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King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson

Edward, Duke of Windsor and his wife the Duchess of Windsor in 1945

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Bessie "Bessiewallis" Wallis Warfield was born in 1896 in the seaside resort town of Blue Ridge Summit, Pa. Her first marriage was in 1916, to an alcoholic Navy aviator named Earl Winfield Spencer, Jr. Over the course of several separations and affairs, the couple spent time all over the globe, hobnobbing and climbing social ladders. She charmed people left and right. According to one diplomat's wife, the only Mandarin Wallis learned during her Asiatic travels was "Boy, pass me the champagne." They were finally divorced in 1927 [source: Sebba].

By July of the next year, her next husband -- shipping magnate Ernest Simpson -- had left his wife and daughter, and he and Wallis were married in London. And thank goodness, since her family's money was lost in the Wall Street Crash. Right about then, Wallis's unlikely-named friend Consuelo Thaw introduced her to her sister, the similarly unlikely-named Lady Thelma Furness, who was the mistress of Edward, Prince of Wales. From 1931 to 1933, husband Ernest steadily losing money, Wallis and Edward became quite close [source: Sebba]. Lady Furness went to New York in January 1934, and you can guess what happened next.

By the end of 1934, Edward was devoted to Mrs. Simpson, apparently finding her iconoclastic personality just the thing for his repressed royal existence. Given that she was twice-divorced, Buckingham Palace was none too impressed -- divorced people were generally not even admitted to court in those days -- but Edward pampered her, taking her on holiday all over Europe and neglecting his official duties.

On Jan. 20, 1936, King George V died, and King Edward VIII ascended the throne. The British government, and his family, were none too impressed by his continued courting with Wallis, but he was besotted. It wasn't until 2002 that the Church of England allowed divorced people to remarry -- the reason Henry VIII had all those troubles regarding his wives, remember -- and the King is the head of the Church, so there's that whole issue.

But after Wallis filed for her second divorce, Edward was still looking for answers. Several prime ministers throughout the Commonwealth rejected a compromise that would have had Edward as King but not Wallis as Queen, known as a morganatic marriage, and the British government threatened to resign if he kept going through with it. The scandal drove Wallis to Cannes, where she was hounded by members of the court, and eventually she gave a statement renouncing Edward, but the King wouldn't give up. In December of 1936, the King finally abdicated, opening the throne to his brother: King George VI [source: Norton-Taylor and Evans].

A year-and-a-half later, the couple was finally reunited, free and clear, in Monts, France. And for a wedding gift, King George made them Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Which really came in handy in the years leading up to World War II, when her abject racism and Nazi sympathies lost her any slim social standing she'd managed to retain [source: Evans and Hencke]. Edward and Wallis were never allowed to return to England.

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