WHEN THE KING of England gave up his throne for the woman he loved in 1936, H. L. Mencken called it "the greatest story since the crucifixion." Perhaps it was, but in the case of Edward VIII's abdication, the coverage was less distinguished; certainly there was no chance anyone would ever take it for gospel. Now, nearly 50 years later, at the death of the duchess of Windsor, it takes a lot of recalling to remember what the fuss was about.

The British Empire is gone, but in 1936 it covered much of the Earth, and the prime ministers of Canada, Australia and South Africa were threatening secession over the matter of the king's liaison with a divorced woman. Today Britain's role in the world is, relatively, a small one; but in 1936 it was a great power considered vital as a counter to a rising Germany. Now the royal family is the daily subject of idle chatter in the media, but a half-century ago the monarchy was treated with diffidence by the press, and the affair of Wallis Warfield Simpson and the king went unreported in Britain almost to the day of Edward's abdication.

He took up with her when he was prince of Wales. She was impressed by how smoothly the world seemed to run for royalty, and she harbored hopes of becoming queen. But when she instituted divorce proceedings against her second husband, she soon saw how tightly bound was the man who would be king of England -- by his family and his government and by convention. In the end she and he settled for titles that now have died with them.

Winston Churchill went beyond the journalist's view expressed by Mr. Mencken; he called it "one of the greatest love stories of history." But that seems a bit overstated too. "I have given my husband every ounce of my affection. . . ," the duchess of Windsor said the 24th anniversary of their marriage. "Notice I use the word 'affection.' I believe it is an element apart from love. It means doing the things that uphold a man's confidence in himself, creating an atmosphere of warmth and interest, of taking his mind off his worries."

So perhaps as much as it was a love story it was a story of wants and needs. And to call it a great story you'd have to be able to conceive of an alternative ending to it: this couple serving as inspiration for England in its desperate struggle in World War II. That strains credulity. No, it wasn't "Tristan and Isolde." It was worth some good headlines, and then it was over, a long time before its principals were gone.