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Witness at an abdication

30 October 2020

Alan Don gives a candid account of the short reign of Edward VIII


Edward VIII and Archbishop Cosmo Lang at the Maundy service in Westminster Abbey in 1936

Edward VIII and Archbishop Cosmo Lang at the Maundy service in Westminster Abbey in 1936

THE library at Lambeth Palace holds the diaries of Alan Don, who served as Chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Lang, to the Speaker of the House of Commons, and to the King, ending up as Dean of Westminster (1946-59). Robert Beaken, who has written a biography of Lang, was approached by Don’s family and, from the 1764 closely written pages, in volumes marked “strictly confidential” has produced a collection that shines a light on some of the significant events of his day, among them the abdication of Edward VIII on 11 December 1936. In the following extracts, “C.C.” is Don’s boss, “Cosmo Cantuar:”.

Thursday, 30 January 1936

The Speaker (FitzRoy) came to lunch — he wants a new Speaker’s Chaplain, having induced Canon Carnegie to resign — the climax came on the occasion of the recent meeting of the House of Commons when the members assembled to swear allegiance to King Edward VIII — Carnegie took the prayers as usual and prayed for King George and then for Edward Prince of Wales!

The members were greatly annoyed. When the Speaker remonstrated with Carnegie, the latter excused himself by saying that he was “thinking of something else” — that put the lid on and his resignation followed.

Thursday, 9 April, Maundy Thursday

The King was present at the Maundy service in Westminster Abbey at noon and, with the assistance of Tanner (the Secretary), Percival (Sub-Almoner) and C.C. (Lord High Almoner) distributed the Maundy gifts to two long rows of old men and women drawn up in the Choir.

We sat immediately opposite the King in the Sanctuary. He is a fidgety creature, but he played his part with great goodwill — though the bouquet of flowers which he had to carry was slightly embarrassing! It was his liking for the poor which brought him to the service, as Lancie Percival told me. How delighted the old people must have been — they bobbed, and smiled all over their faces.

Thursday, 24 September

The Court Circular today announced that Mrs Ernest Simpson and Mr and Mrs Herman Rogers have arrived at Balmoral Castle. They were with His Majesty on his recent Mediterranean trip — all Americans, I believe. Everyone now knows of Mrs Simpson and talks freely about her — it is a thousand pities, and yet the King seems determined to have his way. I do not envy his entourage, for they must cordially dislike the whole business.

Monday, 26 October

There is much talk about the King’s friend, Mrs Simpson, whose accommodating husband has apparently agreed to a divorce and has staged an “adultery” in order to give Mrs Simpson her freedom. What is the sequel to be? Can it be possible that His Majesty is going to insist upon marrying this American? If so, goodbye to any hope of a rapprochement between the Crown and the Church — the country would be profoundly stirred and shocked.

Friday, 6 November

Major Ney, just over from Canada, says that the tittle tattle in the papers over there about His Majesty and Mrs Simpson is doing much harm, causing the enemies of the British Crown to blaspheme.

Everyone who has to do with the Coronation ceremonies and observances is disheartened at the thought of the background against which the outward solemnities will have to be performed. Indeed the idea of linking the Coronation with a call to self-consecration and to service may prove impossible, if the situation does not improve.

Saturday, 7 November

Major Alec Hardinge, the King’s Private Secretary came to see C.C. — I do not know what they talked about, but I can guess!

Mrs Simpson, having got her divorce, continues to dine with His Majesty and to spend the weekend at Fort Belvedere. In any ordinary case, the King’s Proctor would intervene.

Cuttings from America continue to pour in, including a copy of the New York Daily Mirror, the front page of which includes the latest photo of Mrs Simpson and, in huge letters, “King Edward will marry Mrs Simpson” — June 1937 is the month, apparently confidently foretold by the King’s intimates. We shall see — many things may happen before then. We are possibly approaching a constitutional crisis of the first magnitude.

Wednesday, 2 December

Baptised the infant son of Thomas Cook MP for Norfolk in the Crypt Chapel. The brat kicked up an awful row. A number of Magdalen men came to discuss the suggestion of putting up some memorial to the late President (Warren) in the College. I shall make some announcement about it next Monday.

Geoffrey Dawson was present but was summoned away urgently to see the Prime Minister’s Secretary, Sir Geoffrey Fry — no doubt about the developments arising out of the comments on the Bishop of Bradford’s speech yesterday, which appeared in the Yorkshire Post and other provincial papers. The Times will probably now break silence. Baldwin saw the King this evening. Let us hope the air will be cleared.

AlamyAlan Don, by then Dean of Westminster, with the crown at Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953
Robert Beaken writes: On 1 December 1936, Bishop Alfred Blunt of Bradford spoke at his diocesan conference about the forthcoming coronation. He rejected the Bishop of Birmingham’s proposals for the desacramentalisation of the coronation service. Blunt’s speech was unexceptional, except in one section when he mentioned Edward VIII and said: “some of us wish that he gave more positive signs of such awareness” [of his need of God’s grace], by which he seems to have meant the king’s failure to attend holy communion or any other church service.

