Wallis Simpson: Her Life, Legacy, and Marriage to Edward VIII

American socialite whose marriage to the king sparked a constitutional crisis

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor
Wallis, Duchess of Windsor, alongside the Duke of Windsor, formerly Edward VIII (Photo: Ivan Dmitri/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images).

Wallis Simpson (born Bessie Wallis Wakefield; 19 June 1896—24 April 1986) was an American socialite who gained notoriety for her relationship with Edward VIII. Their relationship caused a constitutional crisis that ultimately led to Edward’s abdication.

Fast Facts: Wallis Simpson

  • Known For: Socialite whose relationship with Edward VIII caused a scandal and led Edward to abdicate the British throne.
  • Given Name: Bessie Wallis Warfield
  • Born: June 19, 1896 in Blue Ridge Summit, Pennsylvania
  • Died: April 24, 1986 in Paris, France
  • Spouses: Earl Winfield Spencer, Jr. (m. 1916-1927), Ernest Aldrich Simpson (m. 1928-1937), Edward VIII aka Prince Edward, Duke of Windsor (m. 1937-1972)

Early Life

Wallis was born in Blue Ridge Summit, Pennsylvania, a popular resort town near the Maryland border. Her father, Teackle Wallis Warfield, was the son of a wealthy Baltimore flour merchant, and her mother, Alice Montague, was a stockbroker’s daughter. Although Wallis always claimed her parents married in June 1895, parish records show that they weren’t married until November 1895—meaning that Wallis was conceived out of wedlock, considered a big scandal at the time.

Teackle Warfield died in November 1896, when Wallis was only five months old. His death left Wallis and her mother dependent first on Teackle's brother, then on Alice’s sister. Wallis's mother Alice remarried in 1908 to a prominent Democratic politician. When Wallis was in her teens, she attended an elite all-girls school in Maryland, where she excelled academically and gained a reputation for her polished style.

First Marriages

In 1916, Wallis met Earl Winfield Spencer, Jr., a pilot with the U.S. Navy. They married later that year. From the beginning, however, their relationship was strained, in large part due to Spencer’s heavy drinking. By 1920, they entered an on-and-off period of temporary separations, and Wallis had at least one affair (with Argentine diplomat, Felipe de Espil). The couple traveled overseas in 1924, and Wallis spent most of the year in China; her exploits there were the subject of much rumor and speculation in later years, though little was ever confirmed.

The Spencers’ divorce was finalized in 1927, at which point Wallis had already become romantically involved with Ernest Aldrich Simpson, a shipping magnate. Simpson divorced his first wife, with whom he had a daughter, to marry Wallis in 1928. The Simpsons set up a house in the wealthy London neighborhood of Mayfair.

In 1929, Wallis returned to America to be with her dying mother. Although Wallis's investments were destroyed in the Wall Street Crash of 1929, Simpson’s shipping business was still booming, and Wallis returned to a comfortable and wealthy life. However, the couple soon began to live beyond their means, and financial difficulties loomed.

Relationship with the Prince

Through a friend, Wallis met Edward, Prince of Wales, in 1931. After crossing paths for a few years at house parties, Wallis and Edward entered a romantic and sexual relationship in 1934. Edward abandoned his previous mistresses and the relationship deepened. He even introduced Wallis to his parents, which caused a huge scandal, seeing as divorced people were not typically welcome at court.

On January 20, 1936, King George V died and Edward ascended to the throne as Edward VIII. It quickly became clear that Wallis and Edward intended to marry, as she was already in the process of divorcing Simpson on the grounds that he had committed adultery. This presented several problems. From a social and moral perspective, Wallis was not considered a suitable consort. Even more pressingly, from a religious perspective, her marriage to Edward was constitutionally forbidden, since the the monarch is the head of the Church of England and the Church forbade remarriage of divorced persons.

Abdication of Edward VIII

By the end of 1936, Wallis’s relationship with the king had become public knowledge, and she managed to flee to her friends’ home in France just ahead of the media frenzy. Despite pressure on all sides, Edward refused to give up his relationship Wallis, and instead chose to abdicate the throne in the face of a constitutional crisis. He officially abdicated on December 10, 1936, and his brother became George VI. Edward departed for Austria, where he waited out the end of Wallis’s divorce proceedings.

Wallis and Edward married on June 3, 1937—the same day as Edward's late father’s birthday. No members of the royal family attended. Edward had become the Duke of Windsor upon his brother’s accession, and while Wallis was permitted the title of “Duchess of Windsor” upon their marriage, the royal family refused to let her share in the “Royal Highness” style.

Duchess of Windsor

Wallis, along with Edward, was soon suspected of being a Nazi sympathizer—not a far jump, since the couple visited Germany and met with Hitler in 1937. Intelligence files at the time also suspected Wallis of carrying on an affair with at least one high-ranking Nazi. The couple fled their French home to Spain, where they were hosted by a pro-German banker, then to the Bahamas, where Edward was sent to perform the duties of governor.

Wallis worked with the Red Cross and devoted time to charitable causes while in the Bahamas. However, her private papers revealed a deep disdain for the country and its people, and the couple’s Nazi connections continued to come to light. The couple returned to France after the war and lived socially; their relationship may have deteriorated over the years. Wallis Simpson published her memoirs in 1956, reportedly editing and rewriting her own history to portray herself in a more flattering light.

Later Life and Death

The Duke of Windsor died of cancer in 1972, and Wallis reportedly had a breakdown at his funeral. By this time, she was suffering from dementia and other health problems, and her lawyer, Suzanne Blum, took advantage of Wallis’s state to enrich herself and her friends. By 1980, Wallis’s health had declined to the point where she could no longer speak.

On April 24, 1986, Wallis Simpson died in Paris. Her funeral was attended by several members of the royal family, and much of her estate was, surprisingly, left to charity. Her legacy remains a complicated one—an ambitious and glamorous woman whose great romance led to great losses.

Sources

  • Higham, Charles. The Duchess of Windsor: The Secret Life. McGraw-Hill, 1988.
  • King, Greg. The Duchess of Windsor: The Uncommon Life of Wallis Simpson. Citadel, 2011.
  • “Wallis Warfied, Duchess of Windsor. Encyclopaedia Brittanica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Wallis-Warfield-duchess-of-Windsor.