When a Monarch Quits: The History of Abdication | History Hit

When a Monarch Quits: The History of Abdication

Harry Sherrin

27 May 2022
The former King Edward VIII with Wallis Simpson, the American divorcee for whom he denounced the throne of the United Kingdom and its dominions.
Image Credit: Vincenzo Laviosa, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

An abdication is the act of a ruler, typically a monarch, emperor or equivalent, formally surrendering their throne. As history proves, a ruler’s reason for abdication could be just about anything, from losing a costly war to growing old.

Perhaps the most notorious abdication in modern history is that of the United Kingdom’s King Edward VIII. In 1936, Edward surrendered the throne to his reluctant younger brother, the future King George VI, in order to marry the unpopular American divorcee Wallis Simpson. It sparked a constitutional crisis and widespread outrage.

But history has witnessed many other abdications besides – not all of which were as turbulent as Edward’s – from Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to Nicholas II of Russia.

Here are 6 of the most significant abdications in history.

1. Lucius Cornelius Sulla – 79 BC

Lucius Cornelius Sulla was a Roman general and dictator who rose to power in the 1st century BC. Sulla held near-absolute power as dictator of Rome, hence his eventual resignation can be considered an abdication comparable to that of a monarch.

After emerging victorious from the first large civil war of the Roman Republic, Sulla set about instigating sweeping constitutional reforms across the Republic, primarily aimed at reaffirming the power of the Senate.

In early 79 BC, Sulla abdicated from his role as dictator of the Roman Republic, reverting back to public life and moving to Pozzuoli, Campania. The reason for Sulla’s resignation has been the subject of much speculation, but the most favoured stance is that he had fulfilled his promise of reforming Rome: when the constitutional changes were in effect, his work was done and he stepped down.

2. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V – 1556

In 16th-century Europe, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V ruled Spain – and by extension Spanish America – as well as the Netherlands, Hungary and portions of modern Italy. He was also Archduke of Austria and Duke of Burgundy, and ultimately the most powerful ruler in Europe at the time.

In the mid-1550s, Charles V surrendered his imperial titles as Holy Roman Empire to his brother Ferdinand I. He also abdicated all of his other possessions – bar the county of Charolais – to his son, Philip II.

Charles’ health had been worsening for years, and it’s thought he had been contemplated abdicating for some time. In particular, he suffered from severe bouts of gout, which impinged on his ability to rule. Moreover, the fierce conflicts which had characterised his rule had taken their toll on Charles.

3. John II Casimir Vasa – 1668

Portrait of John II Casimir Vasa, c. 1667

Image Credit: Daniel Schultz, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

John II Casimir Vasa (1609-1672) abdicated as the King of Poland in 1668. His reign was characterised by substantial territorial losses, fierce conflict and external defeats.

In 1660, for example, John II Casimir was forced to renounce his claim to the Swedish throne. Then, in 1667, John was forced to cede various eastern territories to Russia after another military defeat. The tragedies didn’t end there.

John’s wife, Marie Louise Gonzaga, died suddenly in 1667. Overcome by grief and fending off rebellions and foreign conflicts, John II Casimir abdicated his rule over the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth on 16 September 1668.

4. Tsar Nicholas II – 1917

In this exclusive piece Helen Rappaport reveals the untold story of modern Russia's obsession with the Romanov family and the place where they died.
Watch Now

Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, the last of the Romanov rulers, faced ever-growing discontent during the final years of his reign. The cost – both human and financial – of Russia’s role in World War One had sparked anger across Russia and incited widespread criticism of Nicholas’ rule.

In 1917, with swathes of Russia enduring food shortages, mass strikes and widespread calls for socialist revolution, unrest erupted. Petrograd workers took to the streets demanding change, and as riots broke out and the government lost control, Nicholas was forced to abdicate on 15 March 1917.

Nicholas and his family were later detained and sent to live in exile. In the wake of the Russian Revolution, fearing the Romanovs could be reemployed as counter-revolutionary figureheads, the Bolsheviks had Nicholas and his family executed.

5. King Edward VIII – 1936

Edward VIII – King of the United Kingdom and its dominions in 1936

Image Credit: National Portrait Gallery, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Possibly the most infamous abdication in history is that of Edward VIII, King of the United Kingdom and Emperor of India, in 1936. As monarch of the UK, Edward by extension was the head of the Church of England, a distinction that would ultimately force him into abdication.

Edward was adamant that he wanted to marry Wallis Simpson, a two-time divorcee to whom marriage, under the rules of the Church of England, was forbidden. Rather than retain his position and sacrifice his relationship, Edward VIII abdicated on 11 December 1936.

He announced, live on the radio, “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.”

His abdication triggered a constitutional crisis in Britain, severely wounding public confidence in the monarchy. It forced Edward’s younger brother Albert into the role of king, under the title King George VI.

Alex Larman joins Dan to discuss Edward VIII's challenging upbringing, his possible Nazi sympathies, the tumult of the Abdication crisis and his famous relationship with Wallis Simpson.
Listen Now

6. Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands – 2013

The 21st century has witnessed a number of high-profile abdications. In 2013, for example, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands relinquished the throne to her 46-year-old son, Willem-Alexander.

A popular queen, Beatrix had ruled for some 33 years before announcing her retirement in front of hordes of fans in Amsterdam’s Dam Square. She said, “the reason for me to step back now is not because the office is too much of a strain. It is not. I am abdicating because I am convinced that the responsibility for our country should now move to the next generation.”

The abdication was generally amiable, in that it didn’t greatly undermine opinions of the monarchy


Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands in Vries

Image Credit: Emiel Ketelaar, FrozenImage, CC BY 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons


Tags: Charles V Tsar Nicholas II

Harry Sherrin