On a sweltering June day last summer, I put on my best silk cocktail dress and my mother’s pearls. I wasn’t preparing to go to a party but to make a pilgrimage that was profoundly meaningful for me. I was going to Frogmore to place a bouquet of flowers on Wallis Simpson’s grave.
I dressed up purely to honour the Duchess of Windsor, rigidly impeccable in her own style. I carried a special bouquet, the flowers chosen with care. It contained Wallis’s wedding flowers; white peonies, delphiniums the colour of her Mainbocher blue wedding dress, larkspur and sprigs of wild grasses.
A month before, when Meghan Markle married Prince Harry, they had chosen the grounds of Frogmore House to hold their wedding reception. Now, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are going to live in Frogmore Cottage, nestled in Home Park, the most private and idyllic sanctuary in the heart of Windsor Great Park. The Queen loves to walk her dogs here, so freshly topped up water bowls abound. The grounds feel windswept and free. Paths mown through wild flower meadows lead to the central lake.
There is a poignancy that Meghan’s predecessor, Wallis Simpson, lies in the historic royal burial ground facing the lake. As soon as Harry and Meghan’s engagement was announced, endless comparisons between the two women were made. Apart from both being American and divorced, they were both 34 when they met their princes. Both have a distinctive style, share a penchant for Givenchy and an exceptional closeness to their mothers.
Initially, that is where the comparisons ended. Unlike Wallis, who was derided and diminished by the Royal Family, denied royal status and exiled when Edward VIII abdicated in order to marry her, Meghan has been welcomed into the royal fold, granted the coveted HRH title and now has a royal property to live in.
But while the new duchess was deemed a breath of modernising fresh air around the time of the wedding, the Frogmore move has seen a more negative narrative emerge.
History, it has been suggested, is repeating itself. Edward VIII and his brother, Bertie, once close, were driven apart due to the enmity between their wives, Wallis, and Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, who blamed Wallis for the abdication that forced her stuttering husband, George VI, onto the throne. The unfamiliar distance between William and Harry is similarly being blamed on Kate and Meghan – as different in character and approach as their predecessors, and said not to get along.
Yet for Wallis to still be seen as the wicked witch who nearly derailed the monarchy, seems monstrously unfair. I’ve long held a fascination with her: when I was at Oxford, my mother gave me the published letters between Wallis and Edward. I devoured them, haunted by their tragic love affair. Thirty years later, while watching The Crown, I realised that some scenes depicting her role in the abdication were factually incorrect. I decided that the time was ripe to rehabilitate Wallis and for the past two years, I have been researching a book about her.
I was extremely privileged to be given permission to enter the Royal Burial Ground, where the duke and duchess’s graves are together, but set apart from the other royal graves, separated by the protecting boughs of a giant plane tree. Opposite stands the Royal Mausoleum, the resting place of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, while the graves of Edward’s brothers are to his right. Tranquillity radiates in this sacred spot; the quiet power of monarchy and manicured privilege.
When the Duchess of Windsor was finally allowed back into the royal fold for Edward VIII’s funeral on June 5th 1972, she was asked by the Queen, which side of her husband’s grave did she wish to be placed? Wallis chose to the left. She liked the idea, she said, of the leaves of the plane tree falling on her grave in the autumn. Acutely aware of her unpopularity and lack of any children, she commented that no one was ever likely to place flowers on her grave. The falling plane tree leaves would adorn her instead. She used to collect similar leaves from the park of their Parisian mansion and place them on her glass-topped dressing table, along with her collection of billet-doux from the besotted duke.
As I knelt before her grave, I expected to feel incurably sad. Instead, I felt relieved. Edward and Wallis are accepted into this unique realm when they were driven from it in life. The duke’s smooth Portland stone grave is adorned with his heraldic roll call of names and his regal title. The duchess’s grave, of rougher-hewn stone, simply says: “Wallis, Duchess of Windsor, 19th June 1896, 29th April 1986.”
So much gossip and innuendo has been levelled at the Duchess of Windsor, that it has become impossible to hear her authentic voice amid the cacophony of condemnation. We have experienced her so fully as Machiavellian, through others projections and prejudice, that she has become a caricature of villainous womanhood. History is mostly perceived from the perspective of his-story. But what about her story?
The more embroiled I became in Wallis’s world, the greater my mounting fury that she has been judged so unfairly. The interior designer, Nicky Haslam, who knew Wallis, opened his address book for me and as I sat in elegant drawing rooms listening to her old friends, the same sentiments were echoed. That Wallis was kind, witty and diverting company, while the duke was self-absorbed and less engaging. Royal historian, Hugo Vickers said: “The world adored him, yet the people who knew him and worked for him, had reservations about him. The world hated her, but the people who knew her and worked for her, absolutely adored her.”
I spent a wonderful morning with the late John Julius Norwich, an ardent Wallis fan, and a memorable afternoon in Marbella with Count Rudolph Graf Von Schonburg, whose wife, Princess Louise of Prussia, was related to Edward VIII via Queen Victoria. “I have always considered that the Duchess of Windsor’s position in history is factually incorrect and very unfair,” he said.
Wallis was, in fact, warm, well-bred and well-read. (Lady Cunard, the society hostess who championed Wallis, memorably said: “Little Mrs Simpson knows her Balzac.”) She was also irresistibly charming, loyal and dignified to the end. Cherished by her friends, Wallis was written off by a cunning, powerful British establishment who sought to destroy and diminish her. Palace Courtiers like Tommy Lascelles who famously dismissed her as “shop-soiled” with “a voice like a rusty saw.” (Watch out for the courtiers, Meghan!) The British Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, and Cosmo Lang, the Archbishop of Canterbury, both had vested interests in dehumanising Wallis. None of these men wanted Edward, whom they considered weak and ill-disciplined, on the throne and they used Wallis as the excuse to rid England of a man they deemed unfit to rule.
Far from being the villain of the abdication, Wallis was the victim. Instead of pushing for Edward to leave the throne, she had tried to prevent it. What most of her detractors fail to acknowledge is that she never wanted to marry Edward. Initially she was flattered by his attention. What woman would not have been beguiled by the prince’s “unmistakable aura of power and authority?” Yet she never expected the infatuation to last. In 1935 she wrote to her beloved aunt, Bessie Merryman, “what a bump I’ll get when a young beauty appears and plucks the Prince from me. Anyway, I’m prepared.”
The real tragedy for Wallis is that she could never have prepared for what was to come. She never intended to divorce her second husband, Ernest, with whom she had a contented marriage. It was Edward, then king, who forced her into an untenable position, refusing to ever give her up. In the name of his needy love, Wallis paid the ultimate price: entrapment by a childish narcissist who threw the biggest tantrum in history when he could not have the two things he wanted most in the world – her and the throne. Forced to choose Wallis, Edward was devastated when his family closed ranks against him.
Fortunately, Prince Harry did not suffer the same fate as his great great uncle on his marriage to his American divorcee. I’m sure, that as Meghan walks around the grounds of Frogmore, pushing the pram next spring, she will pay homage to the Duchess of Windsor. I came to adore Wallis as I wrote my book and wished that she had been a close girlfriend. I hope Meghan comes to champion her great great aunt-in-law and regularly places flowers on Wallis’s grave. Nothing would have surprised or delighted the Duchess of Windsor more.