Puppet? Manipulating social climber? Misunderstood? Deeply in love? However you see her, the fact remains that a king abdicated his throne, defied his family and lived in exile to marry twice divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson.
That sounds like a woman we should talk about.
Wallis, about age 40
Bessiewallis (not a typo) was born on June 19th, 1896 to Teakle Wallis and Alice Montegue Warfield. Contrary to the way she was portrayed later in her life, she came from two, long-established, southern-American society families who made money, a lot of it. Her father’s held on to it and took life very seriously, and her mother’s, well, they were “eccentric.”Both families objected to the marriage for, essentially, the same reason: Teakle was ill with tuberculosis and in no position to marry beautiful, charming Alice (and her family thought she could do better, anyway.)
Guess what happened? Teakle died before Bessiewallis’ first birthday and Alice was left penniless with a baby–the two would become financially dependent on Teakle’s veeeery proper mother and his unmarried, wealthy, live-with-Mom, meanie brother, Solomon.
Wallis and Alice, 1899
Alice and Wallis (she dropped the “Bessie” as quickly as possible) moved around the Baltimore area for all of her childhood. Wallis was bright, charming, very polite and had just enough mischief in her to make her quite interesting. Her Uncle Sol did pay for the right schools (have to keep the family name in the right places, you know, plus…control) and when Wallis emerged from high school, Oldfield’s, he (sort of) paid for her debutante season.
Wallis, 1919, a couple of years into her marriage to Win
What does a properly raised society girl do after all that? She’s going to Disney Wor…oh, well, close: Pensacola, Florida where she met and quickly married, handsome, sophisticated, military pilot Earl Winfield Spencer. But Win wasn’t the guy she thought he was. The marriage was horrible. He drank a lot and emotionally and physically abused her. As an officer’s wife she lived nicely in different places around the country, but after ten years (not all living together), Wallis was finally able to divorce him.
Wallis and Win, 1917
Instead of going home, Wallis spent a full year in China, a time she later called her “Lotus Year.” This time traveling alone created myth and intrigue later in her life, but it was a good transition from Military Wife to Divorcee Socialite. But Wallis wasn’t one to sit around and wait. She was a master at making social connections and soon was married again to an English-American, Ernest Aldrich Simpson.
The slow boat China Wallis took, USS Charmount
The couple lived in London where Ernest worked in the family business, a ship brokerage, and Wallis mastered London society. Her parties were marvelously different…SHE was marvelously different than what people had known. They climbed the social ladder fairly quickly (Wallis was very good at this) and, one day, found themselves in the upper tier: a weekend hunting party with Edward, Prince of Wales, the future King of England who also had a thing for married American women.
At first Wallis and Ernest ran with the princely crowd…then it was only Wallis running with them and, a few years later when his father died and Edward became king, Wallis was Edward’s American woman and he wanted to make her his queen.
The two enjoyed a kind of media bubble when they traveled, it was’t really reported on. Ski trip. 1935 Yeah, the You’re Not The Boss of Wallis in Wonderland, Earnest, ski trip.
The country loved the future king…but the Prime Minister didn’t think he was the Prince for the job, what with his sympathies for Nazis and all. Edward, it seems, was successfully courted by Adolf Hitler (not directly) and he gave every indication that he was on board with Hitler’s plan. Add to his lack of appeal as king: Wallis was divorced, would have to be divorced a second time…and an American? Oh, no, this wouldn’t do.
We give the basics about the Nazi involvement in this story, but this one is a very interesting read for more information and speculation.
But then this happened, King George V died and Wallis’ boyfriend was now King Edward VIII!
And the rest of the story will be told on part two….
Often listed as merely an asterisk in history, Lady Jane Grey did have a part in the tale of the Tudors and in the succession of the crown. A teeeny tiny part, but a part nonetheless. Her young life and limited time on the throne may have been short, but it was long on drama. Did she end up remembered as the Nine Day Queen because of manipulation and lust for power? Whose? Was she a puppet or did she know what she was doing? The brief life and rule of this teenage royal is worth a bit of a chat, don’t you think? We did.
Jane Grey was born in October of 1537 (or perhaps in 1536) to Lord Henry and Lady Frances Grey. If you like a little title with your history, that would be the Marquees of Dorset and Frances Brandon, niece to King Henry VIII. Frances’ mother was Mary- the sister of Henry- and her father was Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk and life long frat bro of Henry. Later, after his and Frances’ brothers’ deaths, Frances would inherit the titles and she and Henry would become the Duke and Duchess of Suffolk .
