Wallis Simpson, later Duchess of Windsor, has been an enigma to many for decades. But who is the real Wallis Simpson: the bad influence on the future King Edward VIII, as portrayed in the media? Or just a woman in love…?
Life before Edward VIII, Duke of Windsor:
Let’s start with Wallis’ life prior to meeting Edward VIII, and her past that would mean she would never be accepted as royal…
The woman known to us as Wallis Simpson was born in Pennsylvania on 19th June 1896, and was actually named Bessie Wallis Warfield. She grew up as an only child; her mother was Alice Warfield, and her father, Teackle Wallis Warfield. He passed away four months after his daughter was born. Due to this, Bessie – who came to be known as Wallis – and her mother relied on support from her family.
Up until the age of 6, she lived with her rich uncle, Soloman Davies Warfield and grandmother. She then moved in with her aunt, Bessie Merryman, in 1901, after Bessie was widowed. This arrangement lasted for a year until Alice found her own apartment and in 1908, remarried, becoming Alice Rasin. Her second husband was John Freeman Rasin, who was the son of an influential boss of the Democratic Party.
Wallis was educated at the most expensive school in Maryland, Oldfields School, between 1912-14. This is where she started her life as a socialite: she befriended the heiress of Kirk Silverware, Mary Kirk, and the daughter of Senator T. Coleman du Pont and Renee du Pont.
From a young age, she was memorable. The historian and biographer, Phillip Ziegler (2004) wrote in the biography on Wallis “[her] capacity for total concentration on her interlocutor ensured that she had many admirers”.
Wallis had two marriages before coming to England and meeting Edward, known as David to his family. Her first husband was Earl Winfield Spencer Jr., a U.S naval pilot; they married in November 1916. This was an unexpected coupling and the marriage was not a successful one, as Earl was known to drink heavily and even crashed when flying due to his drink problem. Luckily, he survived unharmed when he crashed into the sea.
Interestingly, when she met Earl in April 1916, the charismatic socialite witnessed two plane crashes within one week, leading to a fear of flying that affected her whole life.
In 1917-1921, Wallis moved to San Diego for her husband’s naval work but after this, she did not follow Earl when he moved base. Instead, she started an affair with Felipe de Espil, an Argentine diplomat, during the couple’s separation. This separation continued, and Wallis stayed in Beijing with her lifelong friends, Katherine and Herman Rogers. Whilst there, a scandalous rumour started about an affair Wallis had with Count Galeazzo Ciano, the future son-in-law of Mussolini, which apparently resulted in a botched abortion and Wallis’s infertility. This rumour was widely spread but has never been confirmed.
Wallis and Earl were living separately in America in 1925, and in 1927, they divorced.
Wallis’s second marriage quickly followed in 1928. She had already started an affair with Ernest Simpson, an Anglo-American shipping executive, before divorcing Earl. Ernest divorced his wife too, and in 1928, the new couple married in London. They lived in a large house in Mayfair with many servants, however, Wallis’ wandering eye led her to the future Edward VIII…
Wallis Simpson’s controversial relationship with Edward VIII’:
Wallis and ‘David’ (The Prince of Wales) were introduced in 1931 through his then-mistress, Thelma Furness, Viscountess Furness. Wallis and Ernest were experiencing financial difficulties and Wallis frequently saw Edward at events like house parties, and at court.
In 1934, she became the Prince’s mistress and replaced Thelma Furness. Edward initially denied this even though staff at the Palace had seen them in bed together on many occasions, according to works written about the couple.
However, he soon publicly showed his affections for Wallis by taking her on holiday in Europe, showering her with jewels and lavish clothes – and even introduced his American mistress to his mother at court! This was certainly a display of ill manners, and it appears that Queen Mary was also horrified by the event. Since she was a divorcee, she should not have been at court, let alone addressing the Queen!
Worry over this affair continued to grow as Edward’s royal duties were being neglected, too. This was made even more scandalous by the fact that she was still married to Ernest at the time, and that rumours were flying around about her having another affair at the same time, with Guy Marcus Trundle, an employee at the Ford Motor Company. All of this caused much unwanted attention towards the Royal Family and did not earn Wallis any favours amongst the Prince’s family.
The controversy and tension over their relationship only grew when King George V died and Edward ascended the throne. The rebellious new King immediately broke protocol by watching his accession proclamation in St James’ Palace, with his belle by his side. This worried the Royal Family and the government, who were beginning to understand Edward’s nature, and see he intended to have his cake and eat it: ‘David’ wished to marry Wallis and take her as his Queen. This was especially clear when she filed to divorce Ernest in 1936, claiming that Ernest had had an affair with her friend, Mary Kirk.
No one in power would agree to this. The Prime Minister at the time, Stanley Baldwin, spoke with Edward VIII, who asked for a morganatic marriage: he would remain King but Wallis would not become Queen. This was not allowed (one of the reasons Camilla is expected to be Queen and not Princess Consort) and Edward was told that if he married Wallis, the government would resign, causing a major crisis.
