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Cosmo Lang and the last King

28 April 2023

David Wilbourne recalls that the road to King George VI’s coronation was hardly smooth


Edward VIII and Archbishop Lang after a Maundy service in Westminster Abbey in 1936

Edward VIII and Archbishop Lang after a Maundy service in Westminster Abbey in 1936

FROM time to time, in 1990s Bishopthorpe, the Archbishop of York’s PA culled the archives, simply to prevent our drowning in a sea of paper. In 1994, I rescued a copy of Archbishop Lang’s diary from the flames of the bonfire. Since it described the run-up to King George VI’s coronation, I was mindful it might come in handy, should we ever again crown a king. . .

“I went to the King’s room alone. I lifted the veil from his face and looked upon it for the last time. It had a light upon it of the most beautiful serenity and peace. With a final commendation of his soul to God, I left.”

In his extensive diary, Lang records his deep affection for George V, just one year his junior: “I really like him very much, frank, unaffected, outspoken to a fault.” Once, when he was stalking with the King at Balmoral, the two men had sheltered under a low overhanging rock during a heavy shower. There was only really room for one man to lie down horizontally, so Lang, “claiming the privilege of a subject to cover his sovereign”, lay on top of him.

“You know my mind,” George V smiled, leaving Lang to chair an important meeting on his behalf. Lang drafted speeches for his monarch, including the Christmas broadcasts and the Silver Jubilee address to Parliament, injecting a much noted human touch. Numerous letters to Lang were signed “Your sincere old friend, GRI.” On what was to be his final visit to Balmoral, in 1935, the King and his Archbishop spent a considerable time in private session, “discussing certain family troubles”.

On 19 January 1936, Lang attended his dying King at Sandringham, noticing that failure of circulation discoloured his sleeping face. The next day, the King rallied, recalling that Lang was his very old friend of 38 years’ duration, and gladly receiving his blessing. The Privy Council gathered to set up a Council of State, to which George V assented with a clear "Approved", but was too weak to sign in full, simply making his mark with a double cross.

At 11.15 p.m., "as the King’s life moved peacefully to its close", Lang donned a purple cassock, read Psalm 23 and Romans 8.31ff, and prayed "Go forth from this world, O Christian soul. . ." Lang retired, leaving the family to keep watch as the King breathed his last at 11.55 p.m.

Just after midnight, King Edward VIII immediately ordered all the clocks to be set to real time rather than the customary half an hour ahead. Lang, oblivious to the alteration, nearly missed celebrating communion at 8.30 at Sandringham church the next morning.

At the Accession later that afternoon, “King Edward read an admirable speech, hoping that God would guide him — something I was glad to hear. He went through these ceremonies with great simplicity and dignity.”

On 22 January, Lang gave a speech and a sermon, both freshly written in Latin because of the change of monarch, to his newly elected Convocation — there had been a General Election in 1935, which, back then, also dictated a new parliament for the Church. The next day, Lang received King George’s body for it to lie in state in Westminster Hall: a simple ceremony, but “one which so profoundly moved me, it required a great deal of effort to control my voice”.

His voice was under good control for a service of thanksgiving in Westminster Abbey the next Sunday, followed by a memorial service broadcast by the BBC, in which Lang was bemused as the fiercely Calvinist Moderator of the Scottish Kirk’s General Assembly piously read prayers for the dead.

The next day, Lang was confined to bed with a cold and temperature over 100ºF, but rallied to take the funeral at Windsor on 28 January, his overcrowded train arriving 40 minutes late. Fortunately, because of the crowds, the funeral procession was delayed, too.

Hymns included Crimond, “God be in my head”, and “Abide with me”, the new King scattering earth on the coffin as it was lowered into the depths. The next day, Lang had a long talk with a pleasant and cordial Edward at Buckingham Palace, who seemingly bore no grudge that Lang had discussed his intimate affairs with his late father.

Lang emphasised the great responsibilities now laid on him, but left, feeling that “a long and greatly valued chapter in my life, associated with the constant kindness and friendship of King George, was closed.”

Lang wrote: “I talked with King Edward in the spring about his Coronation. He summoned his brother Bertie and when I gave Edward the service book used at his father’s Coronation, he gave it to his brother, saying, ‘I think you had better follow this.’ I wonder whether even then he had it in the back of his mind that the Coronation might be not his but his brother’s.”

