Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor

The woman who is best known as Wallis Simpson, and then the Duchess of Windsor, was born as Bessie Wallis Warfield on 19th June 1896 at Blue Ridge Summit, Pennsylvania. She was the only child of a businessman, Teackle Wallis Warfield, and his wife Alice Montague. However, her father had not made a success of his business and both her parents were the poor relations of their respective families. Her father died when Wallis was only five months old, so she had no memories of him.

Wallis’s early life was therefore one of poverty and deprivation, and Wallis had no prospects in life unless she could make a good marriage. Her first attempt was a disaster. She fell in love, at the age of 19, with Lieutenant Earl Winfield Spencer, a naval aviator, and married him on 8th November 1916. However, he drank too much and Wallis came to despise him. A two-year separation was followed by three unhappy years of troubled reunion and they eventually divorced in 1927.

Wallis had already been seeing Ernest Aldrich Simpson, who had a British father and American mother and who was managing the London office of the family’s shipping firm. They married on 2nd July 1928 and Wallis became introduced to London’s “colony” of American socialites. These included Thelma, Viscountess Furness, who, although married, was having an affair with Edward, Prince of Wales. It was at Lady Furness’s house in Leicestershire that Wallis Simpson met the Prince in January 1931. Three years later, Wallis had taken over from Thelma Furness as the woman in the Prince of Wales’s life.

In their personal relationships, both Wallis and the Prince had, up to this point in their lives, never taken them seriously enough to make a lifetime commitment. Both of them had been happy to move in and out of relationships as the fancy took them. In Wallis’s case, being married was no impediment to having full-blown affairs with other men. The Prince had been notorious for his short-lived “flings” that had appeared serious at the time but eventually blew over.

However, Prince Edward became completely infatuated with Wallis Simpson and was determined that nothing would get in the way of his marrying her. This driving motivation continued after he succeeded to the throne, as King Edward VIII, on 20th January 1936.
The scandal of the King being involved with a married woman, who could only become his wife after undergoing a second divorce, was one that could not be ignored. For one thing, the King was head of the Church of England, and the Church at the time (and indeed until quite recently) did not allow the re-marriage of divorced people while the former partner was still living. In Wallis’s case she would soon have two living ex-husbands.

Wallis Simpson was seen by many people in Britain as a fortune-hunter who had ensnared the Prince’s affections with only one end in view, namely becoming the Queen. Being American did not help either. Clearly, this was something that could not be tolerated.

However, Wallis herself demonstrated little desire for this outcome as such. She was happy to live with the Prince, and to divorce Ernest Simpson to make this possible, but that would appear to have been the limit of her ambition. When push came to shove, and she realised the consequences of her affair, she was happy to offer to withdraw from the proposed marriage if that was what it took for Edward to stay as King. However, when Edward was faced with the stark choice between giving Wallis up or abdicating in favour of his younger brother, he was in no doubt that he could not do the former and must do the latter.

Edward abdicated on 10th December 1936, having been King for less than a year. Wallis Simpson’s divorce only became absolute on 3rd May 1937, and the couple stayed apart until they married in France on 3rd June 1937. They were thereafter granted the titles of Duke and Duchess of Windsor and lived in exile in Austria and France until the outbreak of war in 1939.

There has been much speculation about the attitude of the Windsors to Hitler and the Nazis, especially concerning whether they were closet Nazis themselves. These thoughts were engendered by a visit that they made to Germany in 1937, during which they were pictured laughing and joking with Hitler and the Duke made the Nazi salute. There is certainly evidence that the Nazis saw Edward as being sympathetic to them, and it is possible that, had they succeeded in conquering Britain, they would have wanted to install him as a puppet monarch. On the other hand, Edward never endorsed Nazism and regarded Hitler with suspicion as well as a degree of admiration.

Wallis never expressed any strong political views one way or the other, and appears to have been content to support her husband, whichever way the wind blew. There had been suspicions, before the war, that Wallis had had an affair with Joachim von Ribbbentrop, the German ambassador to London, and had passed state secrets to the Nazis via this liaison, but these allegations have never been substantiated.

The Windsors were in France when the Germans invaded in 1939 and had to escape to Spain and then Portugal. Winston Churchill was concerned that they could be used by the Nazis for propaganda purposes and suggested that the Duke be given the post of Governor of the Bahamas for the duration of the War. They both hated this time stuck on an archipelago in the Atlantic, but Wallis did her duty ably enough and was able to relieve the monotony by undertaking shopping trips to the United States from time to time. However, reports of this extravagance did nothing to rescue her reputation when they were heard in war-deprived Britain.

After the war the Windsors returned to France and lived a privileged aristocratic life doing the rounds of the places where the rich and famous tend to congregate. Wallis established a reputation as one of the best-dressed women of her generation, and for entertaining lavishly. Although such a life might appear barren and unproductive to many people, it suited Wallis and her husband.

Wallis had never been happy with the antagonism that her marriage to Edward had excited within the British royal family and nation, but she had enough common sense to appreciate that she would never change their minds and her best course was to accept things as they were. Given her background, they could of course have been a lot worse. She wrote her memoirs in 1956, under the title “The Heart has its Reasons”, and there is no bitterness in her words and only a modicum of regret.

After Edward died in 1972 Wallis was invited to Buckingham Palace in a gesture of reconciliation, but it was really too late as she was now in her mid-seventies. She lived for another 14 years, gradually losing her faculties. For the last five years of her life she was a virtual recluse who rarely left her home in Paris. She died on 24th April 1986 at the age of 89 and was buried next to Edward in the royal burial ground at Frogmore, near Windsor.
Wallis Simpson is blamed by some as the “scarlet woman” who stole the heart of a future king and forced him to give up his throne. Others view the affair as a romantic story of love overcoming all, and therefore as something beautiful and wholesome. The truth is surely more complicated than either of these scenarios.

For one thing, Edward’s abdication forced his brother the Duke of York to take the throne in his place (as King George VI), a task for which he was unprepared and, to a degree, unsuited. Edward did not consider his brother’s feelings in this matter, and Wallis was therefore seen as the instrument through which Edward’s selfishness was expressed. Queen Elizabeth (the present Queen’s mother) certainly took this line and was implacable in her dislike of Wallis Simpson for this reason.

Wallis was clearly a highly-sexed woman who would not have fitted in well with the British royal family. Her long series of affairs was evidence of her unsuitability as a Queen, although there is a whiff of hypocrisy in this argument as royal men have long been notorious for their extra-marital dalliances.

There is also the question of Wallis’s own selfishness. She had no children with any of her husbands or partners, which suggests that parental responsibilities played no part in her thinking. However, there are all sorts of rumours on this score, including stories of a botched abortion, a stolen child and a rare abnormality that made her barren. The jury is still out on this issue.

On the other side of the case is the evidence that Wallis was willing to withdraw from a potential marriage to Edward to save his throne, which suggests either that she saw where her duty lay, or that the passion in the liaison was more on his side than hers.

The story of Wallis Simpson will doubtless give rise to many more debates in future as to her motives and whether her life was a fulfilled or unfulfilled one.

© John Welford