Inside the Wedding That Shook the British Monarchy

5 minute read

The world knew the wedding was coming long before the date was announced: when Britain’s King Edward VIII abdicated in late 1936 — becoming Prince Edward, Duke of Windsor — the story of his relationship with a divorced American woman, known as Wallis Simpson, had been brewing for months. As TIME explained back then, the press had mostly given the King the traditional respectfully wide berth on the subject when he came to the throne in early 1936, assuming that he would continue his “private life” as many other royals had done throughout history, but he did not play along by keeping their relationship the necessary semi-secret. Because the King could not marry someone who had been divorced, their relationship would have to end or his reign would. He chose the latter, a shocking enough decision to earn the person behind the choice the title of TIME’s first-ever Woman of the Year.

Even so, there were disputes to be resolved before the couple could move on with their lives. Would the Royal Family recognize the marriage? Would the Duke’s new wife be recognized as a Duchess? Would the couple be permitted to return to the U.K., and if yes would the Duke be able to serve the monarchy in some way?

A compromise of sorts was reached in the middle of 1937, though the Duke of Windsor got little that he wanted, and a date was set: on June 3, 1937 — 80 years ago this Saturday — they’d be married in France.

Though these photographs don’t show the actual ceremony, TIME reported the following week on how it all went:

With a brand-new red, white & blue sash wrapped round his stomach, the 46-year-old mayor of Monts, Dr. Charles Mercier, was noticeably nervous, forgot to bring with him the Livret de Famille, official handbook on how to raise a family that is the French Republic’s official present to all marrying couples. The mayor made a speech, the register was signed and the civil ceremony, witnessed by but seven souls, was over in five minutes.

In the music room an altar had been hastily improvised on an old oak chest on which stood a gold cross and two yellow tapers. By it in a clean white surplice stood the Rev. R. Anderson Jardine awaiting the greatest moment in his life. Hollow-eyed, the Duke of Windsor stepped in a moment later, accompanied by his elegantly groomed best man, Major Edward Dudley (“Fruity”) Metcalfe. While Organist Dupré played the march from Handel’s Judas Maccabeus, entered (Bessie) Wallis Warfield (Spencer) (Simpson) on the arm of the faithful Herman Rogers. She wore a dress that most U. S. department stores were soon to feature: soft blue crepe with a tight, buttoned bodice, a halo-shaped hat of the same color, shoes and gloves to match. At her throat was a tremendous diamond-&-sapphire brooch. Mrs. Warfield carried a prayer book, had no bouquet but wore a large lavender orchid at her waist.

Only two incidents disturbed the ceremony. When Vicar Jardine asked, ”Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honor and keep her?” overwrought Edward cried “I will!” in a shrill voice that was almost a scream. When he put on her finger the plain wedding ring of Welsh-mined gold that has become a tradition in the British Royal Family, the trembling of his hands was noticeable even to the farthest watchers.

Later there were champagne, salad and a few speeches. To tactful Herman Rogers, unofficial press minister of the affair, combined newshawks presented a gold fountain pen. His last official statement was a request: “Please do not follow them.” The Duke & Duchess of Windsor climbed into their limousine, were driven by George Ladbrooke, the Duke’s chauffeur for 17 years, disappeared through the château gates. Ahead of them went 226 pieces of luggage, including 183 trunks.

Newshawks did not have to follow the honeymooners to a destination everyone knew. But a few had secured compartments on the same Simplon-Orient express to which the ducal car had been attached and as the train rolled southeast across France they brought each other word that the private car contained one large double bed, covered with the usual Thomas Cook & Sons-Wagon Lits brown blanket — and a complete bathroom. Later reports announced that the Duke was going to bed in a pair of bright red pajamas, that he had early tea alone, that both Duke & Duchess enjoyed a hearty bacon & egg breakfast.

In Venice, where the train stopped for several hours, the Duke & Duchess went for a motorboat ride, strolled in the gardens of the Hotel Excelsior at the Lido and were showered with flowers from Fascists anxious to do their little best to enrage the Chamberlain Government. Edward Windsor was reported to have given the Fascist salute.

Other reporters were waiting when the royal honeymooners reached Wasserloenburg Castle in Austria. The moon was shining as the Duke carried his Duchess over the threshold.

Duke of Windsor and Mrs. Wallis Simpson
Edward, The Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson on the grounds of the Chateau de Cande in Touraine, France on May 7, 1937. Len Putnam—AP Photo
Wallis Simpson and Duke of Windsor wedding.
A crowd of well wishers gathered around a sign wishing the Duke and Duchess of Windsor good luck for their wedding, in France. London Express—Getty Images
Wallis Simpson and Duke of Windsor wedding.
The Duke and Duchess of Windsor posing after their wedding at the Chateau de Cande near Tours, France. AP Photo
Wallis Simpson and Duke of Windsor wedding.
The Duke and Duchess of Windsor pose on the castle steps after their wedding at Chateau de Cande near Tours, France, on June 3, 1937. At left is Hermann Rogers Winters and at right is Major Metcalf, first former King of England's witness. The floor-length silk gown worn by the Duchess is designed by Mainbocher. AP Photo
Wallis Simpson and Duke of Windsor honeymoon.
The Duke and Duchess of Windsor leave a hotel in Venice, Italy, June 4, 1937, where they took tea before leaving for their honeymoon in Austria. AP Photo
Wallis Simpson and Duke of Windsor honeymoon.
The Duke and Duchess of Windsor in a motor boat on one of the canals in Venice, Italy, June 4, 1937, wave to onlookers as they are taken to their hotel. AP Photo
Wallis Simpson and Duke of Windsor honeymoon.
The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, on their honeymoon, in the grounds of Wasserleonburg Castle, Austria, June 9, 1937.AP Photo

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