Wallis, Duchess of Windsor (born Bessie Wallis Warfield, later Spencer, then Simpson; 19 June 1895 or 1896 – 24 April 1986) was an American socialite who married, as her third husband, Prince Edward, Duke of Windsor, formerly King Edward VIII.
Growing up, Wallis and her widowed mother were partly supported by their wealthier relatives. Her first marriage, to a U.S. naval officer, was punctuated with periods of separation and eventually ended in divorce. In 1934, during her second marriage, she allegedly became the mistress of Edward, Prince of Wales. Two years later, after Edward's accession as King, Wallis divorced her second husband and Edward proposed to her.
The King's desire to marry a twice-divorced American with two living ex-husbands and a reputation as an opportunist caused a constitutional crisis in the United Kingdom and the Dominions, which ultimately led to the King's abdication in December 1936 to marry "the woman I love". After the abdication, the former king was created Duke of Windsor by his brother George VI. Edward married Wallis six months later, after which she was formally known as the Duchess of Windsor, without the style "Her Royal Highness".
Before, during and after World War II, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were suspected by many in government and society of being Nazi sympathisers. In the 1950s and 1960s, she and the Duke shuttled between Europe and the United States, living a life of leisure as society celebrities. After his death in 1972, the Duchess lived in seclusion and was rarely seen in public. Her private life has been a source of much speculation, and she remains a controversial figure in British history.
The dates of her birth and of her parents' marriage are unclear. She was born either in 1895 (according to the 1900 census returns) or in 1896. Her parents were married on either 19 November 1895 or the same day of the following year. Her father died of tuberculosis on either 15 November 1896, or the same day of the following year. For her first few years, she was raised in Baltimore, Maryland, in modest, even impoverished, circumstances, dependent upon the charity of a wealthy uncle, Solomon Warfield.
In 1901, her aunt Bessie Merryman was widowed, and the following year Alice and Wallis moved into her large and comfortable house at 9 West Chase Street, Baltimore. A fellow pupil at Wallis's school recalled, "She was bright, brighter than all of us. She made up her mind to go to the head of the class, and she did. Wallis was always immaculately dressed and pushed herself hard to do well.
In 1908, Wallis's mother, Alice, married her second husband, John Freeman Rasin. On 17 April 1910, Wallis was confirmed at Protestant Episcopal Christ Church, Baltimore, even though there are no contemporaneous records of her ever being baptised. Between 1912 and 1914, Solomon Warfield paid for Wallis to attend Oldfields School, the most expensive girls' school in Maryland. There she made friends with heiress Renée du Pont, a daughter of Senator T. Coleman du Pont, of the du Pont family, and Mary Kirk, whose family founded Kirk Silverware.
An Italian diplomat remembered Wallis from her time in China: "Her conversation was brilliant and she had the habit of bringing up the right subject of conversation with anyone she came in contact with and entertaining them on that subject. According to Hui-lan Koo, the second wife of the Chinese diplomat Wellington Koo, the only Mandarin phrase that Wallis learned during her sojourn in Asia was "Boy, pass me the Champagne" (男孩，通過我香賓).
Wallis toured China, and stayed with Katherine and Herman Rogers, who were to remain long-term friends, while in Beijing. According to the wife of one of Win's fellow officers, Mrs Milton E. Miles, it was there that Wallis met Count Galeazzo Ciano, later Mussolini's son-in-law and Foreign Minister, had an affair with him, and became pregnant, leading to a botched abortion that left her unable to conceive. By September 1925, Wallis and her husband were back in the United States, though living apart. They divorced on 10 December 1927.
The Simpsons temporarily set up home in a furnished house with four servants in Mayfair. In 1929, Wallis sailed back to the United States to visit her sick mother, who was by now married to Charles Gordon Allen. During the trip, Wallis's investments were wiped out in the Wall Street Crash, and her mother died penniless on 2 November 1929. Wallis returned to England and with the shipping business still buoyant, the Simpsons moved into a large flat with a staff of servants.
Through a friend, Consuelo Thaw, Wallis met Consuelo's sister Thelma, Lady Furness, the then-mistress of Edward, Prince of Wales. On 10 January 1931, Lady Furness introduced Wallis to the Prince. The Prince was the eldest son of George V and Queen Mary, and heir apparent to the throne. Between 1931 and 1934, he met the Simpsons at various house parties, and Wallis was presented at court. Ernest was beginning to encounter financial difficulties, as the Simpsons were living beyond their means, and they had to fire a succession of staff.
