Edward was born on 23 June 1894 at White Lodge, Richmond Park, on the outskirts of London during the reign of his great-grandmother Queen Victoria.
He was baptised Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David in the Green Drawing Room of White Lodge on 16 July 1894 by Edward White Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury.
Edward was tutored at home by Helen Bricka. When his parents traveled the British Empire for almost nine months following the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, young Edward and his siblings stayed in Britain with their grandparents, Queen Alexandra and King Edward VII, who showered their grandchildren with affection.
Edward was kept under the strict tutorship of Hansell until almost thirteen years old. Private tutors taught him German and French. Edward took the examination to enter the Royal Naval College, Osborne, and began there in 1907. Hansell had wanted Edward to enter school earlier, but the prince's father had disagreed.
Following two years at Osborne College, which he did not enjoy, Edward moved on to the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth.
Edward automatically became Duke of Cornwall and Duke of Rothesay on 6 May 1910 when his father ascended the throne as George V on the death of Edward VII.
He was created Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester a month later on 23 June 1910, his 16th birthday.
Edward was officially invested as Prince of Wales in a special ceremony at Caernarfon Castle on 13 July 1911.
He had joined the Grenadier Guards in June 1914, and although Edward was willing to serve on the front lines, Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener refused to allow it, citing the immense harm that would occur if the heir to the throne were captured by the enemy.
When the First World War broke out in 1914, Edward had reached the minimum age for active service and was keen to participate.
Edward witnessed trench warfare first-hand and visited the front line as often as he could, for which he was awarded the Military Cross in 1916.
In 1917, during the First World War, Edward began a love affair with Parisian courtesan Marguerite Alibert (later Fahmy), who kept a collection of his indiscreet letters after he broke off the affair in 1918 to begin one with a married English textile heiress, Freda Dudley Ward.
He undertook his first military flight in 1918, and later gained a pilot's licence.
On a tour of Canada in 1919, he acquired the Bedingfield ranch, near Pekisko, Alberta.
Edward's youngest brother, Prince John, died at the age of 13 on 18 January 1919 after a severe epileptic seizure. Edward, who was 11 years older than John and had hardly known him, saw his death as "little more than a regrettable nuisance".
In 1919, he agreed to be President of the organizing committee for the proposed British Empire Exhibition at Wembley Park, Middlesex. He wished the Exhibition to include "a great national sports ground", and so played a part in the creation of Wembley Stadium.
Throughout the 1920s, Edward, as the Prince of Wales, represented his father at home and abroad on many occasions. His rank, travels, good looks, and unmarried status gained him much public attention, and at the height of his popularity, he was the most photographed celebrity of his time.
Edward's womanizing and reckless behavior during the 1920s and 1930s worried Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, King George V, and those close to the prince. George V was disappointed by his son's failure to settle down in life, was disgusted by his affairs with married women, and was reluctant to see him inherit the Crown. "After I am dead," George said, "the boy will ruin himself in twelve months."
Though widely traveled, Edward was racially prejudiced against foreigners and many of the Empire's subjects, believing that whites were inherently superior. In 1920, on a visit to Australia, he wrote of Indigenous Australians: "they are the most revolting form of living creatures I've ever seen!! They are the lowest known form of human beings & are the nearest thing to monkeys."
George V favored his second son Albert ("Bertie") and Albert's daughter Elizabeth ("Lilibet"), later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II respectively. He told a courtier, "I pray to God that my eldest son will never marry and have children, and that nothing will come between Bertie and Lilibet and the throne.
In 1924, he donated the Prince of Wales Trophy to the National Hockey League.
He continued his relationships with a series of married women, including Freda Dudley Ward and Lady Furness, the American wife of a British peer, who introduced the prince to her friend and fellow American Wallis Simpson. Simpson had divorced her first husband, U.S. naval officer Win Spencer, in 1927. Her second husband, Ernest Simpson, was a British-American businessman. Wallis Simpson and the Prince of Wales, it is generally accepted, became lovers, while Lady Furness travelled abroad, although the prince adamantly insisted to his father that he was not having an affair with her and that it was not appropriate to describe her as his mistress.
He took a particular interest in science and in 1926 was president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science when his alma mater, Oxford University, hosted the society's annual general meeting.
He visited poverty-stricken areas of Britain, and undertook 16 tours to various parts of the Empire between 1919 and 1935.
In 1929, Time magazine reported that Edward teased Albert's wife, also named Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother), by calling her "Queen Elizabeth". The magazine asked if "she did not sometimes wonder how much truth there is in the story that he once said he would renounce his rights upon the death of George V – which would make her nickname come true".
In 1929 Sir Alexander Leith, a leading Conservative in the north of England, persuaded him to make a three-day visit to the County Durham and Northumberland coalfields, where there was much unemployment.
In 1930, George V gave Edward the lease of Fort Belvedere in Windsor Great Park.