Edward wanted to shorten the lengthy service. Lang resisted, although as a concession offered to cut the Litany and the sermon — he had preached at George V’s Coronation in 1911 — and Edward acquiesced. “But he seemed, I noted then, strangely detached from the whole matter.”


“THE King’s Matter” (shades of Wolsey and Henry VIII) was the term that Lang used for Edward’s emerging relationship with the American Wallis Simpson. Lang clearly felt that, although the King had great gifts, charm, and presence, these were not always wisely directed: “The fault lay with the people around him.”

AlamyArchbishop Lang crowns King George VI on 12 May 1937, in Westminster Abbey

During the summer, for the first time in more than 25 years, Lang avoided Balmoral, where Mrs Simpson was in attendance, and instead stayed at Birkhall with the Duke nad duchess of York. “It was a delightful visit, they were kindness itself. The children sang some action songs most charmingly. It was strange to think of the destiny which may be awaiting the little Elizabeth, at present second from the Throne! She and her lively sister are certainly most entrancing children.”

The bishops were planning an evangelistic campaign, “A Recall to Religion”, for 1937, urging the nation to rededicate themselves to God along with their new King. But Lang realised that the campaign would have a hollow ring if the new King and Supreme Governor of the Church of England, married to a double divorcée, received communion during his Coronation, directly contravening church rules that divorcées were excommunicate.

 “I had hoped — little knowing what was impending in the autumn — that when the time came for me to prepare the King for the Coronation Service, I might use this opportunity to speak to him frankly about his private life and ask him to reconsider it in the light of these solemn words. But as the months passed, the thought of having to consecrate him as king weighed on me as a heavy burden, whether I could bring myself to do so. But I had a sense that circumstances might change. . .”

By a gentleman’s agreement, the UK press made no mention of the issue, but the foreign press were under no such obligation, and Lang felt that the monarchy “was being vulgarised and degraded, that mud was being thrown at sacred things. . . I made repeated suggestions about seeing the King, but he was very emphatic that on the subject of his relations with Mrs Simpson, he would listen to nobody but Mr Baldwin [the Prime Minister], who had a right to speak to him and advise him.”

On 1 November, Baldwin briefed Lang that he had urged the King “to realise that this was a matter which was affecting and might come to affect even more gravely his own position and the prestige of the Monarch”.

On 3 November, the King opened Parliament, delivering a rousing speech, as Mrs Simpson looked on in the gallery.

On 19 November, Baldwin told Lang that Edward intended to marry Mrs Simpson, even if that meant retirement into private life.

On 26 November, Baldwin raised with Lang the King’s suggestion of a morganatic marriage, where he would marry Mrs Simpson but she would be a commoner rather than Queen. This, however, would require special legislation, which Baldwin’s Cabinet and the Opposition resolutely opposed.

By and large, all the Dominion PMs opposed such a concession, and Australia’s PM asserted that Edward could not now re-establish his position, or command confidence as King. Ever the maverick, Winston Churchill pressured Baldwin and the King to delay any decisions until Parliament and the people had been consulted. In a private letter to Geoffrey Dawson, editor of The Times, Churchill suggested that a delay would be beneficial because, given time, Edward might fall out of love with Simpson.


THE floodgates broke on 2 December. The Bishop of Bradford, Alfred Blunt, at his diocesan conference, described the significance of the Coronation Service and the King’s need of divine grace, wishing he showed more awareness of this need.

Apparently, the speech had been written six week’s previously, merely alluding to the King’s scant church attendance. But The Yorkshire Post, followed by the national press, assumed that Bishop Blunt had inside knowledge, and took his comments as its starting pistol to air the whole affair.

Lang was furious at Blunt’s naïvety, and made an appeal for clergy “to refrain from speaking directly on the King’s Matter in their sermons the following Sunday” (6 December). But, before that, on 4 December, Baldwin told Parliament of the stark choice before the King: he must give up either Mrs Simpson or the throne. Morganatic marriage was a non-starter.

In his discussion with the Federal Council of Evangelical Free Churches that afternoon, Lang acknowledged that a large proportion of the population, especially the young, felt a strong sympathy for the King: “He is doing the honourable thing. He wants to marry the woman he loves. Why shouldn’t he?”


