Opinion: Two Very Different Duchesses

The Windsors

A Prince with strong opinions and a firm conviction to do things differently. An American divorcee with a naive understanding of the ruthlessness of the Firm. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? It was inevitable that when the Duke and Duchess of Sussex announced their intention to step down from royal duties last night, comparisons would be made with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Harry and Meghan’s story is now being told alongside that of David and Wallis. But can the two couples really be compared? How alike are their circumstances and motivations and will the Sussexes face the same future as the Windsors?

There are similarities; Both Meghan and Wallis share American nationality, both had private school educations and both had been married before they met their Prince. More relevant to today’s front page news however is that they both faced unfair prejudices and were vilified by the press for the role they apparently played in creating major rifts in the Royal Family. From the moment her engagement to Prince Harry was announced, Meghan faced a divided press. The Guardian championed Meghan as a reformer, a royal spouse free from the chains of British snobbery who had not been raised within the confining clutches of the class system. Conversely, The Daily Mail condemned her as a social climber, a ruthless adventuress, a bad fit for the institution that has always preferred the male, pale and stale.

Yet for the most part, the press has been kind to Meghan Markle in a way they were not to Wallis Simpson. In the latter’s case, the press was bitterly one sided and united in it’s condemnation. Wallis did not have the opportunity before her royal marriage to document her life publicly in the way that Meghan had. The fact that the press had access to so much more information about Meghan before her marriage meant that she had a much fairer crack of the whip in terms of presenting a positive image of herself before her wedding. And for the most part, the information they had came directly from Meghan herself. In Wallis’ case, the press simply invented what they could not source.

The lurid and wild fabrications attributed to Wallis’ character were based entirely on the prejudice of the ruling class of 1930s Britain. These wealthy men imbued with hypocritical Victorian morality saw nothing but an ambitious intriguer. For divorce, they read ‘sexually promiscuous’ and they used this to create a Wallis Simpson the public would immediately reject. The stories they concocted were often without any foundation in truth and ranged from the blatantly false to the downright bizarre. It was said that Wallis had served as a prostitute in the Sing Song houses of Shanghai where she had learned special sexual techniques to snare wealthy men. Other allegations included witchcraft, fascist politics, lesbian love affairs and even gender reassignment surgery.

Wallis herself found the press treatment she received a constant source of pain. In her 1956 memoir, the Heart Has It’s Reasons, she wrote;

“The enormity of the hatred I had aroused and the distorted image of me that seemed to be forming in minds everywhere went far beyond anything I had anticipated even in my most depressed moments. To be accused of things one has never done; to be judged and condemned on many sides by people ignorant of controlling circumstances, to have one’s supposed character day after day laid bare, dissected and flayed by mischievous and merciless hands; such are the most corrosive human experiences”

This is certainly a statement Meghan could relate to. Whilst her divorce was never an issue for the British public, her skin tone was a step too far for some. There are unfortunately still those within the press and public as a whole who refused to accept Meghan because she is mixed race. It is a shameful indictment of so-called modern Britain that her race became an issue for so many but it is far from the only reason that the press seem to have taken against the couple in recent months. It cannot be denied that the Sussexes have chosen to attempt to control the press in a way they see as justified because of the rogue element who have treated the Duchess cruelly. But in doing so, they have unwittingly cut themselves off from the British public, alienated friendly journalists and raised questions about the role of the Royal Family in relation to the free press.

The Duchess of Windsor, as she became after her marriage in 1937, never once sued a publication for the falsehoods they printed about her. She considered it a waste of time, knowing as she did that a free press came with an unfortunate by-product of un-named sources selling fantastical rumour as fact. Like Meghan, her husband became her defender. The Duke of Windsor was fanatical in his desire to protect his wife’s reputation and he too brought legal proceedings against publications for printing distortions and untruths, just as Prince Harry has done. What the Windsors did not do however, is seek to punish the press as a whole, neither did they put up barriers to those who may have been able to help present a more positive impression to the wider public.

As King, David often urged the British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin to allow the public to learn more about the real Wallis. If they could get to know her, he reasoned, they would see her as he did. The British government firmly rejected any such proposals. It was made clear to the King that if he wished to marry Wallis, he must lay down his Crown and go into exile. The Royal Family not only supported this approach but saw the judgement was upheld to the bitter end. Until the end of his life in 1972, the Duke of Windsor would always have to beg the permission of the monarch to pay private visits to the country of his birth. On just one occasion during in their 35 year marriage was Wallis acknowledged publicly as his wife by the Crown. This came by way of a brief appearance alongside the Queen and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother for the plaque unveiling in memory of Queen Mary in 1967.

The British establishment was firmly set against Wallis from the start. The Monarchy, the Cabinet, Parliament; all froze her out and refused her a chance to prove her worth. This could not be further from Meghan’s experience. Her divorced status simply did not register. Privately confirmed by the Archbishop of Canterbury to allow her a church wedding, invited to join the Royal Family for Christmas at Sandringham before her marriage, Meghan could not have had a better start to her royal career. Her diary was hers to determine, her patronages and projects receiving the full backing of the Palace press machine. Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Sussex was as much a part of the Firm as the Princess Royal or the Duchess of Cornwall. Her Grace the Duchess of Windsor, was not.