From January to April 1931, the Prince of Wales and his brother Prince George traveled 18,000 miles (29,000 km) on a tour of South America, steaming out on the ocean liner Oropesa, and returning via Paris and an Imperial Airways flight from Paris–Le Bourget Airport that landed specially in Windsor Great Park.
King George V died on 20 January 1936, and Edward ascended the throne as King Edward VIII.
The next day, accompanied by Simpson, he broke with custom by watching the proclamation of his own accession from a window of St James's Palace.
On 16 July 1936, an Irish fraudster called Jerome Bannigan, alias George Andrew McMahon, produced a loaded revolver as Edward rode on horseback at Constitution Hill, near Buckingham Palace. Police spotted the gun and pounced on him; he was quickly arrested. At Bannigan's trial, he alleged that "a foreign power" had approached him to kill Edward, that he had informed MI5 of the plan, and that he was merely seeing the plan through to help MI5 catch the real culprits. The court rejected the claims and sent him to jail for a year for "intent to alarm".
Edward caused unease in government circles with actions that were interpreted as interference in political matters. His comment during a tour of depressed villages in South Wales that "something must be done"
In August and September, Edward and Simpson cruised the Eastern Mediterranean on the steam yacht Nahlin.
By October it was becoming clear that the new king planned to marry Simpson, especially when divorce proceedings between the Simpsons were brought at Ipswich Assizes.
On 16 November 1936, Edward invited Prime Minister Baldwin to Buckingham Palace and expressed his desire to marry Simpson when she became free to remarry. Baldwin informed him that his subjects would deem the marriage morally unacceptable, largely because remarriage after divorce was opposed by the Church of England, and the people would not tolerate Simpson as queen.
Edward proposed an alternative solution of a morganatic marriage, in which he would remain king but Simpson would not become queen consort. She would enjoy some lesser title instead, and any children they might have would not inherit the throne. This was supported by senior politician Winston Churchill in principle, and some historians suggest that he conceived the plan.
Edward duly signed the instruments of abdication at Fort Belvedere on 10 December 1936 in the presence of his younger brothers: Prince Albert, Duke of York, next in line for the throne; Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester; and Prince George, Duke of Kent.
The next day, the last act of his reign was the royal assent to His Majesty's Declaration of Abdication Act 1936. As required by the Statute of Westminster, all the Dominions had already consented to the abdication.
On the night of 11 December 1936, Edward, now reverted to the title and style of a prince, explained his decision to abdicate in a worldwide radio broadcast. He famously said, "I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden 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." He added that the "decision was mine and mine alone ... The other person most nearly concerned has tried up to the last to persuade me to take a different course".
On 12 December 1936, at the accession meeting of the Privy Council of the United Kingdom, George VI announced he was to make his brother the "Duke of Windsor" with the style of Royal Highness.
He wanted this to be the first act of his reign, although the formal documents were not signed until 8 March the following year. During the interim, Edward was universally known as the Duke of Windsor. George VI's decision to create Edward a royal duke ensured that he could neither stand for election to the British House of Commons nor speak on political subjects in the House of Lords.
On 14 April 1937, Attorney General Sir Donald Somervell submitted to Home Secretary Sir John Simon a memorandum summarizing the views of Lord Advocate T. M. Cooper, Parliamentary Counsel Sir Granville Ram, and himself:
We incline to the view that on his abdication the Duke of Windsor could not have claimed the right to be described as a Royal Highness. In other words, no reasonable objection could have been taken if the King had decided that his exclusion from the lineal succession excluded him from the right to this title as conferred by the existing Letters Patent.
The question however has to be considered on the basis of the fact that, for reasons which are readily understandable, he with the express approval of His Majesty enjoys this title and has been referred to as a Royal Highness on a formal occasion and in formal documents. In the light of precedent it seems clear that the wife of a Royal Highness enjoys the same title unless some appropriate express step can be and is taken to deprive her of it.
We came to the conclusion that the wife could not claim this right on any legal basis. The right to use this style or title, in our view, is within the prerogative of His Majesty and he has the power to regulate it by Letters Patent generally or in particular circumstances.
Letters Patent dated 27 May 1937 re-conferred the "title, style, or attribute of Royal Highness" upon the Duke, but specifically stated that "his wife and descendants, if any, shall not hold said title or attribute". Some British ministers advised that the reconfirmation was unnecessary since Edward had retained the style automatically, and further that Simpson would automatically obtain the rank of wife of a prince with the style Her Royal Highness; others maintained that he had lost all royal rank and should no longer carry any royal title or style as an abdicated king, and be referred to simply as "Mr Edward Windsor".