Jane was also born about the same time as her cousin Prince Edward, son of Henry VIII. Linking Edward to Jane was an easy move on the part of her parents. Cousins marrying was far from unheard of, and Jane was raised with this goal in mind. To add a little more incentive to the mix – as the only son of the king, Edward was next in line to the throne. They had so much in common- Edward was was raised Protestant- just like Jane. If you have paid any attention to our ongoing Tudors series (and you should, it’s very interesting) religion plays a big part in the story. (And we always explain more in our podcast than in these notes).
Jane and her sisters Katherine and Mary (yes, we have heard those names before) were educated at home, taught to read Latin, Greek, French, Italian and groomed for well placed marriages that would bring the family more power. At nine, Jane’s guardianship was given to Katherine Parr, the then-wife of Henry VIII. Upon his death, and Katherine’s subsequent marriage to Thomas Seymour (we cover this in the Four Wives podcast) Jane’s wardship was turned over to the Seymours. Why? Because it was thought that this was the best way to arrange a marriage between Jane the new king, Edward VI- a marriage that would suit all parties involved.
This portrait is often cited as being of Jane Grey, but there is much dispute that it is, in fact, of Katherine Parr. Actually, a great number of portraits that were believed to be Jane were proven to be someone else. Rather than be frustrated,we think it's fun to watch what we think was known reveal itself to be something else entirely. It's like a game!
But Katherine died in childbirth a short time later. And Thomas followed her to death when he was executed a year after that. Jane’s guardianship was up for grabs again, and who better to secure her future as queen than the chief counselor to King Edward, John Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland.
Dudley was a very powerful man in a sweet position, who wanted to remain that way. He knew that if Edward produced an heir, Edward’s sisters, Mary or Elizabeth, would not rule, toss him out…or worse. But if he could marry Jane to the king- who was also in line to the throne (via her mother who was willing to let it pass to Jane) he might just be able to hold onto all that was near and dear to him. Like his head.
But his plan was flawed. Edward became very ill and it was clear he would not live to marry, let alone produce an heir.
So in a swift coordinated effort with Jane’s parent’s-Dudley married 15 year-old Jane off to his only marriageable son, Guilford. It was a hot mess of a wedding that also married off his daughter and one of Jane’s sisters to well-placed men. When Edward died very shortly afterward, Dudley did a fancy dance of deceit – badda bing, Jane is Queen. Everyone is happy.
Except just about everyone who wasn’t related to Jane. The people were scratching their heads, “Queen Who?”
Except Jane who never wanted to be Queen and was frightfully unprepared for the position.
Oh, yeah, and except for Mary who foiled a plot of Dudley’s to have her thrown in the Tower of London and knew that it was her turn to rule. Mary knew that she was entitled to the crown, and she had the support of the people behind her (We do cover all of this time in the Mary I podcast).
For nine days Jane was Queen Jane. And then Mary took care of that.
Mary tossed Jane and Guilford in the tower, where they remained for several months. It wasn’t horrible living conditions, but it was imprisonment. Rumor has it that this tribute, in the Beauchamp Tower, was carved for his wife by Guilford himself . This humanizes him a bit ( which his legacy totally needs).
Courtesy Lara E. Eakins at Tudorhistory.org (see link below)
At first, Mary did not want to execute them. However, an ill-fated attempt to over-throw Mary -led by Jane’s own father- made Mary think that this decision was necessary.
On February 12, 1554, less than a year after being imprisoned, Lady Jane Grey and her husband Guilford were beheaded.
The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by, Paul Delarouche (This one we know is her, her name is in the title)
Want to travel around through the Tower of London (and other historic places of England?) not exactly like being there, but much simpler. HistoricRoyalPalaces.org
Ooh, an internet museum? Love that, lots of clicking to do on this one, although it doesn’t look like it has been updated recently. But really, unless there is new information, that’s not entirely necessary, right? Lady Jane Grey Internet Museum
Tweet what, you say? We love it when we find an active twitter for one of our women- Lady Jane Grey Info.
Of course we have some book recommendations, have you just met us?
Non- Fiction: The Nine Days Queen by Mary Luke
Fiction- Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir
The Sisters who would be Queen by, Leanda De Lisle (Non-fiction)
And a movie, that isn’t exactly historically accurate (are any of them?) and we dare you not to have Princess Bride quotes running in your head if you watch it!
1986- Lady Jane with Helena Bonham Carter and Cary Elwes
We begin our second season with a woman whose life will take us two episodes to discuss. She wasn’t just black dresses, and talking about herself in the third person, you know! She led a very colorful and unique life! This woman was so influential that she had an entire AGE of improvements, fashion, behavior (and some really fantastic houses) named after her.
