No. 390 NAI DFA Secretary's Files S57

Memorandum by the Department of External Affairs on the abdication crisis

Dublin, 7 December 1936


Summary of events in so far as Saorstát Éireann is concerned up to Sunday night,

6th December

On Sunday, 29th November, Sir Harry Batterbee, Assistant Secretary of the Dominions Office, visited the President in Government Buildings and gave him, on behalf of Mr. Baldwin, in a 'purely friendly personal and secret way', the following information.

Mr. Baldwin had felt it his duty 'recently' to broach to the King the subject of his relations with Mrs. Simpson, and to warn him of the grave consequences which might flow from the existing state of affairs, especially if the pending divorce suit was proceeded with. The King summoned Mr. Baldwin for an interview on November 16th after the granting of the decree nisi. He informed the Prime Minister that it was his fixed intention to marry Mrs. Simpson. He appreciated, however, that it would be out of the question that she should become Queen and that her children should succeed to the Throne (as would be the position unless otherwise provided for by legislation). He therefore contemplated abdicating, leaving the Duke of York to succeed. The Prime Minister was surprised at this suggestion, and asked for a few days to think it over. The King later informed the Queen and his brothers of this intended course of action. Mr. Baldwin did not think the King could be dissuaded from marrying Mrs. Simpson once the decree was made absolute, and it did not seem to him to be a practical alternative to try to dissuade him. The Dominions were, of course, as much concerned with this question touching the Crown as the United Kingdom. A declaration by the King renouncing the Throne would have to be made simultaneously to all the peoples in the British Commonwealth of Nations, would have to be followed by legislation amending the Act of Settlement, and the constitutional principles contained in the Statute of Westminster would apply.

Mr. Baldwin saw the King again on November 25th, and the King outlined to him a new proposal which 'had been put to him from some outside quarter' and on which he asked Mr. Baldwin's view. Mrs. Simpson according to this proposal would not be Queen, but the marriage should not necessitate abdication. An undertaking would be given by the King that while his wife would be resident in Buckingham Palace with him she would not be treated as Queen, would not appear on State occasions, and legislation could be introduced to fix her position as the King's wife and to amend the Act of Settlement so as to bar any issue of the marriage from succession. It would be a necessary part of the suggested arrangement that the Governments on their side would undertake to acquiesce in the marriage on these conditions and would be responsible for any legislation necessary to put it into effect. Mr. Baldwin replied that he did not think there was any chance of such a suggestion receiving the approval of Parliament in the United Kingdom, and he further reminded the King that the position had to be considered in relation to the Dominions, 'whose assent would be equally essential'.

Sir Harry Batterbee went on to say that Mr. Baldwin felt convinced that neither the Parliament nor the great majority of the public in all parties in Great Britain would accept such a plan any more than they would accept the proposal that Mrs. Simpson should become Queen. Moreover, it was very probable that pressure would be brought to bear later with a view to Mrs. Simpson becoming Queen. Mr. Baldwin asked for the President's personal view regarding the three following possibilities:-

(1) The King's marriage to Mrs.Simpson, she becoming Queen.

(2) The King's marriage to Mrs.Simpson without abdication, Mrs.Simpson not becoming Queen, and the necessary legislation.

(3) A voluntary abdication of the King in favour of the Duke of York.

The President informed Sir Harry Batterbee that he would incline to favour Course 2, but that if it was clear, having regard to all the circumstances of the case, that public opinion would not stand for anything in the nature of Course 2, he supposed there was no alternative to Course 3. The President added that if we had the same interest that the British have we should certainly consider the person in that position should be above reproach. The President's opinion expressed on Course 2 was on the assumption that divorce was a recognised institution in England. This opinion was later confirmed by the President in a telegram to the Prime Minister (3rd December).1

Views of Prime Ministers of Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand

These were communicated to the President in a letter from Mr. Baldwin dated the 2nd December.


Generally accepts British view, but is opposed to abdication imposed by Ministers and not voluntarily proposed by King.


Accepts completely British position. Goes so far as to say that even if the King now dropped the proposal of marriage he should abdicate. There was no possibility of compromise.

New Zealand

Favours Course 2, but submits to judgment of United Kingdom Government inspired by 'deeper knowledge' and the wish to achieve the best result for Empire unity.

South Africa

Accepts British view completely.

