When King Edward VIII abdicated so he could marry Wallis Simpson in December 1936, it changed the British monarchy forever. His brother, George VI, took the throne and created a new line of succession, with his daughter Elizabeth eventually succeeding him in 1953. But who was this mysterious woman who stole the heart of the most powerful man in the world? And what was it about her that made her one of the most controversial figures in English society? As the final countdown to Meghan and Harry’s wedding begins, we take a look back at one of the most intriguing royal couples of modern times.
Bessie Wallis Warfield was born in Pennsylvania in 1896. Her father died of tuberculosis when she was very young, leaving her mother completely destitute. Her uncle stepped in to look after the family, sending her to the most expensive school in the area. There she dressed immaculately, excelled as a student – and made friends with the children of influential families. She married her first husband, Earl Spencer Jnr, in 1916. It was an erratic marriage, as Earl spent great lengths of time away from home as a pilot during World War I. The couple divorced 11 years later, and within a year Wallis was remarried, this time to Anglo-American shipping executive Ernest Simpson. The two set up a home in London and Wallis lived a comfortable life, occasionally mixing with members of the aristocracy. It was at this point that she was introduced to Thelma, Viscountess Furness, who was the mistress of Edward, the Prince of Wales.
It’s suspected that the young prince and Wallis soon started an affair, and by 1934 Edward was in love. During 1935 the two travelled together, much to the alarm of palace officials, who saw that Edward’s number-one priority was Wallis, and not his duties as the next in line to take the throne one day. He eventually introduced her to his parents, who were outraged that he would associate himself with a divorced woman. But he was not to be deterred.
When Edward’s father, King George V, died on 20 January 1936, the prince became Edward VIII. From the first day after his father’s death, with Wallis on his arm, it was clear that the young king wasn’t what officials hoped he would be, especially because so much of his attention was focused on Wallis. By October that year, it was clear that the couple intended to marry. Edward confided in the British Prime Minister at the time, Stanley Baldwin, who advised the young king that the marriage would be seen as morally unacceptable and that the English would never accept Wallis as queen.
As the monarch, Edward was by default the head of the Church of England, which forbade people to remarry if their ex-spouse was still alive. So the general attitude was that Edward could not be king and marry Wallis. But then, there was also the moral dilemma. Wallis had not one, but two living ex-husbands. It was believed that she would be unbecoming as a queen because of her previously failed marriages. There were rumours plaguing her that she was overly ambitious, money-obsessed and a social climber, things that could never be tolerated in Buckingham Palace. Realising that by marrying Wallis he would risk chaos in Parliament and every level of society, Edward chose to renounce the throne.
‘A few hours ago I discharged my last duty as King and Emperor, and now that I have been succeeded by my brother, the Duke of York, my first words must be to declare my allegiance to him. This I do with all my heart…
… But you must believe me when I tell you that 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.’
Never before had a woman so captured the imagination of the world. In fact, the story was so fascinating to people, so scandalous and so entertaining that Wallis was named Woman of the Year by TIME in January 1937. Before Wallis, no woman had ever held that title, with TIME only recognising men with such an honour.
Edward’s brother George became king on 11 December 1936, establishing a new line of succession to the throne. Edward and Wallis were married in 1937 in France, but none of the royal family attended their ceremony. Although she would receive the title Duchess of Windsor, the royal family decided that she would not be addressed as ‘Royal Highness’, though Edward would be.
The years following their marriage were filled with travel, and once again scandal. In 1937 Wallis and Edward were pictured greeting the führer of Germany, Adolf Hitler. The Second World War would soon break out, and people assumed they were Nazi sympathisers. As war broke out, the couple moved from France to Spain, Portugal and even the Bahamas for several years, where Edward was named as governor and Wallis as the first lady. Rumours once again hounded Wallis: people believed she was a secret Nazi agent, and couldn’t be trusted. It would be a reputation she would carry with her until her death. When the war ended the couple returned to France where they retired, living a life of leisure and luxury.
Edward was well known for spoiling Wallis with lavish jewellery. He came under severe scrutiny for spending vast sums of money on jewels during times when the British economy was struggling. Edward adored her so much that he even ordered that all her jewellery be dismantled when she died, so that no other woman could ever wear it (although this order was never followed through). Some of the prized items he gave her include: a 31-carat diamond ring, a three-plume diamond brooch, and the magnificent collection that Edward commissioned Cartier to create, for the Big Cats Collection, the most famous item being the Panther Bracelet.
After Edward died, Wallis became a recluse and was very rarely seen out in public. Little was known about her activities and what her life without Edward was like. She eventually became very frail, prone to accidents and eventually lost her speech altogether. In 1986 she passed away at the age of 89 in France, and she was laid to rest next to Edward. Even today, decades after she was the centre of debate and gossip, controversy still surrounds her.
Wallis Simpson’s story shows how far society (not to mention the Royal Family) has come – Meghan Markle’s engagement to Prince Harry was approved by the Queen, although Meghan is divorced. To find out all about Meghan Markle’s journey to royalty, get a copy of the May issue of Marie Claire to read a 6-page extract from a new biography on the soon-to-be-royal.