Throughout its lifetime, the Prince of Wales brooch has been on a long and strange journey. Its story includes one member of the royal family who turned his back on destiny to marry the woman he loved, an innocent — or maybe not-so-innocent — mistake that saw it fail to be returned to its rightful owner, and coming into the possession of a famous actress with a passion for expensive jewels. Elizabeth Taylor may have been Hollywood royalty, and she may have famously portrayed a queen as Cleopatra, but how did she end up with this iconic piece of royal history instead of the Princess of Wales herself?
The meet cute
Naturally, given its name, this royal brooch was commissioned by a Prince of Wales. The man in question was Edward VIII, who was the Prince of Wales until 1936 when he briefly became King Edward VIII before abdicating and being known as the Duke of Windsor. He had this special piece of jewelry made for a very special woman: Wallis Simpson. And their extraordinary and rather heartbreaking love story makes the meaning behind this brooch all the more poignant.
Love at first sight
Edward first met Wallis in 1931 at a party thrown by his mistress at the time, Lady Thelma Furness. The then-Prince of Wales was young, charming, and stylish. Men's Wear magazine stated during Edward’s visit to the United States in 1924 that “the average young man in America is more interested in the clothes of the Prince of Wales than in any other individual on earth.” Wallis, a twice-divorced American socialite, was attractive, witty, and confident. The charismatic prince became enchanted by her. An extract of a letter he wrote to her in 1935 reads, “My own beloved Wallis. I love you more and more and more and more… I haven’t seen you once today and I can’t take it. I love you.”
A forbidden love
Edward and Wallis fell head over heels for each other, but not everyone was happy about this potential royal union. By the time Edward became King in January 1936, the British police and press knew about the relationship, but the public was still being kept in the dark. Wallis presented a problem, you see: as King, Edward would be the head of the Church of England, yet this institution deemed marrying a divorcée to be morally abhorrent. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin also believed that the public wouldn’t accept a divorced American as their Queen.
Proposing a solution
A “morganatic marriage” was proposed by Edward: it would see Wallis not be granted the title of Queen, nor any rank or properties. Instead, she would become known as the Duchess of Cornwall; it was the very same move used almost seven decades years later by King Charles III — then the Prince of Wales — when he married Camilla Parker-Bowles in 2005. But these were different times. Baldwin turned the idea down flat, which left the situation very uncertain.