Message from Mr. Baldwin sent to all Members of the Commonwealth, received by the President on Friday, 4th December, proposes that, if the King voluntarily abdicates, the necessary steps to regularise the position and to establish the Duke of York as King should be taken promptly, accurately synchronised, and of course after consultation and agreement between the various Governments. Everything should be arranged in detail in advance. The King's abdication would be his own act not taken on the advice of any of his Ministers. It would thus be plain that it was his personal act addressed to all his peoples simultaneously. The 'contents' would be communicated by the King himself to the Governors-General so as to ensure that they reached the other Commonwealth Governments at the same time as the United Kingdom Government.

In Great Britain the procedure would be as follows:-

Prime Minister would at once communicate the declaration of abdication to the House of Commons, and the Leader of the House of Lords would make a similar communication to the Upper House. Prime Minister would announce to Parliament that legislation was necessary to carry into effect the abdication of the King, and that this legislation would be introduced immediately. Mr. Baldwin did not think that any controversy would arise on the Bill. The Bill would be so framed that the Throne would pass to the Duke of York as soon as the King had given his Assent. A modification in the Act of Settlement was necessary to secure the title of the Duke of York and his children to the Throne. With regard to the Preamble and Section 4 of the Statute of Westminster, he asked for comments on the British tentative appreciation of the position. They recognised that the question of action by the other Governments was a matter for themselves, but as the situation was unprecedented the less legislation and the less opportunity for public discussion the better, and accordingly it would be better to confine legislation to the United Kingdom Act. Section 4 of the Statute of Westminster made it possible for the Dominions to request and consent to the enactment of the proposed United Kingdom Act, and though Australia and New Zealand had not adopted Section 4 they could be associated in the consequent recital to the Act. The British Government hoped the Dominions would be associated with the Act. They suggested as a way out that the meaning of the word 'King' in the South Africa Act of 1909, the Status of the Union Act 1934 and the Commonwealth of Australia Act (where the expression 'the King, his heirs and successors in the sovereignty of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland' could be interpreted as an acceptance of any King set up by the United Kingdom Government) should be held to be implicit in the Constitutions of the other States of the Commonwealth. They suggested furthermore that a resolution in Parliament would be the appropriate method for complying with the constitutional doctrine enunciated in the Preamble to the Statute of Westminster. If, however, the other Governments considered that the request and consent of their Parliaments was necessary to make the United Kingdom Act fully effective, notice of their request and consent prior to the initiation of the Bill would be required. At this point Mr. Baldwin states that in his informal talk with the King he got the impression that the King might make his declaration of abdication on Monday, the 7th, and that legislation would have to be introduced on Tuesday. The urgency of receiving the views of the other Governments was therefore apparent.

A draft of the proposed British Bill was received on the same day (Friday, 4th December). On the same evening Mr. Baldwin informed all the other Governments by cable that the King still contemplated the possibility of Course 2, and that a section of the popular Press was canvassing the idea. He felt that the course was not acceptable to the 'overwhelming majority' of the people in Great Britain, but that a weekend of Press campaign in favour of it would be extremely undesirable. He felt obliged therefore to make a statement in the House of Commons that evening before it adjourned. The exact terms of the statement were not yet decided, but would be telegraphed as soon as possible, but the general line was that he would make it clear that the British Government regarded Course 2 as ?utterly impracticable', and that he would add that generally, from information received by him, Course 2 would be similarly unacceptable to the Dominions. He felt that this latter was an essential part of the statement. He expressed great regret at not being able to consult the other Governments prior to the statement being made, but felt that they would understand the need for urgent action. The following is the text of the statement made by Mr. Baldwin:-

'In view of widely circulated suggestions as to certain possibilities in the event of the King's marriage, I think it would be advisable for me to make a statement.

Suggestions have appeared in certain organs of the press yesterday and again today that if the King decided to marry, his wife need not become Queen. These ideas are without any constitutional foundation. There is no such thing as what is called morganatic marriage known to our law.

The Royal Marriages Act of 1772 has no application to the sovereign himself. Its only effect is that the marriage of any other member of the Royal Family is null and void unless the sovereign's consent, declared under the Great Seal, is first obtained. This Act therefore has nothing to do with the present case. The King himself requires no consent from any other authority to make his marriage legal.

But, as I have said, the lady whom he marries, by the fact of her marriage to the King, necessarily becomes Queen. She herself therefore enjoys all the status, rights, and privileges which both by positive law and by custom attach to that position and with which we are familiar in the case of her late Majesty Queen Alexandra and her Majesty Queen Mary, and her children would be in the direct line of succession to the Throne.

