Last Updated on 11th December 2020
Asif M Basit, London
The Church of England’s concerns
Lambeth Palace seems to have remained indifferent of Prince Edward’s womanising and other wayward characteristics. What seems to have concerned them most is his lack of religious affiliation, which, in view of his public popularity, could weaken the grip of the church on state affairs. He was known to be non-practising, but that he had drifted even farther away from Anglican beliefs became apparent with his ascension.
Edward VIII’s official biographer, Philip Ziegler, notes that “even if there had been no Mrs Simpson, a clash between the King and the Establishment was inevitable.” Explaining his stance further, Ziegler explains that the Establishment had deep-rooted traditions and that to shake these roots was bound to come with lethal results for a constitutional monarch.
“Edward VIII recognized,” he says, “that he would be offending vested interests and injuring people who felt that they deserved better of him, but he was a strong proponent of the view that omelettes are only made by breaking eggs.” (Ziegler, King Edward VIII)
Edward VIII’s characterisation by HG Wells is worthy of note:
“He betrays the possession of a highly modernized mind by his every act, he is unceremonious, he is unconventional, and he asks the most disconcerting questions about social conditions …” (Baltimore News Post, 9 December 1936)
The Church of England would naturally be far from comfortable with a king who had “an enquiring mind, was disinclined to accept dogma as invariably correct, grew impatient if told that something could not be done because it had never been done before”. (Ziegler, King Edward VIII)
With such a figure on the throne, Cosmo Lang, the Archbishop of Canterbury, decided to personally, but discretely, intervene. With his shrewd intellect, he was to be instrumental in the abdication, yet maintain his image of being aloof from the politics that was to rampage the Crown.
It is not hard to imagine what the Archbishop would have felt when his principal adviser, Alan Don, reported to him that the new King intended to turn Roman Catholic to “escape from his unwelcome task”. “This was told to me,” he wrote in his diary, “by as Diocesan Bishop who had just been talking to an ex-Cabinet Minister”. (Alan C Don’s diaries, Lambeth Palace Library, MS 2864, 19 February 1936)
While Don’s above statement came as a reminder at the outset of Edward VIII’s reign, his reproach for Anglican faith was quite commonly known from many years before. He himself admitted to not being versed with the “Protestant faith, of which, by virtue of my birth, I was destined one day to be the ‘Defender’”. (Edward, A King’s Story)
During his early days on the throne, Edward VIII was swamped in conflicting emotions. That he expressed them added fuel to the fire of anxiety already giving sleepless nights to the Archbishop. The King knew that the popular opinion of his subjects saw him as progressive and had invested in him their hopes for change.
“It became increasingly plain to me,” he recalled later, “… that however wholeheartedly I might adapt myself to the familiar outward pattern of kingship … I could never expect wholly to satisfy the expectations of those for whom the rigid modes of my father’s era had come to exemplify the only admissible standard for a King … But I was also acutely conscious of the changes working in the times, and I was eager to respond to them as I had always done.” (Ibid)
The King was in this conflicting state of mind when the Archbishop had his first audience. It was on the day after George V died. This first meeting struck the wrong chord for both these stalwarts of the Church of England. Cosmo Lang, the Archbishop, recorded the meeting in his chronicle:
“… I had quite a long talk with the King. I told him frankly that I was aware that he had been set against me by knowing that his father had often discussed his affairs with me … He did not seem to resent this frankness, but quickly said that of course there had always been difficulties between the Sovereign and his heir.” (Cosmo Lang Papers, Lambeth Palace Library, Vol. 223)
The King’s account on this meeting matches Lang’s account but also captures the negativity that this meeting had sown in their relationship.
“No man likes to be told,” the King wrote, “that his conduct has provided a topic of conversation between his father and a third person. At any rate the Archbishop’s disclosure was an unpropitious note with which to inaugurate the formal relations between a new sovereign and his Primate.” (Edward, A King’s Story)
Lang’s account also confirms that the meeting had left a somewhat bad taste: “It was clear that he knows little, and I fear, cares little, about the Church and its affairs.” (Lang Papers, Lambeth Palace Library, Vol. 223)
The King concluded his recollection of the meeting in saying, “That encounter was my first intimation that I might be approaching an irreconcilable conflict”. (Edward, A King’s Story)
Lang proactively maintained an active connection with anyone who could bring him ammunition for his battle against a king that he desired not to stay on the throne. Disgruntled staff from the palace – mostly for being sacked or demoted by King Edward – would approach Lang to further nourish his ambitions against the King.
