The Sussexes should see the Windsors’ fate as a cautionary tale
Prince Harry may not be king, but the news that he and the Duchess of Sussex want to step down as senior royals has created a bitter echo of Edward VIII’s abdication in 1936 to marry American divorcee, Wallis Simpson – a seismic blow, which left the House of Windsor open-mouthed and reeling.
That the Sussexes want to leave the monarchical strictures of the Firm, to create a life in semi-exile – living between the UK and North America – bears many of the hallmarks of that saga, over 80 years ago.
A royal prince rejects his family for the love of his American wife and leaves the country with her. Two brothers, once united, are torn apart due to their conflicting spousal loyalties. Just as Edward and his brother, Bertie – fail safe brothers-in-arms growing up – fell out over the former’s decision to put his wife before his country, there is now a rift of enmity between William and Harry, highlighting their different familial loyalties.
Like Harry, an adored young prince whom we all took to our hearts, the dashing Prince of Wales had the status of a movie star in the 1920s. If Princess Diana was the People’s Princess, adored by the masses, Edward was the People’s Prince.
“He was a golden-haired, blue-eyed, debonair Prince Charming, the most famous celebrity in the world, who seemed a Raphael angel grown up,” said society hostess Elsa Maxwell in 1920. Fashion editor Diana Vreeland agreed: “he was the Golden Prince.” Men were equally beguiled. Even the senior Palace courtier, Alan Lascelles, later a fierce critic of the former king, gushed in 1921 that the heir to the throne was “the most attractive man I ever met.”
When news of Edward’s affair with Mrs Simpson – two years his junior, with two living husbands – broke from under a media blackout in 1936, the country felt betrayed and abandoned. It seemed unfathomable, when the Prince of Wales could have had any beauty he desired, that he was smitten with Wallis, an unconventional looking American. When he gave up “the greatest throne in history”, as Churchill called it, she immediately became the scapegoat.
The well-worn view is that Wallis alone was responsible for triggering the constitutional crisis that almost brought down the British monarchy. Probably the biggest lie in the fable of the abdication is that she lured Edward from his destiny: her detractors claim that if she had never divorced her husband, Ernest Simpson, the abdication would not have occurred.
Yet the truth is that she had no intention of divorcing Ernest. It was Edward, then King, who forced her into this untenable position. In the name of his needy love, Wallis paid the ultimate price – entrapment by a childish narcissist who threw the largest tantrum in history when he could not have the two things he wanted most in the world; her and the Crown.
Although Harry was never likely to ascend to the throne, this hot-headed stamp of petulance feels familiar. Apparently aggrieved by the recent photograph of the Queen, with her heirs apparent; Princes Charles, William and George, he felt sidelined. His rift with William is due to the fact that Harry does not feel that Meghan was sufficiently celebrated and welcomed into the royal fold. Yet who could blame William for his concerns, gently urging his brother to exercise caution? After all, look where we are now.
Decades earlier, Edward was aghast and hurt that his family would not even receive his adored Wallis. The late Queen Mother, then Elizabeth, Duchess of York, was furious that Edward’s abdication might force her highly strung and physically weak husband, Bertie, onto the throne, and referred to Wallis as “that woman” and “the lowest of the low”, ever after.
On December 11th, after Edward dined with his family at Royal Lodge, he drove to his old rooms in Windsor Castle, where his iconic abdication speech was broadcast to the nation at 10pm. In his inimitable voice, he said calmly and movingly: “You must believe me when I tell you that I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as king, as I wish to do, without the help and support of the woman I love.”
Unlike Meghan and Harry’s wedding, which the entire Royal family attended at Windsor Castle, he and Wallis married to no fervour or fanfare, only public fury. A tight, tense affair in a French chateau, only seven British guests were present at the wedding. The event wasn’t even recorded in the Court Circular; a deliberate snub to the new Duke and Duchess of Windsor. The first American Duchess was denied use of HRH and the couple were banished into exile.
The problem for the Windsors was that they had little to give weight to their lives. Post-abdication, they lived with a laminated form of grief as it became clear that their previous existence was unrecoverable to them. Edward had misguidedly assumed that after a suitable cooling off period, he would be allowed back to the United Kingdom. It never occurred to him that abdication meant permanent exile, as there “wasn’t room for two kings in one country.”
During the Second World War he was allowed to become Governor of the Bahamas, then he settled, disgruntled, in France where he could live exempt from taxes. The Duchess decided that the best revenge against her in-laws was a life lived well, and the couple became major players amid a dazzling, but ultimately unfulfilling, café society.
Meghan and Harry will, no doubt, initially relish their new status as international celebrities, surrounded by fawning acolytes in North America. But they should see the Windsors’ fate as a cautionary tale. The glittering hue of semi-royal celebrity has a tawdry underbelly; the unsophisticated hangers on. Prince Charles once described the Windsors’ circle as “the most dreadful American guests I have ever seen.”
I fear that both Meghan and, particularly, Harry will come to regret this ill-conceived decision. No doubt, courtiers will come down hard upon them. You can’t have one foot inside The Firm and the other outside. It simply doesn’t work. As we’ve seen with Prince Andrew, it’s disastrous to try and commercialise royal connections. If Harry is to follow in the footsteps of his great-great uncle, he should remember the lesson he learned too late: when it comes to the Royal family, you are either all in, or all out.
The American Duchess by Anna Pasternak is published by William Collins on 6 February