The British Royal family is welcoming a new member after Prince Harry and American actress Meghan Markle officially announced their engagement. While Markle is one of the lucky few American women to have caught the eye of a foreign prince over the years, she’s definitely not alone.
From Grace Kelly to Rita Hayworth, a handful of American women have made their way into the ranks of British royalty. And then of course, there was Wallis Simpson. The American socialite married King Edward VIII in 1937, but because she had been twice divorced, she was considered an inappropriate spouse for the King of England.
Had Meghan Markle and Prince Harry met during this time, they would have faced similar struggles, since the 36-year-old actress was once married to film producer Trevor Engelson. The couple wed in 2011 and divorced in 2013.
Today, thanks to changes in religious laws of the Church of England, Markle and Prince Harry’s marriage will go forward in the spring of 2018. Unfortunately for Simpson and King Edward VIII, the church wasn’t so willing to overlook her past. And yet, the two managed to stay together until his death.
Here’s a look into how Simpson’s charm won over the King of England and caused him to choose love over the crown.
Born on June 19, 1896 in Blue Ridge Summit, Pennsylvania, Bessie Wallis Warfield was an American socialite named after her father Teackle Wallis Warfield and maternal aunt Bessie. Her father was the son of a successful flour merchant and her mother was the daughter of a stockbroker. Shortly after her birth, Simpson’s father died of tuberculosis on November 15, 1896.
Until she was about five years old, Simpson and her mother relied on the charity of her late father’s wealthy brother Solomon Davies Warfield. In 1902, Simpson and her mother moved in with her aunt Bessie for a year before moving into an apartment and then a house of their own.
Thanks to her Uncle Warfield, who paid for her to attend Oldfields School—the most expensive girls’ school in Maryland—where Simpson made friends heiress Renée du Pont, whose family founded Kirk Silverware. Her early training launched Simpson on a path into the upper echelons of society.
“Though Wallis's jaw was too heavy for her to be counted beautiful, her fine violet-blue eyes and petite figure, quick wits, vitality, and capacity for total concentration on her interlocutor ensured that she had many admirers,” wrote biographer Philip Ziegler in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
HER FIRST MARRIAGES
Wallis met Earl Winfield Spencer Jr., a U.S. Navy aviator, in April 1916 and the couple was married on November 8, 1916 in Baltimore. Wallis harbored a fear of flying after seeing two planes crash within the span of two weeks, and she was not fond of her husband’s work. Her husband, known as Win, was also a heavy drinker, which affected his flying and even caused him to crash on one occasion.
Win's drinking—along with the fact that he was often stationed far away for months on end—meant the couple had a rocky relationship, separating and getting back together several times. While married to Spencer, Wallis had an affair with Argentine diplomat Felipe de Espil. Ultimately, the couple's divorce was finalized on December 10, 1927.
By the time her divorce from Spencer was official, Wallis had already become involved with Ernest Aldrich Simpson, a shipping executive and former officer in the Coldstream Guards. Simpson divorced his wife Dorothea to be with Wallis and the pair were married on July 21, 1928.
The American-born Simpson had become a British citizen during the first World War, and he and Wallis were married in London and lived in a large house there. This second marriage had a difficult start. The stock market crash hit the couple hard. The Simpsons were forced to fire a large portion of their staff, and Wallis's mother died shortly after Black Tuesday, on November 2, 1929.
LOVE AFFAIR WITH KING EDWARD VIII
Wallis, 35, first met Prince Edward, 37, the eldest son of King George V and Queen Mary, through her friend Consuelo Thaw’s sister, Lady Furness, on January 10, 1931. Lady Furness was said to be the Prince’s mistress, but was quickly replaced by Wallis herself when Lady Furness went away to New York in January 1934.
Simpson trusted Wallis and would even go to bed early while his wife stayed up talking with the prince into the hours of the early morning, according to the DailyMail. “At the moment, he’s flattered with it all and lets me dine once a week with the prince alone; it all takes a certain amount of tact,” Wallis wrote in a letter to her aunt Bessie, reassuring her that she was doing well in keeping this secret love affair from her husband. Edward showered Wallis with gifts from money and jewelry to expensive vacations, completely smitten with the American woman.
King George V died at Sandringham on January 20, 1936, leaving Prince Edward next in line for the British throne. Edward clearly wanted to marry his long-time mistress, Wallis, but their marriage was forbidden by English law. As per the rule of the Church of England, the King was not allowed to marry a woman who had been previously wed if her husband was still alive—and both of Wallis’ ex-husbands were living. Their potential union was seen as morally, socially, and politically inappropriate.
Only a few months into his official reign, King Edward proposed to Wallis, creating a constitutional crisis within the U.K. After consulting with the British Prime Minister and seeking any loophole to this rule, King Edward accepted that there was no way forward. Forced to choose between love and the crown, King Edward VIII renounced his throne to be with Wallis.
By early December of 1936, Wallis’ relationship with the ex-king became public knowledge and the American socialite fled to France to avoid the press. Edward signed the Instrument of Abdication on December 10, 1936 and was succeeded by his brother George VI. “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,” Edward said in a radio broadcast.
He was the first British royal monarch to voluntarily give up the throne.
Wallis’s divorce from Simpson was finalized in May 1937 and she and Edward were married at the Château de Candé on June 3, 1937. Wallis did become Duchess of Windsor and her husband the Duke of Windsor.
LATER LIFE AND DEATH
During World War II, Wallis and Edward traveled to places such as Miami, New York, and the Bahamas until they finally returned home to France after the defeat of Nazi Germany. The Duke and Duchess lived together until 1972, when Edward passed away from cancer at their home in Paris, only a few weeks shy of his 78th birthday.
After Edward's death, Wallis was financially supported by her husband’s estate but suffered from dementia and soon became reclusive. In 1980, she lost the power to speak and became bedridden before her death on April 24, 1986 at her home in Paris.
Though she caused one of the biggest scandals in the history of the British monarchy, Wallis, Duchess of Windsor, was honored in the same way as any other member of the British royal family. Her final blessing was performed by the archbishop of Canterbury, and was later buried next to Edward at Frogmore Estate in Windsor.
*This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com
*Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors