Edward, Mrs Simpson and the Divorce Law: Stephen Cretney Investigates Whether the Government Colluded in the Suppression of Evidence That Might Have Prevented Wallis Simpson's Divorce and Royal Marriage
Cretney, Stephen, History Today
ON DECEMBER 11TH, 1936, King Edward VIII abdicated so that he could 'marry the woman he loved', the American Mrs Wallis Warfield Simpson. But in fact Mrs Simpson was a married woman and so not free to marry the King, or anyone else for that matter. She had, it is true, started divorce proceedings alleging that her husband Ernest had committed adultery with an unnamed woman at a hotel in the Thames valley. Mr Simpson had not offered any defence, and the divorce court had accordingly granted Mrs Simpson a so-called divorce decree nisi. But the decree could not be made absolute (thereby legally ending her marriage) for six months.
The reason for this compulsory waiting period was that, at that time, the law refused to accept divorce by consent. The fact that a couple had agreed on a divorce--that there had been 'collusion' as lawyers put it--was not something to be welcomed: on the contrary, it was a ground for rejecting the petition. And there were other possible difficulties as well--not least, the fact that only an 'innocent' husband or wife was entitled to divorce, and some people suspected that Mrs Simpson had been the King's mistress, or at any rate that she had had several other lovers.
How was anybody to find out the truth of such things? That was the job of a Government lawyer (the 'King's Proctor'). It was his responsibility to investigate divorces--especially undefended divorces--in order to make sure that the applicant was 'innocent' and that the decree had not been obtained by agreement or even by faked 'evidence'. If the Proctor found that anything was suspicious, he could 'intervene' to put the facts he had discovered before the court. The court then had the power to rescind the decree nisi and thus prevent the husband and wife from marrying again. Furthermore even a private citizen could (on the payment of half-a-crown--less than 5 [pounds sterling] in today's money) intervene to 'show cause' why the decree nisi should not be made absolute.
Stanley Baldwin, the Conservative prime minister of the National Government, and his Cabinet, firmly believed that Mrs Simpson could not he allowed to become queen. The public, in the Dominions as well as in Britain, would not tolerate having a woman with two living ex-husbands on the throne. Nor (the Government decided) would it be legally possible for her to marry the King 'morganatically', that is without becoming queen. Edward VIII, faced with the choice of either remaining King or giving up the throne and marrying Mrs Simpson, came to a clear decision: he would abdicate. But there were some who thought the King's abdication would be a disaster for the monarchy and the country. The King, they thought, must therefore be 'saved from himself'. So, imbued with patriotic motives, they determined to prevent the divorce by looking for evidence that the King and Mrs Simpson had indeed committed adultery. And, as Sir John Simon, the Home Secretary, discreetly put it, there probably would be people who could give evidence of the couple's 'comings and goings'. These people saw a 'citizen's intervention' as the best way of stopping Mrs Simpson getting a decree absolute and so (they thought) of keeping the legitimate king on the throne.
There was another difficult problem. So long as Edward remained on the throne, the principle that a king 'can do no wrong' prevented his being brought into the case. But if he ceased to be king this protection would disappear. And since the King's Proctor routinely looked into all undefended divorce cases, it would be his duty in 'put his sleuths' on to the case, and see if evidence that Mrs Simpson had committed adultery could be found. From the King's point of view, therefore, the best thing to do would be to hold out until the end of the six months' waiting period. Perhaps public opinion would by then have moved in favour of allowing Mrs Simpson to become queen; but even if the King did in the end abdicate he would at least know that he could legally marry. …