The big news this week has been the engagement of Britain’s Prince Harry to American actress Meghan Markle, with the wedding scheduled for May at Windsor Castle. Although Prince Harry is currently fifth in line to inherit the throne (after his father, Prince Charles, elder brother Prince William, and nephew George and niece Charlotte), and thus this marriage won’t have political ramifications, the engagement is important in a symbolic way: the British royal family, widely regarded as stuffy, intolerant, and tradition-bound, is now welcoming into their family a divorced, bi-racial, American actress. (Although I can’t help wondering what Meghan’s African-American maternal grandparents think of welcoming a blue-eyed, red-haired Englishman into their family!). Given the attitudes of the royal family in the past to interlopers or rogue relatives, the official approval of the engagement is momentous.
The importance to royal families of choosing the right marriage partner, though, has had very interesting effects in the past. Certainly, the experience of Harry’s father, Charles, in finding the right consort was a lesson in what can go wrong. Charles fell in love as a young man with Camilla Parker-Bowles, but he took so long in deciding to propose that she married someone else. Charles eventually gave in to the pressure of his parents, and married a young woman who seemed, at least on paper, to have all the right credentials: of noble ancestry (Spencers), young, innocent, and photogenic. Yet, apparently within weeks of their marriage in July of 1981, it became obvious to friends, family, and the couple themselves, Charles and Diana, that this was no fairy-tale romance. Eventually, after producing two sons (William and Harry), the couple divorced, but only after Charles had been forced to publicly admit he was still seeing his old flame Camilla. Diana, of course, was a media superstar up until her tragic death in a car crash in 1997. (And Charles has since married Camilla, who is known as the Duchess of Cornwall).
Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, the monarch and her husband, perhaps had been so desirous of Charles choosing the right woman to marry because of a previous royal scandal that had significant political ramifications – the decision by Elizabeth’s uncle, King Edward VIII, in 1936 to marry an American divorcee, Wallis Warfield Simpson.
Edward VIII was the handsome, charming, and somewhat lazy eldest son of King George V. He loved sports, particularly hunting and horseback riding, parties, and beautiful women. Known as the Prince of Wales, he also loved to travel, so as a young man he was regularly sent abroad by his father to visit nations within the British commonwealth. Young women in particular crowded train stations and parade routes to see this “prince charming”.
But, much to his parents’ despair, the Prince seemed to prefer the company of married women, and seemed in no hurry to marry a suitable woman and produce an heir to the throne. In the mid 1930s, one of his mistresses introduced him to the wife of an English businessman, and the Prince and the American divorcee, Wallis Warfield Simpson, became inseparable. Of course, the King and Queen were horrified, and even banned any mention of “that woman” in their household, and British newspapers also agreed not to write anything of the affair. American journalists were fascinated, however, and by mid-1935 ran flattering and not-so-flattering stores and photos of the couple vacationing in the Mediterranean, golfing together in France, and partying with their friends in England.
King George died in January of 1936, and very quickly his Cabinet of advisers became concerned with the new king’s behavior. Not only was he indiscreet with his new paramour, but he also seemed too friendly with certain Nazis. He and Wallis actually visited Hitler and both were very impressed with him and his “New Germany.”
Granted, Edward was not the only Brit who was very friendly with the Nazis; there was a large group of the British aristocracy that also was pro-German, but Edward’s inability to look beyond the carefully choreographed facade of Hitler and his regime was very troubling to a number of British politicians.
In the autumn of 1936, though, the tipping point was reached when British newspapers decided to reveal the romance between the King and the now divorced (again) American. Edward tried to get Parliament to approve of his marriage to Wallis, but she remained unacceptable to Parliament and his family. So, in December 1936, Edward went on the radio to announce that if he could not have the “Woman I Love” next to him as his wife, he didn’t want to be king. He abdicated and handed off the throne to his younger brother, George VI (father of Queen Elizabeth). He and Wallis married quietly in June 1937 in France.
Apparently, though, Edward, now formally known as the Duke of Windsor, thought he still could have all of the rights and privileges of a king, and he spent the rest of his life trying to wring more money and respect from his family. When WWII began, he went back into the army, stationed in Paris, but when the Germans attacked France, he and Wallis packed up their belongings and fled to their home on the Riviera, much to the embarrassment of the British royal family. He and Wallis then went to Spain, where they became the center of a German plot to kidnap them and put them on the British throne after the Nazi’s planned conquest of England – although there is evidence that Edward was not so much a victim of the plot as a collaborator in it. By the summer of 1940, the British government decided to move the troublesome Duke of Windsor and his bride across the pond to the Bahamas.
The Duke and Duchess of Windsor returned to Paris after the war, and remained very active on the party set. He died in 1972, still angry with his family’s poor treatment of Wallis. She died in Paris in 1989. However, the Duke’s sister-in-law, the Queen Mother, never forgave the Duke for abandoning his duty to be king; she, and to some degree, her daughter Queen Elizabeth II, also blamed the Duke for the premature death of King George VI, who had to shoulder the responsibilities of a job – king – that he felt unprepared for. Both women were very sensitive to public opinion, and both also were deeply committed to public service, and thus marriage choices were not to be made lightly.
So, indeed, it is remarkable that Prince Harry will be marrying Meghan Markle – or maybe it isn’t so remarkable, given that we’re in the second decade of the 21st century.