This article was first published in the December 2006 issue of BBC History Magazine
In the summer of 1936 Lady Diana Cooper remarked that “Wallis is wearing very very badly. Her commonness and Becky Sharpishness irritate”. As far as the English upper classes were concerned, Wallis Simpson was a cunning social climber, like Becky Sharp in William Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair. They simply could not understand what King Edward VIII saw in her – a woman considered too lower-class to qualify for any kind of royal attention, as well as being a divorcee and an American.
But Edward adored her. He had met her in 1931, when he was Prince of Wales, and she was married to her second husband, Ernest Simpson. It was not long before they were in love. “My own beloved Wallis”, he wrote in 1935, “I love you more & more & more & more… I haven’t seen you once today & I can’t take it. I love you”.
Edward’s friend Winston Churchill believed that Wallis was good for him. “Although branded with the stigma of a guilty love,” he said, “no companionship could have appeared more natural, more free from impropriety or grossness”. Well-read, with a lively sense of humour, Wallis had a warm and sincere heart. She was devoted to her mother and her aunt and she did not conceal – even in circles where paid work was thought to be vulgar – the fact that her aunt worked for a living. Her servants liked her as well. “All the maids,” said a kitchen maid, “spoke well of Mrs Simpson”.
By January 1936, when Edward became king, he had decided to marry Wallis. It was said in court circles that Wallis was scheming to be queen. But this was not true: rather, she wondered if it might be better to “be content with the simple way” – where she would be his mistress, rather than his wife. But Edward swept aside her misgivings and persuaded her to start proceedings for divorce. In November 1936, when she had obtained her decree nisi, he announced his marriage plan to the prime minister, Stanley Baldwin. As sovereign, he was free to marry anyone he liked, except a Roman Catholic, under the Royal Marriages Act of 1772. But Baldwin said it was impossible: public opinion would not approve of a divorced woman becoming queen. Churchill, Lord Beaverbrook and Lord Rothermere came up with a solution – a morganatic marriage, by which Wallis would become Edward’s wife, but not his queen. It became known as the “Cornwall plan”, because Churchill suggested that Wallis could be styled the Duchess of Cornwall.
Until the start of December 1936, only the tiny world of Society, with a capital “S”, knew about Edward’s love for Wallis, because it had been kept out of the news. But on 2 December 1936, the story broke. The nation was stunned: the streets were packed and newspapers sold as fast as they were printed. “Papers full of harpy & the King”, wrote Mrs Baldwin in her diary.
The Establishment, led by Baldwin, the Church of England, the Tory press and the royal court, had expected the nation to oppose Edward’s plan for marriage. But to their horror, most people wanted to keep him as their king on any terms. He was immensely popular: like Princess Diana many years later, he had a star quality that was irresistible. But more than anything, he was appreciated for his concern for ordinary people, with whom he had served at the front in the years of war, and for his many visits to the poor. Many people also liked the idea that Wallis, like them, was not rich and privileged. “It is character that Counts here, & in the Great Beyond, not a Tytle” [sic], wrote a woman from South Wales to the king.
The country was divided, just as it was split in 1997 after the death of Diana. On the one side, there was the Establishment. On the other, there was the mass of ordinary people, as well as middle-class liberals and intellectuals, like George Bernard Shaw. “The People Want Their King” insisted a Daily Mail headline. Diners rose in restaurants to propose a toast to Edward and in the cinema, the National Anthem was heard with enthusiastic clapping and shouts of “We want the King”. The newsreels acknowledged there was a crisis, but presented it as a love story, not a scandal. In the Commons, MPs cheered when Churchill stood up to demand that no pressure be put on the king. Many people suspected that Baldwin wanted to get rid of Edward – that Wallis was “a godsend”, because she provided the perfect excuse to bounce him off the throne.
But over the weekend of 4–6 December, there was a proliferation of rumours through the nation, planting seeds of doubt. There was widespread speculation that Churchill was going to form a “King’s Party” and bring down the government. It was also rumoured that, in the words of Sir Horace Wilson, Baldwin’s advisor, Wallis was “selfish, self-seeking, hard, calculating, ambitious, scheming, dangerous”. Most damaging for Edward, a story was spread that Wallis was a friend of von Ribbentrop, the German ambassador, and was selling the nation’s secrets. These sorts of things, observed the publisher Francis Meynell, “were bound to be said but other incidents of which I heard made one view her with much suspicion on this point”.