Just as Lascelles had confided in Baldwin, Admiral Lionel Halsey is reported to have headed straight to Lambeth Palace as soon as he was told by the King that he was no longer required on the household staff.
Halsey continued to visit Lang and write to him, originals of which are archived in the Lambeth Palace Library. He had been Edward VIII’s private secretary, replaced soon by Wigham. Halsey’s letters to Lang contained information acquired from Wigham which only go to show the King’s own staff’s disloyalty to him but loyalty to the establishment.
Halsey’s letters also indicate that Wigham had been providing information about the King to Baldwin. That the Viceroy of India, Lord Linlithgow, discussed the situation with both Baldwin and Lang during a visit to London, reveals that the Establishment had taken the dominions on board their malicious intents; Baldwin and Lang knew very well that dominions will have to play their part when the time came.
Very soon after Edward VIII’s ascension to the throne, the government and the Church of England – notoriously known as the Establishment – had joined hands in their conspiracy against a King who did not suit their agenda. The King himself was generous in providing the Establishment with stories to further stack their growing piles.
Breaking away from his father’s practice, he refused to subscribe to ecclesiastical charities right at the start of his reign. Chaplains of the Archbishop brought to his knowledge that the King did not attended the Chapel Royal – confirming doubts that he had no interest in Christian faith. (Diaries and Papers of Rev Alan C Don, Lambeth Palace Library, under various dates of March 1936)
Such a petty observation that the “king had also fidgeted all through the Royal Maundy Service” was important enough a piece of information as to be worthy of reporting to the Archbishop. (Ibid)
Launcelot Percival, who had been the precentor at the Chapel Royal for 14 years when Edward VIII acceded to the throne, would report every action of the King to Archbishop Lang; that the King and Mrs Simpson stayed out late at night and that the King laid expensive gifts at the feet of his mistress are some of the issues on record that he conveyed to Lang. Trivial they might seem, but that even such issues reached the Archbishop reveals a lot about the gravity of the conspiracy.
A collection of cuttings from the American press – that had remained vocal about the Edward/Simpson affair – held at Lambeth Palace archives points to the level of interest that the Archbishop had in the situation; that letters with these cuttings were addressed directly to him tells even more. Adding insult to injury was Edward VIII’s disinclination to consult the Archbishop who had, during all his career, been consulted in every matter by George V.
How the Church would hold the monarch under its thumb seems to have become a matter of greater concern for Archbishop Lang. Baldwin and his government also faced the same predicament. It would not be wrong to conclude that it was at this crossroads that their paths crossed and it was here that the Church and the Government united in their efforts to topple their own King. It was here that they might have continued to sing “Long live the King!” – hand on heart – quite contrary to their actions.
The Church and government against the King
The Establishment – which here means the Church and the Government combined – now united and turned all guns in the King’s direction; even though the king is meant to be the third pillar of the establishment.
By this point, the American press had gained significant momentum about the King’s affair with Mrs Simpson. It was at this point that the Establishment unbolted and flung open the sluice that had so far been holding the British press at bay.
Confidential meetings with Geoffrey Dawson, Editor of The Times, with Archbishop Lang, and their correspondence – both on record and held at the Lambeth Palace Library and Bodleian Library, Oxford University – speak volumes about how all major state institutions had their strings tied to the Archbishop’s fingers.
The Archbishop recorded this meeting with Dawson in his diary:
“I had a long and very confidential talk with him in which he spoke to me about the possibility at some early date of The Times intervening in an article”.
