Caroline McWilliams explores Fort Belvedere, the country house that became the site of a constitutional crisis, shaking British society to its core.
The engagement of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle in 2017 sparked a renewal of interest in the love affair between King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. Countless articles and books have been written on the Abdication Crisis in recent years, yet a lesser-known aspect of the story is the importance of a country house on the Windsor Estate: Fort Belvedere.
The Fort was an old royal hunting lodge that had been utilised by various relations and courtiers until the Prince of Wales requested its use from his father in mid-1930. The prince recalled: ‘When I went to my father to ask if I might live there, he was surprised. “What could you possibly want that old place for? Those damn week-ends, I suppose…Well, if you want it, you can have it.” I thanked him. My real reason for desiring the property lay deeper than a mere wish for a place to spend week-ends at. I was thirty-five years old; the rolling stone was beginning to seek a resting place…’. This resting place soon became the perfect place to take his mistresses. When Thelma, Viscountess Furness began her affair with the prince, her marriage was already breaking down. She and the prince soon began to spend long weekends at Fort Belvedere, which the prince always referred to simply as “The Fort.” Thelma recalled that when they were seen together in London, ‘eyebrows were raised and tongues began to wag.’ The Fort offered them an escape from prying eyes and they could entertain in peace while enjoying a quiet domestic life.
When I went to my father to ask if I might live there, he was surprised. “What could you possibly want that old place for? Those damn week-ends, I suppose…Well, if you want it, you can have it.”
The Fort was a place of simplicity and rest where the prince could escape the pressures of royal duties and retire to pursue his various hobbies, which included gardening and playing the bagpipes. It was a place created to be idyllic. Thelma’s affair with the prince was significant as it marked disruption in this idyll. Here was a married woman playing house with the heir to the throne, who was still unmarried. A prince having affairs was nothing new, but the heir being unmarried in his thirties was worrying for the continuity of the royal line. In a cruel twist of fate for Thelma, she introduced Wallis Simpson to the prince in early 1931. Having met Wallis through her sister Consuelo, the two became great friends, a friendship that lasted until the prince fell in love with Wallis.
Wallis was first invited to The Fort with her husband Ernest in January 1930. She described it in her memoirs as ‘the most romantic house I have ever known – that half-enchanted castle…’. It was here that their relationship blossomed, taking advantage of the privacy offered by the country setting. Wallis returned to The Fort countless times, often accompanied by her husband and she came to love it as much as the prince. Wallis knew a good amount about The Fort before her first visit, having seen numerous photographs of the exterior in the press. It was here that she discovered facts about the prince unknown except to his closest friends, for example, the fact that he enjoyed embroidery. The routine was ‘amazingly informal’, and the prince retired early for the night to be awake early in the morning and out in his beloved garden. Wallis never considered The Fort to be hers, but she was undeniably the hostess after the end of the prince’s relationship with Thelma. From 1935 the prince took a guest book with him wherever he went, and after the first entry, Wallis’ name disappears. She was there so often that she was no longer considered a guest, she had become hostess and chatelaine.
Yet, it was not to remain their home. It was from The Fort that Wallis took her leave of England when her impending divorce and the scandal surrounding the Abdication Crisis caused her to flee to France. On 10th December 1936, The Fort played witness to one of the biggest constitutional disruptions in British history. Edward VIII signed the Instrument of Abdication, witnessed by his three younger brothers. The presence of Thelma and Wallis at Fort Belvedere led indirectly to one of the biggest disruptions that Britain had ever witnessed. The King’s determination to marry Wallis split high society into two camps, one which championed his cause and one which leaned decisively to his brother who had married the “correct” woman and produced heirs.
 H.R.H. Duke of Windsor, A King’s Story: The Memoirs of H.R.H. the Duke of Windsor, K.G. (London: Cassell & Co. Ltd. , 1951), p. 235.
 Gloria Vanderbilt and Lady Thelma Furness, Double Exposure: A Twin Autobiography (New York: David McKay, 1958), p. 226.
 The Duchess of Windsor, The Heart Has Its Reasons: The Memoirs of the Duchess of Windsor (London: Michael Joseph 1956), p. 179.
 Ibid., p. 180.
 Ibid., pp. 182-4.
Caroline McWilliams is a second-year PhD student in the School of History at the University of St Andrews. Her doctoral research focuses on the connection between informal diplomacy, upper class women and the British press in the inter-war years. Caroline also works with the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution as National Vice-Chair for Junior Membership and as a Chapter Recording Secretary. She focuses on historical preservation, education and the engagement of younger members, and she is a member of The Pilgrims Society of Great Britain. You can follow Caroline on Twitter.