ON 10 December, Edward signed the deed of abdication, witnessed by his three brothers, which was then announced in both Houses, even Churchill acknowledging that abdication must be accepted.

Just before his death, in 1947, Baldwin admitted that the decisive factor was the uncompromising stand of the Dominion PMs, particularly the Australian PM. This is corroborated by Alan Don’s (Lang’s chaplain’s) diary for 7 December 1936, and elsewhere, that Lang had stayed in the background, making no attempt to force the issue or press his point of view. I tend to trust the views of Archbishop’s chaplains. . .

The only time when Lang’s opinion had been directly sought by Baldwin was on Sunday 6 December. This concerned the King’s proposal to address the Empire, assuring his people that he had no intention of making his proposed wife Queen, promising to withdraw for a while, returning after the dust had settled.

Lang agreed that the proposal should be declined, since it was unconstitutional on several levels. There was also a proposal rejected that would have had Parliament grant a full divorce to Mrs Simpson contemporaneous with the Abdication, allaying Edward’s nervousness of losing his future wife as well as the throne should the decree absolute not be granted.


HOWEVER reticent he may have been hitherto, after Edward’s abdication, Lang made his views abundantly clear in a speech broadcast by the BBC on Sunday 13 December, as these words indicate:

“In darkness he left these shores. Seldom has any British Sovereign come to the throne with greater natural gifts for his kingship. From God he has received a high and sacred trust. Yet by his own will he has surrendered that trust, craving for private happiness.

“Strange and sad it must be that for such a motive 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 that circle know that today they stand rebuked by the judgement of the nation which had loved King Edward. How can we forget the high hopes and promise of his youth; his most genuine care for the poor, the suffering, the unemployed. . . It is the remembrance of these things that wrings from our hearts the cry, ‘The pity of it! O the pity of it!’”

Not surprisingly Lang received a lot of mail in response, the majority critical, as in this rhyme:

My Lord Archbishop, what a scold you are!
And when your man is down, how bold you are!
Of Christian charity how scant you are!
And, auld Lang swine, how full of cant you are!

On 21 December, Lang met King George and Queen Elizabeth, who had previously written “quite intimately” to him: “I can hardly now believe that we have been called to this tremendous task; the curious thing is that we are not afraid.”

After the meeting, Lang wrote: “What a relief it was, after the strained and wilful ways of the late King to be in the atmosphere of intimate friendship, and instead of looking forward to the Coronation as a sort of nightmare to realise that to the solemn words of the Coronation there would be a sincere response. At Christmas the King wrote to me most kindly. It was difficult to see in his handwriting and specially in his signature George R.I. any difference from that of his father. Prosit omen!”

 Elsewhere, Lang describes it as like waking from a nightmare to find the sun shining. With renewed confidence he led the Recall to Religion: “God is not so much denied as merely crowded out. A king is to be crowned. Let him not come alone to his hallowing, but let it mark the beginning of the nation’s return to God.”


LANG took the lead for the coronation, fixed for 12 May 1937. “I saw at once that somebody must get things done, and I had to do it!” The Oath was reinstated in its former position in the service, with the anointing reverting from rising from hands to head. The Litany was sung before the coronation began, and the sermon was scrapped, in that Lang felt “It was an intrusion and nothing profitable could be said in 5 minutes, although I was sorry not to give His Grace at York this part in the ceremony.” Given William Temple’s Socialist sympathies, I wonder if there was an ulterior motive.

BassanoArchbishop Cosmo Lang, portrait by Bassano

Lang attended all three committees that met regularly to plan the event: the Executive Committee, which briefed the Privy Council, and the Dominions’ Committee. They were hampered by having no record of the previous Coronation; by the time three boxes of Archbishop Randall Davidson’s muddled notes were eventually found at Lambeth, it was too late to change the arrangements.

“Many were anxious to give more places than hitherto to representatives of the great body of working folk. I tried with limited success to limit the number of wives of all sorts of minor persons and officials, not inviting the eldest sons of peers and their wives.”

Malcolm McDonald, Secretary for the Dominions, met the Archbishop almost daily as May approached. The problem was that, while the Dominions wanted George to be crowned as their King, the Irish Free State and South Africa took exception to hailing him as “their undoubted King”, or even saying “God save the King” when greeting George after the peers.

