What Meghan and Harry could learn from Edward and Wallis Simpson

September 9, 2023
The only way that Meghan and Harry will survive is if they present a genuinely united front

As rumours about their marriage swirl in the US press, it is to a fellow American and another royal couple in exile that the duke and duchess might turn to for inspiration, writes royal biographer Anna Pasternak

A year on from Queen Elizabeth II’s death, little has changed for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex in terms of entente cordiale between the California-based couple and the royal family.

King Charles reportedly had “no time in his diary” to see Prince Harry in London last week, even though it was the first time that Harry had been back to the UK since June. Harry is still seen as a troublesome outcast from his family since his incendiary truth bombs on Oprah, his and Meghan’s Netflix documentary, and his shattering autobiography, Spare. Hardly surprisingly, plus ca change behind palace walls towards the Montecitos-in-exile.

And perhaps more worrisome are the persistent and nagging rumours that have gathered pace this summer that his marriage to Meghan is under strain, too. The recent optics from the couple, who are normally so adept at curating their image, are confounding. A visibly emotional Harry appeared starkly alone at the WellChild Awards on Thursday night.

Attending without Meghan, speaking at the charity awards ceremony, his voice broke slightly as he made reference to Queen Elizabeth II, his late beloved grandmother.

While he is reported to have confessed Meghan’s desire to be there, telling one family she was “very upset that she couldn’t be”, when paying tribute to parents and carers, he said: “As a father of two – and three dogs, so basically five souls – I am acutely aware of the many joys and challenges that come with parenting, and that’s with kids who aren’t facing health challenges.”

What a contrast to his last joint appearance at the awards in 2019, when he arrived hand in hand with Meghan. He also attended the event with her in 2018. Both times, they seemed loved-up and relaxed, happily united in supporting this important and moving cause.

Harry has now travelled to Germany alone to host the Invictus Games in Dusseldorf. While it had been reported that Meghan would “take to the stage” at the closing ceremony, mystery now surrounds what role, if any, she will play. Her involvement was removed from a detailed media schedule, while a paragraph about her role has been deleted from the website. It is expected that she will join Harry at some point in Germany, maybe for his 39th birthday on 15 September?

The last sighting of them together was on 1 September at a Beyoncé concert in Los Angeles. Harry reportedly looked “bored”. Yet Meghan was out without him the following night, at her second Beyoncé gig, looking radiant as she sat next to Netflix boss Ted Sarandos and his wife.

The celebrity couple who embarked on royal life entwined, literally hand in hand, are now certainly treading more separate paths in their working lives. Meghan was noticeably absent while Harry was publicising Spare, while she is preparing to launch a new project that is “genuine to who she is”.

As she prepares for an imminent return to Instagram, this looks set to be a lucrative relaunch for Meghan, who can expect to make millions of dollars per post. The duchess has signed with a powerful talent manager in Los Angeles, at William Morris Entertainment, whose team are focused on promoting her as a “global enterprise”.

All of this, of course, has fuelled speculation about the couple’s marriage in the American tabloids. While their battles with the tabloids over privacy are well documented, it hasn’t stopped a no-holds-barred summer of lurid rumours.

We heard from RadarOnline that Harry was left “hurt and confused” that Meghan had removed her engagement ring amid “split rumours” – although the photograph of Meghan out to lunch with girlfriends showed her still sporting her wedding band along with an eternity ring.

And in August, the American magazine The Cut, which had Meghan as its cover star a year ago, ran a lengthy feature titled “Harry and Meghan vs Those Divorce Rumors”. The feature claimed that internet rumours that she and Harry were “taking time apart” were bunkum.

Sources close to the couple rushed to deny any rumblings that a separation was on the cards, even stressing that naysayers who claim Meghan is too bossy are wide of the mark. “Meghan does seem to run the household and make the decisions, but it’s not that [Harry] bends for her. It’s just a dynamic that works for them and maybe one that he needs after everything he has been through.”

New York magazine ran a similar feature titled “Harry and Meghan Are Mulling a Split – or Just Doing Their Jobs”. The feature claimed that the couple were “taking time apart” and having “a trial separation”. Harry had allegedly booked his own hotel suite in Montecito to escape to.

The magazine cited a rumour circulating on Twitter/X that Meghan had “filed divorce papers asking for $80m [£64m] plus the total custody of Archie and Lilibet”. Newsweek investigated the source of the claims in the tweet, which has been viewed more than 12.8 million times, and found them to be baseless.

Sources “close to the couple” have also firmly denied the rumour pile-on, with one friend claiming a plausible explanation: “Sure, their relationship has challenges, but they are 100 per cent committed to making their marriage work.”

Of course, a wobbly patch would be understandable, and there isn’t a couple in the world that hasn’t had one. Bringing up two small children alone tests any marriage, as Harry mentioned in his speech on Thursday night.

For Harry and Meghan, being ostracised from family and a wider support group means that the couple are incredibly isolated and face unique challenges of their own. This, of course, would make any strife they may have been experiencing harder to deal with, but history tells us that the only way Meghan and Harry can survive the next chapter is if they present a genuinely united front.

By leaving Britain, and turning his back on his own family and the monarchy, Harry has done something monumental. The seismic emotional fallout will reverberate for decades to come. You only have to look at Harry’s great-great-uncle, Edward VIII, for a precedent.

When Edward VIII abdicated in 1936 to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson, not just his own family but the entire world turned against the couple. Presciently, Edward had engraved the shank of Simpson’s emerald engagement ring with the words: “We are ours now”.

From the moment of the abdication, they acted as one against the onslaught. The night before the couple left France, where they were married, for their honeymoon in Austria, the Duke of Windsor’s aide, Walter Monckton took Simpson aside. He told her that “most people in England disliked her very much because the duke had married her and given up his throne, but that if she kept him happy all his days that would change, but that if he were unhappy nothing would be too bad for her.”

The duchess received his warning with good grace, replying: “Walter, don’t you think I have thought of all that? I think I can make him happy.” Simpson was true to her word.

She said that, on the first morning of her honeymoon, her heart sank. “I woke up and there was David standing by my bed with an innocent smile, saying ‘And now what do we do?’ Here was someone whose every day had been arranged for him all his life and now I was the one who was going to take the place of the entire British government, trying to think up things for him to do.”

Simpson’s devotion to her husband never wavered, yet the negative narrative about her persisted. Meghan may have opened the door to censure with her royal revelations, yet Simpson’s memoir, published after 20 years of marriage, was mild as can be. No truth bombs against the royal family there.

Simpson filled the duke’s empty existence in exile as best she could, and even, in spite of her in-laws’ open hostility towards her, constantly encouraged the duke to repair familial relations. After the death of the duke’s brother, King George VI, in 1952, Edward travelled to England alone for his funeral, as Simpson was not invited.

She sent her husband off with the sage advice: “Do not mention or ask for anything regarding recognition of me.” Her selfless devotion to the former king was incalculable. On her 75th birthday, in June 1971, a year before he died, the duke sent her a handwritten billet-doux, saying that he loved her “more and more”. This was after 34 years of marriage.

If Harry and Meghan can emulate the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in their implacable show of devotion and unity, they are far more likely to withstand the test of time.