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Wallis Simpson: the cautionary tale of the ‘American outsider’ we all missed

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Jessica Rapana
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Once upon a time, there was an American divorcee who supposedly broke up the royal family. Her name was Wallis Simpson.

It was one of the most scandalous love stories in royal history.

Wallis Simpson and King Edward VIII, she a twice-divorcee and he a king and Duke of Windsor. They fell in love in the best way: absolutely, unabashedly, head over heels infatuation. 

But their love didn’t just rock their own worlds – it rocked everyone else’s. Theirs was a courtship that literally changed the course of history.

Simpson, married to her then-husband Ernest Simpson, moved to London in the late 1920s, according to The History Press. She would eventually cross paths with Edward, then a prince, in 1931 through a mutual friend, Thelma Furness, who was involved with him at the time. The two couples went away for a fox-hunting weekend together and well, as they say, the rest is history.

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Five years later, Edward VIII, then King, shocked the world when he announced that he was abdicating the throne after just 11 months to “marry the woman I love”.

While nearly a century ago now, the headlines, painting Simpson as a femme fatale using her wiles to tear the royal family apart, are eerily reminiscent to those we’ve seen this week since the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s announcement.

The Queen Mother, whose husband was unexpectedly thrust onto the throne, described her as “the lowest of the low” and even blamed her for his early death. There were scathing op-eds in the papers – again, much like today – accusing Simpson of being a “harlot”, causing “grievous harm” and painting her as an outsider. Simpson was born in New York to British parents. 

Wallis Simpson

According to Anna Pasternak’s book The Real Wallis Simpson, Simpson sought to flee the country at the news that Parliament would not back their union – but Edward would not have it, declaring he would marry her “on the throne or off.”

Pasternak writes that Simpson burst into tears upon learning of her lover’s abdication, as she “was all too aware of the sacrifice this would entail.”

Edward made sacrifices, sure, but he was not the only one. For Simpson, “being blamed in perpetuity for stealing a beloved popular king from his throne and almost destroying the British monarchy would prove to be a lifelong annihilating burden that Wallis was forced to bear.”

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Six months after Edward’s abdication, the couple were married in France, and more or less spent the rest of their lives gallivanting around Europe.

The similarities here to Meghan and Harry are hard to miss: the so-called American outsider luring her husband away and single-handedly fracturing the monarchy. And yet, to buy into this rhetoric is to ignore, in both instances, Edward and Harry’s decision to put their wife first when put in a position where they were forced to choose.

Are we really that surprised? The signs were there last October when the royal couple gave an interview to ITV’s Tom Bradby. The writing was on the wall: things could not go on as they were. Harry might not have been pushed by protocol but by a relentless public and vitriolic tabloid culture.

That’s the thing about history, it tends to repeat itself when lessons aren’t learned the first time.

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Jessica Rapana

Jessica Rapana is a journalist based in London, and enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content. She is especially fond of news, health, entertainment and travel content, and drinks coffee like a Gilmore Girl.

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