Ireland, South Africa, and the Roman Catholic Prime Minister of Australia also baulked at the Customary Oath being followed by a promise to maintain the Protestant Reformed Religion by Law Established. “There were times when McDonald and I were at our wits’ end to discover some way out of the dilemma,” Lang writes, but a new form was eventually agreed by simply adding the words “in the UK” after “Established”, with the King also required to maintain “the true profession of the Gospel”, to which no one could take exception.

The Free Churches requested some part in the service, but Lang declined, insisting that, since the whole service was within the C of E order of communion, they were not authorised to participate. Instead, “after rather tiresome and delicate negotiations with the Scottish Kirk”, he allowed them, along with the Scottish King’s Chaplains, access to “the theatre in the Abbey” by taking part in the Great Procession. After all these deliberations, Lang concluded that “if the C of E remains established, I hope decisions and arrangements made in 1937 may be followed.”


LANG led eight fixed rehearsals in the Abbey, with cries such as “Garter, where are you?” King George and Queen Elizabeth attended two, including the final full dress rehearsal.

BBC radio was to broadcast the event live from a soundproof hut behind the high altar so the commentary would not intrude on the service. “It was a dreadful place,” the commentator recalled. “I could not even see the altar, and much of what I said had to be calculated not by what I could see but by the stop-watch timings I had taken at the rehearsal.” During the communion, they switched to a choir in neighbouring St Margaret’s, singing “Let all mortal flesh keep silence”.

No special lighting for filming was permitted, and Lang the sole arbiter of which parts of the coronation could be filmed, ruling out the anointing and the receiving of communion. On the evening after the coronation, Lang and the Earl Marshal inspected the films, which understandably suffered from bad lighting and distant shots, before giving permission for their release.

AlamyArchbishop Lang crowns Queen Elizabeth

At Easter, Lang went through the whole service quietly with the King and Queen, “finding them most appreciative and fully conscious of its solemnity”. On the Sunday before the coronation, “at the same time in the early evening that multitudes of their subjects would be assembled in churches at home and overseas”, Lang visited the King and Queen at Buckingham Palace.

“After some talk on the spiritual aspects of the coronation and its spiritual meaning for themselves, they knelt with me. I prayed for them and their realm and Empire, and I gave them my personal blessing. I was much moved and so were they; indeed there were tears in all our eyes when we rose from our knees.

“From that moment I knew what would be in their hearts and minds when they came to their anointing and crowning.”

Lang was with them for an hour and a quarter, and then sped on to Broadcasting House to speak at a service broadcast to the world, explaining “the spiritual meaning of the Coronation and the spiritual share in it are open to all the Empire’s peoples”.


AT THE coronation itself, Lang chose not to wear a mitre, despite being the first Archbishop of York and Canterbury to wear one since the Reformation at various services, including George V’s Silver Jubilee in St Paul’s.

But Lang preferred “to make no innovation to the precedents of nearly 300 years”. There were 400 voices in the choir, including some from the Dominions. Lang noted that “the little Queen, the only woman present with an uncovered head awaiting its anointing, advanced with a real poetry of motion. The King looked like a medieval knight, awaiting his consecration with a rapt expression in his eyes, which turned neither to right or left. The most moving scene; for the first time because of microphones and loudspeakers, everyone could hear in the Abbey. I am told every businessman in the USA had been up at 4 a.m. to listen.”

At the point of coronation, Lang fumbled with the crown. Afterwards, he explained he was trying to find a strand of red wool which he had placed on it to align it perfectly with the king’s forehead, but unfortunately some minion had removed the wool.

The King’s Physician, Lord Dawson, sat in the south transept with syringe fully loaded with adrenaline just in case the elderly Lang should flag. But, in the event, there was no need of the good doctor’s services: “I seemed to be sustained by some Higher Power Who was in control.”

“Thank God it’s over,” Lang’s chaplain, Lumley Green Wilkinson, declared as they drove away from the Abbey. “Lumley, how can you say such a thing!” the Archbishop replied. “I only wish it was beginning all over again.”

The Rt Revd David Wilbourne, an Honorary Assistant Bishop in the diocese of York, was chaplain to the Archbishop of York from 1991 to 1997.

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