Two American Duchesses
There have been endless comparisons over the past few years between The Duchess of Windsor and Meghan Markle. While Wallis certainly had her faults and may have held questionable political views, she never once, throughout her 36 year marriage to the Duke of Windsor, sought to deliberately and publicly insult her husband's family. Being twice-divorced and an American to boot, Wallis was unacceptable to the establishment as a prospective bride to the King in 1936, when divorce was not recognized by the Church of England of which the King was head as Defender of the Faith. The Duchess of Windsor was shunned by her Royal in-laws who never forgave her for Edward VIII’s abdication although she tried to prevent it, refusing to receive her and denying her the appellation of Royal Highness to which she was entitled as the wife of a Royal Duke. Although she felt slighted, she did not complain in public, nor did she give interviews to refute negative narratives in the press, apart from a couple of anodyne exchanges, most notably with Edward Murrow in 1956 and Kenneth Harris in 1969, twenty plus years after the abdication. In fact the Duchess sought to reconcile the Duke with his mother, the formidable Queen Mary (who never met with the daughter-in-law she referred to as an adventuress), writing humbly to the dowager Queen during the Duke’s years as Governor of the Bahamas to express sorrow at being the cause of discord between mother and son. While tensions simmered years later after the deaths of George VI and Queen Mary, the Duchess was never truly accepted as a member of the Royal Family and to this day, she is remembered as the woman who stole the King.
Meghan Markle on the other hand was welcomed into the Royal Family with open arms. Even before her marriage she was included in family events such as Christmas at Sandringham with the extended family, a privilege that even the Duchess of Cambridge, a future Queen Consort, was denied before marriage. On her wedding day, Meghan was escorted down the aisle by none other than the Prince of Wales (although only halfway, preferring to make her entrance alone). To ensure a comfortable transition into Royal Life, the Queen assigned some of her most trusted aides and advisors to work with Meghan, who expressed that she wanted to "hit the ground running", including Samantha Cohen, who spent 18 years with the Royal Family, first in the press office at Buckingham Palace before ultimately working her way up to the post of Assistant Private Secretary to Elizabeth II. Within weeks of her marriage to Prince Harry, Meghan was invited join the Queen on the Royal train for a joint engagement in Chester, whereas future Queen Catherine had to wait almost a year after her marriage for the same honour. Several months later Meghan and Harry set out on their first Royal tour amidst much jubilation, from the public and in the press, visiting Australia, Fiji, Tonga and New Zealand. Meghan was further entrusted with the patronage of the National Theatre (very much in line with her own interests with her background in acting) and of the Association of Commonwealth Universities, both formerly held by the Queen herself, as well as being appointed Vice-President of The Queen’s Commonwealth Trust alongside Prince Harry as President. While the Duchess of Windsor was reviled, the Duchess of Sussex was embraced and given opportunity after opportunity to serve as a senior member of the Royal Family in areas of particular interest to her.
But it seems that Meghan appreciated none of the goodwill extended to her or any of the privileges afforded her even before her marriage. She appears to have preferred vanity projects such as the guest editorship of Vogue UK and appearing at the premiere of The Lion King film, where she finagled a voiceover job for a Disney documentary, over the less than glamorous duties that working Royals undertake as servants of the Crown and representatives of the nation. On the same evening as the film premiere, the Royal Marines held a memorial event in Deal honouring lost lives - Prince Harry at the time was Captain General of the Royal Marines and was asked to attend but the Sussexes declined, choosing the Lion King premiere instead. Naturally criticism followed from the media and the public.
While the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were not working members of the Royal Family, the Duke served as Governor of The Bahamas from 1940-1945, during which time the Duchess undertook many responsibilities that she likely would never have sought out for herself in a different position. Without any recognition from the Royal Family and receiving no press coverage at the time for her efforts, she endeavored to contribute to the war effort to the best of her ability. The Duchess became President of the Bahamas Red Cross and she took the role seriously, devoting her time and resources to helping servicemen stationed in The Bahamas. She established a canteen in Nassau where she attended to her duties every day, often preparing meals herself for those in need. She arranged for the transport of necessities, prepared care packages and raised much needed funds for the destitute. Also during these years, the Duchess took an active interest in infant welfare and the protection of unwed mothers, a far from glamorous cause for the time, setting up clinics for their care, providing a safe haven where none existed, often feeding and bathing infants in their charge personally. This work however went largely unacknowledged, yet Wallis never shirked from the duties she was devoted to and she never sought to use this work for self-promotion. Meanwhile in 2019, while on a Royal tour of South Africa on the Queen’s behalf and against the backdrop of extreme poverty, Meghan Markle was interviewed by Tom Bradby where she famously declared that nobody asked if she is ok, a statement that truly beggars belief.
We all know what happens next - Megxit, Archewell, the Oprah interview, Prince Philip's death, the Royal bashing, the endless lawsuits and further drama. It has now been 2 years since the Sussexes relocated to North America yet the complaining continues, with no apparent end in sight. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor on the other hand lived by the motto “never complain, never explain”, at least publicly. The Duke often wished for another job after the Governorship of The Bahamas but when one wasn’t forthcoming he accepted it, just as both of the Windsors accepted that the Duchess would not be welcome to accompany the Duke to family funerals or meetings with the King. Finally in 1967, as relations between the Royals and the Windsors began to thaw, the Duchess was invited to attend her first Royal event since marrying into the family in 1937. The difference in the treatment of these two American duchesses by the establishment is extraordinary, yet the one who was embraced chooses to throw daggers while the one who was ostracized for decades kept calm and carried on. Meghan Markle could have made an incredible impact as a working Royal, helping to promote causes close to her heart and a champion of the Commonwealth but instead she chooses to bash the very institution that elevated her to the status of Duchess which afforded her a worldwide platform to make a difference, milking her title for all it is worth financially in the US. Her children are estranged from their family on both sides and are being deprived of having a relationship with Elizabeth II, one of the greatest British monarchs in history. What a wasted opportunity. As the Duchess of Windsor muttered to herself at the funeral of the former Edward VIII, “He gave up so much for so little”.
The Duke and Duchess of Windsor on their wedding day, photographed by Cecil Beaton (National Portrait Gallery).