On July 9, 1936 King Edward VIII hosted his second official dinner at his residence, Fort Belvedere. In attendance were his brother and sister-in-law, the Duke and Duchess of York, Winston Churchill, and his long-time “companion,” Mrs. Wallis Simpson sans her husband, Mr. Ernest Simpson. The event was published in the Court Circular, which caused a bit of a stir because it made it appear as though, by socializing with them, the Yorks were condoning Edward’s relationship with Wallis.
The summer of 1936 was the midway point of Edward’s brief reign. He was making it clear that Wallis was important to him, and that he wouldn’t be setting her aside now that he was king, but the abdication talks were not yet in full-force.
But the relationship between Edward and his brother was growing more and more strained, a fact that had not escaped the notice of court or members of the King’s government. One particularly awkward exchange between Churchill and the Duchess of York was overheard by another guest, Helen Hardinge.
As captured by Sarah Bradford in her biography of the Duke of York (later George VI):
“Churchill’s subject was the unfortunately topical one of George IV and his secret wife, Mrs. Fitzherbert. The Duchess was patently not in the mood for that particular subject. ‘Well, that was a *long* time ago,’ she said repressively.
‘The Duchess had a sort of warning expression on her face that would have deterred anyone less obsessed by his own powers of oratory than Churchill,’ Helen Hardinge recalled in an interview forty years later.
But Churchill, absorbed in the train of his own thoughts, went on to the royal civil wars between the Houses of Lancaster and of York – which could have been taken, and undoubtedly was by the Duchess, as a reference to the estrangement between the King, who was about to use his title as Duke of Lancaster on his Mediterranean cruise with Wallis later that month, and the Yorks. ‘That was a very, *very* long time ago,’ she said.
‘The Duchess of York’s second answer to Churchill was emphatic, verging on sharpness, which was quite unlike her,’ Helen Hardinge said. ‘Even Churchill could not mistake her meeting.’
At the Fort, according to one witness, a “Life of Mrs. Fitzherbert was seen with the chapter relating to her marriage to the then Prince of Wales marked.
Now, what Churchill was referring to was the so-called “secret marriage” between George IV and his long-time mistress, Maria Fitzherbert, which reportedly took place on December 15, 1785 in the drawing room of Fitzherbert’s home. Both parties were well-aware the marriage was illegal thanks to the Royal Marriages Act of 1772, which required George, then Prince of Wales, to have the permission of his sovereign in order to marry.They were also well-aware that the Prince wouldn’t receive such permission for Fitzherbert, who was a twice-widowed Catholic and six years older than George.
It was Fitzherbert’s Catholicism, more than anything, that would likely have barred her from being accepted as Princess of Wales. The last time England had seen a Catholic queen was Mary of Modena, who had supported the Catholicism of her husband, James II, and both had been deposed in the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688. One hundred years later, Catholics were still viewed uneasily and restrictions remained in place that affected their ability to hold certain offices.
That Edward VIII or Wallis would have identified with George and Fitzherbert isn’t surprising, but it is that they would have considered this relationship some sort of template. The couple maintained a relationship for another decade before Fitzherbert was unceremoniously dumped via letter so that George could go on to contract a “real” marriage with a suitable German princess, his cousin, Caroline of Brunswick. That marriage was an unmitigated disaster and it wouldn’t be too long before George came crawling back – one, and only one, legal heir secured.
Three days after the birth of his daughter, Princess Charlotte, George wrote his will, in which he pointedly bequeathed all his “worldly property” to Fitzherbert and not Caroline. By 1798 George and Caroline had unofficially separated, Pope Pius VII (for obvious reasons) declared the secret marriage valid, and George returned to Fitzherbert. She would be deserted again once George ascended the throne in 1820 and relations would turn permanently sour. Though, on his deathbed in June 1830, her well wishes were delivered to him in a handwritten note and George seized them and placed them under his pillow. Indeed, given the intensity of his hatred for Caroline, his relationship with Fitzherbert was truly the only marriage he knew.
So, what lessons could be gleaned from their story in 1936? If anything, it reads like a warning story for Wallis, though we know that Edward was no George and would eventually give up the throne to marry her. Perhaps its study was only to suss out the legal roadblocks they might face, or how the public reacted to the relationship. Or, less interesting but certainly more relatable, they simply identified with a king not being allowed to be with the woman he loved.