With the joyful announcement that Prince Harry is engaged to his American girlfriend, Meghan Markle, the world saw a refreshingly modern side to the British royal family. After all, Markle is not only American and an actress. She’s also bi-racial and divorced—not exactly the aristocratic, virginal “English rose” once considered the only possible choice for the prospective wife of a Windsor prince.
But as the royal family appears by all accounts to have embraced Harry’s future bride, along with most of the British public, it’s hard not to think back on the last time an American divorcée tried to crash the royal party, with far different results.
Wallis Simpson had been married twice when she met Prince Edward, the Duke of Windsor, in 1931. Their affair, which began while she was still married to her second husband, rocked Britain to its core, and ended up costing Edward his chance to be king.
After her first marriage, to a U.S. Navy pilot named Earl Winfield Spencer Jr., ended in divorce, the Pennsylvania-born Wallis had taken up with shipping merchant Ernest Aldrich Simpson, who divorced his first wife and married Wallis in 1928. The Simpsons lived in high style in London, where Wallis became acquainted with Lady Furness, then mistress to the Duke of Windsor.
Wallis and Edward began their own romantic relationship in 1934. Though she was still married to Ernest Simpson, they traveled to Europe together and Edward showered her with expensive gifts. Then King George V died in January 1936, and Edward became King Edward VIII. When it became clear that he planned to marry Wallis after her divorce from Ernest Simpson went through, scandal erupted.
The Church of England decreed that king could not marry a divorced woman with two living ex-husbands; the king’s ministers also disapproved of the relationship, while the British public did not relish having an American for a queen.
Particularly that American. “They thought she was a gold-digging adventuress who was after his money,” says Anne Sebba, author of That Woman, a 2011 biography of Simpson. “They thought, ‘How on Earth has this woman stolen this handsome man?’ They didn’t understand what a troubled man Edward was, [and] that actually he was the one doing the hunting.”
Simpson’s divorcée status was also a huge issue for the royal family, in a way Markle doesn’t seem to have to worry about today. “The fact that [Wallis] had these two living husbands—they were terrified that they’d use their power, their knowledge of having been married to Wallis, to blackmail the king,” says Sebba. “Nobody thinks that’s going to happen now.”
Finally, there was the less-than-respectable way in which Edward and Wallis’ relationship began. “People in the know were aware that Edward was giving her these enormous gifts of jewelry and furs, and that she was having an affair while she was married to Ernest,” says Sebba.
In order to get a divorce in England at the time, you had to swear you weren’t committing adultery. “If Wallis promised she wasn’t committing adultery, she was lying,” Sebba says. “I think in a way the British would have turned a blind eye to adultery. They knew about that. But it was the lying.”
Amid the scandal, Edward refused to give up his relationship with Simpson. Instead, he abdicated the throne on December 11, 1936, announcing via BBC broadcast that he could not perform his duties as king “without the help and support of the woman I love.”
Six months after the abdication, after Wallis’ divorce from Ernest Simpson, the couple married in France, becoming the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Wallis did not receive a HRH, or Her Royal Highness, beside her name, however, and tensions continued with the royal family, including a battle over whether Simpson could attend the coronation of her husband’s niece, Queen Elizabeth II, in 1953. Still, the couple stayed together until Edward’s death in 1972; Wallis died five years later, at the age of 77.
According to Sebba, the largely positive reaction to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s engagement shows how much the royal family—along with the British public—has changed since the abdication crisis. “Although Edward VIII was an uncrowned king,” Sebba says, “one positive result of his short reign was that he made it acceptable to believe that individual happiness, or personal fulfillment, was an acceptable goal in life.”
Of course, it certainly helps that unlike his great-great-uncle, Prince Harry is fifth in line to the throne (soon to be sixth, after the birth of Prince William’s third child in 2018). As Sebba puts it, “He’s not going to inherit the throne. She’s not going to be Queen Meghan.” (Prince Charles’ second wife, Camilla, Dutchess of Cornwall, has received a far frostier reception than Markle, with a majority of Britons opposed to calling the divorcée “Queen” when Charles, who is second in line to the throne, becomes King of England.)
Markle is also potentially better suited to royal life than Wallis was, Sebba notes. “I don’t think that [Wallis] was very interested in visiting schools and opening factories and doing all that welfare work.” She cites Markle’s acting and humanitarian experience, as well as her interest in global issues and feminism, as attributes that will make her a positive addition to the royal family.
So what, ultimately, is the biggest difference between 1936 and today? “The royal family doesn’t pretend any longer that in order to be part of the royal family you have to be born royal,” says Sebba. “They now accept that it doesn’t matter where you came from or who you are—and they’re finally allowed to be happy.”