What Go Around Comes Around...
The parallels between Prince Harry and his great-granduncle Edward VIII, who left the British throne for an American divorcée, go far beyond their wives
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle decided to take a "step back" from the royal family in 2020.
King Edward VIII, Harry's great-granduncle, gave up the throne to marry Wallis Simpson in 1936.
Both Markle and Simpson found themselves at the center of constant scrutiny from the British press.
Once upon a time — in 1936, to be exact — a king who had once been a popular prince gave up the British throne to marry an American divorcée he had fallen madly in love with.
Fast-forward 84 years and a similar story played out in the British tabloids, albeit with a few different key details. Prince Harry is not a king, he was allowed to marry the American divorcée he loved, and his initial decision to take a "step back" from the royal family likely won't change the succession to the throne.
And yet, there are still many similarities in the stories of King Edward VIII and Prince Harry, both of whom watched as their popularity in the press turned to intense scrutiny as they fell in love with American women.
Before he was crowned king in 1936, and during his short reign on the throne, Edward had been well-liked by the public.
Edward poses while a young girl takes his photograph during his royal tour in 1919. Central Press/Getty Images
"Charming and informal, he was a popular prince touring Britain and the empire, fond of golf, tennis, parties, and dancing," according to The History Press.
When Edward died in 1972, The New York Times remembered him as a "romantic and carefree Prince Charming blessed with the common touch" during his youth.
"Edward VIII had been a king of great popularity. The abdication that caused a worldwide sensation visibly distressed his subjects," the Times' Robert Alden added.
Prince Harry was voted the second most popular royal in 2019, only behind Queen Elizabeth.
Prince Harry pets a dog as he greets the crowds ahead of the Invictus Games on September 23, 2017 in Toronto, Canada Chris Jackson/Getty Images for the Invictus Games Foundation
Fresh off his fairytale wedding to Meghan Markle, Prince Harry actually topped a royal poll in 2018. He was deemed likable by 77% of respondents in the YouGov poll, followed by the Queen (74%), and Prince William (73%).
Survey respondents described him as "admirable, likeable, humorous, fun-loving, and genuine."
Prince Harry fell to the second spot in the same survey in 2019, but was still deemed likeable by 71% of the respondents. Prince William came in third with 69%.
Throughout his youth, Edward was more known for his love of dancing and music than any inclination towards school.
A drawing, based on a radio description, of Edward (center) dancing on board the liner Berengaria on his way to the US for a Royal Visit in September 1924. Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
"Edward did not excel academically," according to his New York Times obituary. "He proved more interested in his banjo than in his books."
Diary entries from the future king, also obtained by the Times, referenced his penchant for partying late into the night.
"My dancing is improving, I got in at 4," one reads.
"I have had not more than eight hours' sleep in the last 72 hours!" he proclaims in another.
Prince Harry admitted he never enjoyed school, and became infamous for his partying ways during his youth.
British daily newspapers photographed on August 23, 2012 shows the front-page headlines and stories regarding nude pictures of Prince Harry. DANIEL SORABJI/AFP via Getty Images
"I didn't enjoy school at all," the prince said during a visit to a Cape Town youth center in 2015. "When I was at school, I wanted to be the bad boy."
Prince Harry got swept up in a number of scandals during his 20s, including wearing a Nazi costume to a friend's party and wearing nothing at all during a game of strip poker at a private party in Las Vegas. Pictures from both incidents were leaked to the press.
But both princes changed their ways after they joined the army and became passionate about their military careers.
Edward pictured on the Italian Front during World War I. Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images
Edward, who trained for the Royal Navy, was commissioned into the army after World War I began in 1914. The young Prince of Wales was desperate to be on the front lines, but the Secretary of State for War at the time, Herbert Kitchener, refused.
"What difference is it if I am killed? The king has four other sons," Edward once asked Kitchener, according to the Times obituary.
"If I were certain you would be killed, sir, I don't know whether I should be right to restrain you," Kitchener responded. "What cannot permit is the chance of the enemy securing you as his prisoner."
Edward was eventually allowed to serve in France. Although he was "never permitted in the front lines for long, he was under fire several times and performed his duty well," the obituary reads.
The future king later told his father that the reason he didn't wear his military medals was because he had "always been kept well out of danger" during the war.
"I feel so ashamed to wear medals which I only have because of my position, where there are so many thousands of gallant officers, who lead a terrible existence in the trenches and who have been in battles of the fiercest kind (many severely wounded or sick as a result) who have not been decorated," reads the letter, which was published in the Times.
