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How to topple a king

19 October 2012

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Lang, played a critical part in the abdication of King Edward VIII, but damaged his own reputation by his comments afterwards, says Robert Beaken


Crisis: the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Lang, in coronation robes, in a photo from 1937

Crisis: the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Lang, in coronation robes, in a photo from 1937

COSMO GORDON LANG had a complicated and torn personality, and history has not always dealt kindly with him.

He was the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1928 to 1942, and he had great gifts as a preacher, pastor, and wise administrator. He was a shrewd judge of men and women, and everyone to whom I have spoken who knew Lang has mentioned his immense personal kindness and generosity of spirit.

But Lang was also a workaholic, who never took a weekly day off. He was possessed of an iron sense of duty, and had a strong awareness of personal sinfulness. As Archbishop, he sat in lonely eminence at the top of an ecclesiastical pyramid, with a tiny and inadequate secretariat at Lambeth Palace to help him. He was the focus of all sorts of unreasonable demands and expectations.

Lang had a shy streak, and could sometimes come across as distant. One suspects that he was frequently a very lonely man. Shortly after his enthronement at Canterbury, a blood clot travelled to his heart, and he nearly died. He was often ill during the first few years of his primacy.

Since his death in 1945, Lang has been frequently misunderstood by writers and broadcasters, who have failed to understand his personality, and have sometimes sought simple explanations and storylines.

One recent example was the Channel 4/Blakeway television documentary Edward VIII, the Plot to Topple a King, broadcast in May, about Lang's part in the 1936 abdication crisis. I was interviewed for the programme, but do not accept its interpretation.

THE documentary was subsequently criticised for its lack of objectivity and fanciful dramatic reconstructions. More seriously, this production got its historical research significantly wrong, and presented a misleading impression of Lang.

It made much of a letter sent to the Editor of The Times, signed simply "A. C. D", alleging that Edward VIII was mentally ill. Despite the letter's being addressed from the Cloisters, Windsor Castle, the programme claimed that it had been written by Alan Campbell Don, Lang's chaplain, as part of an attempt by the Archbishop to smear the King's reputation, in order to force his abdication. In fact, the letter was sent by a completely different man with the same initials, Anthony Charles Deane, a Canon of Windsor, and had nothing to do with either Don or Lang.

The TV viewer could be forgiven for forming the misapprehension that a rather nasty Archbishop of Canterbury had used a sledgehammer to crack a walnut. In truth, it would be better to envisage Lang in 1936 as a skilful surgeon, reluctantly carrying out a complicated and potentially dangerous operation, and wielding his scapel with dexterity.

Eleven months earlier, Lang had emerged from his first audience with Edward VIII, feeling rather hopeful about the new reign. When the King wanted to, he could still impress and excite his subjects. Unfortunately, he also had his fair share of difficulties. As the Prince of Wales, he had suffered from a problem with alcohol. I suspect he was not very good at relationships.

The Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, described the new King: "He is an abnormal being: half child, half genius. . . it is as though two or three cells in his brain had remained entirely undeveloped, whilst the rest of him is a mature man. He is not a thinker. He takes his ideas from the daily press instead of thinking things out for himself . . . no serious reading: none at all."

IF THAT was all, the royal household and the government could probably have coped with Edward VIII. Unfortunately, the King also wished to marry Wallis Simpson. She had already divorced one husband, was shortly to divorce her second, and, unknown to the King, was also engaged in another adulterous affair with one of his subjects, Guy Trundle.

Edward VIII's passion for Mrs Simpson became obsessive. "I have grown to hate that woman," Baldwin confided to his friend Tom Jones. "Walter Monckton [the King's legal adviser] sat next to her recently, and came to the conclusion she was a hard-hearted bitch. I have turned on the lawyers and ascertained what our powers are. If he marries her, she is automatically Queen of England."

Within a few weeks of Edward VIII's accession, it become apparent to a small circle of courtiers, and to Baldwin and Lang, that there were serious problems with the new King. He was neglecting state papers, and behaving erratically and tactlessly, and was utterly dependent on Mrs Simpson.

Letters of complaint about the King began arriving at Lambeth Palace. Members of the government and the royal household, and even the Viceroy of India unburdened themselves to Lang. The Archbishop made sympathetic but vague noises to those who turned to him in their anxiety, and was careful to express no opinion about the King him- self.

By the late summer of 1936, Lang appears to have decided that Edward VIII would have to go. He would not have found this conclusion easy, but he viewed the monarchy as primarily a Christian institution, and would have felt that it was endangered by the King's immoral behaviour.

He was conscious that it was only 18 years since many ancient European royal dynasties had been swept away, at the end of the First World War. And he fully understood the importance of the British monarchy as a focus of unity within Britain and the Empire, at a time when Fascism and Nazism were disturbing Europe.

NEWLY declassified papers reveal that Lang played a crucial and hitherto hidden part in the abdication crisis. In September 1936, Lord Wigram, George V's former private secretary, and Alec Hardinge, Edward VIII's private secretary, secretly met Lang in Scotland, and had a long talk "up and down the problem of His Majesty".