In December 1933, while Lady Furness was away in New York, Wallis allegedly became the Prince's mistress. Edward denied this to his father, despite his staff seeing them in bed together as well as "evidence of a physical sexual act". Wallis soon ousted Lady Furness, and distanced the Prince from a former lover and confidante, the Anglo-American textile heiress Freda Dudley Ward.
By 1934, Edward was irretrievably besotted with Wallis, finding her domineering manner and abrasive irreverence toward his position appealing; in the words of his official biographer, he became "slavishly dependent" on her. At an evening party in Buckingham Palace, he introduced her to his mother—his father was outraged, primarily on account of her marital history (divorced people were excluded from court). Edward showered Wallis with money and jewels, and in February 1935, and again later in the year, he holidayed with her in Europe. His courtiers became increasingly alarmed as the affair began to interfere with his official duties.
In 1935, Special Branch detectives reported that Wallis was also secretly having a love affair with Guy Marcus Trundle, an engineer who was "said to be employed by the Ford Motor Company". Captain Val Bailey, who knew Trundle well and whose mother had an affair with Trundle for nearly two decades, has cast considerable doubts on these claims.
On 20 January 1936, George V died and Edward ascended the throne as Edward VIII. The next day, he broke Royal protocol by watching the proclamation of his accession from a window of St. James's Palace, in the company of the still-married Wallis. It was becoming apparent to Court and Government circles that Edward meant to marry her. The King's behaviour and his relationship with Wallis made him unpopular with the Conservative-led British government, as well as distressing his mother and brother. Although the pre-war media in the UK remained deferential to the Monarchy, and no stories of the affair were reported in the domestic press, foreign media widely reported their relationship.
The Monarch of the United Kingdom is Supreme Governor of the Church of England—at the time of the proposed marriage, and until 2002, the Church of England did not permit the re-marriage of divorced people with living ex-spouses. Accordingly, while there was no civil law barrier to Edward marrying Wallis, the constitutional position was that the King could not marry a divorcée and remain as King (for to do so would conflict with his role as Supreme Governor). Furthermore, the British Government and the governments of the Dominions were against the idea of marriage between the King and an American divorcée for other reasons. She was perceived by many in the British Empire as a woman of "limitless ambition", who was pursuing the King because of his wealth and position.
Wallis had already filed for divorce from her second husband and the decree nisi was granted on 27 October 1936. Her relationship with the King had become public knowledge in the United Kingdom by early December. Wallis decided to flee the country as the scandal broke, being driven to the south of France in a dramatic race to outrun the press. For the next three months, she was under siege by the press at the Villa Lou Viei, near Cannes, the home of her close friends Herman and Katherine Rogers.
Back in the United Kingdom, the King consulted with the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, on a way to marry Wallis and keep the throne. The King suggested a morganatic marriage, where the King would remain King but Wallis would not be Queen, but this was rejected by Baldwin and the Prime Ministers of Australia and South Africa. If the King were to marry Wallis against Baldwin's advice, the Government would be required to resign, causing a constitutional crisis.
At her hideaway in the south of France, Wallis was pressured by the King's Lord-in-Waiting, Peregrine Cust, 6th Baron Brownlow, to renounce the King. On 7 December 1936, Lord Brownlow read to the press her statement, which he had helped her draft, indicating Wallis's readiness to give up the King. However, Edward was determined to marry Wallis. As the issue of abdication gathered strength, John Theodore Goddard, Wallis's solicitor, stated: "[his] client was ready to do anything to ease the situation but the other end of the wicket [Edward VIII] was determined." This seemingly indicated that the King had decided he had no option but to abdicate if he wished to marry Wallis.
The King signed the Instrument of Abdication on 10 December 1936, in the presence of his three surviving brothers, the Duke of York (who would ascend the throne the following day as George VI), the Duke of Gloucester and the Duke of Kent. Special laws passed by the Parliaments of the Commonwealth Realms finalised Edward's abdication the following day, or in Ireland's case one day later. On 11 December 1936, Edward made a broadcast to the people, saying of Wallis, "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.
Afterwards, Prince Edward left the UK and went to Austria, staying at Schloss Enzesfeld, the home of Baron Eugen and Baroness Kitty de Rothschild. Edward had to remain apart from Wallis until there was no danger of compromising the granting of a decree absolute in her divorce proceedings. Upon her divorce being made final in May 1937, she resumed her maiden name of Wallis Warfield. The couple were reunited at the Château de Candé, Monts, France, on 4 May 1937.