But Wallis had met Ribbentrop only twice; the first occasion was a large luncheon, which was also attended by Churchill. Neither she nor Edward were part of any social circle frequented by Hitler’s ambassador. He was a favourite guest of Lord and Lady Londonderry and of the social hostess, Mrs Ronnie Greville, who admired Hitler and fascism. But Mrs Greville’s royal friends were Albert, the Duke of York, and his wife Elizabeth (the future George VI and Queen Elizabeth) – not Wallis and Edward.
On 3 December, the day after the story broke, Wallis had fled to the south of France to stay with friends. She was a resourceful woman: she had survived an abusive first marriage and had travelled extensively through Europe and Asia. But she had sensed a “mounting menace in the very atmosphere” and felt close to a nervous breakdown. Once away from England, she became aware that Edward, who had by now been told by Baldwin that a morganatic marriage was impossible, had decided to abdicate. She tried to stop him. On 7 December, she issued a statement to the press – that she was willing to renounce the king. Baldwin was unnerved: “Only time I was frightened. I thought [the king] might change his mind”. He quickly sent a telegram to the Dominion prime ministers, stating that he had “every reason for doubting bona fides of Mrs Simpson’s statement”.
Edward stood firm in his decision to go. On 10 December, knowing Baldwin was going to make an announcement to the House of Commons, Edward sent him a note, asking him to tell the House of Mrs Simpson’s efforts to prevent him from giving up the throne. Horace Wilson pinned a note of his own to the one Edward had sent: “I asked the PM whether he had any intention of mentioning Mrs Simpson (If he had, [I] was quite willing to draft appropriate passages!). The PM said he would make no reference”.
On 11 December, Edward gave his own speech to the nation, which Churchill had helped him to write. It had become impossible for him, he said, “to discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love”. Wallis listened in France, lying on a sofa with her eyes closed. “Darling,” she wrote to him afterwards, “I want to see you touch you I want to run my own house I want to be married and to you”.
They were finally married on 3 June 1937, in France. But the new king, George VI, forbade any of Edward’s brothers or his sister from attending the wedding. Then he sent word that the title of HRH – Her Royal Highness – would not be extended to Wallis. She would be simply Duchess of Windsor. It was a wounding blow to Edward – and it meant that in the end, his marriage to Wallis was morganatic. “I hope you will never regret this sacrifice,” Wallis wrote to Edward, “and that your brother will prove to the world that we still have a position and that you will be given some jobs to do”.
But this was not to be. The couple made repeated requests for useful employment, but were turned down. It was feared in court circles that, as Horace Wilson told Neville Chamberlain in December 1936, Mrs Simpson intended “not only to come back here but… to set up a ‘Court’ of her own and – there can be little doubt – do her best to make things uncomfortable for the new occupant of the Throne. It must not be assumed that she has abandoned hope of becoming Queen of England”.
“I think you know,” wrote George VI in December 1938 to Chamberlain, now prime minister, “that neither the Queen [Elizabeth, later the Queen Mother] nor Queen Mary have any desire to meet the Duchess of Windsor”. Churchill observed sadly of the Duchess of Windsor, “No-one has been more victimised by gossip and scandal”.
The ugly rumours lingered on, even beyond Wallis’s death in 1986. In a sense, they became worse, because the Establishment’s perception of Wallis in 1936 prevailed, eclipsing the sympathetic view of ordinary people at the time. It is maintained that a China Dossier exists, listing sexual tricks learnt by Wallis in Shanghai, which she had used to ensnare the king – but nothing has been found in any archive. The allegation that she was a Nazi agent is still current, even though there is no reliable evidence in either the British or the German national archives.
In 2005, Prince Charles married Camilla Parker-Bowles, a divorcee, on the very morganatic basis denied to Edward: Camilla became Duchess of Cornwall and was styled HRH. If this solution could be achieved for Charles and Camilla, then why had it not been possible for Edward and Wallis? “I am profoundly grieved at what has happened,” wrote Churchill to Lloyd George on Christmas Day 1936. “I believe the Abdication to have been altogether premature and probably quite unnecessary.”
Susan Williams is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London, and author of The People’s King: The True Story of the Abdication (Penguin Books, 2003).