Wallis Simpson to Meghan Markle: How the royal family learnt to embrace divorcees

wallis-markle (L to R) Wallis Simpson | via wikimedia commons; Meghan Markle | AFP

In January 1937, TIME magazine broke all conventions to pick their first-ever 'Woman of the Year'. Till then, the magazine only recognised men with that coveted honour. At that point in time, it was probably impossible to think of another person because never before had a woman gripped the world's imagination so much.

Naming American socialite Wallis Simpson as the Woman of the Year for 1936, the TIME article called her “the most-talked-about, written-about, headlined and interest-compelling person in the world.” And why wouldn't she be—she literally shook the foundations of the British monarchy and created a constitutional crisis. In December 1936, King Edward VIII abdicated his throne so that he could marry Wallis—the woman he loved, who was also a divorcee. As Prince Harry is set to tie the knot with Meghan Markle, a divorcee, too, the story of Edward and Wallis deserves a retelling.

Historically, marrying a divorcee was considered a taboo among the British monarchy for hundreds of years. As the monarch, Edward was by default the head of the Church of England which prohibited people from remarrying especially if their former spouse was alive. And in Wallis' case, she had not just one, but two living ex-husbands. Besides the dilemma of breaking the law of the church, Wallis was also looked upon as a woman who was 'unfit' to be a queen because of her failed marriages. Realising he would be jeopardising the monarchy and the church by marrying Wallis, Edward chose to renounce the throne, and make way for his brother, George VI.

Edward's words in his abdication speech is quite touching, and haunting at the same time: “... But you must believe me when I tell you that 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.”

It is said the rift between Edward and the royal family did not end even after the abdication, and he was asked to stay away from England. After travelling during the initial years of marriage, the couple settled down in France. The times have surely changed, and Harry and Meghan's wedding is sign of progression the royal family has made over time. From accepting marital discord, to talking about mental health struggles, the monarchy is attempting to open up.

"Listen very carefully at the choir's singing as Meghan Markle walks down the aisle," said royal writer Andrew Morton, for the faint sound of the nearby king Edward "spinning in his grave". Morton, who penned the biographies of both Wallis and Meghan this year, told AFP, that Edward and Wallis would have been astonished at the transformation in the British monarchy over the last 80 years.

As divorce began to become a cultural norm, the subject could not be swept under the carpet for long, even among the royals. By the 1990s, the Queen's three children had divorced. The biggest, and the most path-breaking step in this direction was taken by the Church of England in 2002 when it gave permission for remarriage. This paved way for Harry's father Prince Charles' marriage to Camilla Parker-Bowles, a divorcee, in 2005. This has been looked at as the monarchy's boldest acknowledgement of marital discord, and a step towards overcoming the stigma.

And now as Harry and Meghan marry with the Queen's 'consent', at the St George's chapel—the same church where Wallis' funeral was held in 1986—it marks yet another milestone.