They have been featured in The Crown where “Uncle David” and his dereliction of duty lead the record breaking reign of Queen Elizabeth II—but who are W. and E.?
If you are anything like me, you have spent the last few weeks binge-watching the Crown. (I admit: I am on my third watch.) And while I might have reservations about monarchy as a system, the Royal Family is my guilty pleasure. I’m all about that Markle Sparkle while still being firmly pro-Kate Middleton.
But despite my Anglophilia, I have never understood the trauma that was the abdication. It is a seething sore of a plot thread that weaves through the themes of the show. The Duke of Windsor, David, is portrayed as a simpering playboy, exhausting and ridiculous, posing for photos and preening on and on about entertaining. Wallis is clever and witty and gives off the air of a gold digger trapped playing a part.
If we are to believe The Crown on Netflix, the issue of Wallis’ suitability is the be-all and end-all of David’s dereliction. The reality is a good deal more complicated, but to simplify it: David was an unsuitable King and he was swept out of his office. His love for Wallis was an acceptable scapegoat and “that woman” has been paying for it ever since.
Seriously, this story is delicious. There is a reason people are still talking about it almost a century later.
The Crown would like us to believe that Wallis and Edward (David’s regnal name was Edward VIII) were Nazi sympathizers who lived their days partying in exile and whoring themselves out for products to fund their lavish lifestyle. The truth is murky and difficult to pin down, but this story has all the best bits of a proper Palace Intrigue: rogue kings, coup attempts, rival courts, love triangles, Shanghainese brothels, and the King of England painting Wallis’s toe nails. Welcome to the story of the only king to have ever stepped down by his own choice.
The Boy Who Never Grew Up
Wallis Simpson called Prince David “Peter Pan,” the boy who never grew up. It was her secret name for him, revealed only in her letters.
Prince David was a rakish dandy by all accounts, a hedonist and a playboy. He was a man of the times in a very odd period for England. It was the world between the wars, where the strict discipline of the old court was giving way to the hedonism that arose in response to WWI. The 1930s were the calm before the storm, where old ways were giving way and the Court and the parliament were populated by old men. David called them “the Grey Men”; they were the Old Guard and they saw this new Crown Prince as a radical nuisance.
When the King died–the old conservative man who always took advice and cleaved to the old way, the proper way of doing things–he said that Prince David would “ruin himself inside a year.” He favored hie had zers younger son, Bertie, the King from The King’s Speech, and the beginning of The Crown. Bertie was a traditionalist who held strong family values, and had a wife with a spine so straight she terrified Hitler.
Unlike his malleable little brother, David liked to do things his own way. Worse still, he was very popular with the people. He was excellent at the “grip and grin” kind of politics, charismatic in person and empathetic to the problems of the common man. His unguarded tongue and cheery wit won what we now call “the hearts and minds.” And it was chafing all the people in power. Europe was on the brink of yet another war, and Prince David was making kissy faces at the Third Reich. This volatile King was unacceptable.
So let’s set the scene: An old establishment, a radical King, and a much more suitable man (as they saw it) as Crown Prince. David was bored with the pomp of public life, and preferred to spend his time with his close circle of friends–friends who provided him with distractions (married ones). And this is how he came to meet and fall in love with Wallis Simpson, a divorced American.
The way people talk about Wallis is insane: she learned sex in a pleasure boat in Shanghai, that she lived in a thruple. Anecdotes about how she treated the King were wild: she would boss him around. She had zero awe for him and he loved it. She was even seen preening as Prince David, the heir to the throne of the United Kingdom, painted her nails. He was crazy about her, and he was not going to let her go no matter what.
The disgruntled court could do little with a popular King. But David’s strict adherence to doing whatever he pleased would be his downfall. As he stood his ground, insisting that he wanted to marry Wallis, he gave the conservative establishment the excuse they needed. The Church of England sided against the King’s marriage, and David threatened to step down if his demands were not met. To his utter surprise, his ultimatum was accepted.
Listen to his statement, he sounds stunned.