An opportunity for Lang to intervene came the following month, when Lang and Baldwin found themselves guests of Lord Salisbury at Hatfield House. Baldwin unburdened himself in a private conversation with Lang.

In the next six weeks, Lang developed a close friendship with Baldwin. The two men met in secret seven times, spoke on the telephone, exchanged letters, and shared their correspondence about the King. Lang, the more intellectually able of the two, gingered up Baldwin to take action. He guided the Prime Minister's thoughts, offered pastoral support, and provided him with arguments to use in his audiences with the King.

As a result, Edward VIII was left with the options of staying on the throne and not marrying Mrs Simpson, or abdicating and marrying her. Baldwin described himself to Lang as being "like a dog in a sheep-dog trial who has to induce a single sheep into a narrow gate."

At a crucial weekend in the abdication crisis, Lang intervened further to ask that preachers did not mention the King in their sermons, thus sparing the monarch potential embarrasment, but also preventing any expressions of support.

Finally, on 10 December 1936, Edward VIII abdicated, and was succeeded by his brother, King George VI.

THROUGHOUT the events leading up to the abdication, Lang behaved with great circumspection. He did not share his thoughts even with his chaplains, and, on one occasion - when he had to discuss the King and Mrs Simpson with the bishops - he took secrecy to almost comic proportions, by meeting them in a cloakroom in Church House, Westminster, to avoid being overheard. It is hard to understand, therefore, why Lang made the infamous radio broadcast that was critical of Edward VIII on 13 December 1936.

The Bishop of Coventry, Mervyn Haigh, had urged Lang to speak out about the ex-King, and told him that people were refusing to stand for the National Anthem. Lang - who was probably tired and overwrought after the stress of the abdication - appears, unusally, not to have questioned this bad advice.

The result was that he made a dull and, in places, very silly broadcast, which gave the impression that he was kicking a man when he was down. It caused widespread offence. Lang quickly realised his mistake, but it was too late, and his reputation never really recovered. The sad thing is that he bore no personal ill will towards Edward VIII, although he believed that the King had let the country down.

It would be hard to complain about the outcome of the abdication crisis. George VI and Queen Elizabeth proved to be admirable wartime monarchs, and, while four more European royal dynasties were overthrown after 1945, the British monarchy emerged from the Second World War secure in the affections of its people.

The historian is not supposed to speculate. I cannot help but wonder, however, what would have happened had Lang and Baldwin failed to induce the single sheep into the narrow gate.

Had King Edward VIII and Queen Wallis been on the throne at the time of the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940, might Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax have received encouragement from Buckingham Palace to negotiate an armistice with Hitler's Germany? Where would we have been then?

Robert Beaken's new book Cosmo Lang: Archbishop in war and crisis, is published by I. B. Tauris at £25 (CT Bookshop £22.50); 978-1-7807-6355-2.

ON SUNDAY 13 December 1936, two days after Edward VIII's abdication broadcast, Cosmo Lang made his own speech on radio. He approached the task with some trepidation: "It was a difficult task. I felt that I could not in honesty and sincerity merely say kind, and of course true, things about the late King's charm and manifold services; that in my position I was bound to say something about the surrender of a great trust from the motive of private happiness, and about the social circle in which he had thought that that happiness could be found."

These are the passages of his broadcast which caused most comment and offence:

"WHAT pathos, nay, what tragedy, surrounds the central figure of these swiftly moving scenes. On the 11th day of December, 248 years ago, King James II fled from Whitehall. By a strange coincidence, on the 11th day of December last week, King Edward VIII, after speaking his last words to his people, left Windsor Castle, the scene of all the splendid traditions of his ancestors and his throne, and went out an exile. In the darkness, he left these shores.

"Seldom, if ever, has any British sovereign come to the throne with greater natural gifts for his kingship. Seldom, if ever, has any sovereign been welcomed by a more enthusiastic loyalty. From God, he had received a high and sacred trust. Yet, by his own will, he has abdicated - he has surrendered the trust. With characteristic frankness, he has told us his motive. It was a craving for private happiness.

"Strange and sad it must be that for such a motive, however strongly it pressed upon his heart, he should have disappointed hopes so high, and abandoned a trust so great. Even more strange and sad it is that he should have sought his happiness in a manner inconsistent with the Christian principles of marriage, and within a social circle whose standards and ways of life are alien to all the best instincts and traditions of his people.

"Let those who belong to this circle know that today they stand rebuked by the judgement of the nation which had loved King Edward. I have shrunk from saying these words. But I have felt compelled for the sake of sincerity and truth to say them.

"Yet, for one who has known him since his childhood, who has felt his charm and admired his gifts, these words cannot be the last. How can we forget the high hopes and promise of his youth; his most genuine care of the poor, the suffering, the unemployed; his years of eager service both at home and across the seas? It is the remembrance of these things that wrings from our hearts the cry 'The pity of it, oh, the pity of it.'

"To the infinite mercy and the protecting care of God we commit him now, wherever he may be."

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