was only on the throne for one year, yet he left behind an appalling legacy.

Apr 4, 2024By Jacob Wilkins, BA History

edward viii worst monarch british


The history of the British monarchy is varied and unpredictable. Noble leaders and brave warriors sit alongside incompetent fools and self-centered tyrants.


As the centuries have passed and the influence of royalty has declined, it has become harder and harder to judge each new monarch. But there is one king in recent history who – despite being a constitutional monarch – managed to alienate large swathes of the British public and damage his family’s reputation.


His name was King Edward VIII, and he left such a terrible legacy that even the most skilled debaters would struggle to defend his behavior.


Edward VIII & The Royal Navy

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A photograph of Edward VIII (the child furthest to the right) with his siblings, 1902. Source: Royal Collection Trust


The boy who would become Edward VIII was born on June 23, 1894 during the closing years of Queen Victoria’s reign. As the firstborn son of Prince George (who would become King of the United Kingdom in 1910), he was destined to inherit the throne when his father died.

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Edward spent much of his childhood living in luxurious royal residences like York Cottage, Frogmore House, and Balmoral. Quick, bright, and anxious to please, Edward was an inquisitive child who benefited from an upper-class education, which included several private tutors.


Given Edward would be king one day, the family wanted him to be a virtuous individual, and they believed the Royal Navy was the ideal place for him. They hoped he would grow into a sober, self-disciplined, and punctual young man. So, in May 1907, Edward arrived at Naval College at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.


young edward viii naval college osborne
A photograph of Edward VIII and his father arriving at Osborne House, c. 1909. Source: Royal Collection Trust


Edward struggled to adapt to boarding school. He shared a dormitory with thirty other boys and had to follow a strict schedule. He also experienced mild bullying, though he did become more accepted as time went on. After Osborne, Edward moved on to the Naval College in Dartmouth.


During this time, King Edward VII died, marking the start of King George V’s reign. The young Prince Edward was now one step away from the throne. He started to take an interest in current affairs, reading newspapers like the Morning Post and the Westminster Gazette.


The Dartmouth course ended with a training cruise, but Edward was unable to participate, for the voyage clashed with his father’s coronation. Instead, he went on a three-month tour on a battleship named HMS Hindustan, sailing along the south coast to Portland, Torbay, and Queensferry.


Edward VIII’s Women: Marguerite, Freda, & Thelma

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A photograph of Marguerite Alibert, c. 1915. Source: Tatler


When the First World War began in July 1914, Edward was keen to fight. But Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, had other ideas. The British could not risk Edward being captured or killed by the Germans. As the first in line to the throne, he was simply too valuable.


Instead, Edward contributed to the conflict by working as a member of staff and visiting the front lines. In June 1916, for instance, he visited the trenches in Ypres, Belgium, spending time with the British troops.


However, Edward’s romantic affair with a woman named Marguerite Alibert overshadowed his other wartime practices. Marguerite, a French prostitute known for her beautiful appearance, met the prince in April 1917 in Paris. The two of them engaged in a sexual relationship that lasted until the end of the war.


This romantic encounter wasn’t the only time Edward misbehaved. During the 1920s, he had a secret long-term affair with Freda Dudley Ward, who was married to the politician William Dudley Ward. When this affair came to an end, Edward moved on to Lady Thelma Furness, who was married to Marmaduke Furness, a wealthy shipping magnate.


Wallis Simpson

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A photograph of Wallis Simpson, 1937. Source: The Standard


The king was saddened by his son’s behavior. He told Edward the affairs would damage his popularity and tried to persuade him to settle down. In fairness to Edward, he did follow his father’s advice, for he found a woman he wanted to marry: Wallis Simpson.


Wallis was an American socialite and –  rather controversially – a divorcée. She had divorced her first husband back in 1927 and was still married to her second husband when she struck up a close relationship with Edward.


After leaving (but not officially divorcing) her second husband in July 1934, Wallis spent the next few months in Edward’s company at a resort in Biarritz, France. Together, they talked, ate, and sunbathed beside the French coastline.


Meanwhile, Edward’s father was nearing the end of his reign. Years of smoking had taken a toll on the king, and his health was in decline. On January 20, 1936, George breathed his last, and Edward – now no longer a prince –  officially became King Edward VIII.


