Meghan and Harry, Duke and Duchess of Sussex, have propelled the British Royal Family into major crisis mode, but the royals have seen this story before, somewhat, with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
Or have they? There are certainly key similarities: A senior royal decides to abdicate (or “step back”) from his duties to run off abroad with the love of his life, a divorced American. In both cases, the crises were painted as possible challenges to the future of the monarchy, but, of course, it survived Wallis Simpson and her husband, the former King Edward VIII. In both cases, the couples sought titles and a semblance of public role, and they share a fondness for Canada.
Meghan and Wallis were even the same age when they met their prince: 34 years old. Of course, Harry is choosing to step back from royal life, whereas Edward was left with no choice if he wanted to marry Wallis. In contrast, the Royal Family initially welcomed Meghan with public open arms, throwing her a spectacle wedding. Wallis Simpson never enjoyed that kind of welcome.
The Queen has now announced that Meghan and Harry won’t use their HRH titles anymore, won’t take public money and will repay sovereign grant funds used to renovate Frogmore Cottage, their UK residence. Whether taxpayers will pay for their security remains unclear.
Here are the similarities between the two sagas (and some of the differences.)
Both Meghan & Wallis Were Divorced Americans When They Met Their Princes
Wallis Simpson was actually married and divorced twice before she met her prince, who became a king. Meghan Markle was divorced once before she met her prince.
According to Biography.com, Wallis married Earl Winfield Spencer Jr. in 2016. He was a Naval aviator and an alcoholic. Wallis decided to travel in China as the marriage broke down and divorced Spencer in 1927. She married again the following year, to Ernest Aldrich Simpson, described by Biography.com as “an English-American shipping executive.” However, by 1931, Wallis had met the then Prince of Wales through his mistress Lady Furness. She then became his mistress herself and divorced Simpson in 1937.
Meghan was married to movie producer Trevor Engelson, whose credits include the movie Remember Me, starring Robert Pattinson, and Robin Williams’ License to Wed, among other films. He first started his career as a production assistant. They married in Jamaica in 2011 in a four-day bash with family, according to UK Mirror, which added that they dated for six years, starting in 2010. They divorced two years after the wedding, after trying to make a long-distance relationship work while Meghan filmed Suits in Toronto.
Of course, Meghan’s divorce was tolerated; Simpson’s was considered intolerable. It was a different time. And, of course, Edward was King whereas Harry is only sixth in line to the British throne behind his father, his brother, and his brother’s three children.
According to Biography.com, Wallis was born Bessie Wallis Warfield on June 19, 1896, in Blue Ridge Summit, Pennsylvania. Meghan was born on August 4, 1981 and raised in Los Angeles, California. Both families were of relatively modest means.
Both women were described as strong-willed, independent, and fashionistas. Wallis wasn’t an actress. However, it’s interesting to ponder what Wallis would have done with Meghan’s favorite go-to: Instagram.
Both Prince Harry & Edward VIII Wanted to Relinquish Royal Duties & Live Abroad, Had a Fondness for Canada & Saw Ire Directed at the Women in Their Lives
Edward VIII hoped to stay King and marry Wallis, but that wasn’t allowed. Faced by the choice between her or country, he chose Wallis, abdicating the throne in 1936 to “marry the woman I love.”
Wallis bore the brunt of criticism from within the Royal Family. According to The Guardian, the Queen Mother called Simpson “the lowest of the low” and blamed her for her husband’s early death.
Anger toward Wallis was so great that Wallis was denied the title Her Royal Highness, whereas Meghan’s title hasn’t yet been decided. However, Meghan has come under great fire on social media and in British tabloids, where she’s typically painted as destroying or manipulating a weak-willed Harry into ostracizing himself from his entire family (as she has with hers, other than her mother). The general depiction of Meghan in the British press is one of a woman pursuing celebrity instead of royalty, although Harry has railed at her treatment in the press. What does the Royal Family think of Meghan? The Queen, William and Charles are said by British media to be at least disappointed and at most ballistic; publicly they have said little.
Prince Harry’s net worth is about $40 million, a compilation of money he inherited after his mother’s death and that he gets from his father’s estate, the Duchy of Cornwall. Harry and Meghan announced on their new website that they will give up their portion of the sovereign grant.
“After many months of reflection and internal discussions, we have chosen to make a transition this year in starting to carve out a progressive new role within this institution. We intend to step back as ‘senior’ members of the Royal Family, and work to become financially independent, while continuing to fully support Her Majesty The Queen,” they wrote.
The Windsors decamped to France and then Spain and then the Bahamas, whereas Harry and Meghan indicated a desire to split their time between the UK and North America (with most people thinking they will end up in Torono or LA, although that’s not certain.)
