If the late Queen Elizabeth warmed to Meghan Markle on first acquaintance, Prince Philip, we learned last week, took a different view. He is said to have referred to her in private as ‘DoW’ – Duchess of Windsor.
This revelation, courtesy of biographer Ingrid Seward, has much caused much amusement, at least on the British side of the Atlantic.
Meghan certainly has her detractors, although not so many as those accumulated down the decades by her predecessor, Wallis Simpson.
Today, Duchess of Windsor is today known largely as a figure of disgrace, her reputation destroyed by entanglement in the Abdication Crisis of 1936, something neither the Royal Family nor the British public have forgiven.
In the popular mind Wallis remains an adventuress whose ambitious marriage to Edward VIII came close to ruining the Monarchy. ‘DoW’ was not meant to flatter.
Research for my new book suggests quite a different woman, however, someone of talent, charm and, as it happens, a fair degree of diplomatic skill – qualities that the British Royal Family could most certainly have used, then and now.
It seems Meghan had earned this disparaging epithet even before ‘Megxit’ gave rise to the inevitable comparisons between Prince Harry and his great-uncle, Edward, the Duke of Windsor.
It is true both men married American divorcees and wound up in exile abroad, although I tend to believe the analogies end there.
Prince Philip was correct, however: their choice of respective consorts warrants some reflection, if not quite in the way he imagined.
Neither Megan nor Wallis were cut from the cloth of traditional royal brides. Svelte, American and divorced they were women who met their princes as successful well-established adults.
Their past lives had been marked by family instability but their personal – and in the case of Megan, professional – success had marked them out as both independent and startlingly self-assured women.
Edward VIII, the Duke of Windsor, with his bride Wallis, Duchess of Windsor, on their wedding day in 1937 (left) and Prince Harry and Meghan on theirs in 2018
Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, was unfazed by her constitutional ignorance until she reached the point of no return – the Abdication
Having climbed the American ladder of success, they were seemingly unfazed by the grand British settings in which they suddenly found themselves. While their confidence shocked more traditional observers, it endeared them to their respective husbands.
The fact that neither knew anything about the world in which they had suddenly stepped seemed to have been for both, at least at the beginning, inconsequential.
Wallis was untroubled by her constitutional ignorance until she reached the point of no return – the Abdication. If Megan can be believed, she hadn’t even Googled Harry’s family tree before their first date and thought curtseying to his grandmother the Queen was something that only happened on film.
Faced with such stark divides – and, even in Megan’s case, the rigid expectations of a culture and class (at least the ones that still govern palace life) acceptance was clearly an uphill battle.
Of course, Megan was presented with much that Wallis was not. She was welcomed into the family by a grand royal wedding, given the style of Her Royal Highness and offered a career as a senior working royal.
Charles VIII’s decision to marry Wallis – a divorced, American socialite – led to a constitutional crisis and his abdication of the throne
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Harry and Meghan, attend the Invictus Games last year
Expectations at the outset were high and many, including the current King, saw the advantages Meghan’s more diverse background brought to the family portfolio.
While it is probably impossible to know what truly transpired in the breakdown her relationship with ‘The Firm’, it seems hard to imagine that a clash of cultures was not partly responsible.
At times, Meghan’s approach seemed surprisingly informal – even endearing. Why should she be bound by the formality of royal convention? Must she really wear a hat just because the Queen on their first (and as it turned out only) engagement planned to?
Yet this unceremonious approach sat uneasily with those who, more privately, encountered her American overdrive which – though fundamental to her past achievements – was probably ill-attuned to the requirements of Kensington Palace.
Adjectives such as ‘difficult’ and ‘demanding’ quickly surfaced. All too often handed down to ambitious, career-driven women, such labels also attest to a fundamental breakdown in life behind the palace walls.
Yet whatever criticism can be levelled at Megan in more recent times, there was an undeniable ease and freshness to the way she carried out her duties as a working royal, doubtless a product of her background and personality. She was – at first – well-liked.
The Duchess of Windsor was accorded similar praise during the five years she spent in the Bahamas while Edward served as Governor-General.
Stylish, charming and known for her ability to captivate a room, her performance was under-appreciated, but it begs the question of what might have been had she been afforded the same opportunities as Meghan.
Wallis might have ushered in a new era for British royal women – one which fundamentally, and far sooner, altered expectations of what constituted an acceptable royal consort.
It might have even enabled a more modern perspective on the merits of a young Camilla Shand as a suitable future wife for the then Charles, Prince of Wales.
Had that different story transpired, Meghan might have been pleased to be called the ‘DoW’.
- Jane Marguerite Tippett is author of Once A King – the lost memoir of Edward VIII published by Hodder & Stoughton, price £25