A popular, playful prince falls in love with a strong-willed US divorcee, who ends up vilified by a hostile British press. In Harry and Meghan, some royal watchers see echoes of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, the couple at the heart of the abdication crisis eight decades ago. But does the comparison hold up? It could do if the Duke and Duchess of Sussex end up reliving the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s tormented exile.
In December 1936, The King gave up his throne and an Empire of half a billion souls so he could wed a woman who was divorcing her second husband.
The public vitriol spewed on his bride-to-be, Wallis Simpson, might strike a chord with the latest American to marry into Britain’s royal family.
On top of being condemned as a social climber from a Baltimore, Maryland, row-house, Simpson was reviled as a cheap adventuress, a lesbian, a nymphomaniac, a Nazi spy and a hermaphrodite.
She was portrayed as a sexual enchantress who supposedly learned “ancient Chinese skills” in the brothels of Shanghai, where her first husband, a US Navy pilot, had been stationed.
But the media’s attacks on Simpson weren’t just in print.
Daily Express reporters hurled bricks through the window of her rented Regent’s Park, London, home, the newspaper’s owner, Lord Beaverbrook, would later acknowledge.
As the abdication crisis loomed, Simpson fled to France, pursued across the country by reporters to Cannes.
She evaded this “ravenous besieging army”, as she described them, in car chases and sometimes by crawling through bathroom windows.
Anne Sebba, author of That Woman, the Life of Wallis Simpson, says Harry and Meghan’s decision to step back from royal duties is nowhere near as constitutionally seismic given that Simpson was accused of almost destroying the British monarchy and Empire.
Sebba tells the BBC: “We’re not living in 1936 when people were terrified about divorced women.
“They thought it was going to herald a wicked society where everyone would get divorced.
“But the really big difference is that Edward was King and Harry is sixth in line to the throne – he’s never going to be King.”
Simpson received sack-loads of hate mail, much of it misogynistic.
She wrote in her memoirs: “There can be few expletives applicable to my sex that were missing from my morning tray.”
But some of the strongest invective came from other women.
According to Hugo Vickers’ biography, Behind Closed Doors, the Tragic, Untold Story of Wallis Simpson, The Queen once said: “The two people who have caused me the most trouble in my life are Wallis Simpson and Hitler.”
Continuing that theme, Simpson’s childhood friend, Mary Kirk, who married the royal consort’s cuckolded second husband, Ernest Simpson, wrote in a diary of her erstwhile love rival: “I think of her as people think of Hitler, an evil force… full of animal cunning”.
Princess Margaret referred to her uncle’s lover as “that ghastly woman”.
The popular narrative endures that Edward – as has been said of Harry – was a wimp manipulated by an ambitious and demanding lover.
But despite Simpson’s reputation as “the woman who stole The King”, Edward had always found royal duties unbearably tedious.
Like Meghan and Harry,