A young Queen Victoria circa 1840
Born on the 24th of May, 1819 in Kensington Palace to the Duke and Duchess of Kent, Alexandrina Victoria jumped the line to the throne. We cover the complicated path to the crown in more detail in the podcast, trying to make it as easy as possible to follow. Basically, it had been a race to see who would bear the heir after Princess Charlotte, the only legitimate child of George IV, died during childbirth a few years prior to Victoria’s birth. When Victoria’s father, Edward, died while Victoria was an infant, and his three brothers failed to produce an heir, she moved at a rather quick pace to the head of the line.
Duchess of Kent and about a two year old Victoria
Victoria was raised by her mother in a pretty wacky manner following a set of rules known as, “The Kensington System”. This method gave control over all aspects of Victoria’s life to her mother, as well as Sir John Conroy, a very ambitious and controlling man whom the Duchess had taken into her trust and was her Comptroller. Who Victoria saw, what she learned, where she traveled, even going so far as to not allow her to descend stairs on her own- these two people oversaw all of it, and, at times, spread slander about the heiress presumptive.
Ok, so she did wear a lot of black…
Why? They were bucking for a Regency. They wanted Victoria to sign a document that stated they- Conroy being the brains behind the pair- would have decision making power over her. But our Princess was born to lead. Even when subjected to some of the most manipulative methods possible, she never gave that signature.
We cover details of her life as a child, but that childhood ended at age 18 when her beloved Uncle and King, William IV died in 1834. She dropped the Alexandrina, and simply became Victoria, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland- one day a controlled teenager, the next head of the British Empire.
Guess who is walking down stairs by herself?
Guess what Lord Conroy is banned from a certain Queen’s presence?
Which crown will we wear today, Your Highness?
We speculate a lot (because we can) about Victoria’s lifelong reliance on some male to aid her decision making. Not that it’s bad, it’s just how it appeared. First up: Lord Melborne who, at the time of her ascension, was head of the government. We talk about the Whigs and the Tories and the trusting relationship Victoria had with this man. He taught her the political ways , and she learned quickly diving right into the political world and making her impact on it.
We share some really nifty stories about her being the first sovereign to take up residency in Buckingham Palace, and some juicy tales about the early days of her reign as her popularity rose and fell and rose again.
We told you, colorful life!
And made even more so with the entree of Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. The first cousin to the Queen, Albert and Victoria had met as children, but when the parade of suitors began their common uncle, Leopold (husband to deceased Princess Charlotte) encouraged the two. Leopold had been hard at work back in Germany with young Albert, grooming him for this very role.
Young and dashing Prince Albert
But Victoria has spent her entire life working against manipulation- she can smell it coming. What she can’t see coming is love. Albert and his brothers visit their cousin, and within the week Victoria proposes. It’s a love match that happens to be a smart match as well.
Enter the second man that Victoria relies on as her sounding board. In a very regal wedding, they become Victobert. Ok, Victoria and Albert. This is the stuff novels are made of- partners of equal intelligence, shared convictions and a fiery romance to boot!
A movie that we liked and thought illustrated a great deal of the early part of her life is, The Young Victoria, a 2009 flick starring Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend. We question a few things, like Emily Blount not sharing a physical resemblance to the short, and um, curvy Queen, and the accuracy of the romance of the two, but overall a really great look at the early life of both the Queen and the pair which really are a love match that goes down in history.
Uh, whatcha playing with there little princess, Vicky? ( by Sir Edwin Landseer)
Much to Victoria’s dismay, she learned early on where babies come from. All totalled, the pair would have nine children including our old friend, Bertie- we mean, Albert, who would grow up to impact the lives of our Gilded Age Heiresses
Come back next time when we dive into the life of Victoria without Albert (THAT’S where the black dresses come in!), drama about political games and manipulations of the longest reigning monarch in British history. What does happen to all those kids? Did she or didn’t see have an affair with a strapping Highlander? Mourning ( noon and night)? And more!
The Queen, her prince and a whole mess a’ royal kidlets (Franz Xavier Winterhalter)
Time Travel With The History Chicks
Stay tuned for part two coming soon and we will link you up with a nice list of ways you can learn more about the life of this fascinating woman!
We’ll give you some to tide you over:
If you would like some reading to keep this story going for you, we both recommend We Two, Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Rivals, Partners by Gillian Gill.
And if you like your history visual, The Young Victoria. (Can’t stream it on Netflix, but they do have the DVD)