However, as with the Sussexes, the Duke of Windsor had a fondness for Canada. According to the historian Carolyn Harris, he even “owned a ranch in Bedingfield, Alberta, Canada and he had been extremely popular with the Canadian people prior to his abdication in 1936.” However, the Governor General and his wife there rejected Wallis, so the Duke ruled out Canada as the place for the couple to settle down in exile. In later years, the Windsors ended up back in France, where they entertained in Paris at Villa Windsor.
Both Couples Hobnobbed With Celebrities & Sought to Maintain Some Public Role & Funding
As with the Sussexes, the Windsors hobnobbed with celebrities. For Meghan and Harry, it’s Serena Williams and Amal Clooney. The Windsor dinner parties included celebrities and other non Royal figures of prominence like “Marlene Dietrich, Aristotle Onassis, Elizabeth Taylor, and the Aga Khan,” Town and Country reports.
Although their “half in, half out” desire to maintain some public role while being free to make money privately is not settled, Meghan and Harry made it clear on their website that they don’t intend to give up royal duties completely. They wrote: “It is with your encouragement, particularly over the last few years, that we feel prepared to make this adjustment. We now plan to balance our time between the United Kingdom and North America, continuing to honour our duty to The Queen, the Commonwealth, and our patronages. This geographic balance will enable us to raise our son with an appreciation for the royal tradition into which he was born, while also providing our family with the space to focus on the next chapter, including the launch of our new charitable entity. We look forward to sharing the full details of this exciting next step in due course, as we continue to collaborate with Her Majesty The Queen, The Prince of Wales, The Duke of Cambridge, and all relevant parties. Until then, please accept our deepest thanks for your continued support.”
They made it clear that money was a motivation. “In 2020, The Duke and Duchess of Sussex have made the choice to transition into a new working model. As they step back as senior members of the Royal Family and no longer receive funding through the Sovereign Grant, they will become members of the Royal Family with financial independence which is something they look forward to.”
When Edward abdicated, he worked out a financial deal with his brother, the new King, to get “£25,000 annually for the rest of his life,” according to the blog Royal Splendor, which adds that the King later offered him a smaller amount instead in exchange for Edward never returning to England without invitation.
Although Meghan and Harry have stated they are giving up the sovereign grant, they still demanded to live in Frogmore House, which is owned by the Queen, and they didn’t say they want to give up the millions of dollars that Harry receives from the Duchy of Cornwall. They also expected the public to pay for their security. Thus, it seems like they want some hand in the public till, and whether they will get it remains unclear.
Prince Charles doesn’t actually own the property in the Duchy of Cornwall. However, “his royal position enables him to receive income from it as the land’s sole beneficiary,” Reader’s Digest reports. According to The Independent, the Duchy “is a private estate that was established in 1337 by King Edward III.” As a result of this, some people, upset by the couple’s announcement, don’t believe they should still get this money if they’re not willing to perform the duties of senior royals.
Although Meghan and Harry indicated they wanted to collaborate with the Queen (a word choice getting some criticism) and still do some public duties (ill-defined at the moment), the Duke of Windsor was actually placed in a governing role during World War II as governor of the Bahamas. This was a move, though, done in part over concerns about his Nazi sympathies.
The Couples Are Different Politically, With the Duke of Windsor’s Nazi Sympathies a Great Concern
There are differences, of course. Namely, while Harry and Meghan present a “woke” liberal political outlook, crusading about the environment, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor infamously had Nazi ties. While it’s true Harry once dressed as a Nazi for a costume party (something he actually apologized for), and that’s clearly not an OK thing to do, it’s also a far cry from actually meeting Hitler, as the Duke and Duchess did.
Royal Historian Carolyn Harris told BBC, “There was no precedent for an abdicated sovereign assuming an active public role on behalf of the current sovereign and the Duke of Windsor was frustrated that he appeared to be expected to live a quiet life in exile.” That was one reason he agreed to go to Germany to meet Hitler, Harris told BBC. Royal biographer Andrew Morton said of the Duke of Windsor to BBC, “…he was certainly sympathetic… even after the war he thought Hitler was a good fellow and that he’d done a good job in Germany, and he was also anti-Semitic, before, during and after the war.”
On her website, Harris explained that “all previous monarchs who lost their thrones either endured a long imprisonment, in the manner of Mary, Queen of Scots, or a swift execution or murder, in the manner of Lady Jane Grey or Richard II.”
Harry, of course is not monarch and is likely to never be. There is precedent for other Royals having commercial ventures and private lives. Zara Tindall, the daughter of Princess Anne, comes to mind (she’s even an ambassador for Land Rover). However, she doesn’t have a title, isn’t a senior royal, and isn’t the child of the future King.
Wallis and Edward received their titles Duke and Duchess of Windsor after their marriage and his abdication; of course, the Queen bequeathed the titles Duke and Duchess of Sussex on Meghan and Harry after their marriage.
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