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In Pictures: the First American Divorcee to Marry a British Royal


Royal Crisis: The December 12 1936 issue of Weekly Illustrated

Meghan Markle is not the first divorced American to marry into the Royal Family. In 1936, King Edward VIII revealed that he intended to marry an American socialite and divorcee, and this sensational news rocked Britain, taking the country to the brink of a constitutional crisis.

Cover girl Meghan Markle

Wallis Simpson was the Baltimore-born woman at the eye of the storm. Her first marriage to a US naval officer ended in divorce in 1927.  During her second marriage to an American businessman, she met and fell in love with Edward, who was then Prince of Wales and heir to the throne.

Edward became king when his father, George V, died in January 1936. At this point, Wallis began proceedings to divorce her second husband, Ernest Simpson. Edward announced to the UK government that he intended to marry Wallis, who was known as Mrs Simpson. This was controversial for a number of reasons.

  • Edward’s own church refused to marry them. The British king is the symbolic head of the Church of England, which, at the time, would not marry divorced people if an original spouse was living.
  • The British government considered the proposed marriage to a divorcee as morally unacceptable.
  • Many people, including almost all members of the British royal family, saw Simpson as a social parasite who craved power and prestige. She was not from the traditional blue-blooded European aristocratic families who normally married British royals.
  • Most importantly however, the British government would resign, causing a general election, if the marriage went ahead. Britain had been a constitutional monarchy since 1688 and such a challenge from the king would have thrown the whole political system into the air.

A 1939 press photo of Edward and Wallis in their French home, Château de la Croë, Cap d’Antibes

The Edward and Mrs Simpson affair remains the biggest crisis to hit the British monarchy in the 20th century and that includes all the sad events relating to Princess Diana. There were intense negotiations between Edward, the royals, the British prime minister Stanley Baldwin, and the prime ministers of several commonwealth countries.

In December 1936, Edward gave up the crown and abdicated, becoming Duke of Windsor. His brother became King George VI. Edward’s only other serious option would have been to end his relationship with Wallis Simpson.

In an historic radio broadcast, Edward said: “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.” He left the country the next day.

Edward and Wallis were married in June 1937 in a French chateau. No members of the Royal Family attended the wedding. After the marriage, Wallis was formally known as the Duchess of Windsor but the pair were essentially living in exile.

Between 1940 and 1945, the Duke was governor of the Bahamas. After that, the pair lived in France and the United States, and were full-time socialites. The Duke died in 1972, and the Duchess in 1986.

Although the couple succeeded in marrying, this story is more of a tragedy than a romance. Wallis failed to become queen and became an outcast with no real role. Edward lost his family and his crown.

FACTS ABOUT MRS SIMPSON

The 23 September 1936 issue of New York Woman magazine

Although Edward’s relationship with Wallis Simpson was widely known by the British media, they refrained from reporting about it. This was not the case for overseas media, who were less deferential. The above article was printed in New York Woman magazine on September 23, 1936. While never directly referring to an affair, the magazine is blunt about what’s happening. The journalist writes: “Discretion has never marked their relationship. As early as August of 1934, the then Prince of Wales was so entranced with dancing the rhumba with Mrs Simpson is a Biarritz café that he sent back the plane which had come from Marseilles to take him to Paris.”

A pirate recording of Edward’s speech

Edward’s abdication speech on 11 December was an historic moment for Britain, the Royals and broadcasting, but it only briefly mentions Wallis Simpson and then she is referred to as “the woman I love.” The text was vetted by parliament. It was broadcast on BBC radio from Windsor Castle. This record (pictured right) was produced by BBC engineers in defiance of BBC orders. This is an incredibly rare pirate recording, hence the $12,000+ price tag. The speech and other associated documents associated with the abdication were quickly printed as the world craved details on the biggest royal story since the death of Queen Victoria in 1901

Separated from the Royal Family, the Windsors were free to do things that normal Royals would not… like publishing books. In 1951, Edward published a memoir called A King’s Story. Aside from providing his side of the abdication, Edward wrote about his experiences in naval school, studying at Oxford University, serving in the army in World War I and his tours around the world representing the royal family. Wallis Simpson also wrote a memoir called The Heart Has Its Reasons, which was published in 1956. Such was the interest in her life, the book was still being reprinted in the 1980s.

This flag was printed for Edward’s coronation but never flew

Souvenirs celebrating Edward VIII’s coronation were produced in advance of his coronation, which never happened. Edward immediately became king at the death of his father but was not formally crowned. This flag (pictured above) was printed in 1936 in anticipation of the coronation in 1937.

A handkerchief for a coronation that never happened.

Cotton handkerchiefs were also among the coronation souvenirs produced but never issued. Today, they are a curiosity amid the many historic royal souvenirs.

Edward and Wallis continued to be front page material even after their exclusion from the royal family landed them in an odd form of limbo. Famous for being royal and in love, but having no true role in life.

A caricature portrait of Edward by Jack Rosen of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel

The Windsors became full-time socialites after World War II. When in New York, they stayed at the Waldorf Astoria. The hotel’s security director Jack Rosen was a talented artist who often sketched guests. This caricature (above) of Edward was drawn by Rosen in the 1950s. It’s signed by the Duke.

Sotheby’s auction catalogue from Wallis Simpson’s sale of her jewels

Wallis Simpson owned amazing jewelry. In 1987, the Duchess’s collection was auctioned off in Geneva and raised $45 million for the Pasteur Institute, a charity dedicated to the study of biology, diseases, and vaccines. The Sotheby’s auction catalogue, pictured above, revealed the nature of the glamorous rocks worn by the Duchess.

Andrew Morton’s controversial book

Numerous books have been written about Edward and Mrs Simpson, offering a variety of stances and theories. For starters, we recommend King Edward VIII: The definitive portrait of the Duke of Windsor by Philip Ziegler, That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor by Anne Sebba, and The Last of the Duchess: The Strange and Sinister Story of the Final Years of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor by Caroline Blackwood.

Another view of the couple is that they were Nazi sympathisers. They had met Adolf Hitler in Germany in 1937, and British fascist leader Oswald Mosley was a friend and neighbour in France. Andrew Morton’s book, 17 Carnations, uses FBI documents, various archives and correspondence from the royals and leading politicians to investigate these links.

Edward and Wallis spent their final years together in a house in Paris provided by the French government. After her death, the Windsor’s furniture and art were given to the French state. Wallis is buried next to Edward in the Royal Burial Ground near Windsor Castle after an agreement was reached with Queen Elizabeth II in the 1960s.

Wallis and Edward are buried together near Windsor Castle

News-Week from 22 May 1937, days before the couple were married

 

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3 Responses to “In Pictures: the First American Divorcee to Marry a British Royal”

  1. avatar

    Very interesting! Thank you! Love when real always wins ❤️!

  2. avatar

    Interesting but sad. He seemed a flawed character
    and they seemed to have led a vacuous life.

  3. avatar

    Both were flawed characters. The Prince looked to Wallis for advice and her advice was almost always bad. She wanted to be Queen of England in the worst way and did not really love the Duke. When he abdicated,she allegedly cursed him. He loved her, but I’m sure on some level he came to realize the great mistake he made. Both of them appeared to be anti-Jewish and were fans of Hitler.
    If I were English, I definitely would not have wanted her as Queen.