Before Meghan Markle, There Was Wallis Simpson

By Meredith Bragg

The engagement of Prince Harry to American actress Meghan Markle has been hailed as historic, groundbreaking, and a boldly progressive move by the ultra-traditional British royal family. And while it’s easy to agree that having an heir to the British throne marry an American, biracial, divorced actress is certainly a huge deal for the House of Windsor, you might be surprised to know Markle isn’t the first fiancée to rock Buckingham Palace.

British history buffs and those who have binge-watched The Crown recently, are probably well aware of the fact that decades before Harry fell in love with Meghan, King Edward VIII was madly in love with Wallis Simpson, a twice-married, American socialite. But unlike Harry and Meghan, whose engagement is appropriately being heralded by the palace as a happy occasion, Wallis and King Edward’s love affair was highly controversial and led to one of the most difficult moments in the history of the English royal family. (As monarch, King Edward VIII was head of the Church of England, which back then didn’t allow for divorced people to remarry in church if their spouse was still alive. This ultimately led to the king’s abdication in 1936, and the ascension of Edward’s younger brother and Queen Elizabeth II’s father, George VI.) Piqued your interest yet? For those who want to know more about Wallis Simpson, below we share five facts about the first American woman to steal the heart of a British prince.


1. Wallis Simpson was born in a small American town as Bessie Wallis Warfield.
Unlike past royal brides, who were either blue-blooded aristocrats or royalty themselves, Wallis was born in Blue Ridge Summit, Pennsylvania, to Tackle Wallis Warfield, a Baltimore businessman, and, Alice Montague, the daughter of a stockbroker. After her father died of tuberculosis when she was only a few months old, Wallis and her mother moved in with and depended on her father’s brother, Solomon Davies Warfield, a former president of the Seaboard Air Line Railway. Wallis’s uncle later sent her to one of the most expensive schools in Maryland, where she finished at the top of her class and was known for always being “immaculately dressed.”

2. She was married twice before becoming engaged to Prince Edward.
Wallis first married Earl Winfield Spencer, Jr. in 1916, when she was only 20 years old. A a U.S. Navy aviator, Spencer was frequently stationed away from Wallis and his heavy drinking took a toll on their marriage. They were separated for quite some time before they officially divorced in 1927, when Wallis had already started seeing Ernest Adrich Simpson, a shipping businessman. Ernest and Wallis married only a year later and settled into a large house in Mayfair, London; the city where she would meet her next husband, the Princes of Wales.

3. She met Prince Edward through his mistress.
During her marriage to Ernest Simpson, Wallis became friends with Thelma, Lady Furness, who was the then-girlfriend of Edward, the Prince of Wales and future heir to the Crown. On January 10, 1931, Wallis and Edward met at a party at Lady Furness’s home in Burrough Court. (The couch where they sat during that first meeting was later auctioned off). The two frequently attended the same events, and by 1934, Wallis had replaced Thelma as Prince Edward’s girlfriend and was even presented in court. After King George V died in 1936, Edward ascended to the throne as King Edward VIII. During that time, he announced he intended to marry Wallis once her divorce to Ernest Simpson was finalized—it was a highly controversial and unpopular decision that would have led to a constitutional crisis in England. Instead of giving up Wallis, King Edward abdicated the throne on December 10, 1936, choosing love over the crown. The British people felt like she had taken their king away, while the rest of the world was entertained by the press’s relentless insights into her social escapades and the couple’s tumultuous love life. 

4. On her wedding day, her something blue was her wedding dress.
As a twice divorced woman, Wallis wasn’t about to wear a white dress when she finally married Edward, who after his abdication was known as the Duke of Windsor. Instead, for her big day (or rather, her third one), Wallis chose an American designer who lived in Paris called Mainbocher. He ended up making her an avant-garde dress for the time—fitted in the waist with a brooch at the base of the neck—in a pale blue shade he dubbed, “Wallis Blue,” to match the color of her eyes. Her choice of headwear, a Caroline Reboux hat with a small veil surrounding it, was also a deliberate visual decision. “It looked like a halo,” said Anne Sebba, the author of the Wallis Simpson biography, That Woman. “She wanted people to subconsciously think she was a saint for marrying this man.”

5. She was Time Magazine’s first ever “Woman of The Year.”
Though scandal has overshadowed most of Wallis Simpson’s legacy (a surprise to many viewers of The Crown was the revelation that she and the Duke of Windsor’s had close ties to the Nazis during World War II), Wallis is still considered one of the more intriguing figures in British and American history. And during her lifetime, she was equally a source of fascination, leading Time Magazine to even name her their “Woman of the Year” in 1936. This was the first time the magazine ever opted for a female honoree over the traditional “Man of the Year” title. Her competition was pretty steep that year too, as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Benito Mussolini, and British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin were some of the notable names in the running.

—Meredith Bragg