They had been glittering hosts to the most fashionable of the age. But during 1936, as public opprobrium grew, Edward V111 and Wallis Simpson became outcasts
Paul Vallely is visiting professor in Public Ethics at the University of Chester and a senior research fellow at the Brooks World Poverty Institute at the University of Manchester. He writes on ethical, political and cultural issues. He has a fortnightly column in the Independent on Sunday and also writes for the New York Times and the Church Times. His latest book is Pope Francis – Untying the Knots. He was co-author of the report of the Commission for Africa and has chaired several development charities.
Sunday 15 February 1998
Until then they had had a charmed life. Prince Edward had shaken free of the royal rectitude that had been his inheritance and set up his own circle of friends at his country home at Fort Belvedere near Windsor. There he lived a different kind of life. It was the Fast Set, liberated from Victorian propriety by jazz and nightclubbing, parties and dancing, and the desperate determination to enjoy the life that so many friends had lost in the Great War. Into this circle had come Mr Ernest Simpson, an American businessman, and his wife, Wallis, whom the Prince declared was a woman of the most subtly discriminating and exquisite taste - in fashion, food and furniture - that he had ever encountered. Over the four years before he succeeded to the throne she had moved from acquaintance to friend to royal favourite. Edward doted upon her; in return she was utterly absorbed by him. They became inseparable.
So long as he was Prince of Wales all that could survive. In house parties, sequestered away at The Fort, they were chaperoned by friends who knew when to disappear. The photograph (right), taken from Edward's private souvenir album, was taken on their return from a holiday at Kitzbuhel in Austria. The snap, she wrote to a friend, is of "the Prince in his Tyrolean number - and I look like a Russian immigrant but everyone wears those things round here".
But with the death of George V everything changed. The day after the funeral the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Cosmo Lang, called at the Palace. His speech was elliptical but when he left the air was heavy with portent and the new King was left in no doubt of the prelate's disapproval of his relationship with Mrs Simpson, who had already been married not once but twice.
Edward turned to his public duties. He set in motion drastic economies in the royal estates, while causing misgivings in official quarters by his casual attitude to state papers. The public, however, neither knew nor cared about such matters. His openness to the cares of the people, combined with the easy manner he had cultivated among British troops in France during the war, made him a popular King. He toured distressed areas in Wales and was cheered in the Mall by the Jarrow hunger marchers at the end of their trek to the capital.
At first his relationship with Mrs Simpson continued discreetly. He called at her flat in Bryanston Court every evening, and at weekends she joined him at The Fort with closer members of his private circle. But then, one evening in March, Ernest Simpson requested an audience with the King. After an uneasy round of preliminaries he declared that Wallis would have to choose between them. At the conclusion of the evening Ernest had agreed to divorce Wallis on condition that the King married her and remained faithful to her. By July the Simpsons had separated and by August divorce proceedings were underway. Before long Mrs Simpson's relationship with the King had become a topic of dinner conversation for every newspaper reader. Only the British press remained silent on the subject out of a sense of loyalty.
At the end of September Wallis and her friends Kitty and Herman Rogers were among the guests invited to join the King at Balmoral. The photograph of Kitty with Wallis and Edward overleaf dates from then. It was the last happy interlude the couple were to know for some time.
The next month the prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, raised the question of Mrs Simpson. The integrity of the monarchy was under threat from this private friendship with a divorcee, he said. He asked the King to persuade her to end her divorce proceedings. Edward refused. At the end of the month a decree nisi was duly granted.
The mood at the Fort became more subdued. Fewer guests were invited and the couple withdrew into themselves. The photographs from the period show isolated solitary figures; their only company was each other, and each was the other's photographer. November was fraught with tension. The King's personal secretary, Major Alexander Hardinge, dropped a bombshell of a personal letter advising the King to send Mrs Simpson abroad. The King met newspaper proprietors and sympathetic members of the Cabinet. The possibility of a morganatic marriage - which would leave Mrs Simpson, and any children of the marriage, with no inheritance rights - was explored. The Cabinet met in a mood of crisis and issued the King with an ultimatum: he must renounce Mrs Simpson, marry her against their advice (in which case the government would resign, and the opposition would refuse to serve), or abdicate.
Wallis and her aunt fled London and hid in the Fort. On 2 December the King joined them for dinner and afterwards told Wallis that he had been criticised by the Bishop of Bradford, who had remarked on the monarch's need for divine guidance. The story would break in the press the next day. He had decided to renounce the throne.
The next day Wallis fled the country and went into hiding at Lou Viei, the villa in Cannes which belonged to Kitty and Herman Rogers. Seven days later King Edward VIII signed an instrument of abdication and that evening from Windsor Castle broadcast to the nation his now famous speech. In Cannes, the King's words came calmly and movingly out of the loudspeaker on the Rogers' radio. Wallis Simpson lay on the sofa, her head in her hands, trying to hide her tears. As the ex-King finished her friends moved quietly out of the room. Mrs Simpson lay on the sofa for a long time until she finally regained enough composure to stand up and walk through the house to her room.
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