The most famous royal broadcast?
Almost three quarters of a century ago on 11 December 1936, another annus horribilis came to a crashing end with that most famous of royal broadcasts – the abdication speech of Edward VIII. What with Colin Firth’s purportedly Oscar-winning role as George VI (in The King’s Speech) due for release early next year, there is suddenly a lot of interest in the voice of kingship, and more interestingly the psychological gap between the royal and the human.
And Edward’s speech marks a key moment here. It was not only the most listened to broadcast of the decade, but also a royal broadcast message that completely broke the mould. Up to then, royal broadcasts had been slow measured salutations – beginning with the words that Rudyard Kipling wrote for George V in the first ever Christmas message ("I speak now from my home and from my heart to you all."…).
Edward’s initial draft of his famous speech was in fact written some days earlier on Thursday 3 December, a fact not known until the publication of the Duke of Windsor’s memoirs in 1951. He proposed to the Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, and to Sir John Reith, Director-General of the BBC, that he should speak directly to the nation (and ‘the Dominions’), seeking to explain his motives and then leave the people to decide…
This direct appeal proved too much for the government of the day. Baldwin thought it unconstitutional and would in fact divide the nation, muttering about a ‘coup d’etat’. So it sat in amber for a further week, until it was re-framed once the momentous decision had been made.
Many of the famous phrases from the final speech were already there, however. He had ‘found it impossible to carry the heavy burdens of responsibility and to discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love’; the ‘other person most nearly concerned’ had ‘tried up to the last to persuade me to take a different course’; he had made his decision ‘upon a single thought of what would in the end be best for all’.
Men and woman wept as they heard it, Churchill is reported to have had tears in his eyes after reading it (he also made a few final tweaks to it at the King’s request).
Audiences would have to wait many decades more - before they would hear such personal emotion expressed so directly in a broadcast by a member of the royal family.
Robert Seatter is Head of BBC History
The BBC Archive website remembers the abdication and the short reign of Edward VIII with a new archive collection.
On this website you can listen to the abdication speech and hear the moment history changed. Also released are some of the speeches Edward made when he was Prince, which give a fascinating hint of what he might have done if he had stayed on the throne. Among the television programmes you can watch is a 1970 interview with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. You can even read an extract from John Reith's diary in which he explains what it was like to be in the room with the King as he told the world that he was giving up the throne.