The Archbishop was so thankful for his support that he wrote to Dawson the next day (12 November 1936). Half of the letter has been torn off but the remaining sits in the shelves of Lambeth Palace Library:
“I need not tell you how grateful I was to you for our confidential talk yesterday. Since I saw you I have talked to other responsible people and it becomes increasingly apparent that some decisive clearing of the air must be achieved within the shortest possible time. I only hope that the Prime Minister will now take some further definite step.” (Cosmo Lang Papers, Lambeth Palace Library, Vol. 129)
Although the letter does not reveal who these “other responsible people” were, but since Baldwin has been mentioned, it only goes to mean that the Archbishop had all instruments of the Empire’s machinery under his thumb. Dawson had also been to see Prime Minister Baldwin and had found him equally concerned about the situation. (Geoffrey Dawson Papers, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, Vol. 55)
The Establishment let the British press off the lead and newspapers, especially tabloids, were soon buzzing with sensational stories. As Hazrat Mirza Mahmud Ahmadra had rightly assumed, the Establishment had Mrs Simpson’s story ready as their scapegoat.
The Archbishop had carefully engineered the search for a sacrificial lamb and had finally managed to find a femme fatale. A letter of his, written after the storm of abdication had settled, is quite indicative of his approach:
“… as the months passed and his relations with Mrs Simpson became more notorious the thought of my having to consecrate him as King weighed on me as a heavy burden.” (Cosmo Lang Papers, Lambeth Place Library, Vol. 223)
“Think of pouring all those sacred words into a vacuum” is a remark that Archbishop Lang made to one of his confidants. Not only is his intention to not let the King make it as far as his coronation evident, but even more striking is this intention’s similarity to that of Baldwin’s – “should he succeed to the throne”. (Ibid, Vol. 318)
Archbishop Lang took his Bishops in confidence before moving on to the big step. He invited them all to his room “of which windows were fast closed, and the atmosphere stifling”, as Herbert Henson, one of his bishops, later described. No minutes of this in-camera meeting were taken but Bishop Henson’s diary holds most of the secrets discussed. He recalls the Archbishop briefing them about the coronation:
“It would not be edifying to stir up the nation to a religious preparation for the King’s crowning when the King himself was making it apparent that he himself took anything but a religious view of the ceremony.” (Bishop Henson Papers, Durham Cathedral Library, under 17 November 1936)
This statement of Lang’s refers to the King’s intention to dismiss the Christian vows that have remained at the heart of a British monarch’s coronation. Soon after Edward VIII’s ascension to the throne, during a meeting to map out coronation plans, Archbishop Lang “had to defend the importance of the Christian ritual involved in the coronation service when challenged by sovereign who wanted to scale back what he perceived as humbuggery of royal ceremonial”. (Edward Owens, The Family Firm: Monarchy, Mass Media and the British Public 1932-53, University of London Press)
It is concluded by most historians and biographers that the above was “just one example in a catalogue of offences” compiled by Archbishop Lang against Edward and one that compelled him to pave the way to topple a king with a modernising agenda; an agenda that did not suit the Church of England and, for that matter, the status quo. (Ibid)
Edward VIII seems to have tried all possible ways to exercise his lawful rights as well as stay on the throne. Although he thought that he could lawfully marry Mrs Simpson, he was flexible enough to respect the sentiments of the Establishment by proposing a morganatic marriage with Mrs Simpson.
This meant that Mrs Simpson would legally be the King’s wife, but would not be titled the Queen-consort, nor would their children from the marriage be placed in the line of succession to the crown. This too was rejected by Baldwin who, as is now quite obvious, was not acting alone.
Archbishop Lang wanted to see the King’s removal from the throne “as soon as possible”, an intention that he had quite plainly expressed in a letter to Baldwin – in an envelope marked “Strictly Private”. (Stanley Baldwin Papers, Cambridge University Library, Vol. 176, 25 Nov 1936)
The letter concluded with these words:
“Only the pressure of our common anxiety – and hope – can justify this letter”. (Ibid)
Not everyone in the Parliament was an ally of Baldwin and his cabinet. There were ministers, including the likes of Winston Churchill, who had a soft corner and sympathy for the king. (Montgomery Hyde, Baldwin, the Unexpected Prime Minister, Hart-Davies, MacGibbon, London, 1973)
Although The Times was hijacked by the Establishment, the popular press continuously expressed allegiance to the king. The public did not want their king to go and that too for a matter that they saw as a trivial one. It was beginning to seem highly likely that there could form a “King’s Party” in the Parliament. This is something that Edward VIII did not desire for his country and the Empire. He could not bear the bifurcation of the nation on an issue of so personal a nature.
