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Wallis Warfield Simpson: Baltimore’s Would-Be Queen


"Duke and Duchess of Windsor." Unknown photographer. Undated. MS 1772, MdHS.

“Duke and Duchess of Windsor.” Unknown photographer, undated. MS 1772, MdHS. (Reference photo)

On December 11, 1936, Britain’s king made a live broadcast on BBC Radio in which he publicly abdicated the throne. Edward VIII, or David as he was known to family, had been the heir to the British Empire since his birth in 1894. However, after the death of his father George V in 1936, David shocked the world by announcing his intention to marry Wallis Warfield Simpson, an American divorcée from Baltimore, Maryland. For a monarch, marriage to a divorced person was prohibited. The abdication crisis proved to be one of the most controversial periods in British history. Who was this woman who had driven the king to choose love over duty?

Bessie Wallis Warfield (thereafter known as Wallis), was born on June 19, 1896, in a small resort town called Blue Ridge Summit along the Pennsylvania and Maryland border. Her parents, Alice Montague and Teackle Wallis Warfield, had retired there for the summer from Baltimore for the benefit of her father, who suffered from tuberculosis. When the Warfields returned to Baltimore, Teackle Wallis’s health continued to decline, and by November he was dead. His baby daughter and widowed wife were then invited to move into the Warfield family home at 34 East Preston Street.[1]

Wallis grew up among the elite of Baltimore society. She received a prestigious education from multiple private institutions, including Arundell School for Girls and Oldfields, an expensive and fashionable boarding school in Glencoe, Maryland. After graduating from Oldfields in 1914, Wallis joined the other Baltimore debutantes in their “coming out” season. While the First World War raged across the Atlantic, Wallis and her friends donned white dresses, attended luncheons, and danced at cotillions, hoping to be considered eligible for marriage. Wallis described this time in her memoir, The Heart Has Its Reasons: “We spent endless hours on the telephone, in prattle with our friends; a whirl of pre-debut luncheons at each other’s houses; teatime dances and chitchat at the Belvedere Hotel, again with the same crowd – and always a mad rush from one enormously important trifle to another.”[2]

"Address book of Oldfields school acquaintances." c. 1910. Vertical file, MdHS.

“Address book of Oldfields school acquaintances.” c. 1910. Manuscript vertical file, MdHS. (Reference photo)

Wallis, it turned out, did not find a husband in Baltimore during that dazzling debutante season. She did, however, embark on a series of grand adventures that would take her around the world and into the social circles of many prominent figures of the day. In 1916 she married Earl Winfield Spencer, Jr., known to his friends as Win, a dashing American naval pilot she met while visiting relatives in Pensacola, Florida. The life of a navy wife was ill-suited to Wallis, whose love of refinery clashed with the “rented bungalows and tasteless Government housing” she inhabited when she trailed her husband from base to base.[3] The couple lived in San Diego, Boston, Washington, D.C., and finally China before they divorced in 1928.

By the time she was a free woman, Wallis had already set her sights on her second husband, British-American shipbroker Ernest Simpson. Ernest and Wallis were both divorced, a fact that was hard to overlook in respectable society. Her own uncle, Solomon Warfield, president of the Continental Trust Company of Baltimore, had excluded her from his will for that very reason. But Wallis and Ernest got on well, and while they were not passionately in love with one another, they carved out a comfortable existence in their London residence. This existence soon took on a more exciting quality as the couple found themselves increasingly within the social orbit of David, the Prince of Wales.

There were weekends spent at the prince’s country estate, evenings at the Embassy Club, and private dinners at the Simpsons’ own residence at Bryanston Court. They even received an invitation to the wedding of the Prince of Wales’s younger brother, Prince George, to Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark in November 1934. “It seemed unbelievable that I, Wallis Warfield of Baltimore, Maryland, could be part of this enchanted world,” Wallis recalled.[4]

By 1935, Wallis and Ernest’s marriage had begun to fray. The Simpsons continued to receive invitations to social functions as a couple; however, more often than not, Ernest excused himself while Wallis eagerly accepted. With her husband absent, Wallis spent more time alone with David, and he began to rely on her guidance and opinion. Most importantly, she made him happy – a feeling the young prince had not often enjoyed during his royal upbringing.

