When Wallis Simpson married The Duke of Windsor on 3 June 1937, she should have become Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Windsor. But, she was denied the style with her husband bitterly commenting that it was a “nice wedding present.” So why was she denied the style of HRH, and how did King George VI manage it?
In a letter from King George VI to his brother, he explained that he had consulted the heads of the Dominion and Empire countries and that they had advised that they considered that he had lost all royal rank when he abdicated the throne and was no longer entitled to use the title of Prince or the style of HRH. He then explained that he intended to recreate him His Royal Highness The Prince Edward, the Duke of Windsor, adding that he could not and would not extend the style to Wallis who would only be known as the Duchess of Windsor.
Status of the husband
This decision was against the royal practice, and British common law as a wife automatically takes her status from her husband unless her own rank is higher. When Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon married the Duke of York (future King George VI), this statement was released: “In accordance with the settled general rule that a wife takes the status of her husband Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon on her marriage has become Her Royal Highness the Duchess of York with the status of a Princess.”1 The Duke of Windsor had been assured by his brother that Wallis would become part of the family upon marriage. When he learned of the u-turn, he declared, “My brother promised me there would be no trouble over the trouble! He promised me!” King George VI had faced considerable opposition from both his wife and his mother. They simply would not receive Wallis and demanded that he would find a way to deprive her of becoming an HRH.
Finding a way
King George VI discussed the issue with the British prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, as he believed that once Wallis became a Royal Highness, she would remain one for life even after divorce. He was either unaware of the complexity of the issue or (deliberately?) misinformed. Perhaps he believed that as the sovereign, as Fountain of Honours, all titles, awards and peerages are said to descend via the throne through the monarch. Still, he had no active role in the acquisition of the style of HRH by any of the other royal wives by marriage. King George VI continued to find a way to deprive the style of HRH from Wallis even asking the Home Secretary, the Lord Chancellor and the Attorney-General to find some legal means.
He asked Stanley Baldwin, “Is she a fit and proper to become a Royal Highness after what she has done in this country; and would the country understand it if she became one automatically on marriage? I and my family and Queen Mary all feel that it would be a great mistake to acknowledge Mrs Simpson as a suitable person to become Royal. The Monarchy has been degraded quite enough already.”
It was then decided that the only way forward was to deprive the Duke of Windsor of his royal rank and then restore it with restrictions. Letters Patent were drawn up and declared that Edward VIII had upon abdicating the throne lost all royal rank and status. King George VI would recreate him a Royal Duke with the style of HRH. He added that the 1917 Letters Patent issued by King George V restricted the style of Royal Highness to those in the lineal succession to the throne, but the Duke of Windsor was no longer eligible for the throne. According to the new Letters Patent, King George VI was actually making an exception in granting him the style of HRH and therefore claimed also to be able to restrict it to him alone.
The final argument
However, King George VI was obliged to seek the advice of his minister, and he was not empowered to alter royal titles, according to the Statute of Westminster, without consulting the Dominions. Not wanting a different opinion, King George VI wrote to Stanley Baldwin telling him exactly what he wished the advice to be. On 26 May 1937, the discussion and ratification of the Letters Patent that created the former King a Royal Prince and allowing him to withhold the style of HRH from Wallis were included in Stanley Baldwin’s last Cabinet meeting as Prime Minister. Two days later, the official announcement appeared in the London Gazette.2
Thus, King George VI and his advisers presented the argument. The former King had, according to them, lost all royal rank upon abdication, and the new King was perfectly entitled to restore this rank and to restrict the style of HRH to him alone.
Losing royal rank
However, the former King never lost his royal rank. On 5 February 1864, Queen Victoria had issued Letters Patent saying, “that besides the Children of Sovereigns of these Realms, the Children of the Sons of any Sovereign of Great Britain and Ireland shall have and at all times hold and enjoy the title, style and attribute of “Royal Highness,” with their titular dignity of Prince or Princess prefixed to their representative Christian names.”3 Queen Victoria’s Letters Patent were later confirmed by King George V in 1917.4
The only way the former King’s royal rank or style of HRH could have been taken away would have been through the issuance of Special Letters Patent which specifically deprived him of these. This was never done, not even during the abdication process. Upon his abdication, he immediately became a Prince of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland with the qualification of Royal Highness pursuant to the 1917 Letters Patent, confirmed by his own father. King George VI had even – inadvertently – recognised his brother’s royal rank immediately after his abdication by instructing Sir John Reith to introduce him as His Royal Highness Prince Edward before his speech to the nation.
The Duchess of Windsor
It was obvious that King George VI was using the denial of the style of HRH for the Duchess as a way to keep both of them out of the country. The Duke had vowed never to return to England unless Wallis was an HRH. The King could not act against common law and yet he had done so. King George VI had acted against common law to deprive her of the style of Royal Highness.