Prince Harry was likewise proud of his military career and, much like his great-granduncle, was outspoken about his desire to serve on the front lines.
Prince Harry sits on his camp bed in the Helmand province of Southern Afghanistan in 2008. John Stillwell - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images
In May 2005, a 20-year-old Prince Harry began training as an Officer Cadet at The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, according to the Royal Family's website.
In January 2006, he joined the Blues and Royals, the second-most senior regiment in the British Army. That same year it was reported that the Blues and Royals would be deployed to Iraq — and Prince Harry had already made it clear he wanted to go as well.
"The last thing I want to do is have my soldiers away to Iraq or wherever like that and for me to be held back home," he said during a 2005 television interview.
But it would be three years until the British Army finally gave Prince Harry his wish, fearing that a highly-publicized deployment would put his fellow troops at risk. When the prince went to Afghanistan in 2008, the British press agreed not to report the news, according to Esquire.
During his 10-year career in the Army, Prince Harry served two tours in Afghanistan and ultimately received the rank of Captain. But the Army also gave the prince an escape from the pressures that came with being a royal.
"It's very easy to forget who I am when I am in the army," he told The Guardian in 2013. "Everyone's wearing the same uniform and doing the same kind of thing. I get on well with the lads and I enjoy my job. It really is as simple as that."
Unlike their brothers, Edward and Prince Harry became known for their bachelor status and numerous relationships.
Prince Harry and British model Cressida Bonas attend a charity event together on March 7, 2014 in London. Karwai Tang/WireImage
Both Prince William and King George VI, who took the throne after Edward abdicated, married when they were 28 years old.
Prince Harry did not marry Meghan Markle until he was 33, and Edward didn't tie the knot with Wallis Simpson until he was 42.
During his time as Prince of Wales, Edward was "linked at one time or another with the names of most of the world's eligible princesses," according to the Times.
Harry likewise had a string of famous flings and relationships, including British TV presenter Caroline Flack, British singer Mollie King, and British model Cressida Bonas. He was also linked to pop star Ellie Goulding.
Edward and Prince Harry both met the American woman who would change their life through mutual friends.
Edward and Simpson in Sussex, England, in 1939. Evening Standard/Getty Images
Edward met Wallis Simpson during a weekend party at the home of Lady Furness — a married American woman who was said to be the prince's mistress — in January 1931.
Simpson and her husband, Ernest Simpson, were actually invited by chance after a married couple who had been on Lady Furness' guest list fell ill, according to The History Press.
In his 1951 autobiography "A King's Story," Edward revealed that he hadn't made a great first impression on Wallis. The prince tried to strike up a conversation with the American socialite by asking if she missed her native country's central heating.
"I am sorry, sir, but you have disappointed me," she replied. "Every American woman who comes to your country is always asked the same question. I had hoped for something more original from the Prince of Wales."
Harry had far more luck when he first met Markle after a mutual friend set them up on a blind date in July 2016.
The prince later revealed that he knew the American actress was the one from "the very first time we met."
Edward and Simpson were friends for years before they tied the knot, while Harry and Markle had a whirlwind romance.
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle at their engagement photo call in November 2017. Chris Jackson/Getty Images
Simpson had made an impression on the Prince of Wales after that fateful first encounter. The pair would meet again at an event in Buckingham Palace, during which Edward said he was "struck by the grace of her carriage and the natural dignity of her movements," according to his autobiography.
Rumors swirled around the couple as their relationship deepened over the years, though none ever made it to the British press until almost just before Edward's abdication thanks to "governmental persuasions and pressures," according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.
But within the royal family, tensions were boiling. Then everything came to a head when Simpson obtained a preliminary decree of divorce on October 27, 1936 (more on that later).
It was a far different courtship for Prince Harry and Markle. The couple only kept their relationship under wraps for four months before the prince issued a public statement confirming that Markle was his girlfriend as he condemned the media's treatment of her.
"Prince Harry is worried about Ms. Markle's safety and is deeply disappointed that he has not been able to protect her," part of the November 2016 statement reads. "It is not right that a few months into a relationship with him that Ms. Markle should be subjected to such a storm."
A year later, they were engaged.
Edward, now king, had almost no support after he made it clear that he had every intention to marry Wallis.
King Edward VIII is pictured here just before giving his abdication speech to the people of Great Britain on December 11, 1936. Bob Thomas/Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images
Both Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and the queen told Edward that it was his duty as king to end his relationship with Wallis for his country. Winston Churchill was "his only notable ally," according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Edward tried to pursue a morganatic marriage, which would prevent the passage of his titles and privileges as king to Simpson. But Baldwin nixed the idea and pressured the king to make a decision, according to Churchill's official biography "Churchill: A Life," written by Martin Gilbert.