By leaving that life behind because of personal unhappiness, rather than constitutional necessity, Harry and Meghan may be taking similar steps to their Windsor forebears but unlike David and Wallis, they will not be exiles. They will not be forced from their homeland. They are said to be considering living in the United Kingdom for six months of the year and suggest they will carry out some public engagements within that time. Ironically, this is precisely what the Duke of Windsor proposed to his brother, King George VI during their talks on what form post-abdication life might take. The King refused. David was denied the chance to play a role and to serve the Crown he once held. That was his punishment.

He had compensations of course. A generous financial settlement was made, just as it appears to have been made for the Sussexes (according to their website). But in stepping down from royal duties, in voluntarily relinquishing their roles as “senior royals”, Harry and Meghan are taking a step which David in particular never wished to take. He was forced to accept abdication and exile. Harry and Meghan have reached this decision themselves, a free choice they have made without any outside pressure. Had King George VI (and subsequently, Queen Elizabeth II) been agreeable, the Windsors proposed to live at Fort Belvedere and to carry out a limited programme of public engagements. Their intention was to do their duty. The establishment refused to let them do so.

There is one more major difference however between the two Duchesses which must be taken into consideration. Both her first and second marriage were made of Meghan’s own free will. She was not forced into a relationship she did not wish to be in, neither was she trapped in one she could not withdraw herself from. She knew what her marriage to a British prince would mean. Had she decided not to accept Harry’s proposal, Meghan could have continued to live her life on her own terms, with her own career prospects, her own finances and her own ambitions. Wallis could not.

From Wallis’ earliest years, she learned that a woman’s role in turn of the century Baltimore was strictly limited. Her father had died when she was just a few months old and she and her mother, Alice Montagu, found themselves dependent on Wallis’ paternal Uncle Sol. When Alice rejected Sol’s advances, he cut Alice off without a penny and forced her to leave the comfort of the Warfield family mansion. Alice went to live in a boarding house, taking in washing and working as a waitress to afford the rent on one room. Wallis learned a valuable lesson from this; men provided security. Better to bend to their will and be comfortable than oppose them and struggle on alone.

This undoubtedly was the motivation for her first marriage to Earl Winfield Spencer Jr in 1916. It was her divorce from Win in 1927 that immediately made her unsuitable to marry the Prince of Wales but did the British government ever look at the “controlling circumstances”, as Wallis put it. For ten years, Wallis was subjected to physical abuse at the hands of a violent alcoholic. On one occasion, Win locked her in a bathroom and refused to let her out despite her screams. When he sobered up, she was finally released and determined to leave him. It was this escape from domestic violence that ultimately earned her the reputation of a “woman of loose morals” by the British government. Could anything be more shameful?

And then there is her relationship with her Prince. She undoubtedly loved him but was she ever truly prepared for what the romance brought her? Whilst Wallis was “in fairyland” in the early stages of her relationship with the Prince of Wales, whilst it cannot be denied that she enjoyed the importance and influence of her position as the King’s mistress, there was also a lot she could not possibly enjoy. Letters poured in from the Prince, some of them touching and sweet but others deeply troubling, even threatening, in tone. When she told him not to visit her, he came anyway and outstayed his welcome causing bitter rows between Wallis and Ernest. When she tried to escape for a few days to Paris with friends, the new King called her endlessly on the telephone and asked for hourly reports on her whereabouts. Threats of suicide were frequent. Wallis was trapped.

And so she remained trapped until the Duke’s death in 1972. She could never leave him. She had no option but to accept her fate and make the best of a bad situation. She did so with only minor complaint. “You have no idea how hard it is to live out a great romance”, she quipped to friends. It was sadly prophetic. When David died in 1972, Wallis went into quick decline as dementia took hold. As she lay dying, confused and alone, the Royal Family sent Lord Mountbatten to Paris to see her. He was not there to offer comfort. Rather, he was charged with making lists of items the Royal Family wanted for their own collection. She died in 1986, totally alone.  

It will never be that way for Meghan. There will be no special instructions dispatched by the British government to treat her as damaged goods. The post-royal life they envisage for themselves will still allow Meghan to remain a part of a family. Royal birthdays, wedding anniversaries, jubilees; there will still be balcony appearances and Christmas holidays at Sandringham. For as long as she retains royal rank, Meghan will remain a part of the Royal Family. For Wallis, this was never an option.

For the crime of daring to leave an abusive husband, for the sin of failing to repel the advances of a psychologically damaged Prince with a manic, obsessive compulsion to own her, Wallis was forbidden all decency. She was even robbed of her own name. In articles published today, she is still known only as “that woman”. The decision made by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex is historic. It is controversial. But it bears no relation whatsoever to the decision made by a King in 1936 to give up his throne for the woman he loved, neither does one Duchess’s part in that decision in any way resemble the other. It has taken 80 years for us to see another side to Wallis Warfield Windsor. Let’s not reverse our understanding by making lazy and inaccurate comparisons with modern cast members of the royal pantomime.

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