Wallis and Meghan – a tale of two abdications
There is a strong historical precedent for the ‘conscious uncoupling’ of the Sussexes
Ever since Prince Harry and Meghan Markle married in May 2018, the suspicion lingered that theirs was a union that would not proceed in the usual seamless fashion that the Royal Family – the so-called ‘Firm’ – demands. Although times have changed sufficiently for the King-to-be’s younger brother not to be expected to marry a virginal aristocrat from a grand English or European family, his choice of a divorced, mixed-race actress raised eyebrows in many circles, from smart chattering sets to Sun readers.
The Duchess of Sussex, as she was created, became a favourite target of the tabloids from the first rumours of her relationship with Harry. One can hardly blame them; not since Princess Diana had there been so much material to work with. There was the estranged father, happy to spill the beans at the first sight of a cheque, and the former husband. And, of course, there were persistent rumours of diva-like behaviour, which included Harry angrily announcing before the wedding ‘Whatever Meghan wants, Meghan gets’ and which led to a merry-go-round of personal assistants leaving her employment, shackled by watertight confidentiality agreements and, presumably, substantial payoffs.
All of this contributes to the gaiety of nations, but it is easy to forget, beneath the prurient tittle-tattle, that the health and happiness of a young family can be jeopardised by the intrusive attentions of a curious world. It was therefore not entirely surprising that, on 8 January 2020, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex released an extraordinary statement (via Instagram, naturally) in which they announced ‘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’.
Leaving aside the incongruity of anyone being able to adopt ‘progressive new roles’ within The Firm, Harry and Meghan stated that they would ‘step back as ‘senior’ members of the Royal Family’, before declaring their intention of being ‘financially independent’, something that would be enabled by their henceforth splitting their time between Britain and America. As David Beckham, the other prince who conquered the United States, found, a combination of an English accent and international fame can make for very lucrative opportunities.
The reaction in England has been predictable. Many have loudly announced their support for the beleaguered royal couple, decrying the racism that led to Markle’s persecution by the tabloid press, and wishing them continued success. Others, led by the indefatigable Piers Morgan, have decried the ‘royal hustlers’ as ‘deluded clowns’. Morgan, who has been snubbed by the Duchess of Sussex in some obscure but personally painful way, laid into Meghan with all the zeal of a discarded confidante, condemning her as ‘an unsavoury, manipulative social-climbing piece of work who has inveigled her way into Prince Harry’s heart and used his blind love as a platform to now destroy everything he once held so dear.’ In centuries past, this would have been treason; in 2020, it’s simply fair comment.
There are discussions being had about whether Britain is ready for a move towards a purely symbolic monarchy
Quieter but arguably wiser figures have murmured that the hasty, ill-thought-out announcement has caused more damage to Brand Sussex than it needed to. It would be good, they suggest, if this ‘financial independence’ began by paying the £2.5 million back that they obtained through public funds for the refurbishment of their grand home, the ‘HeirBnB’ Frogmore Cottage, and that it will be interesting to see what effect the voluntary removal of their royal status will have on their courtroom battle with the Mail on Sunday for invasion of privacy, to say nothing of the millions that will have to be spent on their ongoing security arrangements. There are also discussions being had in St James clubs and expensive restaurants about what will happen when the Queen finally dies, and whether Britain is ready for a move towards the monarchy becoming a purely symbolic institution, of no more import than Black Rod.
Most interestingly of all, Buckingham Palace – who had not been consulted or informed in any way – put out a terse, angry statement announcing ‘Discussions with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are at an early stage. We understand their desire to take a different approach, but these are complicated issues that will take time to work through.’ It was soon briefed that the Queen was ‘disappointed’ and ‘hurt’ by the announcement. Anyone who has experience of the Firm’s use of euphemisms will know that this is royal code for ‘absolutely livid and deeply embarrassed that, so soon after the Prince Andrew debacle, the petulant and attention-seeking Duke has caused another disaster.’
There is, of course, a strong historical precedent for this ‘conscious uncoupling’ of the Sussexes and their royal duties, although it is unclear whether either Harry or Meghan is aware of it. 1936, the so-called ‘year of the three kings’, saw George V die earlier than expected (his passing aided by an overdose of drugs by a sympathetic doctor, so his death would make the morning papers rather than the tawdrier evening ones) and the throne inherited by one of the least suitable figures ever to rule as King of England: Edward, Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII. Despite immense superficial charm and charisma, Edward was vain, petulant, obsessed by money and status and intellectually negligible.