Just a week after the word "abdication" was first mentioned in the press, Edward became the only British sovereign to ever voluntarily relinquish the crown.
The following day, on December 11, 1936, Edward announced his decision during a radio broadcast to the British public, telling them: "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."
While Markle — like Simpson — was a divorcée, she was swiftly accepted by Prince Harry's family, signaling to many that the royals were entering a new modern era.
Meghan Markle and Queen Elizabeth sit together during an official royal outing in July 2018. Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
The Queen gave her official blessing for Prince Harry and Markle's marriage in March 2018.
Prince Harry even revealed that the Queen's beloved corgis instantly took to the American actress.
"I've spent the last 33 years being barked at," he told the BBC in the couple's first interview following their engagement. "This one walks in, absolutely nothing."
Edward and Simpson were married in a French chateau in June 1937 with relatively little fanfare. No member of the royal family attended.
Edward and Wallis Simpson posing at the Castle of Conde on their wedding day on June 3, 1937. Mondadori via Getty Images
As a Time reporter described it then: "The register was signed and the civil ceremony, witnessed by but seven souls, was over in five minutes."
Edward and Simpson exchanged vows at an altar that "had been hastily improvised on an old oak chest." The bride wore a blue dress.
After they said "I do," the newlyweds and their guests enjoyed "champagne, salad, and a few speeches" before Edward and Simpson dashed off to their honeymoon.
Meanwhile, Harry and Markle's wedding was a major event, with celebrity guests including Oprah Winfrey, George Clooney, and Serena Williams in attendance.
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on their wedding day on May 19, 2018. Danny Lawson/AP
Prince Charles walked Markle down the aisle after her father pulled out of the wedding following reports that he had staged photos to sell to tabloids.
Nearly 30 million Americans tuned in to watch the televised event (by comparison, 22.8 million watched Prince William tie the knot with Kate Middleton, according to Nielsen). Markle's Givenchy wedding dress, the design of which had been speculated for months on end by the press, has its own Wikipedia page.
After the church ceremony came an afternoon reception — which included a serenade by Sir Elton John — as well as a star-studded evening party hosted by Prince Charles.
Simpson and Markle's relationships with British royalty turned them into bona fide celebrities. But it also brought intense — and often negative — scrutiny from the press.
Simpson's name dominated headlines during Edward's abdication. Keystone/Getty Images
Simpson was named "Woman of the Year" by Time in 1936, the year Edward gave up the throne for her. The magazine called her "the most-talked-about, written-about, headlined and interest-compelling person in the world."
But such fame came with a price. And, according to royal biographer Andrew Morton's book "Wallis in Love," Simpson felt the world was against her.
In a conversation excerpted in Town & Country magazine, Simpson tells her longtime friend Herman Rogers (who she was rumored to be in love with) that her newfound celebrity made her "want to run away and hide."
"Whether you like it or not, the world is discovering you," Rogers tells her.
"Discovering me? You mean destroying me," she replied.
Markle was a runner-up for Time's Person of the Year in 2018. But as the magic of her royal wedding wore off, she found herself at the center of constant scrutiny by the British press.
A stack of Evening Standard newspapers features the eyes of Meghan Markle in London. Richard Baker/In Pictures via Getty Images Images
Articles called out Markle for breaking royal protocol, then praised Kate Middleton for doing the exact same thing. Markle was even criticized for holding her baby bump during her pregnancy. Excerpts of a private letter she sent to her father were published in the Mail on Sunday, leading to a legal battle that she has since won.
Markle opened up about her struggles with the attention in the 2019 ITV documentary, "Harry & Meghan: An African Journey."
"When I first met my now husband, my friends were really happy because I was so happy," Markle told British journalist Tom Bradby. "But my British friends said to me: 'I'm sure he's great. But you shouldn't do it because the British tabloids will destroy your life."'
"I think I really tried to adopt this British sensibility of a stiff upper lip," Markle added. "I tried, I really tried, but I think that what that does internally is probably really damaging."
Both Edward and Harry reportedly fell out with their brothers as their romantic relationships became more serious.
Prince Harry and Prince William in December 2019. Jack Taylor/Getty Images
King George VI, then known as Prince Albert, Duke of York, and his wife, the future Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, are said to have stopped visiting Edward "so much did they dislike what they heard of the king's subservient behavior toward Mrs. Simpson," according to The History Press.
