There is no denying that the Duchess of Windsor changed the course of history when she met the future King Edward VIII. Had he married another woman and had children with her, we would have never seen the accession of either King George VI or his daughter Queen Elizabeth II. Elizabeth was just ten years old when her uncle abdicated, and her father became King. Her first meeting with the woman that would change the course of her destiny was probably in late April 1936.
Wallis and the King had been staying at Fort Belvedere when a new station wagon he had ordered from the United States arrived. They drove the new station wagon to Royal Lodge where the then Duke and Duchess of York were staying with the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. Wallis had met the Duke and Duchess before but not the Princesses. The two joined them for tea and were accompanied by their governess Marion Crawford. Wallis later wrote, “They were both so blonde, so beautifully mannered, so brightly scrubbed that they may have stepped straight from the pages of a picture book.” Princess Elizabeth turned to her governess as they were leaving and asked, “Crawfie, who is she?”1 They would not meet again until many years later.
The following abdication crisis was bewildering for the young Princess. A servant overheard a conversation between the ten-year-old Elizabeth and six-year-old Margaret in the week of the abdication. “What’s happening?” Margaret had asked her sister, to which Elizabeth replied, “I don’t know really, but I believe uncle David wishes to get married. I think he wants to marry Mrs Baldwin – and Mr Baldwin doesn’t like it!”2
The Duke of York became King George VI after his brother’s abdication, and Princess Elizabeth became the heiress presumptive. Any contact with Elizabeth herself did not come up again until Elizabeth became engaged to Philip Mountbatten. Their engagement was announced on 9 July 1947, with the wedding set for November. The Duke of Windsor made it clear that he would not attend the wedding without Wallis, but neither he nor the Duchess would be receiving an invitation to their niece’s wedding. Elizabeth’s mother even declared that she would not attend the wedding if the Duke and Duchess were invited. Not all members of the family agreed with this, and Mary, Princess Royal, deliberately stayed away from the wedding out of protest.3 . However, a letter by Mary suggests that this was just gossip, although she remains rather ambiguous. She wrote, “I would like you to know that after all I shall not be coming to London. I felt that the wedding festivities might prove too great a strain. I am very disappointed to miss the wedding. November 17 or 18 the press must announce that I have a chill or something of the sort.”4 It is not clear what Princess Elizabeth’s opinion was.
The early death of Elizabeth’s father on 6 February 1952 made her Queen at the age of 25. Elizabeth’s mother would continue to blame the Duchess of Windsor – while reportedly never openly blaming the Duke – for the shortening of her husband’s life, and this made any chance of reconciliation very unlikely indeed.5 While the Duke immediately made plans to return to London upon hearing of his brother’s death, he was informed that Wallis would not be welcome to attend the funeral and that all three Queens (Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and Queen Elizabeth II) would not receive her. He came to London alone and stayed at Marlborough House. Wallis was afraid he might try to use the situation to press the HRH issue and wrote to her husband, “Do not mention or ask for anything regarding recognition of me. I am sure you can win her over to a more friendly attitude.”6
On 26 February 1952, the new Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip hosted the Duke for lunch, and he wanted to discuss the possibility of a job for him, and he did want to press the HRH issue. Unsurprisingly, she was advised against offering him a job. The issue of receiving Wallis and granting her HRH was difficult. Elizabeth had grown up with her mother’s hatred for the Duchess, and perhaps she feared that granting the request would not only be disrespectful to her mother but would also dishonour her father’s memory. There was even some discussion about his annual payment, which was eventually settled but not before the Duke wrote to Wallis, “It’s hell to be even this much dependent on these ice-veined bitches, important for WE as it is.”7
A similar tense family reunion occurred the following year when Queen Mary was dying. Mary, Princess Royal, had been on a royal tour when the news arrived and she travelled to New York where the Duke and Duchess were staying so they could travel home together and once again, there was no question of Wallis joining them. The Duke and Princess Mary sailed from New York to Southampton while Wallis remained behind in the Waldorf Towers. She reportedly burst into tears upon learning that Queen Mary had died on 24 March. The Duke was allowed to attend the funeral but not the following family dinner. It was no surprise that the Duke and Duchess were also not invited to Queen Elizabeth’s coronation that June. Nevertheless, the Duke and Duchess made a private visit to London in November 1953, and as the news leaked out, they were met with cheering crowds. Although the private visits continued over the years, they were always careful.
In February 1965, the Duke and Duchess travelled to London so that the Duke could have surgery for a detached retina, and they stayed at Claridge’s Hotel and their significantly older and frail appearance led to questions from the press why the two had not been invited to stay at Buckingham Palace. In the following six weeks, Queen Elizabeth visited her uncle and aunt twice though she had to be persuaded by her private secretary to do so. The sympathetic press now rallied for the Duke and Duchess, and the Queen had to make a gesture of some kind.
The first visit happened on 15 March 1965, and it was the first time Wallis came face-to-face again with Elizabeth since that day in 1936 at Royal Lodge. Wallis curtseyed to Elizabeth, and the Queen stayed for a half-hour. The Duke apparently asked his niece if he could take a walk in the garden of Buckingham Palace; Elizabeth agreed but only if he came without Wallis. He also inquired if he and Wallis would be permitted to eventually be buried together at Frogmore near where Prince George, Duke of Kent, was buried and if they could both have a service in St. George’s Chapel. Elizabeth gave no definitive answer but said she would look into the matter. On her second visit ten days later, on 25 March, she agreed that they could both have the service and be buried at Frogmore.