His people were stunned. They felt abandoned. They turned against him, and when his younger brother was crowned, the world moved on without him.
David spent the rest of his life sputtering and searching for meaning. He was shuttled off to remote postings and kept far away from the public eye. His foibles on the international stage are covered on The Crown. As the popular show tells it, The Duke of Windsor’s exile pushed him into the arms of Hitler and the Third Reich. He was a supporter of peace—a peace of appeasement. And any British king couldn’t be seen to hold those views. And so that side of David, the Nazi sympathizer, had to be blamed on some sort of subterfuge. Someone had to have poisoned him. Thankfully, they had the perfect scapegoat: a wise-cracking woman of 40 with a killer sense of style and a resting bitch face.
La Femme Fatale
Bessie Wallis Warfield was born to a down-on-her luck member of a very wealthy family. Her mother and father married over objections from both of their parents. Despite meagre means, her father’s relations ensured Wallis went to the best schools and was a member of high society. But Wallis, from very early in her life, saw that her money and her comfort were attached with invisible strings to her Uncle Sol. And she witnessed her life change drastically when her mother defied that Uncle Sol. After what must have been an unbearable set of advances and passive-aggressive abuse on Wallis’ mother, they moved to a cheap hotel.
From her early childhood, Wallis lived in a high society world with none of the high-society means. While it was true she was already wearing the latest fashions early on, it was her mother that would sew them. She couldn’t afford a coming out ball; it had to be sponsored. Trapped between a rock and a hard place, Wallis could see the writing on the wall. In a world where her only job was to marry well she was determined to make a go of it.
Her first husband, Win Spencer, was an alcoholic. He was a flight instructor with an inferiority complex. She moved with him around the world, from California to a short stint in the Far East. Their life was glamorous and adventurous from the outside, but on the inside, it was a series of complications. Win was apparently physically abusive and controlling. From her letters, it’s clear that Wallis was terrified. She spent time travelling without him, avoiding him as best she could. Their rotten marriage would later be outlined in a China Dossier and described condescendingly as “a past” by parliamentarians, some of whom were having their own affairs at the time.
It turns out Wallis didn’t have very good taste in men. Perhaps her heart wasn’t in the right place, but her background is put in sharp relief when her abuse is taken into account. Wallis took that punishment, dealt with it, and moved forward. She divorced Win and tried again.
But Wallis was nothing less than a champion networker. Shortly after her divorce, she met and married a British subject, Ernest Simpson. Well-matched and ready to take on the world, the Spencers moved to London, where they were accepted into polite society. Wallis was dazzling the London set until the fateful day she “friend of a friend”-ed her way into a house party attended by the Prince of Wales. After that, she would be branded a gold-digging harpy intent on becoming Queen to ruin all of Britain’s precious tradition.
When David was crowned King, Wallis begged him to end their affair–at least their public one. She had no intention of being Queen. She wrote letter after letter asking to be released, insisting that she could remain a mistress, and that they could carry on like they did before. Even Ernest seemed remarkably agreeable, as he too was seeing women outside his marriage. But the King insisted.
They were married and Wallis was stuck being the woman for whom a man gave up an empire. And while that might seem utterly romantic, it also sounds like a nightmare. Here she was with a man she probably didn’t love, roped into a situation she could not control, and the world was watching, waiting, all of them asking the same thing:
Just who did she think she was?
From her letters, Wallis makes it clear that she thought she was a distraction. She called herself “Wallis in Wonderland.” She insisted that she was no great beauty and that he would soon tire of her. But then Crown Prince David became King Edward VIII.
And on the other side of the coin, Crown Prince David loved women before Wallis. He especially loved married women–his affairs include Lady Thelma Furness and Freda Dudley Ward. Crown Prince David was not the innocent victim of a scheming woman. He was a man who fell in love, and was not willing to hide it. And there lay the rub: Prince David intended to marry Wallis and put a divorcee on the throne. And not just any divorcee, an American divorcee.