Similar rumors of strife between Prince Harry and Prince William, as well as their wives, also abounded not long after the royal wedding.
During a sit-down interview with Oprah Winfrey, Harry revealed that his and William's relationship is "space at the moment."
"Time heals all things, hopefully," he added.
The prince also revealed that he believed his brother, along with his father, were "trapped" within the system of the royal family.
"They don't get to leave," he told Winfrey. "And I have huge compassion for that."
Following his abdication, Edward and Simpson did not attend an official public ceremony with members of the royal family for 31 years.
Edward and Wallis Simpson (together left) with Queen Elizabeth II (right) attend a ceremony celebrating the centenary of the birth of Queen Mary on June 7, 1967. Keystone-France\Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Although King George VI named his brother the Duke of Windsor, Edward and Simpson spent little time in England after he gave up the crown. The couple mainly lived in France and spent a brief stint in the Bahamas after Churchill appointed him governor of the country — which, at the time, was still a British colony.
Prince Harry and Markle attended their last official engagement as senior royal family members in March 2020, and the tension was obvious.
Prince Harry and Markle may have been known as the "Fab Four" with Prince William and Middleton, but they didn't even acknowledge each other at the Commonwealth Day service in March 2020.
It was the first joint appearance from the couples since Harry and Markle announced they were stepping back from the royal family, and the foursome made no attempts to put on a show of friendship for the camera.
As Insider's Mikhaila Friel reported at the time, Harry and Markle arrived at Westminster Abbey just a few moments before William and Middleton, and the group only exchanged brief eye contact when taking their seats just a row apart from each other.
In February 2021, the Queen revealed she was stripping Prince Harry and Markle of their royal patronages.
Queen Elizabeth II, left, and the Duchess of Sussex, right, are seen on the balcony of Buckingham Palace on July 10, 2018. Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images
On February 19, Buckingham Palace released a statement saying that Markle and Harry had confirmed to the Queen they wouldn't be returning as working members of the royal family.
"Following conversations with The Duke, The Queen has written confirming that in stepping away from the work of The Royal Family it is not possible to continue with the responsibilities and duties that come with a life of public service," the statement continued.
"The honorary military appointments and Royal patronages held by The Duke and Duchess will therefore be returned to Her Majesty, before being redistributed among working members of The Royal Family," it read.
The statement said "all are saddened" by Markle and Harry's decision, but added that they "remain much loved members of the family."
It wasn't long before Markle and Prince Harry released their own statement and pledged to continue supporting "the organizations they have represented, regardless of official role."
"We can all live a life of service. Service is universal," they added.
Markle revealed to Winfrey that she began having suicidal thoughts after joining the royal family.
Both Markle and Prince Harry opened up to Winfrey about the pain they have suffered over the last few years, with the duchess revealing the couple felt "silenced" by the royal family as they continued to be criticized by the British tabloids.
"I just didn't want to be alive anymore," she told Winfrey. "And that was a very clear and real and frightening constant thought."
Markle said she went to the institution "begging for help," but they refused.
"They said, 'My heart goes out to you because I see how bad it is, but there's nothing we can do to protect you because you're not a paid employee of the institution,'" Markle said.
Harry told Winfrey that none of his family members have reached out to apologize to the couple after they left the UK.
"The feeling is that this was our decision, therefore the consequences are on us," he added. "And despite three years of asking for help and visualizing how this might end, it was, I don't know, it's been really hard because I am part of the system with them, I always have been."
Two days after Harry and Markle's interview aired in the US, Buckingham Palace released a statement saying "the whole family is saddened to learn the full extent of how challenging the last few years have been for Harry and Meghan."
Following his abdication, Edward returned to England to attend the funerals of his brother King George VI in 1952 and their mother Queen Mary in 1953.
But Edward and Simpson were not invited to an official public ceremony with the royal family until 1967, when a plaque dedicated to Queen Mary was unveiled near Buckingham Palace.
Edward died in Paris five years later. After Simpson died in Paris in 1986, she was buried alongside Edward on the grounds of Windsor Castle — where Prince Harry and Markle would tie the knot 32 years later.
Prince Harry flew back to the UK for the first time since his last official engagement to attend his grandfather Prince Philip's funeral.
The Duke of Sussex reportedly landed at London Heathrow airport on April 11, two days after Buckingham Palace announced that Prince Philip had died aged 99.
Harry flew to London without his son Archie or Meghan Markle, who is pregnant with the couple's second child and has been advised by her physician not to travel, a royal spokesperson confirmed to an Insider.
To Be Continued
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