Wallis and Edward married one month later on 3 June 1937, which would have been King George V’s 72nd birthday. The wedding took place at Château de Candé, lent to them by Charles Bedaux, who later worked actively for Nazi Germany in World War II. No member of the Royal Family attended the wedding. The marriage was to be childless.
Edward had previously been created Duke of Windsor by his brother, the new George VI. However, letters patent, passed by the new King and unanimously supported by the Dominion governments, prevented Wallis, now the Duchess of Windsor, from using the style of Her Royal Highness. The new King's firm view, that the Duchess should not be given a royal title, was shared by Queen Mary and George's wife, Queen Elizabeth. At first, the British Royal Family did not accept the Duchess and would not receive her formally, although the former king sometimes met his mother and siblings after his abdication. Some biographers have suggested that Queen Elizabeth, Edward's sister-in-law, remained bitter towards Wallis for her role in bringing George VI to the throne (which has been seen by some as a factor in George VI's early death), and for prematurely behaving as Edward's consort when she was his mistress. But these claims are denied by Queen Elizabeth's close friends; for example, the Duke of Grafton wrote that she "never said anything nasty about the Duchess of Windsor, except to say she really hadn't got a clue what she was dealing with. On the other hand, the Duchess of Windsor referred to Queen Elizabeth alternatively as "Mrs Temple" or as "Cookie", alluding to her solid figure and fondness for food, and to her daughter, Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth II), as "Shirley", as in Shirley Temple. The Duchess bitterly resented the denial of the royal title and the refusal of the Duke's relatives to accept her as part of the family. However, within the household of the Duke and Duchess, the style "Her Royal Highness" was used by those who were close to the couple.
According to the wife of former British Union of Fascists leader Oswald Mosley, Diana Mitford, who knew both the future Queen Mother and the Duchess of Windsor but was only friendly with the latter, the Queen's antipathy toward her sister-in-law may have had a deeper source. As Lady Mosley wrote to her sister, the Duchess of Devonshire, after the death of the Duke of Windsor, "probably the theory of their [the Windsors'] contemporaries that Cake [a Mitford nickname for the Queen Mother, derived from her confectionary fashion sense] was rather in love with him [the Duke] (as a girl) & took second best, may account for much.
The Duke and Duchess lived in France in the pre-war years. In 1937, they visited Germany as personal guests of the Nazi leader, Adolf Hitler, a tour much publicised by the German media. Hitler said of the Duchess, "she would have made a good Queen. The visit tended to corroborate the strong suspicions of many in government and society that the Duchess was a German agent, a claim that she acknowledged (but denied) in her letters to the Duke. FBI files compiled in the 1930s also portray her as a possible Nazi sympathiser. The ex-Duke of Württemberg told the FBI that she and leading Nazi Joachim von Ribbentrop had been lovers in London. There were even rather improbable reports during World War II that she kept a signed photograph of Ribbentrop on her bedside table, and had continued to pass details to him even during the invasion of France.
Wallis competently performed her role as the Governor's lady for five years. However, she hated Nassau, calling it "our St Helena", in a reference to Napoleon Bonaparte's final place of exile. She was heavily criticised for her extravagant shopping trips to the United States, undertaken when Britain was under rationing and blackout. Her racist attitudes towards the local population (she called them "lazy, thriving niggers" in letters to her aunt), reflected her upbringing. In 1941, Prime Minister Winston Churchill strenuously objected when she and her husband planned to tour the Caribbean aboard a yacht belonging to a Swedish magnate, Axel Wenner-Gren, whom Churchill stated to be "pro-German". Churchill felt compelled to complain again when the Duke gave a "defeatist" interview. The British establishment distrusted the Duchess; Sir Alexander Hardinge wrote that her anti-British activities were motivated by a desire for revenge against the country that rejected her as its queen. After the war, the couple returned to France and retirement.
On George VI's death in 1952, the Duke returned to England for the funeral. The Duchess did not attend; the previous October whilst staying in London she had told her husband, "I hate this country. I shall hate it to my grave. Later that year, they were offered the use of a house by the Paris municipal authorities. The couple lived at 4 rue du Champ d'Entraînement in Neuilly near Paris for most of the remainder of their lives, essentially living a life of easy retirement. They bought a second home in the country, where they soon became close friends with their neighbours, Oswald and Diana Mosley. Years later, Diana Mosley claimed that the Duke and Duchess shared her and her husband's views that Hitler should have been given a free hand to destroy Communism. As the Duke himself wrote in the New York Daily News of 13 December 1966: "...it was in Britain's interest and in Europe's too, that Germany be encouraged to strike east and smash Communism forever ... I thought the rest of us could be fence-sitters while the Nazis and the Reds slogged it out.
