King Edward VIII's reign began on Jan. 20, 1936.
Less than 12 months later, England had a new king.
Regardless of how fascinated people would become by Princess Diana decades later or how heated royal baby fever can get to this day, it was Edward's decision to give up his throne for love 81 years ago that entirely altered the course of the monarchy. Many might wonder why he couldn't do as he darn well pleased, considering he was the literal King of England. Quite possibly, if a similar scenario presented itself now, perhaps it would go a different way.
But back then, the United Kingdom's sovereign monarch marrying a twice-divorced American woman just wouldn't do at all. Let alone a woman who actually wasn't even divorced from her second husband yet when the king fell in love with her.
Bessiewallis Warfield was born June 19, 1896, at the Monterey Inn, the biggest hotel in Blue Ridge Summit, Pa., and a popular summer vacation spot for folks from nearby Baltimore, where the family lived. Her father, Teackle Wallis Warfield, son of a flour merchant who was known as "one of the most popular citizens of Baltimore, died that November of tuberculosis, after which the child and her mother, Alice Montague, moved in with a widowed aunt.
Montague married her second husband, John Freeman Rasin, in 1908—and at some point in her youth, Wallis dropped the "Bessie."
Solomon Warfield, an uncle on her father's side, financed Wallis' education at Oldfields, a Maryland finishing school, but—according to Anne Sebba's That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor—his refusal to pay for a coming-out ball for his niece sent her scurrying to Florida to visit a cousin.
It was in Pensacola, Fla., that she met Navy pilot Earl Winfield Spencer Jr. (known familiarly as Win Spencer) in April 1916. He would become her husband on Nov. 8, 1916, but his military duty ensured that they spent a lot of time apart. Wallis, who was never considered a great beauty but who by all accounts had charm to spare, hypnotic eyes and a fiery magnetism that proved irresistible to men from all walks of life, reportedly kept busy while her husband was away.
"Mrs. Spencer was infamous for arousing bouts of passion among adoring males," a friend, Diana Angulo, said about Wallis, according to Sebba. "Through the years I think men found her witty, and that special ability of giving them her full attention, quite an art! I think men were more generous and complimentary than women."
Among her rumored extramarital paramours were Argentine diplomat Felipe de Espil and Count Galeazzo Ciano, an Italian aristocrat seven years her junior, whom she met in China while her husband was stationed there. (Ciano would go on to marry Mussolini's daughter, Edda, and he was executed by an anti-fascist firing squad in 1944.) Edda would later deny it, but the big rumor of the day was that Ciano got Wallis pregnant and a botched abortion left her infertile.
What people do know was that Wallis got sick in 1925 while on a transpacific ocean liner traveling from Japan to Seattle. Upon arrival in Seattle, she underwent an undisclosed operation that later was wildly speculated to be anything from the abortion in question to a complication from being born with male sex organs. While still recovering from the surgery, she boarded a train to take her back to Washington, D.C. Spencer met her in Chicago and dropped her off with her mother, by then married to her third husband, in D.C.
Wallis and Spencer divorced in 1927, but while she was waiting for that to be finalized, she found out her uncle Sol Warfield had died—and, upset that she was getting divorced, had left her only $15,000. A paltry sum, compared to the $5 million she thought she was going to inherit.
While figuring out her next move, she surfed her friends' guest quarters in New York and Pennsylvania, at one point even considering a career in steel scaffolding sales. While staying with an old school chum in New York, she met Mr. and Mrs. Ernest Simpson, who had been married since 1923 and had one daughter. At some point over friendly bridge games and trips to art galleries and museums, Simpson, who was one year younger, fell for Wallis and asked if he could marry her as soon as they were both officially divorced.
They married on July 21, 1928.
Simpson had been born in New York to British parents, and he and Wallis soon moved to England. They had high-society friends (Simpson's sister had married a prominent politician) and lived in a stylish flat where Mrs. Simpson liked to entertain.
Meanwhile, Wallis had decided—ultimate goal unknown—that she would meet the Prince of Wales, aka Prince Edward, son of King George V and Queen Mary and next in line to the British throne.
Wallis did meet the prince in 1931 through her friend Thelma Furness, who happened to be one of Edward's girlfriends at the time.
Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David wasn't considered much of an intellectual, nor, at 5'7", did he cut a powerful figure, but he was said to be quick-witted and free-spirited (a distant, antagonistic relationship with his father may have contributed to that). He was also quite the libertine, though girlfriends were said to refer to him a "the little man." He was very fair-faced and only required a shave once a week. He was also, according to certain analyses of his correspondence and reported behavior, anywhere from crazy or deeply disturbed to on the autism spectrum.