On the dull evening of 2 December 1936, Prime Minister Baldwin headed to the Palace to see the King to tell him that it was now a matter of urgency and that the decision must now be made. He presented the King with three options:
- To give up Mrs Simpson
- The morganatic marriage option (which was by then an invalid option)
(Cosmo Lang Papers, Vol. 318, Lambeth Palace Library)
Baldwin, as a matter of fact, knew that the King was now only left with the third choice to opt for. He reported the details of his audience back to Lang the next day. Through a very opportunistic move, they thought that they had finally toppled the King. And they were right.
Edward VIII, seeing that he would not be allowed by the Establishment to remain on the throne, decided to abdicate. He signed his abdication notices on 10 December and announced it to the public through a radio broadcast on 11 December 1936.
Braggers of “freedom of speech”
Going through the archives and records of this crisis, one is shocked to notice how the King was cornered and pinned down by the British Establishment. Edward VIII, with the intention to know how his subjects saw the whole situation, expressed his desire to address the nation through a radio broadcast. Edward VIII later recalled:
“I thrust at once to the point of the meeting, the project of the broadcast. The idea seemed to startle him and, if I correctly read his thoughts, he seemed to be saying to himself rather irritably, ‘Damn it; what will this young man be thinking up next?’” (Edward, A King’s Story)
He was absolutely right in reading Baldwin’s mind. Baldwin took the proposal to the cabinet and came back to tell the King that the proposal had been rejected. (Baldwin Papers, Vol. 176)
In their dread of a monarch who could challenge the status quo, the Establishment denied him the right to even address his people. Thrown out was the fact that he was still the King; ignored were the crowds outside the palace who sang “Long live the King!” and “For he’s a jolly good fellow” in showing their support for their King; brutally disregarded was the notion of “freedom of speech” that the British Government was, and is, very proud of.
Archbishop Lang was, however, allowed to broadcast his message to the nation a few days after the abdication. Having observed that the public opinion was bewildered (Lang Papers, Lambeth Palace Library, Vol. 318), he broadcast his address on radio.
Lang’s biographer, Robert Beaken, is rightly of the opinion that the Archbishop’s voice sounded “nervous in comparison with other recordings”. (Robert Beaken, Cosmo Lang: Archbishop in War and Crisis, IB Tauris, London, 2012)
It was this speech that Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmadra had referred to in his Al Fazl article – only having read excerpts and with no access to the audio. Robert Beaken’s observation is absolutely correct, which can be confirmed by listening to the speech preserved at the British Library. (British Library, Sound Archives, T8077/0404)
Lang’s close confidant, Alan Don, recorded in his diary how the Archbishop was found kneeling in prayer beside his desk just before leaving for the broadcast. (Don Diaries, Lambeth Palace Library, under 15 December 1936)
Don also noted down his own impressions about the address:
“I am a little apprehensive about it, for I think it may have the effect of confirming suspicion … that he had engineered the whole thing”. (Ibid)
It is incredibly amazing to note how a man in a small town of the Punjab – thousands of miles away from the hubbub of the abdication crisis – could so minutely understand the facts behind the fictional presentation of the story.
How right was Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmadra in asserting that the King’s abdication to protect his lawful right to remarry a divorcee would set up a legacy – a legacy of allowing, along the Islamic lines, to divorce when inevitable and to remarry when divorced.
There is no need to delve into how members of the Royal Family have ever since been able to divorce and to remarry of their own freewill. There are many! (And counting, it seems!)
Despite the flamboyant claims of being secular, are the so-called modern Western governments still puppets of the church? This too is not the scope of this article. Does the church still try to control state affairs or is that now a bygone? Or is it that the church’s establishment in the West is more skilled at the cunning art of keeping their interventions discreet (as opposed to the clergy pressure groups of the Muslim East)?
The answers are still hazy. We may find out in another few decades.