Take an educationally underachieving duke with limited military experience out of the royal family and life is always going to be a struggle. This became very clear in France when a newly abdicated king of England set out to create a new role for himself in a republic with a long anti-monarchical tradition.
The Duke of Windsor’s experiences in Paris are just the kind which Harry, Duke of Sussex, would do well to examine as he prepares for his own adventure as a demoted prince. He too has renounced official duties, giving up everything including army, navy and air force appointments.
Similarities between Harry and Edward are compelling. Like his great-granduncle, Harry enjoys polo and a lively social life. Neither did well at school but completed short periods of active service – Edward on the Western Front during the First World War, Harry in Afghanistan. Both were, of course, well guarded, but their sense of martial duty was a huge PR boost for youthful reputations associated with louche partying.
Following his abdication on 10 December 1936, after just 11 months on the throne, the Duke of Windsor was exiled to France with his twice-divorced American partner, Wallis Simpson. They married six months later at the Château de Candé, near Tours. The modest ceremony was attended by only a handful of guests and intensified anger against the couple back in Britain, not least of all among other royals. The Queen Mother (mother of the present Queen, Elizabeth II) called the new Duchess of Windsor “the lowest of the low”, and Wallis was forbidden from styling herself Her Royal Highness.
It will be the same in North America for both Harry and Meghan Markle, the divorced American he married at Windsor Castle in 2018. Their lavishly expensive wedding was meant to be the start of decades of public service in the UK, but British taxpayers already say they feel short-changed. Public discontent at their decision to walk away is palpable.
As well as not being permitted to use their HRHs, Harry and Meghan now have to refund the £2.4m spent on refurbishing their new home in Windsor. There will be more financial penalties to come.
Canada is at least a constitutional monarchy and part of the Commonwealth, but Markle’s background as an actor on the cable TV series Suits suggests that somewhere near Los Angeles is far more likely to become their permanent base, as she has ambitions to achieve Hollywood stardom. The couple have already been filmed pitching to Disney bosses for work, and it can be no coincidence that guests at their wedding included George Clooney and Oprah Winfrey.
Beyond the entertainment industry, Harry and Meghan are attempting to establish themselves as humanitarians – caring liberals unafraid to dabble in politics, courting “close friends” such as former US president Barack Obama, as they jet around the world attending conferences and giving speeches about saving the planet. They believe that charity work will offset any criticism of the millions they hope to make as they carve out a “progressive new role”. As retired senior royals they will become “financially independent”, according to their Instagram site – although it does not mention a multimillion-pound overseas security bill that is likely to be picked up by UK taxpayers.
It was a similar fixation on wealth, along with involving themselves in world affairs, that the Duke and Duchess of Windsor got horribly wrong in Paris. Cut off from all but nominal royal funding, Edward relied on benefactors – including the city of Paris itself, which rented them a mansion in the Bois de Boulogne, in the capital’s western suburbs, for next to nothing. They also acquired a country retreat just 30 miles away, while all state contributions including income tax were waived by the French government. Other opaque financial arrangements enabled Wallis to build up a collection of jewellery that was sold for a record $50m after her death. She spent many luxury shopping breaks in Manhattan with her husband, while also enjoying cafe society on both sides of the Atlantic.
Fair-weather friends for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor included Elizabeth Taylor and Marlene Dietrich – and within a few months of their marriage the Windsors were personal guests of Adolf Hitler in Munich, a clear example of the major risks of light touch engagement with global matters.
Today, the Sussexes’ non-stop globetrotting and reliance on multiple homes has already made a mockery of their green credentials. Any cause they associate themselves with will lead to further closer scrutiny on their own lives and lifestyles.
Very expensive PR advisors were not available for the Windsors, but the Sussexes have a vast team in place. They will have their work cut out. As Harry and Meghan try to reinvent themselves thousands of miles from the royal fold, their people would do well to look up the history of France’s exiled royals and use it as a cautionary tale.