At 20 years old he joined the British Army's Guards when World War I broke out, in 1914. In 1918 he embarked on an affair with 28-year-old Freda Dudley Ward and, despite her being married, she became Edward's main squeeze for the next 16 years. He had other squeezes, as did she, but Freda was his main one.
"Each day I long more and more to chuck this job and be out of it and free for you, Sweetie," Edward wrote to Freda in 1920 during a seven-month tour of Australia and New Zealand, "this job" apparently being his royal duties. "The more I think of it all, the more certain I am that really the day for kings and princes is past, monarchies are out of date, though I know it is a rotten thing for me to say..."
And again, he had no trouble attracting women. Wallis Simpson biographer Hugo Vickers told NPR in 2011 that he was of the opinion that, though she married Prince Albert in 1923, Queen Elizabeth II's mother was actually in love with Edward, and that's why she resented Simpson (she was said to have blamed the throne being thrust upon her husband for his early death at 56 in 1952).
"My theory is that the Queen Mother was really rather in love with the Duke of Windsor and probably would have quite liked to have married him," Vickers said. "It must have passed through her mind. And I think it suited her very well to present the Duchess of Windsor as the woman who stole the king. And people rather swallowed that line."
Weirdly enough, Edward was in Kenya in 1928 when he was informed that his father, the king, was close to death. (Edward's brother Albert, eventually King George VI, would die while his daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth II, was in Kenya.) But when Edward got the communique to come home right away, his father was ill, he dismissed it as some political ploy cooked up by the prime minister. Alan "Tommy" Lascelles, his assistant private secretary, was so outraged by the prince's behavior, he resigned when they did return to England.
Biographer Hector Bolitho wrote of Edward that he "was almost stubborn in his habit of turning his back upon the conventions of polite society." Instead, the prince enjoyed all things modern and American, telling Freda that "Princing" was easier abroad.
While he was still seeing Freda, he met Thelma Furness (whose twin sister was Gloria Morgan, mother of Gloria Vanderbilt and grandmother of Anderson Cooper) at a cattle show. Furness was on her second marriage, to a much older man, and she became the prince's second mistress.
Edward had no real responsibilities, as far as he could see, and two women who doted on him.
Wallis Simpson met Thelma Furness through her friendship with Thelma's sister Consuelo, and in January 1931 Consuelo invited Wallis and Ernest Simpson to the Furnesses' home for a fox-hunting weekend. Prince Edward was also on the guest list.
According to Sebba's book, Edward struck up a conversation about central heating in British country homes and some remembered Wallis basically calling him out for being boring. "She always had a challenging line for the prince," Wallis' friend Mary Kirk wrote in a diary entry.
Wallis did write to her aunt after the weekend that it had been a treat to meet the prince in that informal setting. She wouldn't see him again until May, when Thelma threw Edward a welcome-home party after he took a trip to South America. Wallis having carefully orchestrated a swift rise through the ranks, the Simpsons first had a party that included the prince to dinner at their home in early 1932.
And the rest really is history.
Ernest had to start traveling more for work and Wallis took a solo trip to the U.S.—largely, Sebba wrote, to prove to herself that, approaching 40 in that When Harry Met Sally, "I'm going to be 40—someday!" manner, she was still desirable to men. Her mission proved successful. Back in England, meanwhile, Edward—who still was keeping company with Thelma Furness—was becoming more and more smitten with her. He threw her a 37th birthday party in June 1933. She had an American Independence Day-themed party for him at her home on July 4.
The prince, the Furnesses and the Simpsons all spent New Year's Eve together, and then Thelma sailed to the United States. It was then that Edward turned his full attention to Wallis. He started buying her clothes and jewelry, just as she and Ernest were starting to have trouble paying for their own lavish lifestyle. Ernest amiably went along, though it's unclear if he knew the extent of his wife's romantic involvement, even wrangling an invitation to join the exclusive Freemasons via his connection with the prince.
By May 1934, Wallis was Prince Edward's only girlfriend.
Wallis had met Edward's younger brother Prince George (not to be confused with his other brother Prince Albert, who would become King George VI) on weekend outings to his home, but the prince wanted her to finally meet his parents at a party celebrating George's marriage to Princess Marina of Greece that November.
King George V crossed Wallis and Ernest Simpson's names (they were still married, after all) off the guest list, but Edward somehow managed to get them invited anyway. She exchanged "meaningless pleasantries" with the king and queen, Wallis later said, but George V demanded that the Simpsons not be invited to any upcoming Silver Jubilee ceremonies marking his 25th year on the throne in the coming year.
