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Windsor [née Warfield; other married names Spencer, Simpson], (Bessie) Wallis, duchess of Windsorlocked

(1896–1986)

(Bessie) Wallis Windsor, duchess of Windsor (1896–1986)

by Dorothy Wilding, 1943

Windsor [née Warfield; other married names Spencer, Simpson], (Bessie) Wallis, duchess of Windsor (1896–1986), wife of Edward, duke of Windsor, was born on 19 June 1896 in Blue Ridge Summit, Pennsylvania, the only child of Teackle Wallis Warfield, an unsuccessful businessman, and his wife, Alice Montague. The Warfields and Montagues were of distinguished southern stock, but Wallis's parents were poor relations and her father died when she was only five months old. She spent her childhood in cheese-paring poverty, resentfully aware that her friends could afford nicer clothes and more lavish holidays. It seems reasonable to trace to this early deprivation the acquisitive streak which so strongly marked her character.

Though Wallis's jaw was too heavy for her to be counted beautiful, her fine violet-blue eyes and petite figure, quick wits, vitality, and capacity for total concentration on her interlocutor ensured that she had many admirers. When only nineteen she fell in love with a naval aviator, Lieutenant Earl Winfield Spencer (d. 1950), son of Earl Winfield Spencer, a member of the Chicago stock exchange, and married him on 8 November 1916. It proved a disastrous match. Spencer's promising career disintegrated as he took to drink and Wallis, whose tolerance of weakness was never conspicuous, became increasingly alienated. While they were in Washington in 1922 they decided to separate, and when Spencer was given command of a gunboat in the Far East she remained behind, enjoying a flamboyant liaison with an Argentine diplomat.

In 1924 Wallis joined her husband in China, but the reunion was not a success and they divorced in December 1927. By then she had already won the affections of Ernest Aldrich Simpson, whose own marriage was breaking up; he was the businessman son of an English father (Ernest Simpson, shipbroker and head of the firm of Simpson, Spence, and Young) and an American mother. She joined him in London, where he was managing the office of his family shipping company, and they married on 2 July 1928. Most of their friends were in the American colony in London; among them Benjamin Thaw of the US embassy, his wife, Consuelo, and her younger sister Thelma, Viscountess Furness. Lady Furness was at that time mistress of the prince of Wales, and it was in her house at Melton Mowbray that Mrs Simpson, on 10 January 1931, met the man who was to become her third husband [see Edward VIII].

The precise nature of Mrs Simpson's appeal to the prince of Wales could only be understood by him; probably he hardly understood it himself. It is sufficient to say that by early 1934 the prince had become slavishly dependent on her and was to remain so until he died. The courtiers at first thought that this was just another of his recurrent infatuations, but throughout 1935 they became increasingly alarmed as her role became more prominent and impinged on the performance of his duties. It seems unlikely that Mrs Simpson seriously entertained the possibility that she might become queen; indeed, all the indications are that she enjoyed her role of maîtresse en titre and would have been satisfied to retain it. The prince, however, convinced himself that his happiness depended on securing Mrs Simpson as his wife. From his accession to the throne on 20 January 1936 his main preoccupation was to bring this about.

Edward VIII's reign was marked by swelling scandal as his relationship with Mrs Simpson became more widely known. The cruise which the couple undertook in the yacht Nahlin around the eastern Mediterranean in September 1936 attracted keen interest everywhere except in the British Isles, where the press maintained a discreet silence. It was, however, the Simpsons' imminent divorce which convinced the prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, that he was faced by a serious constitutional crisis. On 20 October he confronted Edward at the king's country house, Fort Belvedere, but it was only a month later that Edward VIII stated categorically that he intended to marry Mrs Simpson. Baldwin was convinced that this must lead to abdication; the king played with the idea of a morganatic marriage, a solution that would certainly have appealed to Mrs Simpson, but was determined to renounce the throne if that was the price he had to pay.