When the scandal became public knowledge in December 1936, Wallis experienced backlash from the British public and escaped to Cannes, to bide her time at a friend’s house. Whilst there, she was hounded by the media for three months. She was also pressured by Lord Brownlow, the King’s Lord-in-Waiting, to renounce Edward, which she agreed to.
Nevertheless, Edward refused to give up Wallis Simpson and signed the Instrument of Abdication on 10th December 1936. In his radio message announcing his decision, Edward stated: “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”.
Life after Edward VIII’s abdication:
After Edward abdicated, the couple married on 3rd June 1937, what would have been George V’s 72nd birthday. This offended Queen Mary, and no members of the Royal Family attended the ceremony at the Château de Candé, near Tours in France.
Edward’s brother, the now-King George VI, granted Edward and Wallis the titles of ‘Duke and Duchess of Windsor’, however, he made it clear that only Edward would be addressed as ‘Your Royal Highness’, not his wife. This was proof that the Royal Family didn’t accept the Duchess, even though she had married into the family.
This caused resentment on both sides: Wallis created some nicknames for the in-law she was not so fond of. ‘Cookie’ – this was intended for The Duchess of York, George VI’s wife, alluding to her fondness to food, and ‘Shirley’, for the then-Princess Elizabeth, likening her to Shirley Temple.
The Duchess of Windsor also had her close friends called her ‘Her Royal Highness’, claim biographers, a way to highlight her disapproval on her lack of royal styling.
It is also thought the denial of the HRH style for Wallis was a way to ensure the couple didn’t return to the UK, and cause a scandal or detract from George VI’s reign in some way.
Wallis was accused of being a German agent throughout the Second World War, rumours fuelled by a trip she and the Duke of Windsor took to Berghof, Adolf Hitler’s mountainside retreat, in 1937; it is suspected the couple were supporters of fascism.
They also both fled to a suspected German agent in Portugal for safety one time, a Ricardo de Espirito Santo e Silva.
It is reported that Wallis claimed France lost against the German invasion due to it being ‘internally diseased’, a direct insult to the French, who were of course allies of the British. This implied she was supporting Britain’s enemy, Germany, or at least, not in favour of France, a veritable crime against her husband’s nation.
Her extravagant lifestyle during a time of hardship in Britain curried her no favour. In August 1940, Edward and Wallis were appointed the Governor and First Lady of the Bahamas, an appointment which lasted for five years. It is speculated this was to keep the Windsors away from Europe and potential collusion with the enemy. Their record seems to have spoken for itself.
Whilst competently and publicly helping with the Red Cross during these years, the Duchess privately showed her disapproval for the people in letters to her aunt, stating that the locals were ‘lazy, thriving n******’. She also often enjoyed excessive shopping trips in the USA during this time.
Once the war was over, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor moved back to France. They lived an easy life, owning two houses and enjoying being treated as celebrities. Relationships with David’s family slowly improved after this too, especially after the death of George VI in 1952, and Queen Mary shortly after in 1953.
Edward’s niece, Queen Elizabeth II, visited both the Duke and Duchess whilst they were in London for Edward’s eye surgery in 1965, and they were later invited to a family event: a plaque commemorating Queen Mary, unveiled in 1967. This was a major step towards reconciliation, after the couple were ostracised.
The relationship between Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles, and the former King continued; The Prince of Wales wrote to his great-uncle often, and even visited. The Queen made a trip to their French chateau during a state visit to France in 1972, just a few weeks before the Duke’s death. When Edward VIII’s funeral took place at Windsor Castle a week after his death, Wallis was invited to stay at Buckingham Palace.
The Duchess became a recluse in her later years, due to worsening dementia. She died on 24th April 1986 and, surprisingly, her funeral was held at Windsor Castle. All surviving Royal Family members attended – including The Queen Mother. They also allowed Wallis to be buried next to her husband in St George’s Chapel, as a former Sovereign and his wife.
It may have taken her entire relationship with Edward to get approval, but her death proved that she was at long last accepted into the family.
So, do you think that Wallis Simpson should have been judged by her past prior to her marriage to Edward? Or do you think that the actions she undertook whilst the Duchess of Windsor reinforces the righteousness of the Royal Family?
If you found this piece interesting, here are other sources on Wallis Simpson:
- “Wallis Simpson, The Secret Letters” (2011) Channel
- “W.E” (2011) film
- Windsor, The Duchess of (1956). The Heart has its Reasons: The Memoirs of the Duchess of Windsor. London: Michael Joseph.
- Ziegler, Philip (1991). King Edward VIII: The official biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
- Ziegler, Philip (2004) “Windsor, (Bessie) Wallis, duchess of Windsor (1896–1986)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (subscription required)
- Sebba, Anne (2011). That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson.
- Higham, Charles (2005). Mrs Simpson. London: Pan Books.