Wallis Simpson and Edward, Duke of Windsor’s marriage on 3 June 1937 at the Château de Candé in France may have been the start of their life together but it was also the end of a chapter in history which irrevocably changed the course of the British monarchy…
Born on 23 June 1894 at White Lodge, Edward was the eldest son of the Duke and Duchess of York. His father came to the throne as George V in June 1911 and Edward was invested as the Prince of Wales at Caernarvon Castle in Wales on 13 July. Following the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 Edward joined the Grenadier Guards and though he was forbidden from serving on the front lines as the heir to the throne, he visited it as often as he could and was awarded the Military Cross in 1916. Like modern-day Princes William and Harry, Edward’s good looks and royal status gained him an enthusiastic following from the press and public alike. His affairs in the 1920s and 1930s worried both his father and government officials but it was one affair in particular, with Lady Furness, the American wife of a British peer, which would lead him to the woman who would forever change his life – Wallis Simpson.
Born the only child of Teackle Wallis Warfield and Alice Montague, Wallis entered the world on 19 June 1896. Though she suffered many setbacks in her early years – her father passing away less than six months after her birth and her mother’s subsequent financial struggles – she received the backing of her paternal uncle and was able to mingle with the right kind of society from a young age, attending Oldfields School in Maryland. In November 1916 she married U.S. Navy aviator Earl Winfield Spencer but they spent the majority of their marriage apart as Earl served in WWI and Wallis travelled widely. Reports of her affairs during this time are varied and the couple’s divorce was finalised on 10 December 1927. By this point Wallis was already seeing Ernest Aldrich Simpson and they married the following year in Chelsea, London on 21 July 1928. Wallis settled in Mayfair with her second husband and soon met Thelma, Lady Furness – the then-mistress to Edward, Prince of Wales.
W.E.On 10 January 1931 Lady Furness introduced Wallis and Edward for the first time and their paths continued to cross over the next three years. In January 1934 their relationship moved past friendship and by the end of the year it’s said that Edward was completely besotted with Wallis, in part because of her blunt irreverence towards his position which was refreshing to the privileged Prince after a lifetime surrounded by people trained to treat him with deference. However, as their affair began to interfere with Edward’s official duties observers concerns about the relationship grew.
With the death of his father, George V, on 20 January 1936, Edward assumed the throne as King Edward VIII. His intentions towards his still-married American mistress became clear the following day when he watched the proclamation of his accession with Wallis by his side at St James’s Palace. Constitutionally, as the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, Edward was not allowed to marry someone who was divorced with a still-living ex-spouse (let alone two). There was also the fact that the British and Dominion governments felt that Wallis was unsuitable as a prospective consort and many people saw her as pursuing Edward solely for his wealth and power.
During this time of uncertainty Wallis began divorce proceedings against her second husband – who she claimed had committed adultery – and Edward met with the British Prime Minister to discuss possible ways for him to marry the woman he loved while maintaining the throne. When the relationship became public knowledge Wallis fled the scandal and went to France where she spent three months hidden away, facing increasing pressure to renounce the King. She eventually agreed to do so but Edward was determined to marry her and wouldn’t hear of it.
On 10 December 1936, Edward signed the Instrument of Abdication in the presence of the Duke of York, the Duke of Gloucester, and the Duke of Kent – his three surviving brothers. In a now famous radio broadcast on 11 December 1936 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.’ His brother, Prince Albert, Duke of York – Queen Elizabeth II’s father – succeeded Edward as George VI.
Following his abdication Edward left England for Austria where he had to wait until Wallis’s divorce from Ernest was finalised in May 1937 before reuniting with his love. They married one month later in a private ceremony at the Château de Candé in France on 3 June 1937. No members of the royal family were present at the ceremony as George VI had forbidden it – the start of many decades of strained relations between the Duke and his family.
Edward and Wallis spent the rest of their lives living abroad as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor – though Wallis was forbidden from sharing the style of ‘Royal Highness’ with her husband – and only returned to the UK for infrequent and brief visits. Edward died from cancer on 28 May 1972 at the age of 77 and received a state funeral in London which Wallis attended. Wallis died 24 April 1986 in Paris at the age of 89. They are buried side by side at Frogmore in Windsor.