Eight decades before Prince Harry and Meghan Markle announced their engagement, Britain was a-flutter about another marriage between a royal and an American. Forget controversies about holding the ceremony on the same day as the FA Cup finals — when Edward, Prince of Wales fell for American socialite Wallis Simpson, became king and then decided to abdicate the throne so they could marry, it was a scandal that changed the course of history.
A thoroughly fascinating story not only then but also now, there’s a reason Simpson’s life keeps coming to the screen, with everyone from Faye Dunaway, Jane Seymour and Joely Richardson to Gillian Anderson and Andrea Riseborough stepping into her shoes. Wallis Simpson: The Queen That Never Was is the latest effort to explore the details, from her first two husbands in the US to the backlash that followed when Edward chose love over the monarchy.
The woman before the infamy
Long before the entire world would know her name and she’d be considered the most infamous American to cross paths with the British royal family, Simpson cared little about maintaining the status quo. Her happiness wasn’t something that could be put on hold, and she wasn’t willing to suffer through marital misery in order to fit the picture of a dutiful woman.
Born Bessie Wallis Warfield in Pennsylvania and growing up in Baltimore, she would meet Earl Winfield Spencer Jr in Florida. They would soon marry, but divorce would follow — aided by the navy aviator’s drinking and rumours of Wallis’s infidelity abroad. That scandal caused one of her wealthy uncles to reduce her inheritance considerably, and more would come. Wallis next met the man who would give her her surname, already-married shipping executive Ernest Aldrich Simpson, who would leave his wife so they could wed.
The disarming divorcee meets the playboy prince
When the pair moved to Britain, a new life beckoned. So did Prince Edward, with whom Wallis crossed paths through one of his girlfriends at the time. She remained married to Simpson as romance bloomed between the two, and as Edward stopped seeing his other lovers, making his affections well and truly known.
Indeed, their affair was hardly a secret, but it was the death of King George V that thrust them into the public spotlight. A mere two years after meeting, Wallis found herself in a relationship with the new monarch — and sat beside him as they watched the proclamation of his accession the day after his father’s passing. King Edward VIII wanted Wallis to be his queen, but tradition and society frowned upon his plans. As sovereign, Edward was also the head of the Church of England, which didn’t allow remarriage after divorce. As a result, by marrying her and breaking with the church, he’d be contravening the constitution.
The romance that changed the monarchy
With his family, the government and the church all protesting Edward’s wish to make Wallis his wife, the King grew increasingly frustrated. Of course, the fact that much of the opposition stemmed from Wallis’s divorced status came with no small amount of irony. After all, the Church of England was formed so King Henry VIII could obtain a divorce in the 16th century.
And yet, in what might be the most romantic gesture a king has ever made, Edward stood his ground. Amid the public furore and seeing her name splashed across the papers day after day, Wallis tried to convince him otherwise. Less than a year after taking the throne, however, he abdicated in favour of his younger brother. “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 statement explained. Wallis and Edward would marry within seven months, taking the titles of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
Watch Wallis Simpson: The Queen That Never Was on Wednesday 27 December at 7:30pm on SBS.