Wallis Simpson: Beyond the Woman for Whom the King Gave Up His Throne

She may be the sole reason Queen Elizabeth II rules today.
IMAGE Wikimedia Commons

Wallis Simpson has the unfortunate reputation of being the woman who caused a strain in the British monarchy during the time of King Edward VII. Her relationship with the new king would forever be known as the cause of the “abdication crisis” in 1936. But there’s more to this American socialite than her scandalous involvement with the royal family.

An Unfortunate Childhood

Born in Blue Ridge Summit, Pennsylvania, Bessie Wallis Warfield—she would later drop her first name—did not come from a wealthy background. Her father, Teackle Wallis Warfield, died of tuberculosis when she was an infant. Her mother, Alice, relied on the goodness of Wallis’ Uncle Warfield. Wallis attended the prestigious Oldfields School in Maryland where she would always be at the top of her class and was known for being immaculately dressed. Despite her good grades, Wallis was a rebel. She snuck out of class, smoked cigarettes, and had several boyfriends.


Unlucky in Love and Marriage

A 20-year-old Wallis met Lieutenant Earl Winfield Spencer Jr., a U.S. Navy aviator, in 1916, and they wed a mere six months later. Her husband, a known alcoholic, was away for months at a time, leading to a rocky marriage. Before their divorce in 1927, Wallis spent a year alone in China. It was during her Asian travels that she began an affair with Count Galeazzo Ciano who would later marry the daughter of fascist leader Benito Mussolini. According to Charles Higham’s biography Wallis: Secret Lives of the Duchess of Windsor, Wallis became pregnant by Ciano and attempted an abortion. The procedure went wrong and left her unable to bear children.

Earl Winfield Spencer Jr.

Her second marriage was to shipping mogul Ernest Aldrich Simpson. They married in London and lived in a huge flat with many servants. But it was not to last. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 affected their investments and the couple was forced to downsize. While still Mrs. Simpson, Wallis was introduced to Lady Furness, then the mistress of Prince Edward, Duke of Windsor and immediate heir to the British monarchy. Simpson met Prince Edward in 1931.


A Royal Affair

Four years after their introduction, the affair between Prince Edward and Wallis Simpson began. A year later, they were spotted vacationing around Europe.

King George V died in 1936, and Prince Edward was to take the throne. He made his intentions to marry Wallis clear, although she was still waiting for her divorce to become official. This did not fly with the Church of England, which did not allow the King to marry a twice-divorced American, and whose two husbands were still living. The following year though, Wallis’ divorce became final and King Edward abdicated his throne, making way for his younger brother, the future George VI and father of Queen Elizabeth II, to lead as King.

Life in Paris

Edward’s abdication and the pair’s marriage gave them a new title: The Duke and Duchess of Windsor. They self-exiled themselves from the British channel and were then situated in France. The Windsors made do with a house they purchased at the Mill, which was less than an hour away from Paris. They lived formally at a property in the capital city itself, in a house loaned to them by the City of Paris. Wallis played interior designer and hung paintings of Queen Mary, her mother-in-law, and a portrait of the Duke on the walls of the drawing room. They had a small army of 30 servants spread throughout the two properties.


A Vast Collection of Jewelry

The Duchess loved her jewelry. She had an impressive collection of diamonds and frequented Cartier for custom pieces. The Duke spoiled her. He once brought handfuls of diamonds and some of Wallis’ pieces to Cartier and asked them to create just one piece using all those precious stones.

During their first visit back to England in 1946, the couple lodged at a friend’s house. A burglar broke in after they had left for the evening and stole some of the Duchess’ jewelry—a bird of paradise brooch with a sapphire breast and diamonds as feathers among the stolen pieces. The total loss was estimated at around $80,000, and the Windsors reported the crime to the police. Their plan for a low-key visit had failed when details of the theft made the news. They were never able to recover any of the pieces.

After the Duchess' death, the collection was put up for auction in 1987, and again by Sotheby’s in 2013. It was reported that the first sale garnered over $50 million, a record-breaking price at the time. The latter auction raised over $6 million in 2013. It was reported that Mohamed Al Fayed, the father of Dodi Al Fayed who had a relationship with Princess Diana, attempted to purchase a bulk of the collection.


Royal Recognition

Although exiled, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor came into the royal family’s good graces when Queen Elizabeth II took the throne. Her Majesty visited the couple in Paris when her uncle fell ill. Likewise, they sometimes visited the Queen and Prince Philip in the royal estates. When the Duke died, his funeral was held in England. The Duchess was a guest at Buckingham Palace during the ordeal. In 1986, the Duchess died and was buried next to her husband in the Royal Burial Ground cemetery near Windsor Castle.

h/t: People, Biography

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About The Author
Hannah Lazatin
Features Editor
Hannah is originally from Pampanga and from a big, close-knit family who likes to find a reason to get together at the dinner table. Experiences inspire her. “Once, at a restaurant, I received an interpretation of my second name ‘Celina,’ and it meant 'someone who tries everything once' and that is me through and through,” she says. As for the job, she wants her “readers to be inspired by the stories of the people we feature and to move them to reach for greater things.”
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