Prince Edward was undeterred. After Christmas he took Wallis skiing in Austria and bought her a reported 60,000 pounds-worth of jewels for New Year's. According to That Woman, Edward was starting to go overboard, with Wallis expressing concern that his undivided attention was irreparably damaging, not only her marriage, but what was left of her social standing as well.
The prince's treasurer told the king in July 1935 that Edward was providing a 6,000-pound-a-year income for his girlfriend. By all accounts, she had Prince Edward wrapped around her little finger, and the royal didn't give a damn that half of polite society found her to be a preposterous match for him. Moreover, he continued to insist to his father that Mrs. Simpson wasn't his mistress, which made it easier for him to get her invited to big events, such as that year's Court Ball.
Meanwhile, after his third son, Prince Henry, got married, King George V wrote in his diary on Nov. 6, 1935, that he hoped Edward (whom he familiarly called David) would never marry and therefore not have any heirs, which would mean the line of succession would shift to Edward's younger brother Albert, and his daughter Lilibet (Princess Elizabeth) would succeed him on the throne.
George V would halfway get his wish. The monarch died on Jan. 20, 1936, at the age of 70, and his ne'er-do-well son David became King Edward VIII. He was not married, but he wanted to marry Wallis Simpson.
No one but the entire government and the Church of England—which forbade divorce (let alone two divorces) and remarrying if one's former spouse was still alive—stood in the way.
With Hitler in power in Germany and Britain staring down the barrel of the prospect of yet another world war, it couldn't have been a worse time for a king's devotion to the crown to be in question.
And we just mean because of his love life, but there were deeper concerns afoot. It would become clear that Edward VIII didn't initially look at Hitler as the mortal threat to the world that he was.
As seen in the just-premiered second season of The Crown, upon her uncle's return to England from France, where he and Wallis had been living in relative exile, Queen Elizabeth II would find documents indicating that the Duke of Windsor, if not exactly collaborated with the Nazis, then was on the verge of being re-installed on the throne by the Germans in 1940. When telegrams entertaining that plot (and suggesting that Wallis was amenable to the idea) were intercepted by the British in real time in the 1940s, Winston Churchill suspected they were fabricated by the Germans as propaganda, to create more turmoil for the enemy. U.S. intelligence concurred.
But back in 1936, Edward was the king, and a restless one. On Nov. 16 he invited Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin to Buckingham Palace and informed him that he wanted to marry Simpson. Baldwin said that the British people would never accept "that woman" as their queen. Plus, as the head of the Church of England, Edward was expected to uphold its tenets. (Although, ironically, King Henry VIII started the Church of England in the 1500s because the Catholic church wouldn't allow him to divorce his first wife.)
At some point, Baldwin is said to have advised the king just to keep Simpson as his mistress, but not marry her. It was the public face of things that mattered.
But with his desire to be free to marry Wallis Simpson intact, King Edward VIII signed his own abdication papers on Dec. 10, 1936.
"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," he said in his official announcement.
The next day he was back to being a prince and his next-youngest brother Albert became King George VI. On Dec. 12, George VI announced he would make his older brother the Duke of Windsor. There was some dispute over whether the now ex-king should also be a Royal Highness, as the new king intended. His HRH would be allowed, but Simpson would be denied the Royal Highness assignation.
There were still some hoops to jump through. After securing her divorce from Ernest Simpson (who would go on to marry Wallis' old friend Mary Kirk), she changed her name back to Wallis Warfield.
On June 3, 1937, she became the Duchess of Windsor when she married the Duke of Windsor at the Château de Candé in France. The date would have been George V's 72nd birthday. The bride wore a blue dress by American designer Mainbocher, the shade soon to be known as "Wallis blue." None of the groom's family attended.
The newlyweds settled in Paris, but when war broke out in 1939 they decamped to Spain, and then the Bahamas, where the Duke of Windsor became governor in 1940. When World War II ended with the Allied victory, they returned to France and retired from public life. They would return to England occasionally.
On The Crown, the duke, as played by Alex Jennings, tells the duchess, played by Lia Williams, "I never thought I'd find myself saying it, but a life of pleasure really has its limits."
They remained married until Edward's death in 1972. The Duchess of Windsor lived till she was 89, and after she died in 1986 she was laid to rest next to her husband in the Royal Burial Ground near Windsor Castle. Unlike her wedding, her funeral at St. George's Chapel was attended by a number of members of the royal family, including Prince Charles (the Prince of Wales, as Edward had once been), Princess Diana, Prince Philip and the queen.