The bishop’s speech was widely reported in the press, who now abandoned their previous restraint. For many Britons, this was the moment when they first learnt of Edward VIII’s relationship with Mrs Simpson.

Thursday, 3 December

As anticipated, the dam has at length burst and the pent-up press feel free to comment on the King’s affairs. The leader in The Times puts the issue admirably — what matters is the stability of the Throne and the unity of the Empire and both have been put in jeopardy by recent events.

Attlee asked a question in the House of Commons this afternoon as to the “constitutional crisis” — but Baldwin had nothing to say at this stage.

The next move lies with the King who is faced with most momentous decisions. His position is indeed an unenviable one — and who has he round him to give him sound advice? The Harmsworth papers [among them the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror] do their utmost to advocate a compromise which would be no sort of solution — i.e. that he should marry Mrs Simpson without making her Queen and on the understanding that any issue of the marriage should stand outside the Succession to the Throne.

We are by no means out of the wood yet — anything so drastic as abdication would find the country greatly divided — and would present formidable problems. And yet I doubt whether the King has it in him to retrieve the situation and to re-establish the prestige of the Throne.

The next few days will be fraught with momentous issues for the Monarchy. Pray God we may come through all right in the end.

C.C. saw the Prime Minister this afternoon, but he revealed nothing of what was said. The people as a whole are amazingly calm and today there were no signs of unusual excitement in the streets — but of course the “crisis” is the one topic of conversation.

Friday, 4 December 

A day of tense anxiety as people realised that the issue is now Submission or Abdication. For Baldwin made clear in the House of Commons that anyone whom the King marries becomes automatically Queen and that the Government have no intention of introducing legislation to alter the law as it stands.

C.C. issued a statement this evening asking clergy not to speak directly of the King’s affairs from their pulpits on Sunday – much mischief might be done by ignorant and ill-informed speech.

Baldwin saw the King again this evening at Fort Belvedere – it is of urgent importance that a decision be arrived at without further delay. Is the King playing for time in the hope that the Daily Mail and Co. may arouse public opinion in his favour?

Saturday, 5 December

The more one thinks of this mess the more one dislikes it, however it is solved. The King may submit and make the supreme act of sacrifice, but is he capable of re-establishing his position and proving himself a King whom the whole Empire can hold in honour? I doubt it.

Sunday, 6 December

C.C. went to Canterbury yesterday morning and intended to stay till Monday — but he was summoned back [today] to see the Prime Minister at 3.30 p.m.

Edward VIII told Baldwin on the evening of 5 December that he had finally made up his mind to abdicate and marry Mrs Simpson. Baldwin telephoned Lang on 6 December and asked to see him at 10 Downing Street.

Baldwin described himself to Lang “as like a dog in sheep-dog trials who has to induce a single sheep into a narrow gate”, a significant remark, for it revealed that Baldwin not only wanted Edward VIII to abdicate but also was working to bring this about, and was in collaboration with Lang.

Tuesday, 8 December

We are on the brink of dramatic disclosures. I feel pretty sure that it is going to be abdication, though the evening papers try to persuade us that the crisis is over and that the King is going to renounce his projected marriage. I don’t believe it.

Thursday, 10 December, ABDICATION OF THE KING

As the morning wore on it became clear that the Prime Minister was in a position to announce the King’s decision — and there was little doubt as to what that decision was.

I went along to the House of Commons at 2.15. The House was practically full for Prayers, the only people conspicuous by their absence being the front Government bench. After questions, the Prime Minister walked to the Bar of the House and said: “Mr Speaker, a message from His Majesty the King” — he then walked up the floor of the House and handed the message to the Speaker, who at once proceeded to read it — the House, packed from end to end, listened in silence. Mr Baldwin then rose and gave a simple, unadorned account of his various interviews with the King, starting from the middle of October till yesterday.

Thus it has come about that a King, with an Empire at his feet nine months ago, has gone into the wilderness as an exile from his native land for the sake of a woman who has already made a failure of two marriages!

Here is a theme for a dozen tragedies. Here too is a demonstration for all the world to see that the British democracy demands from those in high places an exacting standard of life and character — it is that and that alone which counts in the long run.

Friday, 11 December

I prayed [in the Commons] for the last time for King Edward VIII — he ceased to be King at a few minutes before 2 p.m.

These are edited extracts from
Faithful Witness: The Confidential Diaries of Alan Don, Chaplain to the King, the Archbishop and the Speaker, 1931-1946, edited by Robert Beaken, with a foreword by Justin Welby, is published by SPCK at £30 (Church Times Bookshop £25); 978-0-281-08398-5.

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