When George V died in January 1936, David suddenly became Edward VIII, inheriting all of the duties and responsibilities of kingship. Wallis, although she had begun divorce proceedings against Ernest, was still a married woman, and thus found herself the subject of international gossip as the king continued to rely heavily on her friendship and counsel. In fact, his dependence on her during this time caused his feelings to deepen, and he began to seriously consider marriage to Wallis.

While Wallis reciprocated the king’s feelings, she was hesitant for him to take any drastic  action. At the time, it was unprecedented for a monarch to marry a divorced person, especially if that person’s spouse was still alive. Wallis not only had one spouse alive, but two! Furthermore, her brash, American style of dress and manner rankled the conservative members of the royal family. Yet David persisted in his determination to marry her and have her crowned beside him at his coronation. By December of 1936, the crisis had reached its peak. The king’s government refused to accept Wallis as a wife for the king, and the king refused to give her up. The only option left open to him was to step down.

"King Abdicates, Gives Up Throne for Wallis' Love." Daily Mirror. December 10, 1936. MS 1938, MdHS.

“King Abdicates, Gives Up Throne for Wallis’ Love.” Daily Mirror, December 10, 1936. MS 1938, MdHS. (Reference photo)

In December 1936, Edward VIII became the only monarch in British history to voluntarily give up his claim to the throne. As he famously said in his final broadcast, “I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility, and to discharge my duties as king as I would wish to do, without the help and support of the woman I love.”[5] David and Wallis married in June 1937, six months after his younger brother became George VI. While the new king granted David the title of Duke of Windsor (also making Wallis a duchess), his new wife was prohibited from styling herself as Her Royal Highness, effectively excluding her from the royal family.

That year, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor left England, never to live there again. They made their home in Paris, while traveling frequently between Europe and America. Prior to the outbreak of World War II, the couple made a highly publicized visit to Nazi Germany, against the advice of the British government. They met Adolf Hitler, dined with high-ranking Nazi officials, and the Duke was seen giving full Nazi salutes. To prevent further interference in politics, George VI appointed David as Governor of the Bahamas in 1940, a post that he retained until 1945. Wallis remained by his side, attending charitable functions, hosting dinners, and assisting David with his duties.

In October 1941, the Duke and Duchess made a trip to Baltimore. This was the first time Wallis had returned home since her royal marriage, and the public turned out in droves to catch a glimpse of her. An estimated 200,000 people lined the city streets to welcome the Duke and Duchess. The couple rode into the city in an open car with Baltimore’s mayor, Howard W. Jackson. At city hall, Jackson made a speech to the assembled crowd. He declared: “Until the day of victory comes, and come it must, and always after that, we hope both of you will continue to regard Baltimore as another home, where you will always find peace and happiness.”[6] The couple indeed made many return visits to the city, always receiving a warm welcome.

"Baltimore Society Welcomes the Duke and Duchess." The Washington Post and Times Herald. January 16, 1955. MS 2927, MdHS.

“Baltimore Society Welcomes the Duke and Duchess.” The Washington Post and Times Herald, January 16, 1955. MS 2927, MdHS. (Reference photo)

By the time the Duke of Windsor died in 1972, the couple had been married for nearly 35 years. In the final pages of her memoir, Wallis reminisced on her life: “Any woman who has been loved as I have been loved, and who, too, has loved, has experienced life in its fullness.”[7] From Baltimore debutante, to navy wife, to the woman who incited a constitutional crisis, Wallis’s life was nothing short of spectacular. She died in 1986 at the age of 89 and was buried beside her husband at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle.

To learn more about the life of this extraordinary woman, visit the Maryland Historical Society library and museum. We have a collection of the Duchess’s papers as well as a number of photographs and scrapbooks. Our costume collection also has several pieces from Wallis’s iconic wardrobe. Look out for the famous Wallis Simpson “Monkey Dress” and a three-piece ensemble by Madam Gres she wore to Thailand on display in the Spectrum of Fashion exhibition, opening on October 5, 2019.

(Mallory Herberger, Special Collections Archivist)


[1] Greg King, The Duchess of Windsor: The Uncommon Life of Wallis Simpson (London: Aurum Press, 1999), 14.

[2] The Duchess of Windsor, The Heart Has Its Reasons: The Memoirs of the Duchess of Windsor (London: Michael Joseph, 1956), 39.

[3] Ibid., 72.

[4] Ibid., 192.

[5] King, 239.

[6] Ibid., 364.

[7] Windsor, 358.