COSMO GORDON LANG had a complicated
and torn personality, and history has not always dealt kindly with
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
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
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
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
Finally, on 10 December 1936, Edward
VIII abdicated, and was succeeded by his brother, King George
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
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
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);
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
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
"To the infinite mercy and the
protecting care of God we commit him now, wherever he may