In 1965, when the Duke and Duchess visited London as the Duke required eye surgery, the Queen and Princess Marina visited them. Later, in 1967, the Duke and Duchess joined the Royal Family in London for the unveiling of a plaque by the Queen to commemorate the centenary of Queen Mary's birth. Both the Queen and Prince Charles visited the Windsors in Paris in the Duke's later years, the Queen's visit coming only shortly before the Duke died.
Upon the Duke's death from cancer in 1972, the increasingly senile and frail Duchess travelled to England to attend his funeral, staying at Buckingham Palace during her visit. The Duchess lived the remainder of her life as a recluse, supported by both her husband's estate and an allowance from the Queen. In October 1976, she was due to receive the Queen Mother, but as the Duchess was too frail and mentally absent to receive her, her staff cancelled the visit at the last minute. The Queen Mother sent flowers with a card reading, "In Friendship, Elizabeth. After her husband's death, the Duchess gave her legal authority to her French lawyer, Suzanne Blum. This potentially exploitative relationship was explored in Caroline Blackwood's book The Last of the Duchess, written in 1980, but not published until after Blum's death in 1995. In 1980, the Duchess lost the power of speech. Towards the end, she was bed-ridden and did not receive any visitors, apart from her doctor and nurses.
The Duchess of Windsor died on 24 April 1986 at her home in the Bois de Boulogne, Paris. Her funeral was held at St. George's Chapel, Windsor Castle, attended by her surviving sisters-in-law Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother), and Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester. The Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, Charles, Prince of Wales and Diana, Princess of Wales attended both the funeral ceremony and the burial. She was buried next to Edward in the Royal Burial Ground near Windsor Castle, as "Wallis, Duchess of Windsor".
Most of her estate went to the Pasteur Institute medical research foundation, on the instructions of Suzanne Blum. The decision took the royal family and the Duchess's friends by surprise, as she had shown no interest in charity during her life. In an auction at Sotheby's in April 1987 the Duchess's remarkable jewelry collection raised $45 million for the Institute, approximately seven times its pre-sale estimate. In recognition of the help France gave to the Duke and Duchess in providing them with a home, and in lieu of death duties, the Duchess's collection of Louis XVI furniture, some porcelain and paintings were made over to the French state. The British Royal Family received no major bequests. Mohammed Al-Fayed, owner of Harrods department store, bought much of the non-financial estate, including the lease of the Paris mansion. The bulk of his collection was sold in 1998, the year after his son's death in the car accident that also claimed the life of Diana, Princess of Wales. The sale raised more than £14 million for charity.
The Duchess published her ghost-written memoirs, The Heart Has Its Reasons, in 1956. Author Charles Higham says of the book, "facts were remorselessly rearranged in what amounted to a self-performed face-lift ... reflecting in abundance its author's politically misguided but winning and desirable personality." He describes the Duchess as "charismatic, electric and compulsively ambitious". Hearsay, conjecture and politically motivated propaganda have clouded assessment of the Duchess of Windsor's life, unhelped by her own manipulation of the truth. But there is no document which proves directly that she was anything other than a victim of her own ambition, who lived out a great romance that became a great tragedy. In the opinion of her biographers, "she experienced the ultimate fairy tale, becoming the adored favourite of the most glamorous bachelor of his time. The idyll went wrong when, ignoring her pleas, he threw up his position to spend the rest of his life with her. Academics agree that she ascended a precipice that "left her with fewer alternatives than she had anticipated. Somehow she thought that the Establishment could be overcome once [Edward] was king, and she confessed frankly to Aunt Bessie about her "insatiable ambitions" ... Trapped by his flight from responsibility into exactly the role she had sought, suddenly she warned him, in a letter, "You and I can only create disaster together" ... she predicted to society hostess Sybil Colefax, "two people will suffer" because of "the workings of a system" ... Denied dignity, and without anything useful to do, the new Duke of Windsor and his Duchess would be international society's most notorious parasites for a generation, while they thoroughly bored each other ... She had thought of him as emotionally a Peter Pan, and of herself an Alice in Wonderland. The book they had written together, however, was a Paradise Lost. The Duchess herself is reported to have summed up her life in a sentence: "You have no idea how hard it is to live out a great romance.
In his 1981 novel Famous Last Words, award-winning Canadian author Timothy Findley concocts his plot around several World War II-era prominent characters, and the Duchess—referred to throughout as Mrs Simpson—is an important character, a friend of the narrator depicted as manipulative yet also tragic. There is also a short story by Rose Tremain called The Darkness of Wallis Simpson.
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