If this has any parallels with any contemporary members of the Royal Family, his choice of partner seems even more apposite. Wallis Simpson was, when Edward first met her in 1931, a divorced American socialite married to a failed businessman. He, meanwhile, was a bored playboy with pronounced masochistic tendencies who could only obtain physical satisfaction when he was being dominated by strong women. The two pursued firstly a friendship and then a sexual affair (despite Edward frequently denying any carnal component to his father), but his unlooked-for accession to the throne in January 1936 meant that what had been kept out of public view could only be kept secret so long, despite the acquiescence of the press, led by the all-powerful, omniscient Lord Beaverbrook. Yet Wallis, who, as one courtier grumbled, ‘liked the good things in life’, was not content with a clandestine relationship. She wanted to be Queen, and expected that Edward would ensure that her wishes were granted. Whatever Wallis wanted, Wallis got. Plus ça change.
Of course, Britain never had Queen Wallis, mainly thanks to the clever political chicanery conducted by an alliance of politicians, courtiers and unsympathetic newspaper editors that ensured that Edward was all but forced into an abdication, but also due to the utter loathing that the general public felt for Wallis. In December 1936, when the events of the abdication were front page news in every country in the world, the sardonic chant ‘Hark the herald angels sing/Mrs Simpson’s pinched our King’ was heard on street corners, and her windows were smashed, forcing her into hiding in France, pursued by the press of the day. Many vented their outrage in letters, which are still preserved in various archives. One, from an American named Joe Longdon, was especially rich in homophobic and racial slurs, but spoke for a substantial section of opinion when it described Wallis – who was denigrated as a ‘mofradite [hermaphrodite] of the intravert type’ – as ‘the Queen of the Golden Grummet’, a contemporary euphemism for a dominatrix, and her relationship as Edward as ‘a blind or a stall to cover his own sexual malformation’.
Wallis’s greatest crimes in the public eye were to be middle-aged, a divorcee, overly interested in money and an American. That she would result in Britain losing a wholly unsuitable king, who would be replaced by the far more conscientious George VI, now seems a colossal blessing, not least because both Edward and Wallis had a sympathetic relationship with Hitler that was, at best, politically naïve and at worst treacherous. Prince Harry’s own penchant for dressing in Nazi attire for fancy dress balls aside, there was never any serious likelihood that he would become King, removing the danger of an unsuitable and unstable ruler turning the monarchy into his personal fiefdom. Certainly, his youthful frivolity has given way to a more contemplative, even angry attitude towards the world, offering candid reflections on his struggles with mental health and a desire to engage with climate change. Some have welcomed this woke awareness, but others have decried it as little more than celebrity preening, pointing out that his family’s colossal carbon footprint and private airline travel is doing immense harm to the environment.
The Duchess of Sussex, meanwhile, has been pilloried for her controlling and manipulative attitudes, with counter-accusations of racism and bigotry never too far from the surface. Calling a Hollywood actress entitled and spoilt is like describing a member of the Royal Family privileged; it may be true, but it is also naïve to expect anything else. Yet, if the responsibility for this second abdication of sorts does ultimately lie with Meghan rather than Harry, she might want to consider what eventually happened to Edward and Wallis, when they left England and became Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Rather than enjoying a life of luxury and idleness, they spent years squabbling with George VI about various allowances, and Edward ended up more or less estranged from his family. They spent decades travelling the world as exiles – the Ancient Mariner in Club Class – and made most of their money from ghost-written autobiographies that combined hints of revelation with self-pitying revisionism that cast them as star-crossed lovers cruelly treated by an uncomprehending ancien régime.
This perspective has always gone down well in America, which still has a sentimental view of the Windsors, and so it is little surprise that the Sussexes wish to make their home there. Certainly, their desired financial independence will be easier to obtain there than in a more sceptical Britain. And perhaps their lives will become happier and more fulfilled ones, without the angst-inducing stress of having to battle a semi-hostile press and public at all times. Yet precedent has not been kind to those who wish to escape The Firm. It may very well be that ‘What Meghan wanted, Meghan got’, and that, for the second time in a century, a self-assured American has managed to dominate a rather lost member of English royalty. It would take the sunniest of optimists to think that the outcome this time is going to be significantly better than it was on the previous occasion.
Alexander Larman is a writer and journalist whose next book is The Crown In Crisis: Countdown To The Abdication.
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