She was deemed inappropriate. And one thing we have all learned from the Crown is that having the “Top Job” doesn’t translate to “getting what you want.”
The Spectacle to Distract from the Crisis
Wallis didn’t look good. She was a divorcee, she had a past. (You should be able to hear those italics.) She was not at all what the world expected from a Princess or a Queen. But Edward was making enemies left and right. He was overstepping his bounds as King and expressing opinions. His actions were affecting politics and international relations, and it’s possible he was played. He pissed off the church, and parliament by meddling in politics and started to threaten the ultimatum: Wallis or he walks.
The kingmakers, the Lords, and the Court called his bluff. Blindsided, there was nothing Edward, or Wallis, could do. King Edward, the king who never grew up, insisted on his way like a petulant child, and the church and the state got rid of him. And Wallis (and the scandal that attached itself to her) was their perfect excuse.
There is a phrase that commentators use when they describe Royals who dazzle people like Princess Margaret, or Prince David, or Wallis Simpson, “The Diana of her/his Day.” They mean the good things, the style and the beauty, but Wallis was like Diana in other ways. She was hounded by the press. Her face was everywhere. Her clothing was copied, her story celebrated by everyone except the English people who viewed her as the love their King was supposed to sacrifice because of her ex-husbands. He was expected to cleave to his duty just like any soldier on the battlefield and he failed. Naturally, this failure was blamed on “That Woman” and her seductive wiles.
After the abdication, Wallis and Edward bounced around the world. They entertained, they wined and dined. Wallis was named one of the Best Dressed Women in the World. She made the most of her circumstances. When The Windsors were stationed in the Bahamas, she worked for the war effort: she made care packages for soldiers, and even tried to use her platform to make Bahamainian jewelry trendy.
Meanwhile, Edward complained. He wrote long whiney letters. He was listless and terrible to talk to. He was described as horrible company. He was always looking for Wallis, depending on her to be his everything. And she was. She made a glittering life for them, and rarely showed the strain of it, though she did snap once and insist that her friend “Try living a great romance and see how you like it!”
They were members of “Cafe Society,” which was the hoitiest of the toity. They were witty people who rubbed shoulders with artists and aristocrats. They held parties and balls, and kept scrapbooks of everyone they met. It was basically like the Tatler, but for people too cool to be in the Tatler (or too cool to care anyway). But despite this, there is a clear unhappiness in the latter years of the Royal W.E., a strain that comes through the photographs and anecdotes no matter how sunnily they are painted.
After the Abdication, Wallis and Edward were welcomed back sparingly. He was forced to beg for support and access, and he was denied. The man-who-had-been-king was now nobody. Quietly, there had been an exchange of power. The British parliament and Church flexed their power and put the Royals in their place, they removed a King, and the world turned on Wallis Simpson.
Backlash is a funny thing, it’s a term that we have only recently been batting around. In every story about the abdication, it’s the relationship between Wallis and Edward we talk about and not Edward’s ties to the Nazis. We don’t examine where the power lies. Instead, we point to a shiny distraction. We still do that today: how many politicians distract us with scandal so we don’t notice that the wheels of power are turning without us noticing? Who cares about Brexit when that Markle is just so sparkly?
On the one hand, I’m terrified about that implication. On the other, I wish The Crown had a prequel, because I would watch the shit out of their version of this story!
- Episodes of The Crown: The Dangling Man, Vergangenheit, Windsor
- A Very British Coup, produced by Denys Blakeway for the BBC
- I’m Not As Nice As People Think I Am: A History Of The Queen Mum (2001), produced by Channel 5, researched by Prof. Andrew Davies, University of Liverpool
- The History Chicks: Wallis Simpson
- The Recappery: Vergangenheit
- Wallis Simpson: The Secret Letters
- That Woman by Anne Sebba
- Edward VIII: Nazi sympathiser, playboy prince or peace-loving reformer?
Sabrina Schnabel is a comedian and a historian. She hosts a podcast about history called Whats AP and is a proud member of the Slytherin House.