Once Mrs Simpson realized that marriage to her would cost the king his throne, she tried to change his resolve. Anticipating much hostile publicity when the story broke in the United Kingdom, she retreated first to Fort Belvedere, and then to the south of France. From there, in a series of distraught telephone calls, she tried to persuade Edward not to abdicate, even if this meant giving her up. She accomplished nothing; this was the only subject on which she was unable to dominate her future husband.

On 10 December 1936 Edward VIII abdicated, became his royal highness the duke of Windsor, and went into exile. There followed six months of separation while Mrs Simpson was waiting for her decree absolute (3 May 1937) before, on 3 June 1937, the couple were married at the Château de Candé in Touraine. No member of the royal family was present and the new duchess, on doubtful legal grounds, was denied the title of her royal highness. The refusal of her husband's relatives to accept her as part of the family caused embittered and undying resentment in the duchess.

Until the outbreak of the Second World War the Windsors lived mainly in Austria and France. The duchess accompanied her husband on his visit to Germany in 1937; it was popularly believed that she had fascist sympathies and it has even been claimed that she worked for German intelligence, but there is no evidence that she held any considered political views, still less indulged in such activities. When war broke out in 1939 she returned with the duke to Britain and then to France. When the Germans overran France in June 1940 the Windsors escaped into Spain and thence to Portugal. From there they left for the Bahamas, where the duke took up the post of governor in August 1940.

The duchess hated their five years in Nassau and made no secret of her views to those close to her, but on the whole she performed the duties of governor's lady conscientiously and well. She entertained stylishly and went through the rituals of opening bazaars and inspecting hospitals with unexpected grace. Her happiest weeks, however, were spent on shopping expeditions in the United States, and she was much criticized for irresponsible extravagance at a time when Britain was under assault.

After the war the Windsors settled in France and their life became a dreary—though to the duchess, presumably, satisfying—merry-go-round that featured principally Antibes, Paris, New York, and Palm Beach. The duchess entertained lavishly and was counted among the best dressed and most fashionable figures in international society. Some of her friends were raffish, a few even vicious, but it was the sterility of her life that was most remarkable. Though her husband resumed a somewhat cool relationship with his mother and siblings, the duchess was never received by the royal family and remained fiercely hostile to them. In 1956 she published her memoirs, The Heart has its Reasons, an on the whole good-tempered and balanced book, which was largely ghosted but still reflected fairly her wit and considerable common sense. When the duke died on 28 May 1972 she was invited to Buckingham Palace, but it was too late for the reconciliation to mean much to her. The last fourteen years of her life were spent in increasing decrepitude; during the final five she lived in total seclusion. She died at her home, 4 rue du Champ d'Entraînement, near Paris, on 24 April 1986 and was buried beside her husband in the royal burial-ground at Frogmore.

Sources

  • The heart has its reasons: the memoirs of the duchess of Windsor (1956)
  • R. G. Martin, The woman he loved (1974)
  • P. Ziegler, King Edward VIII: the official biography (1990)
  • Wallis and Edward: letters, 1931–1937, ed. M. Bloch (1986)
  • The Times (25 April 1986)
  • private information (1996)

Archives

  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Lord Monckton

Film

  • BFINA, documentary footage; news footage

Sound

  • BL NSA, ‘Duke and duchess’, BBC Radio 4, 4 March 1970, P555W

Likenesses

  • C. Beaton, photographs, 1930–37, NPG
  • B. Park, photograph, 1931, NPG
  • G. L. Brockhurst, oils, 1939, NPG
  • D. Wilding, photograph, 1943, NPG [see illus.]
  • I. Benn, photograph, 1948, NPG
  • I. Penn, photograph, 1948, NPG
  • H. Cartier-Bresson, photograph, 1951, NPG
  • H. Cartier-Bresson, photograph, 1951, NPG
  • R. Avedon, photograph, 1957, NPG
  • Y. Karsh, photographs, 1971, NPG
  • D. Wilding, photographs, NPG
  • photographs, NPG

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