I went to see The King’s Speech this morning. If you haven’t yet had the chance to see it, you absolutely should, especially if British history is something you enjoy. If not, then go for the performances. Colin Firth, Guy Pearce, Helena Bonham-Carter and Geoffrey Rush are all wonderful. It’s a great pleasure to watch them at work, and it’s a nice break to see HB-C do something other than barking mad Death Eater.
Whenever I see historical films like this one, I immediately want to know more about the topic (good habit for a history teacher to have, no?). When I saw The Queen, I read up as much as I could on Elizabeth II (and found much about her to admire). It was the same with Young Victoria, and with Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan. (All of these films were wonderful, and if you haven’t seen these either, you should.) The King’s Speech was no exception.
Rather than reading up more about George VI (which I will do later, I assure you), I was actually more interested in learning about Edward VIII and his abdication. The film does a fair job at explaining why the abdication had to happen, but I wanted to know more. What intrigued me was this: What was the problem with Wallis Simpson?
It didn’t seem to be that she was an American (although that can’t have been in her favor, either). Nor was it that she was a commoner (the wife of George VI and the future Queen Mum of Elizabeth II was a commoner, as was one of Henry VIII’s wives).
No, the problem seemed to be her divorces. If the King married someone who had been divorced, it would raise questions about his relationship with the Church of England. Remember that the king was also head of the Church. Interesting, though, isn’t it? If you go way, way, way back in history, you’ll find that Henry II’s wife Eleanor of Aquitaine was a divorcee. So it’s not as if it were without precedent. And of course, it brings to mind this question:
Isn’t this a tad hypocritical? Really? Wasn’t the Church of England created because the King himself (old Henry VIII) wanted a divorce? He ended up being twice divorced, not to mention thrice widowed (although, I suppose technically, only two of those were his fault. Poor Jane Seymour died because doctors never washed their hands. Yeeeccch.)
It does seem to me that perhaps this issue of Wallis Simpson (and on another note, really, Wallis? What a horrid name. The poor woman.) was about more than just the fact that she was a divorcee.
The biggest problem, of course, was how Mrs. Simpson was perceived by the people. She was still married when she began seeing the future Edward VIII (called David by family), and therefore was considered an adulteress. More importantly, should Edward insist upon marrying her, it was likely that the government would resign. They had the power to approve who the king would marry, and they most certainly did not approve.
In America, I know that the entire episode is looked upon as being terribly romantic. He gave up the throne for her, after all. That he would give up so much to be with her is quite the gesture. In Britain, I’m not sure how it was perceived after the fact, though most likely their attention was diverted by the looming presence of World War II. Interesting to note, by the way, that Edward was quite the Nazi sympathizer, which makes one wonder if perhaps there was not a deeper, more political reason for his abdication. A Britain under the rule of a king who had visited Germany as a personal guest of Adolf Hitler and apparently did not believe that the war against Hitler could be won would be a very different place today, indeed*.
I leave you with a video from YouTube of the audio Edward’s abdication speech with static images of the former king.
*See Erickson, Carolly. Royal Panoply: Brief Lives of the English Monarchs. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2006.