The only way in which this result could be avoided would be by legislation dealing with a particular case. His Majesty's Government are not prepared to introduce such legislation.

Moreover, the matters to be dealt with are of common concern to the Commonwealth as a whole, and such a change could not be effected without the assent of all the Dominions. I am satisfied from inquiries I have made that this assent would not be forthcoming.

I have felt it right to make this statement before the House adjourns today in order to remove a widespread misunderstanding. At this moment I have no other statement to make.'

We were later informed in another telegram that the Prime Minister's statement was received with cheers in all parts of the House. In a message received at 8.30 on the night of Friday, the 4th, Mr. Baldwin said that in order to avert danger of further delay the Cabinet had decided that he should tell the King that afternoon that he must make a very early decision, and that the choice before him was to give up Mrs. Simpson or voluntarily abdicate. He again expressed regret at not having previously consulted with the other Governments, but 'situation had become so grave' that it brooked no delay, and the British felt in view of helpful telegrams they had received from the Commonwealth Members that the British view would be assured generally by these Governments. He went on to say that it was, of course, proper that the King should know the view of his other Governments as well as of that of Great Britain, and that in the light of the latest developments the other Governments would no doubt wish to communicate their views direct to the King. It would be helpful if their views could be communicated direct to the King within 24 hours. Mr. Baldwin requested a copy of any message sent to the King, for his information.

Late on the same night (Friday, 4th December) the Prime Minister informed the other Governments by cable that the King had suggested to him the previous night that he should ?make a personal broadcast to the Empire' on the subject of his marriage. The main burden of the broadcast was that he wanted to be happily married, and that he was firmly resolved to marry the woman he loved when she was free to marry him, and that neither she nor he had ever sought to insist that she should become Queen. The King would also say that he felt it was best to go away to give time for calm reflection on what he had said. The broadcast would end with the words 'Nothing is nearer my heart than that I should return, but whatever may befall I shall always have a deep affection for my country and Empire and for you all'. Mr. Baldwin consulted his colleagues on Friday morning about the broadcast, and they came to the conclusion that it could not be allowed, as every sentence spoken by the King would involve the responsibility of his advisers. They accordingly decided that Mr. Baldwin should tender to the King on Friday night advice from the Government to that effect, and adding that the King could not in the present circumstances constitutionally make a broadcast on the lines proposed save on the advice of 'all his Governments'.

This is the first communication we have of a formal advice being given to the King in the crisis. As far as we have been informed, the first formal advice given to the King was given on the afternoon of Friday in the form of an ultimatum that he should make an early decision and that his choice was to give up Mrs. Simpson or voluntarily abdicate. The second formal advice related to the broadcast.

On Saturday morning at 1 a.m. the President sent the following telegram to Mr. Baldwin:-

'Your telegram containing the news of intended sudden action on Monday next within a week of the receipt of the first information concerning the position gives me serious cause for anxiety. Apart from other reasons legislation in our Parliament would be necessary in order to regularise the situation about public declaration. Such legislation at this moment would cause grave difficulty. Is there no alternative to immediate abdication? Surely delay at least is advisable even if no ultimate solution in sight.'

Methods proposed to be used by the other Governments of the Commonwealth in
relation to the British legislation

They have all agreed to assent to the British legislation. Australia intends to call Parliament for the purpose. The British have strongly urged on all of them to proceed by way of resolution, thus avoiding the need for the Assent of the King, whose abdication by that time would have been completed through his Assent to the British Bill. There are certain variations in the methods by which the Assent is to be formulated, but it may be taken that they have all agreed to accept the British legislation as something done on their behalf.

At 3.30 on Sunday, the 6th December, the President sent the following advice to the King:-

'I have been informed that Your Majesty has under consideration the question of your voluntary abdication within the next few days. I should be glad to learn direct from Your Majesty for the information of my Government what Your Majesty's intentions are in this matter since this step could not be effected, in so far as the Irish Free State is concerned, without the authority of the Parliament of the Irish Free State. I beg to advise Your Majesty accordingly.'

At the moment (11 o'clock, Monday the 7th December) the situation still remains doubtful. Mr. Baldwin is to make a statement in the House of Commons this afternoon. Opinion in Great Britain amongst large sections seems to favour the King's remaining on the Throne, and the Government appear to be wavering in the resolution to force a voluntary abdication.

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