This day in London history: on 20 January 1936 Edward, eldest son of King George V and Queen Mary and son of Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, was crowned king Edward VIII. Before the year was out he would have given up his throne for Wallis Simpson, a twice-divorced American.
The pair met and began their affair while Simpson was still married to her second husband, and Simpson “entertained” Edward at a luxury flat in Marylebone, on the corner of Seymour Place and George Street. George Street took its name from George III and, ironically, when Edward abdicated, his brother Albert ascended the throne and took the name of George, becoming King George VI.
George Street is the home of the church of St James’s, Spanish Place, a church that faces west rather than east as is the tradition, so that in the morning the priest and congregation face towards the rising sun. There was expectation that the land east of the church would become available and the church could be extended. This, however, never happened.
Many streets in Marylebone take their name from Portman family members and country estates, and Seymour Place is no exception. In 1553 the Portman family, hailing from the West Country, took possession of the estate – then over 270 acres stretching from Oxford Street to Regent’s canal – when Sir William Portman, Lord Chief Justice of England, bought the property. The land was still relatively undeveloped in 1745 when the main occupation in the area was pig farming and the depositing of ‘night soil’ (human excrement collected at night from cesspools , privies, etc. and sometimes used as a fertilizer).
However, in 1764 Henry William Portman started an ambitious building project of a square surrounded by streets, including Seymour Place and Seymour Street, named for Portman’s mother, born Anne Seymour. The square was Portman Square, the nucleus of the Portman Estate, and the project was so successful that for close to two centuries the estate remained one of London’s most desirable residential areas.
As far as Edward and Wallis go, recent evidence suggests that, instead of a king being manipulated by a scheming American divorcee (nicknamed the ‘Yankee Harlot’) into giving up his throne, it was Wallis who became the object of an obsession on the part of a philandering royal with a history of womanizing. Letters that came to light hint that Simpson, whatever her faults, was overtaken by events and was desperately unhappy at having to give up her second husband. There have been hints that it was not entirely her choice to leave her husband and marry Edward and even that her divorce was expedited by the powers that be and was not entirely legal.
The letters written to her ex-husband over a period from 1936 to 1937 ; she even writes one on her honeymoon telling him that “I think of us so much though I try not to.” They suggest that she was deeply unhappy at the way in which circumstances had unfolded and, as the journalist who first got a glimpse of these letters says, “the story of Wallis and Edward is really a tale of gothic darkness with a Faustian pact at its core”.
Still, the couple remained to the world a devoted couple who were married for nearly 40 years.