Bessie Wallis Warfield was born in Pennsylvania on 19 June 1896 and was the daughter of Teackle Wallis Warfield and Alice Montague.
Wallis’s father died when she was young, so her mother, Alice, was dependent on the charity of her wealthy brother-in-law, Solomon Davies Warfield, and they stayed with him for a time before moving to their own place. In 1908, Alice married John Freeman Rasin, son of a prominent Democratic party boss, and Wallis was sent to the expensive Oldfields school in Maryland.
In November 1916, Wallis married her first husband, Earl Winfield Spencer, a Navy aviator, in Baltimore, but he turned out to be an alcoholic. When the First World War began, Spencer was posted to San Diego and they remained there until 1921 after which they briefly separated. The couple reunited not long after but separated again in 1922 when Spencer was posted to the Far East and Wallis began an affair with an Argentine diplomat, Felipe de Espil. In 1924, Wallis visited Paris with her cousin before travelling on to China where she reunited with Spencer once more. While in China, allegations were made that Wallis had an affair with Count Galeazzo Ciano, Mussolini’s future son-in-law, and had to have an abortion that left her unable to conceive, however this is unlikely. Wallis remained for a year in China, then returned to the States in 1925 where she divorced Spencer on 10 December 1927.
By the time her divorce was finalised, Wallis was already having an affair with Ernest Aldrich Simpson, an Anglo-American shipping executive and former officer in the Coldstream Guards. Ernest divorced his wife, Dorothy, and married Wallis on 21 July 1928 at the Register Office in Chelsea, London. Wallis returned to the States to visit her sick mother who had been left penniless by the Wall Street Crash. Luckily for the Simpsons, the shipping business was unaffected and when Wallis returned to England after her mother’s death on 2 November 1929, she and Ernest moved into a large flat with a staff of servants.
On 10 January 1931, Wallis was introduced to David, Prince of Wales, by his current mistress, Thelma, Lady Furness. Over the next three years, Wallis met David at several parties at the homes of mutual acquaintances but their lavish lifestyle was beginning to take its toll on the Simpson’s finances as they were living above their means.
By January 1934, Wallis had become David’s mistress, although the prince denied it when questioned by his father. David was said to be completely besotted by Wallis, finding her lack of reverence for his royal status refreshing, and Wallis later claimed she fell in love with the prince on a cruise on Lord Moyne’s private yacht in August 1934. David introduced Wallis to his mother at an evening party at Buckingham Palace, incurring the wrath of his father, as divorced people were not presented at court. Nevertheless, David continued to shower Wallis with expensive jewellery and his courtiers became increasingly concerned when he neglected his official duties to go on holiday with her.
On 20 January 1936, David ascended the throne as Edward VIII, after the death of his father, George V, and hinted at his intention to marry Wallis who had petitioned for a divorce from Ernest. The king’s relationship with Wallis had already made him unpopular with the government, and ministers warned him marrying Wallis would not be acceptable to the public who were as yet unaware of the affair. The British press had remained quiet out of respect for the royal family but the scandal was splashed all over the foreign press and it was causing Queen Mary a great deal of distress. A further problem was the Church of England’s stance on not permitting divorced people to marry while their former spouses still lived, and as Supreme Governor of the Church of England, David was constitutionally required to stand in agreement.
David suggested a morganatic marriage which meant Wallis would not be his queen consort, but the idea was rejected by Prime Minister Baldwin who warned David if he married Wallis against their advice, the government would have to resign, sparking a constitutional crisis. In December, news of the affair finally became public knowledge and Wallis fled to France to escape the scandal but the press soon found her at the home of her close friends, Herman and Katherine Rogers. Wallis was visited by Lord Brownlow, the king’s lord-in-waiting, who urged her to renounce the king and even helped her prepare a statement. However, David was not prepared to give up on Wallis so easily and if it meant abdicating, then so be it.
David signed the Instrument of Abdication on 10 December 1936, in the presence of his three brothers, and it was formalised the following day which meant the Duke of York was now George VI. On that same day, David broadcast the following message on the radio: “I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility, and to discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do, without the help and support of the woman I love.”