The Abdication Crisis

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A photograph of Edward VIII on the day of his abdication speech, 1936. Source: BBC


There were problems from the outset. The day after his father died, Edward went against royal customs by watching (rather than participating in) the proclamation of his own accession.


He then neglected royal tradition once again when he decided not to go to Windsor Castle for Easter, opting instead to entertain his friends at Fort Belvedere. But the biggest problem  – which soon became a constitutional crisis  – was Edward’s desire to marry Wallis.


As a divorcée, the American socialite’s past was deemed unacceptable by both the government and the Church of England. When Edward informed Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin of his intention to marry Wallis (who was in the final stages of her second divorce), Baldwin didn’t hold back. He told Edward that the decision was unacceptable for a British monarch. Worse still, Baldwin met with Opposition leaders, informing them he would shut down the government if Edward married Wallis. The Opposition leaders agreed, assuring the Prime Minister they would also refuse to form a government if the king married a divorcée.


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A photograph of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, 1939. Source: The Times


Placing love above duty, Edward officially abdicated on December 10, 1936. The following day, he made a radio broadcast, informing the public of his decision. This live resignation speech is considered one of the most significant moments in modern British history.


Edward’s younger brother, who was now King George VI, took up the mantle instead. He proved to be much more popular than Edward, leading Britain through the Second World War alongside Prime Minister Winston Churchill. His eldest daughter Elizabeth would go on to be Britain’s longest-reigning monarch, reigning from 1952 to 2022.


Edward VIII & The Nazis

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A photograph of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson with Adolf Hitler, 1937. Source: Vanity Fair


True to his word, Edward married Wallis six months after his abdication, tying the knot at the Château de Candé in Monts, France.


Though the battle between love and duty had reached its conclusion, Edward tarnished his reputation still further by visiting the Nazis. With Wallis at his side, the former king arrived in Germany in October 1937. As well as performing the Nazi salute and shaking hands with Adolf Hitler, he toured industrial facilities and even found time to visit a concentration camp.


It’s hard to know exactly what Edward’s motivations were or how much he genuinely supported the Nazis. But his actions during the Second World War certainly suggest he sympathized with their views.


In recent years, the historian Andrew Lownie, the author of Traitor King (2021), revealed Edward wrote several reports on the French Army while living in Paris in 1940. He then passed these reports to a Nazi informer called Charles Bedaux. When the Nazis invaded France, Edward and Wallis fled to Lisbon, Portugal, where they socialized with German agents and sympathizers.


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A photograph of George VI and his wife Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace in the wake of the bombing, 1940. Source: The Guardian


Yet perhaps the most shocking revelation discussed by Lownie comes from a cable sent to Berlin by the German ambassador in Lisbon. The message reveals that Edward supported the bombing of his home country, hoping this would force Britain to seek a diplomatic solution to the conflict.


Buckingham Palace was then bombed by the Luftwaffe (the German Air Force) on September 13, 1940. George VI and his wife were both at the palace at the time but managed to survive the bombing.


While it would be wrong to blame Edward for this event, the fact he advocated bombing his own country shortly before the palace was attacked was yet another incident that damaged his reputation.


Edward VIII’s Legacy

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A photograph of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, 1949. Source: Daily Mail


Given the long list of controversies associated with Edward, it’s easy to understand why his reputation is so poor.


His relationship with Wallis Simpson and the crisis that followed remains one of the most talked-about events in modern British history.


Edward’s life outside his reign was even more damaging to his reputation. His association with the Nazis is the most obvious example of his bad judgment, but his younger years were also marred by what was seen as poor decision-making. Indeed, the many love affairs he engaged in as a young prince were deemed unacceptable for a future king.


But where does Edward stand when compared to other British monarchs? Would it be fair to consider him the worst in British history? Some people would certainly say that he was. But it’s important to remember there have been plenty of other subpar monarchs over the years.


From the gluttony of King Henry VIII and King George IV to the incompetency of King Stephen and King John, there is no shortage of bad monarchs to choose from, and historians will always debate who was the worst of the worst.


Though there is no objectively correct answer to this debate, King Edward VIII will always be part of the conversation.

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By Jacob WilkinsBA HistoryJacob Wilkins holds a BA in History from Royal Holloway, University of London. He has written for several publications and has a particular interest in modern European and British history. When he’s not working, he enjoys reading books, watching tennis, and running up hills.