Wallis Simpson remains one of the most famous women of the 20th century – she captured the heart of a prince, whose desire to marry her was so ardent it caused a constitutional crisis. Much has been written about the somewhat enigmatic Mrs Simpson, both in her lifetime and after her death, and many have drawn parallels with subsequent royal marriages – including that of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle – also a divorced American.
Was Wallis a scheming mistress, determined to claw her way to the role of queen no matter the cost? Or was she simply a victim of circumstance, thrown into a situation she could not control – and forced to live with the very real consequences?
Who was Mrs Simpson?
Born in 1896, to a middle class family from Baltimore, Wallis was born Bessie Wallis Warfield. Following the death of her father a few months after her birth, Wallis and her mother were supported by wealthier relatives, who paid for her expensive school fees. Contemporaries spoke of her eloquence, determination and charm.
She married Earl Winfield Spencer Jr, a pilot in the US Navy, in 1916: the marriage was not a happy one, punctuated by Earl’s alcoholism, adultery and long periods of time apart. Wallis spent over a year in China during their marriage: some have suggested that a botched abortion in this period left her infertile, although there is no hard evidence for this. Shortly after her return, their divorce was finalised.
In 1928, Wallis married again – her new husband was Ernest Aldrich Simpson, an Anglo-American businessman. The two settled in Mayfair, although Wallis frequently returned home to America. The following year, much of her private money was wiped out during the Wall Street Crash, but Simpson’s shipping business remained afloat.
Mr & Mrs Simpson were sociable, and often hosted gathering in their apartment. Through friends, Wallis met Edward, Prince of Wales in 1931 and the two saw each other semi-regularly at social occasions. Wallis was attractive, charismatic and worldly: by 1934, the two had become lovers.
Mistress to a prince
Wallis and Edward’s relationship was an open secret in high society: Wallis may have been an outsider as an American, but she was well-liked, well-read and warm. Within the year, Wallis had been introduced to Edward’s mother, Queen Mary, which was seen as an outrage – divorcees were still very much shunned in aristocratic circles, and there was the small matter of Wallis still actually being married to her second husband Ernest.
Edward was besotted nonetheless, writing passionate love letters and showering Wallis with jewels and money. When he became king in January 1936, Edward’s relationship with Wallis was put under further scrutiny. He appeared with her in public, and it increasingly appeared that he was keen to marry Wallis, rather than to merely keep her as his mistress. The Conservative-led government disliked the relationship, as did the rest of his family.
Wallis was painted as a schemer, a morally unsuitable divorcee – and an American to boot – and many saw her as a greedy social climber who had infatuated the King rather than a woman in love. By November 1936, her second divorce was under way, on the grounds of Ernest’s infidelity (he had slept with her friend, Mary Kirk), and Edward finally announced his intention to marry Wallis to the then Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin.
Baldwin was horrified: there was no way that Edward as King, and therefore head of the Church of England, could marry a divorced woman, when the same church only permitted remarriage following an annulment or death of a partner. Various schemes for a morganatic (non-religious) marriage were discussed, in which Wallis would be his wife but never queen, but none of these were deemed satisfactory.
In early December 1936, British newspapers broke the story of Edward and Wallis’ relationship for the first time: the public were shocked and outraged in equal measures. Wallis fled to the south of France to escape a media onslaught.
Much to the surprise of the establishment, Edward’s popularity barely wavered. He was handsome and youthful, and had a kind of star quality that people loved. Whilst Wallis wasn’t exactly popular, many found the fact that she was ‘just’ an ordinary woman endearing.
On 7 December, she made a statement saying she was willing to renounce Edward – she did not want him to abdicate for her. Edward did not listen: just 3 days later, he formally abdicated, saying
“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.”
Edward’s younger brother became King George VI on his abdication.
Five months later, in May 1937, Wallis’ second divorce finally went through, and the pair were reunited in France, where they married almost immediately.
Duchess of Windsor
Whilst the long-awaited marriage was a happy moment, it was tinged by sadness. The new king, George VI, forbade any of the royal family from attending the wedding, and refused Wallis the HRH title – instead, she was simply to be the Duchess of Windsor. George’s wife, Queen Elizabeth, referred to her as ‘that woman’, and tensions between the brothers remained for many years.
The Windsors were hurt and upset by the refusal of the title HRH, but they reportedly used it in private, irrespective of the king’s wishes.
In 1937, the Windsors visited Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany – rumours had long circulated about Wallis’ German sympathies, and they only increased with this news. Rumours continue to circulate to this day that the pair had Nazi sympathies: Edward gave full Nazi salutes during the visit, and many believe he would not have wanted to go to war with Germany had he still been king, as he viewed Communism as a threat which only Germany could viably have quashed.
The Duke and Duchess of Windsor were given an apartment in the Bois du Boulogne by Parisian municipal authorities, and lived there for much of the rest of their lives. Their relationship with the British royal family remained relatively frosty, with occasional and infrequent visits and communications.
Edward died in 1972 from throat cancer, and was buried at Windsor Castle – Wallis travelled to England for the funeral, and stayed at Buckingham Palace. She died in 1986, in Paris and was buried next to Edward at Windsor.
A divisive legacy
Wallis’ legacy lives on to this day – the woman a king gave up his kingdom for. She remains a figure clouded by rumour, conjecture, vitriol and gossip: whatever her true motives were remain unclear. Some argue she was the victim of her own ambition, that she never intended Edward to abdicate to marry her and the rest of her life was facing up to the consequences of her actions.
Others view her – and him – as star-crossed lovers, victims of the snobbish establishment who couldn’t face a commoner, and a foreigner, marrying the king. Many have drawn comparisons between the Windsors and Prince Charles and his second wife, Camilla Parker-Bowles: even 60 years later, the marriages of royalty still were expected to follow unspoken rules, and marrying a divorcee was still considered controversial for an heir to the throne.
In an interview with the BBC in 1970, Edward declared “I have no regrets, I stay interested in my country, Britain, your land and mine. I wish it well.” And as for Wallis’ true thoughts? She is supposed to simply have said “You have no idea how hard it is to live out a great romance.”