David, unable to see Wallis until her divorce was finalised, left for Austria and remained there until May 1937, whereupon he reunited with her in France. The couple were married on 3 June 1937 at the Château de Candé which would have been George V’s 72nd birthday and Queen Mary took great offence, believing her son had chosen that date deliberately. The relationship between David and his family would never fully heal.
Before his marriage, David had been created Duke of Windsor by George VI but special letters patent denied Wallis the title of Her Royal Highness, a decision Wallis bitterly resented. Much has been said about the animosity between Wallis and Queen Elizabeth but much of it has been refuted by those who were close to the queen.
David was denied an allowance by the British government so George VI provided his brother with an income out of his own personal finances, however the duke did not fully disclose his own wealth while negotiations were underway. Regardless, George VI used terminating the allowance as a warning to David not to come to Britain without an invitation. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor settled in France before the war, however they travelled to Germany and Wallis was pictured having her hand kissed by Hitler who stated she would have been a fine queen. The visit prompted scathing criticism and fuelled the belief that Wallis was a Nazi sympathiser which she ridiculed. Files compiled by the FBI in the 1930s also portray her as a possible sympathiser and claim she was having an affair with Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Foreign Minister of Nazi Germany.
When war was declared, the duke was given a military post in the British Army stationed in France, but claims have been made that Wallis passed information from him on to the Germans and she was said to be unsympathetic when France was invaded. With the Germans advancing through France, the duke and duchess fled to Spain before moving on to Portugal to stay with Ricardo de Espirito Santo e Silva, a banker who was suspected of being a German agent. In August, the couple travelled to the Bahamas where David was installed as governor.
The duke and duchess remained in the Bahamas for the next five years where Wallis carried out her duties diligently but there was no doubt about how much she hated the place, often likening it to being exiled in Elba, and she was very derogatory towards the natives. The duke and duchess continued to consort with those suspected of being German agents which contributed to the continued alienation with the British establishment who believed she was exacting revenge on the country which had rejected her. At the end of the war, the duke and duchess returned to France.
In 1952, the duke returned to England for the funeral of his brother but the duchess refused to accompany him, stating she would always hate the country. The duke and duchess spent their retirement years between their home in Paris and their country home in Gif-sur-Yvette. In 1965, the duke and duchess came to London so the duke could undergo eye surgery and they were visited by Queen Elizabeth II; the duke’s sister-in-law, Marina, Duchess of Kent; and his sister, Mary, Countess of Harewood. It was the first time the duchess had ever been received by the royal family and the meeting between Mary and David would be bittersweet as she died just ten days later.
The relationship between the Windsors and the royal family was definitely moving towards a reconciliation as they were invited to the unveiling of a plaque Queen Elizabeth had made in 1967 to mark the centenary of the birth of her grandmother, Queen Mary, who had died shortly before her coronation. Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles also paid visits to the duke and duchess at their home in Paris during the duke’s final years.
On 28 May 1972, the duke died of cancer and his body was returned to Britain to lie-in-state at Westminster Abbey before his funeral on 5 June which was attended by Queen Elizabeth and the rest of the royal family. The duke and duchess had made plans to be buried in Baltimore, alongside Wallis’ father, however Queen Elizabeth made an agreement with them that they would be given a proper burial alongside the rest of the royal family.
The duchess stayed at Buckingham Palace for the funeral but she soon returned to Paris where she lived the rest of her life as a recluse on the proceeds of the duke’s estate and an allowance from the queen. As her health declined, the duchess suffered from dementia and became increasingly frail, breaking her hip twice. The duchess had signed over a Power of Attorney to her lawyer, Suzanne Blum who exploited her position by selling many of the duchess’ belongings at lower than market value. In 1980, the duchess lost her power of speech and was virtually bedridden until her death on 24 April 1986.
The duchess’ funeral was held at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, and was attended by her surviving sisters-in-law, the Queen Mother and Alice, Duchess of Gloucester, amongst other members of the royal family. She was buried next to David in the Royal Burial Ground near Windsor Castle, as “Wallis, Duchess of Windsor”.