The news that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are to “step back” from royal duties has predictably been met with a maelstrom of media comments, backlash, and support.
With #Megxit trending on Twitter, talk has inevitably turned from Prince Harry’s wife, Meghan Markle, to the other American to marry into royalty – Wallis Simpson.
There are obvious similarities: American, divorcées, and both having the press howling that they are to blame for the breakup of the royal family.
But that’s where the similarities end.
Simpson, although much gossiped about, remains somewhat of an enigma more than 80 years since she appeared on the Royal scene. Her legacy requires much shifting through what is fact and what is fiction.
Intent on marrying the twice-divorced Simpson, King Edward VIII faced a government revolt by doing so. On December 10, 1936 the king, after ascending the throne a mere 12 months prior, abdicated. In a broadcast to the nation a day later, he famously declared, “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.” Six months later the pair were wed with little fanfare.
Hated by the British press and deemed an American “harlot”, concerns over Simpson’s apparent Nazi sympathies – beginning with her rumored affair with Nazi Germany’s Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop (the affair was never proved, but he did, in fact, send her many flowers) – were deepened after the pair’s ill-advised trip to Germany in October of 1937.
At best the trip showcased their naivety, at worst it displayed misplaced sympathies as they hobnobbed with Adolf Hitler and other Nazi elite.
When war broke out, the pair were sent to the Bahamas with the duke acting as governor-general. Many suspect this was a calculated move to remove the duke from the European, specifically Germany’s, sphere of influence.
After arriving in Nassua, the duke was famously rebuked after requesting a large sum of money to refurbish his residence. The New York Times reported that the duke and duchess were reminded that the money requested was enough to buy a fighter aircraft (a Spitfire MK I cost roughly £9,500, or, in today’s currency, £535,312) at a time when the RAF was still perilously engaged in the Battle of Britain.
British wartime documents, released by the Public Record Office in 1996, reveal the extent to which the government was concerned about the duke and duchess’ Nazi sympathies.
One British intelligence note stated, “Germans expect assistance from the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the latter desiring at any price to become queen.”
The Americans too, were concerned after the pair wished to travel aboard a yacht belonging to Swedish magnate, Axel Wenner-Gren, who happened to be close friends with Hermann Goering, a top Nazi party leader. The FBI, at the behest of J. Edgar Hoover, opened a dossier on the duchess and began monitoring her movements while she resided in the Bahamas.
At war’s end the discovery of what is now known as the Marburg files revealed 60 pages of previously buried correspondence between the duke and the Nazi high-command in 1940. Hitler himself saw an opportunity to reinstate the duke as a puppet king just as Germany was poised to invade Britain.
However, in an interview with the BBC, royal historian Carolyn Harris describes the duke’s motives towards Germany as “peaceful” and more out a desire to “carve out a new role for himself and ensure that his wife was treated as a full member of the Royal Family…”
That the couple was friendly with the Nazi regime, however, is undeniable. According to royal biographer Andrew Morton, the duke “was certainly sympathetic… even after the war he thought Hitler was a good fellow and that he’d done a good job in Germany, and he was also anti-Semitic, before, during and after the war.” To this day, access to the Marburg files remain closely guarded and fragmentary.
After the war the Duke and Duchess of Windsor would continue their exile in France, where they would die in 1972 and 1986 respectively.