What a difference 81 years can make. “Suits” star Rachael Zane aka Meghan Markle and Prince Harry have announced their engagement, and the world is atwitter with well-wishes. This includes thoughtful and tender comments from the prospective groom’s family. The last time a British Royal married an older American divorcee was 1936, and it wasn’t — shall we say — so well received.
As a matter of fact, it was such an unholy mess that Edward VIII famously abdicated his throne to marry the object of his affections, Wallis Simpson. It was this act of renouncing the throne that eventually brought Queen Elizabeth to what’s long been thought of as an obligation she did not desire but was thrust into by the circumstances of love and duty that could not be satisfied at the same time by her uncle, the King.
Socialite Bessie Wallis Warfield Spencer Simpson captured the heart, and many believe destroyed the life of Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David, the eldest son of George V. Elevated to Prince of Wales at the age of 16, David became a gregarious playboy who, when he finally fell, did so for someone who was considered verboten at the time.
Wallis Simpson carried the stigma of a twice-divorced American – though it’s not entirely clear which was considered worse by the British – the American or the divorce part of the package. Known for such comments as, “You can never be too rich or too thin,” Mrs. Simpson was a riveting Femme Fatale in the 1930s that the young prince simply could not resist.
As the two grew closer and the Prince ascended to the throne, things became rather dicey, and a constitutional crisis was ushered in when Edward VIII proposed to Mrs. Simpson. Both the Church of England and the British political class opposed the union for a number of reasons. First was the unacceptability of Simpson as queen consort in light of her two previous marriages. The second was that the Church of England then disapproved of remarriage if the spouse was living. And in Mrs. Simpson’s case, both men were still very much alive.
Rather than fight the battle on two fronts, Edward VIII chose to step down in an unexpected move that brought his rather ill-equipped younger brother – Elizabeth’s father — to the throne. A month later Simpson and the former King were wed at the Château de Candé in France without a single member of his family in attendance. To say a chill began between the young couple and his family is putting it mildly. In a compassionate gesture, George VI named his brother and wife the Duke and Duchess of Winsor, although his wife did not carry the style of “Her Royal Highness.” This was a slight which the Duke did not forget and long considered it a family grudge against him.
Various accounts show it was a lonely, childless existence in exile for the Duke of Winsor who died of cancer in 1972. His widow did not fare well either and largely lived the life of a recluse and is believed to have suffered dementia in her waning years. Of course, the British throne is rife with many an unhappy ending. The Duke and Duchess are but two woeful cases of love, power, and tradition that did not synthesize.
Times, cultures, social mores and attitudes have changed since the life and times of the Duke and Duchess of Winsor, and Prince Harry seems to be a beneficiary. One can only wish Harry and his Hollywood bride, Ms. Markle, well and hope their union is filled with love, laughter, and a supportive family on both sides of the pond.