Sometime in the 70’s, a TV movie called The Woman I Love was aired. Even as a young child, I loved period movies and I was fascinated not only by the costumes and the set but by the story as well. I did not understand all of it then and my mother had to annotate a lot of it for me. A true story, she said, about a king of England who gave up the throne in order to marry the woman he loved. Many years later when I was old enough to pull out volumes of encyclopedia from the book shelves, I read the story of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. I thought that what he did was utterly romantic.
It’s been decades since I saw that TV movie with Richard Chamberlain as Edward VIII. Still, as a testament to the impression that the old TV movie left on my young mind, to this day, I still refer to Edward VIII as “the woman I love.” That was how I referred to him when he first made an appearance in Episode 3 of Season 1 of Netflix’s historical drama The Crown. “Romantic”, however, is not a word I still use to describe the story of Edward and Wallis Simpson. Tragic would be more accurate.
The Crown does not delve on how Edward met Wallis Simpson and why it was impossible for him to marry her and still be king. Well, the series isn’t about Edward, after all, but about Elizabeth II. Edward is a minor character who simply has to be included to tell a complete story. In Episode 3 of Season 1 of The Crown, Edward came home to England when his brother, King George VI, died. The king had been giving Edward an allowance out of his own pocket (not from the government coffers) and, with his death, the allowance ceased. Edward was broke and he wanted his allowance reinstated.
The Crown doesn’t paint Edward as a sympathetic character. Pathetic would be the more appropriate word to describe his characterization. He was a petty man who had nothing good to say about everyone in his family. Still, he puts on a pretty face so he could beg for money.
Is that a fair characterization of the man who gave up the throne because, as he said in radio broadcast, “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”?
It isn’t just The Crown that is unkind to Edward. History doesn’t paint a pretty picture of him either. If you read historical accounts about his life, it seems that he didn’t have a lot of redeeming qualities. Before his ascension to the throne, he was a playboy who had a penchant for affairs with married women. Some like to think that meeting Wallis Simpson ended his rather amoral lifestyle because he truly fell in love with her. Others, however, don’t see it that way. Wallis became the last of his love affairs because he was completely under her spell.
Wallis Simpson was not born poor. Her parents came from commercially successful families although her father has been described as an unsuccessful businessman. Her father died when she was very young and, from that point, her existence became largely dependent on the charity of wealthy relatives. She wasn’t particularly pretty but she had brains and she was determined.
When Edward and Wallis met, she was married to her second husband. She did divorce him to marry Edward but the position of the Church of England was that it would not marry a divorced person if the former spouse was still alive. In other words, despite the divorce, the Church of England considered Wallis Simpson’s marriage to be subsisting, marriage to Edward would be bigamous and, therefore, void.
Still, they married. And Edward gave up the throne to do so. But they lived the rest of their lives in exile. Wallis Simpson was never accepted by the Royal Family and was never granted the title Her Royal Highness that Edward fought so hard for (or was that her speaking through him?). Sure they were treated like royal celebrities in some parts of the world (in Hitler’s Germany and Nixon’s Whitehouse) but what did any of that really matter without acceptance as true royals in England?
From the time they met and up until she died in 1986, Wallis Simpson has been described as a social climber and gold digger. Between her and Edward, she was the one in control. She liked to spend money and she spent a lot on fashionable clothes. She also wanted to be on the forefront of the fashion scene. Edward showered her with jewelry. Together, they had been called the biggest parasites of the era.
The thing is, we don’t know who they really were. What we little we know comes from handwritten letters that survived and the rest is filtered from the stories told by those who came across them during their lifetime. Perhaps, it isn’t fair to judge their decisions and actions based on today’s norms. They were of a different time. Prince Harry may not have any problems today marrying Meghan Markle, a divorcee, but back in the 1930’s, social rules were different. Had the system back then allowed Edward and Wallis Simpson to marry without issues, their story could have turned out to be The Great Romance rather than The Great Tragedy.