In December 1936, following the Abdication of Edward VIII, a rhyme circulated about the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Lang:

‘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!’

Lang had made a particularly ill-judged broadcast three days after the Abdication, which caused considerable offence. The widespread view of Lang is that he impotently wrung his hands on the sidelines before the Abdication, after which he made his disastrous broadcast. A different view was taken by the Duke of Windsor in his memoirs: ‘Behind [the Prime Minister, Baldwin] … was a shadowy hovering presence, the Archbishop of Canterbury … from beginning to end I had a disquieting feeling that he was invisibly and noiselessly about.’

When I began my research into Lang, I expected to end up more or less re-stating the view that he was on the margins during the Abdication crisis. Following the Queen Mother’s death in 2002, I was granted access to the secret papers of Lang and Baldwin, and discovered to my surprise that the Duke of Windsor’s version was nearer the truth: Lang and Baldwin had collaborated to bring about the abdication of Edward VIII.

When Edward VIII acceded to the throne in January 1936, Lang felt rather hopeful about the new reign. When Edward VIII wanted to, he could impress his subjects. Unfortunately, he also had his fair share of difficulties. 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.’

The government could probably have coped if that was all. Unfortunately, the king also wished to marry Wallis Simpson, who had already divorced one husband and was shortly to divorce her second. Unknown to Edward VIII,  but not to Special Branch, she was simultaneously engaged in an adulterous affair with Guy Trundle, a Ford salesman. The king became obsessed with  Mrs Simpson. ‘I have grown to hate that women,’ Baldwin confided to his friend Tom Jones, ‘Walter Monckton sat next to her recently and came to the conclusion she was a hard-hearted bitch … If he marries her she is automatically Queen of England.’

Within weeks of Edward VIII’s accession, it became apparent to Baldwin, Lang, and others that there were problems with the new king, who was behaving erratically and was utterly dependant upon Mrs Simpson. Letters of complaint began arriving at Lambeth Palace. Government ministers, royal household staff, the viceroy of India, and even the king’s mother, Queen Mary, poured out their perplexity to Lang. The archbishop was sympathetic, but carefully expressed no opinion about the king himself.

In September 1936 Lord Wigram, George V’s 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.’ Around this time Lang appears to have decided that Edward VIII would have to go. Lang 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 fully appreciated the importance of the monarchy as a focus of unity within Britain and the Empire at a time when Fascism and Nazism were disturbing Europe.

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 following six weeks, Lang contrived a close friendship with Baldwin. The two men met in secrecy seven times, spoke on the telephone, and exchanged letters. Lang, the intellectually abler of the two, galvanised Baldwin to take action. Hidden away in Baldwin’s secret papers, I discovered a confidential hand-written letter Lang sent Baldwin at a critical juncture, to bolster  Baldwin and  provide him with arguments to use with the king. As a result, Edward VIII was left with the options of staying on the throne without Mrs Simpson, or abdicating and marrying her. Baldwin described himself to Lang as being ‘like a dog in a sheep-dog trials who has to induce a single sheep into a narrow gate.’ Finally, on 10 December 1936 Edward VIII abdicated and was succeeded by his brother, King George VI.

It is hard to understand why Lang made a broadcast that was critical of Edward VIII three days later. The Bishop of Coventry had told Lang that people were refusing to stand for the National Anthem and urged him to speak out. Lang, who was probably overwrought after the stress of the Abdication, appears unusally not to have questioned this advice. The result was that he made a dull and in places silly broadcast, which appeared to be kicking a man when he was down.

The broadcast brought Lang sacks of mail, much of it vituperative. One may question, though, whether Lang may inadvertantly have done the monarchy a favour. No-one, least of all the new king and queen, knew whether the country would accept them. With the benefit of hindsight, we know there was a seamless transition from one monarch to another, but that wasn’t so clear to begin with: Edward VIII was a very popular figure, especially amongst younger people, who were unaware of his failings. Instead of questioning the institution of monarchy, did many people ‘project’ their shock and dismay at the abdication onto the hapless archbishop?

In 1936 Lang found himself in a difficult position. Had he delayed taking action, Edward VIII might have had to abdicate after his coronation, toppling from a greater height. The damage to the monarchy would have been more considerable. Had Edward VIII found some way of retaining his throne and marrying Mrs Simpson, one may speculate what might have happened after Dunkirk. Might Chamberlain have received encouragement from Buckingham Palace to negotiate an armistice with Hitler? Would the monarchy have long survived being associated with such a trauma?

Robert Beaken’s book Cosmo Lang, Archbishop in War and Crisis, is published by I.B. Tauris.

Tags: 20th Century, Biography, History, Monarchy, Non-fiction, Religion