Call it the Instagram heard round the world: a picture of a smiling Duke and Duchess of Sussex (Prince Harry and Meghan Markle) and a bombshell announcement that they will “step back” from their royal roles. The royal ripples are leading some to draw parallels with another monarchical mess: Edward VIII’s 1936 decision to step back from his role as king of England so he could marry American socialite Wallis Simpson.
But though both situations involve frustrated royals, American divorcees, and public furor, the similarities are not as straightforward as they might seem.
The king who stepped down
When the future king of England fell in love with a charming American woman in the early 1930s, it seemed like one of the playboy prince’s many affairs. But when Edward VIII became king in January 1936, it became clear he wanted to marry Wallis Simpson.
The planned marriage presented obstacles that were as political as they were personal. As monarch, Edward was head of the Church of England, and to marry the twice-divorced Simpson would defy church policy that forbade divorced spouses from remarrying during the lifetimes of their former spouses.
In December 1936, less than a year after assuming the title, Edward VIII became the first monarch to willingly renounce the throne when he decided to marry American socialite Wallis Simpson. A few years later, at the dawn of World War II, they returned to England for the first time and were photographed at their temporary home in Sussex.
PHOTOGRAPH BY EVENING STANDARD, GETTY
As sovereign, Edward faced the wrath of his own people, many of whom saw Simpson as a gold-digging “fallen woman” who wanted to entrap their king. And among his own cabinet, the king faced staunch opposition from figures who disliked Simpson and wondered if she exerted some kind of sexual control over Edward. The king was even investigated and bugged by his own government, and faced rumors that suggested Simpson was engaged in an affair with Adolf Hitler’s diplomatic envoy, Joachim von Ribbentrop.
The result was a constitutional crisis and an intolerable puzzle for the king, who had long dreaded becoming monarch. Edward briefly lobbied for a morganatic marriage (a marriage between a higher ranking aristocratic man and lower ranking woman, where any children from the marriage cannot inherit land or titles), but was met with overwhelming opposition from his prime minister and other figures. And so the king abdicated on December 10, 1936. He moved to France with Simpson and married her the next year after her second divorce became final.
The abdication rocked the concept of the monarchy—and stoked furious curiosity about Simpson. TIME Magazine named her their first Woman of the Year in 1936, and newspapers and magazines eagerly dissected her every move and shamelessly speculated on the most personal details of her life. The New York Sun, for example, bared the news with paparazzi photos of the shirtless king and his bathing-suit-wearing lover playing in the water at Cannes and even consulted medical experts on the possibility of an illicit pregnancy in an article entitled “Stork Rare Caller After 40.”
Royal, but not sovereign
As in the 1930s, public curiosity about Meghan Markle, the divorced American actress turned princess, is seemingly inexhaustible, and tabloid tongues are already wagging after the Sussexes’ shock announcement. But the similarities between Harry and Meghan’s situation likely end there.
Harry may be a royal, but he is not a sovereign and is only sixth in line to the British throne. The United Kingdom’s parliament would have to pass a special law to remove him from his distant spot in the line of succession, and as historian Marlene Koenig tells Royal Central, the queen would have to grant him permission to drop the title His Royal Highness.
Queen Elizabeth II opens a session of the Parliament of Canada in Ontario with Prince Philip at her side. Britain's reigning monarch is also Canada's head of state, a government structure left over from when the region was under British rule, and the queen has visited Canada more than any other country during her reign.
PHOTOGRAPH BY KATHLEEN REVIS, NAT GEO IMAGE COLLECTION
So far, there’s no indication that Prince Harry wants to recuse his title or place in the line of royal sucession. In an FAQ on the couple’s website, they say they intend to “maximise Her Majesty’s legacy” and to “continue to proudly do so” as part of a “new working model” in which they split their time between the UK and North America and step back from their ceremonial roles.
The Sussexes plan to continue to use Frogmore Cottage, a property at Windsor Castle where they currently live with the queen's permission, as their official residence, though reports suggest they will likely live in both California and Canada.
But unlike Edward, who was given a permanent pension in exchange for his exile in France, Meghan and Harry plan to give up the money they receive from the Sovereign Grant, which British taxpayers give to the monarchy each year. (Harry also receives a much larger amount from Prince Charles' private estate, the Duchy of Cornwall.) Questions remain as to how they will support themselves, though, and it remains to be seen how the couple’s definition of “stepping away” might evolve. Until then, direct comparisons to the abdication crises seem as overblown as Madame Tussauds’ spiteful decision to remove the Sussexes from their royal family display.
Lead Image: Prince Harry and Meghan have announced they will pull back from royal duties and split their time between the U.K. and North America. They plan to focus on charity work and raising their son, Archie, out of the limelight. In 2018, the couple took a stroll through a redwood forest during an official visit to New Zealand.
PHOTOGRAPH BY KIRSTY WIGGLESWORTH, POOL VIA REUTERS/TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY