The Windsors in France in the 1950s
THE 1936 ABDICATION CRISIS – PART NINE – GOODWILL & INFAMY
In Great Britain in 2021 there are 17 people who carry the title HRH (His / Her Royal Highness.) Despite being married to a retired King, the Duchess was denied this style by her brother-in-law King George VI. His successor Queen Elizabeth II maintained the same policy of exclusion. To give you a sense of proportion, currently Princess Alexandra is 53rd in line to the throne. She is an HRH.
So for this style to be denied the Duchess of Windsor by the new King was a quite strong statement. Since the new king had allowed Edward to retain his HRH, for him to deny it to Wallis was, in Edward’s view, the palace refusing to recognize Wallis as his wife. Worse though was that by styling Edward as HRH but not his wife, the Palace had placed an indelible, official question mark over the marriage, and over character and legitimacy of the Duchess. Perhaps it is why 84 years after her marriage to HRH the Duke of Windsor, people still refer to the Duchess not as Wallis Windsor but as Wallis “Simpson” – the name of her previous husband – as if she were never the wife of Edward.
For Edward the denial of HRH to his wife was a vindictive and bitter blow to receive from his own brother and it was a constant thorn in Edward’s side. Indeed the Duke fought long and hard to have the decision reversed. He fully understood that the retention of HRH from his wife sent an unmistakeable signal from the Palace to the public of Britain and the world concerning its opinion of the Duchess.
There was no shortage of other aspersions cast upon the couple. Of Wallis it was said variously that she was a foreign spy, a Nazi agent, a serial adulteress, a seductress trained by a Chinese prostitute, a serial adulteress, a lesbian, inter-gender and/or a man. Surely the very least than can be said of this litany of claims is that they can’t all be true! In fact, beyond unsupported and uncorroborated statements no evidence of these assertions has ever been produced. This is, of course, how defamation works. If the goal is simply to tarnish a person’s reputation, the continual repetition of allegations and slurs is more than a sufficient substitute for facts- something easily seen in the establishment’s recasting of Wallis, before and after the abdication.
The most consistent feature of the official smear campaigns was that they aimed at managing the level of public goodwill towards Edward by casting the Prince, in one way or another, as an unfortunate victim of Wallis, and Wallis as the real menace.
The Duke and Duchess at 71 and 69 respectively
In the preface to her autobiography the Duchess revealed that she well understood the widespread judgement of herself and the Duke. Its pages allow us a glimpse into what it may have meant to walk in their shoes; in the face of suspicion and in the aftermath of exclusion and vilification – a more than 50 year long thread within their story. The royal biographer Hugo Vickers referred to the Duchess as “the most maligned woman in the C20th!” Indeed the bitterness and intensely negative feeling towards both the Duke and Duchess persisting into the C21st is a phenomenon to be wondered at.
The Windsors’ Wedding in 1937
Pictured in 1946
The Duchess made her one venture into print in the express hope that a generation born after her time might review the events of her life more dispassionately and arrive at a more generous conclusion than the one drawn by her contemporaries. The Duchess of Windsor suffered no illusions as to the byword her name had become in the C20th.
In 1967 the Duke and Duchess were invited to attend the unveiling of a memorial to Queen Mary. In the reportage of Pathe News it was clear that the newscaster wished to give the public the impression that between the two houses of Windsor all was resolution and forgiveness. Indeed the mood in the film footage did seem to be more at ease, with relaxed banter clearly being exchanged between the Duchess and Prince Philip, and Duke and Duchess of Gloucester. Prince Charles appeared to shared the goodwill suggested by Pathe, acknowledging the Duchess and referring to her as “Aunt Wallis.” Behind the scenes, sadly, things were not all rosy. The Duke of Windsor was deeply disappointed to see that the contributors to the cost of the plaque to the late Queen were all honoured – save for the chief contributors, himself and the Duchess. It seemed a petty and unnecessary omission.
Above is the Duchess of Windsor at 75 in her final official portrait. The portrait was taken during the Duke of Windsor’s final illness. He was to die 12 months later after a drawn out battle with cancer of the throat. In the video clip below the Duchess arrives in England for the Duke’s funeral. She is welcomed at the airport by the Duke’s friend since boyhood, the royal match-maker, Lord Louis Mountbatten.
The image below is of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, the Duchess of Windsor, and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, leaving the Duke’s funeral.
Even at the time of the death of the Duke of Windsor in 1972 the bereavement of the now ailing 75 year old Duchess of Windsor was reported in Britain with something of a bitter note. Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper, reported the Duchess’ return to France, having buried her beloved. The headline read, with an unmistakable undertone of schadenfreude, “So now she is alone.”
The Duchess died in her ninetieth year after a decade of ill-health, poor care, isolation and abuse at the hands of her lawyer and captor Maitre Blum. It was a sad and painful ending. Following Wallis’ death, her niece, Queen Elizabeth II, presided over the compilation of an order of service for her funeral. Conducted at Windsor Royal Chapel on April 29th 1986, it was a brief affair, no more than 28 minutes from start to finish. As per the Duchess’ wishes there was no funeral address.
Reporters for the New York Times and the L.A. Times were astonished by the ceremony that Her Majesty had approved for the occasion. The American reporters could scarcely conceal the shock with which they registered that throughout the entire duration of the short funeral service, not a single reference had been made to the life of the Duchess, nor even one mention made of her royal marriage. In fact, through the whole ceremony the Duchess’ name was never spoken. Only one solitary reference to the Duchess appeared in the course of the whole proceedings. That reference came in a prayer spoken by the officiant, Canon John White, in which the priest momentarily acknowledged the nameless deceased person as “our sister.”
As a minister of 36 years’ standing I have conducted and assisted in hundreds of funerals. The purpose of a funeral ceremony is fundamentally for mourners to honour the deceased person, to remember them and lay them to rest. So for a funeral service to fail to mention the name of the deceased person even once, and to make no acknowledgment of their life would seem an omission of the very worst kind. In the end it would seem that even in death Wallis, Duchess of Windsor, was made to bear the brunt of half a century of royal resentment. The British papers were far too loyal to mention this fact. So it fell instead to the L.A. Times and the New York Times to reveal this last royal twist.
Wallis and Edward
If the ins and outs of this incredible story hold some interest for you, and especially if you are interested in teasing fact from fiction, then I think you will enjoy surveying the collection rare video/audio interviews I have collated in the next chapter. Thank you for sharing this journey with me and reading with an open mind my own perspective on one of the most intriguing and polarising of love stories.