The Duke married Simpson, who had changed her name by deed poll to Wallis Warfield, in a private ceremony on 3 June 1937, at Château de Candé, near Tours, France. When the Church of England refused to sanction the union, a County Durham clergyman, the Reverend Robert Anderson Jardine (Vicar of St Paul's, Darlington), offered to perform the ceremony, and the Duke accepted. George VI forbade members of the royal family to attend, to the lasting resentment of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Edward had particularly wanted his brothers the Dukes of Gloucester and Kent and his second cousin Lord Louis Mountbatten to attend the ceremony.
In October 1937, the Duke and Duchess visited Nazi Germany, against the advice of the British government, and met Adolf Hitler at his Berghof retreat in Bavaria. The visit was much publicized by the German media. During the visit the Duke gave full Nazi salutes.
In May 1939, the Duke was commissioned by NBC to give a radio broadcast (his first since abdicating) during a visit to the World War I battlefields of Verdun. In it he appealed for peace, saying "I am deeply conscious of the presence of the great company of the dead, and I am convinced that could they make their voices heard they would be with me in what I am about to say. I speak simply as a soldier of the Last War whose most earnest prayer it is that such cruel and destructive madness shall never again overtake mankind. There is no land whose people want war." The broadcast was heard across the world by millions.
On the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, the Duke and Duchess were brought back to Britain by Louis Mountbatten on board HMS Kelly, and Edward, although an honorary field marshal, was made a major-general attached to the British Military Mission in France.
In February 1940, the German ambassador in The Hague, Count Julius von Zech-Burkersroda, claimed that the Duke had leaked the Allied war plans for the defense of Belgium, which the Duke later denied.
When Germany invaded the north of France in May 1940, the Windsors fled south, first to Biarritz, then in June to Francoist Spain. In July the pair moved to Portugal, where they lived at first in the home of Ricardo Espírito Santo, a Portuguese banker with both British and German contacts. Under the code name Operation Willi, Nazi agents, principally Walter Schellenberg, plotted unsuccessfully to persuade the Duke to leave Portugal and return to Spain, kidnapping him if necessary.
In July 1940, Edward was appointed Governor of the Bahamas.
The Duke and Duchess left Lisbon on 1 August aboard the American Export Lines steamship Excalibur, which was specially diverted from its usual direct course to New York City so that they could be dropped off at Bermuda on the 9th.
They left Bermuda for Nassau on the Canadian steamship Lady Somers on 15 August, arriving two days later.
The Allies became sufficiently disturbed by German plots revolving around the Duke that President Roosevelt ordered covert surveillance of the Duke and Duchess when they visited Palm Beach, Florida, in April 1941.
He resigned from the post on 16 March 1945.
At the end of the war, the couple returned to France and spent the remainder of their lives essentially in retirement as the Duke never held another official role. Correspondence between the Duke and Kenneth de Courcy, dated between 1946 and 1949, emerged in a US library in 2009.
In 1951, the Duke had produced a ghost-written memoir, A King's Story, in which he expressed disagreement with liberal politics.
In 1952 they bought and renovated a weekend country retreat, Le Moulin de la Tuilerie at Gif-sur-Yvette, the only property the couple ever owned themselves.
The royal family never fully accepted the Duchess. Queen Mary refused to receive her formally. However, Edward sometimes met his mother and his brother, George VI; he attended George's funeral in 1952.
King George died 6 February 1952.
He was paid to write articles on the ceremony for the Sunday Express and Woman's Home Companion, as well as a short book, The Crown and the People, 1902–1953.
In June 1953, instead of attending the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, his niece, in London, the Duke and Duchess watched the ceremony on television in Paris. The Duke said that it was contrary to precedent for a Sovereign or former Sovereign to attend any coronation of another.
In 1955 they visited President Dwight D. Eisenhower at the White House.
Edward penned a relatively unknown book, A Family Album, chiefly about the fashion and habits of the royal family throughout his life, from the time of Queen Victoria to that of his grandfather and father, and his own tastes.
In 1965 the Duke and Duchess returned to London. They were visited by Elizabeth II, his sister-in-law Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent, and his sister Mary, Princess Royal and Countess of Harewood. A week later, the Princess Royal died, and they attended her memorial service.
In 1967 they joined the royal family for the centenary of Queen Mary's birth.
The last royal ceremony the Duke attended was the funeral of Princess Marina in 1968.
President Richard Nixon invited them as guests of honor to a dinner at the White House.
On 18 May 1972, Queen Elizabeth II visited the Windsors while on a state visit to France; she spoke with the Duke for fifteen minutes, but only the Duchess appeared with the royal party for a photocall as the Duke was too ill.
On 28 May 1972, ten days after the Queen's visit, the Duke died at his home in Paris, less than a month before his 78th birthday. His body was returned to Britain, lying in state at St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle.
The funeral service took place in the chapel on 5 June in the presence of the Queen, the royal family, and the Duchess of Windsor, who stayed at Buckingham Palace during her visit. He was buried in the Royal Burial Ground behind the Royal Mausoleum of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at Frogmore.