The story of Edward and Mrs Simpson is now largely one of time spent abroad: during the war they lived in the Bahamas, where the Duke of Windsor was Governor General. Afterwards they were in self-imposed exile in Paris and New York.
But it might have been otherwise, and several fine English country houses shed light on their often secret and tangled romance in the years before the Abdication.
Bolthole: Beautiful Belton House where Edward and Mrs Simpson were guests
Approaching Sandringham today, the Royal Family’s estate in Norfolk, it’s impossible not to recall the scene in The King’s Speech where Edward flies up in a small private plane with his own pilot and lands on the manicured lawns. He is on his way to see his dying father, George V, who said he loved ‘dear old Sandringham’ better than anywhere.
Being there, it is easy to imagine how Wallis Simpson would have loved to be its chatelaine. Yet as an American divorcee, she could not even set foot within its walls.
It was suggested that Mrs Simpson should seek refuge at Belton House in Lincolnshire but the eventual Duchess of Windsor baulked at the idea
Within hours, George V was pronounced dead and Edward VIII the new King. It’s an important vignette, for on that January day in 1936, everything changed. One of the first things Edward did at Sandringham was write to Wallis, terrified that the new situation might scare her away. He told her: ‘You are all and everything I have in life and WE must hold each other so tight.’ From then on, their relationship, still largely a secret in Britain, became increasingly fraught.
Politicians were anxious that Edward seemed unable to live without her. That summer, intimate photographs of her with the King started appearing in the international press and, once her second divorce went through in October and marriage to the King looked a real possibility, Wallis became one of the most hated and vilified women in the world. She received bomb threats and poison-pen letters, and Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin was worried someone might even shoot her.
That’s where Belton House comes into the story. Deep in the Lincolnshire countryside, this 17th Century mansion owned by the Brownlow family would have made a good hideaway from the press or assassins. Edward was godfather to Lord Brownlow’s heir, also called Edward, and you can see the magnificent baptismal font in the opulent private chapel where the King stood in 1936 to celebrate the boy’s birth. In early December, the King told Wallis it was no longer safe to stay in the country and asked Brownlow, known to friends as Perry, to escort her abroad. Brownlow suggested instead that Wallis stayed at Belton as a safe refuge. But Wallis Simpson, an urban creature and shopper extraordinaire, would have hated life in a country home, however splendid.
Regal drama: Sandringham, where Edward visited his dying father, George V. Upon his death just hours later, Edward was declared the new King
It’s a measure of how desperately Wallis felt trapped that she preferred the notion of escaping to China – where she had spent a year in the Twenties – to the Belton Bolthole.
When she and Edward had stayed there, the lovers were supposedly given a bedroom with exquisite Chinese wallpaper to make Wallis feel at home. But when you see that the room boasts only a small bed called a ‘sporting double’, you will probably conclude that the couple more probably stayed in the newly named ‘Windsor Room’.
Brownlow escorted Wallis from Edward’s Windsor home, Fort Belvedere, to France. She never lived in England again. Brownlow found the French escapade an agonising experience and was horrified to discover he was also responsible for Wallis’s jewels, ‘presents from the King worth at least £100,000’.
He paid a heavy price for his loyalty to Edward. On his return it was made clear that if he accepted an invitation to attend Edward’s wedding in France, he might find his position as Lord Lieutenant of Norfolk uncomfortable. He declined the wedding and retired to Belton.
MailTravel.co.uk has an exclusive three-day guided tour starting on May 12, 2013, which includes two illustrated talks by Anne Sebba, private dinners with wine, and visits to Belton House and Sandringham with the services of a tour manager throughout. See mailtravel.co.uk/holidays/royal.
Anne Sebba is the author of That Woman: The Life Of Wallis Simpson, Duchess Of Windsor (Phoenix Paperback, £7.99).