Uncle’s abdication led to Queen Elizabeth’s 70-year reign on the throne

Queen Elizabeth II was the longest-serving monarch in Britain's history, but it was a decision by her uncle that cleared Elizabeth's path to the throne. King Edward abdicated in 1936 so he could marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson, making Elizabeth's father the new king. Anne Sebba, the author of "That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor,” joined Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we have mentioned, Queen Elizabeth was the longest serving monarch in Britain's history.

    And it's worth noting the event that changed the course of her life and influenced her reign, her uncle Edward's abdication from the throne, so that he could marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson.

    A short time ago, I spoke about the queen's legacy with Anne Sebba. She's a biographer and the author of "That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor."

    Anne Sebba, thank you very much for joining us on this sad day for Great Britain.

    We can't even think of the country without thinking of Queen Elizabeth, can we?

    Anne Sebba, Author, "That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor": Absolutely not.

    It's such a privilege. Thank you for inviting me to share my thoughts.

    I think the most extraordinary thing is that, obviously, for a woman of 96 in frail health, one had to expect that she would eventually die. And yet the sense of shock today is absolutely palpable. I can only tell you that London, where I am, and not Balmoral, where she died, is absolutely in shock. The mood is very somber, indeed.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    My colleague was just speaking with people who were reacting to this.

    How is she seen by the British people?

  • Anne Sebba:

    Ah. Even those people who possibly aren't monarchists will say to you, ah, but I love the queen.

    So, she united the British people. She was a figure of constancy, of stability. I think, if I can remember all the D's, duty, devotion, discretion, all those old-fashioned values, she was a link to the past. She was a link to the war.

    And if I really had to say what she means to Britain, I mean, this is a serious watershed moment. She's kept the country together in so many ways during these divisive times. But I think that what she really represents is how we like to see the best of ourselves.

    So, what does it mean to be British? Well, tradition, and history and duty, all those things that she really represented. So, it will be a moment of change. And the new king, King Charles, will have to earn the love that his mother had enjoyed for so long. It's going to be difficult, but I'm sure we will come through.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So hard to sum up 70 years on the throne.

    But if you had to say what her legacy is, Anne Sebba, what would it be?

  • Anne Sebba:

    Her legacy, I think, is this stability, this constancy, that we are one nation.

    And she's grown the commonwealth at a time when empire is unfashionable. I think her legacy is twofold, really. She's the grandmother of the nation. She's a matriarchal figure. She's someone we were all able to see as our grandmother, if you like. And so she represents both a family that has been through turmoil in very difficult times of enormous social change,and somehow she has shown us a better way to be.

    She's — as I say, she's represented the best of ourselves. She's shown great discretion and love.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, of course, we can't look into the future, but how do you think the monarchy will be different under King Charles III?

  • Anne Sebba:

    Well, the first thing that he has said openly is, he wants a slimmed-down monarchy. He doesn't want every niece, nephew and grandchild necessarily to be a working royal, that is, a paid royal.

    So it will probably just go down to William and Catherine in the first instance, and then their children. Of course, he must be aware he is an anachronism, really, in the 21st century. So they have to show that they're worth it in terms of the work they do.

    The work ethic of Queen Elizabeth was extraordinary. She was constantly reading and studying. And all the prime ministers who went to see her said, if you hadn't read that Cabinet document, heaven help you, because she certainly had. And right up until yesterday, really, as you saw, she was doing her duty. She was absolutely determined to carry on.

    So I think, really, what she represented is this continuity, when she lived through the abdication crisis of 1936, when her uncle gave up the throne, and her uncle Edward, who married Wallis Simpson, an American. And I think that was what was shot through in her veins. You don't give up. You don't abdicate.

    And, luckily for her, she didn't have to, because she really died on the job. So, this absolute determination to keep the country together in the figurehead of the monarchy showing us the best we could be, when, in 1936, quite frankly, the monarchy had a shaky moment when her mother, Queen Elizabeth, the queen mother, and her father, George VI, took over, it wasn't a given that they would weather that storm.

    And they did, and she took over in 1952, so immense continuity and stability at every stage.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What a life. We remember her today, and I know we will for a long time to come.

    Anne Sebba, thank you very much.

  • Anne Sebba:

    It's my pleasure. Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And please tune in tonight for more special coverage of the queen's reign, "Queen Elizabeth: A Royal Life." It airs tonight on PBS at 8:00 p.m. Please do check your local listings.

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